Our War: Rescue mission in a dust storm

Monday 20 August 2012, 10:30

Jonathan Singh Jonathan Singh

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My four tours of duty in Afghanistan provided some of the best and worst experiences of my life, often only minutes apart.

Despite the years of training and experience nothing can prepare you for the realities of modern warfare: the huge logistic support involved, the proximity to death or serious injury and, above all, the way extreme violence becomes mundane.

The environment of Afghanistan, both physical and human, was always a source of a strange mix of wonder and dread.

From a physical point of view the variation between extreme cold in the winter and extreme heat in the summer made flying in an unpressurised, un-air conditioned cockpit interesting.

Added to this was the helicopter pilot's nemesis: the Afghan dust.

Dust storms, sometimes lasting days, would make flying almost impossible as the visibility was reduced to a few hundred metres, akin to driving down the motorway in thick fog.

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Watch the trailer for series two of Our War

The events of episode one of Our War took place during such weather.

My crew and I were on duty as the Immediate Response Team (IRT) who fly the Chinook with a team of medics and soldiers in the back.

It was our job to get to seriously injured casualties, Nato, Afghan or civilian, as quickly as possible so the medical team could get to work providing often lifesaving care.

When a call came through we would run to the aircraft and 'scramble' like Battle of Britain pilots in WWII.

The first information we got would include the nature of the injuries sustained. In the case of Captain Griffiths it was the most serious 'Category A', or 'Cat Alpha' in military parlance.

When faced with the prospect of a Nato soldier seriously injured on the battlefield the immediate instinct of all the members of the IRT, air crew, doctors and soldiers is to get airborne and go as quickly as possible.

Despite the dust storm and poor visibility and the reservations of the headquarters officers I was immediately clear that my crew was going to attempt a rescue mission.

How, I hadn't quite worked out, but I began to form a plan as we raced to the aircraft.

Flying multi-crew aircraft is all about trust. When I made my decision to give it a go I knew my crew trusted me to make the right call and I trusted them to tell me if I was being an idiot.

The headquarters quickly relented, I think because as a four-man helicopter crew we were united in our instant confidence that we could attempt a mission.

Before we took off I briefed the crew on the plan I had formulated over the radio with the pilot of the Apache gunship Steve Lunn.

We decided to fly the Apache and the Chinook in close formation. The Apache had Forward Looking Infrared - superior visual equipment which meant their crew could see further through the dust.

In the Chinook we couldn't see far enough in those conditions to fly alone. We would stay close on the Apache's tail, entirely dependent on it to navigate us both through the storm.

We could not lose it or we would both have had to climb several thousand feet to keep clear of areas of high ground and to be out of range of most types of enemy fire.

It would then have been almost impossible to locate the troops given the thickness of the dust and our only option would have been to return to the airfield at Camp Bastion with the help of Air Traffic Control radar, leaving the troops on the ground to fend for themselves.

The risk for the Apache was that with less armour than the Chinook it would be a much easier target to shoot down.

Normally it would stay up at around 1,000ft as an 'eye in the sky' instead of flying low and slow as we planned.

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Jonathan Singh's daring helicopter mission

Everyone had an opportunity to say they weren't happy to go, in which case I would have had to convince them otherwise or scrub the mission.

No one voiced any concerns although I'm certain everyone harboured some doubt as to whether we were doing the right thing.

Strangely at the time I felt no such reservations. It was only later that I would be racked with self-doubt, questioning whether I had taken unnecessary risks and worse... whether I had enjoyed the danger a little too much.

I remember feeling hyper-alert but calm and clear headed right through the mission. I wasn't scared at all as I was purely focused on the task in hand.

For me that state of mind was normal flying in Afghanistan. The fear and emotional release would come months later while back in the UK.

As you see unfold in the programme, flying the mission was broken into a series of tasks: finding the troops in the dust, avoiding the enemy, landing, taking off again and finally returning and landing back at the airfield.

As soon as each stage was completed I focused on the next. When we landed back at Bastion we were elated, we thought we had saved a soldier's life.

I was overwhelmed by the collective skill and composure of my crew, the Apache crew and the medical team in the back who without hesitation had trusted their lives to our judgement.

Tragically both Captain Griffiths, who we rescued during the dust storm, and Kingsman Deady, who we'd flown back to Bastion 24 hours earlier, were to later die of their injuries in a British hospital.

We never knew any of the soldiers we picked up personally. I think it would have been even harder to be objective in analysing the risks of a mission if we had.

When informed that the two soldiers had passed away (I still did not know their names and wouldn't find out till this series was made) it was a devastating blow. But I had to put it to the back of my mind... sadly there were always more casualties that needed rescuing and I wanted to stay focused.

Looking back I feel a deep sadness that we weren't able to save their lives but I hope the families can take comfort in knowing that a lot of people, of all ranks and backgrounds, gave their utmost to try and save the lives of their loved ones.

I hope they can take some comfort that they were able to see their family member before he passed away.

Sadly the events of that day on the IRT reflects the war in Afghanistan in microcosm for me: A huge effort in the face of an incredibly hostile environment against an unseen, vicious enemy where success and failure hang in the balance.

Jonathan Singh is a former RAF pilot who appears in Our War. Jonathan has since left the RAF and is now a full-time student.

Our War is on Monday, 20 August at 9pm on BBC Three. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

Listen to an audio blog with Our War executive producer Colin Barr about the making of the programme.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 1.

    I was Jon's senior crewman during the sorties featured and want to say a couple of things;
    Jon talks about trust and this was paramount, it is no exaggeration to say I and everyone else trusted him with our lives.
    Jon is far too modest to blow his own trumpet so I will; excellent pilot, inspirational leader and all round top bloke.
    Finally I know I speak for everyone when I say that everything we did was done with the casualties in mind and the fact that they did not make it will stay with me forever.
    RIP Captain Andrew Griffiths and Kingsman Darren Deady.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 2.

    That was one of the most powerful things I've ever watched....

    Respect to you, your crew and your Force for going out there, day in and day out and giving hope to our injured in the darkest of hours....

  • rate this
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    Comment number 3.

    I know the family of both soldiers and trust me your actions in getting them home and allowing them to say goodbye meant so much despite the tragic outcome. Flying through that sandstorm was heroic and they are so grateful that Andy was given that chance to survive. If you read this Fl Lt Singh - thank you and your crew so much for making that trip.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 4.

    Jon (and indeed all the characters in this excellent film),
    Fantastic job, no doubt about it. Getting the job done when everything is stacked against you (all) is what makes the British servicemen so special. You should be very proud of what you did and feel no shame for enjoying doing it; military flying is all about the 'rush', after all.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 5.

    As an ex-serviceman (veteran) i am so proud of the servicemen serving in Afghanistan.To see they stick together and helping wonded servicemen and carry on their work.You guys/gals are a credit to our country.Thank you.No matter what we are here for you and pray your safe return.........Nick Zaver Ceo (Help for veterans)

 

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