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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    Comment number 21.

    Jonathan, I saw a fair bit in my stint as a photographer during the Arab Spring and can definitely relate to your comment about experiencing the best and worst just moments apart from each other. I also agree that wartime journalism is not as simple as some members of the public seem to think: besides the very real risk of death for the journalist, finding reliable sources and attempting to get a balanced view of what's happening on the ground is indeed challenging. Regardless of what is captured and reported, there will always be some that claim a bias of some sort.. one read only read the BBC news editor posts to see that.

    In terms of the programme itself, I really thought it was excellent... especially the sincerity captured in the brigadier's words. I experienced something similar and as moving while photographing in the aftermath of the Marikana massacre in South Africa last week - a police officer who was overwhelmed with emotion and regretting having been caught in a position to shoot at protesters. Am not a proponent of war or conflict period, but I do believe the majority of those that are serving there are making an honest effort to improve the lot of many.

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    Comment number 22.

    Jonathan - you remaked on my Comment. Thank you for taking time to do this. It is right and proper in my view that everytime a service person is injured or killed the circumstances should be examined. This intensly moving programme illustrated to both me and my wife that little has changed in the (almost) 100 years since WW1 started. Young men are sent out to fight and pay the price with their lives of inept resourcing / planning and / or leadership. This patrol had no target to attack. They had to draw the enemy to them and ended up fighting on almost equal terms (as one lad remarked in the film). This is an indictment of the 21st century army. Air power has been key in military conflicts since the middle of WW1 when it came of age. What is the point of having Apache helos if they are not used as they should? The opportunity was there to destroy the enemy before they engaged the patrol. As it was the only thing the Apache did that was worthwhile was to assist you find the place where the wounded soldier was. I recognise absolutely the great value of that intervention, but this was 'shutting the stable door after the horse had gone'. The fact is we - the UK and allies are not actually at war in Afghan. If we were at war we would be pro-actively destroying everything that stood in our way. This is obviously politically and morally unnacceptable - but we can't have it both ways. Either we wage war - or we get out and stop putting our yound people in harms way. The Afghans hate ' the foreigners' and have done since the army of Victoria tried, and failed, to 'teach them a lesson'. It is said - 'those that fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them' (or words to that effect). What on earth are we doing in Afghan in the 21 st century? Why is it that every loss is not front page news, why are not politicians challenged at every opportunity to do something meaningful aboout his awful mess we are in? It is because the level of loss is 'acceptable' to them that is why. The US was defeated in Vietnam when the war was brought to the 6 o'clock TV news at home and the people saw what a mess it was. God forbid we start suffering 200 deaths a week - but what if that happpens? Will the mission still be a worthwhile one? Of course not - the logic is in the numbers - one death is one too many - but another 199 makes no difference to the logic - just the hurt and political embarrassment. I have unlimited admiration for all who serve in HM forces - except those who keep repeating the failures of yesteryear and putting our young people at risk. Politicians who started and continue to support this war do not earn my respect - they are simply desperately playing the 'this is to protect the UK' card as if there was no other way of doing this - those of us who have been around long enough know there is always 'another way'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    As a parent - "So young and so sad"
    As a viewer - "Powerful, Emotional - Utter Respect"

    A BBC1 prime time slot would be a more fitting tribute to these brave men and women and their families. Come on BBC!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Our forces have been tasked to do an incredibly difficult job under the most adverse conditions. I don't support the politics of the war however I have the utmost respect for and fully support the servicemen and servicewomen who are sent over there.

    Over the years I have frequently seen many RAF/ISAF medevac transports arriving into Birmingham Airport, bringing back wounded troops.

    Through the amazing work that the Medics, IRT, MERT teams and the staff at Queen Elizabeth Hospital do, more and more wounded troops are surviving terrible injuries. However ony the details of those who don't survive are made known, the numbers of the many many wounded are not. The true cost of this war in damaged young people has not been shown to the public. Maybe it should be.

    To all the troops over there "Stay Safe".

    To Jonathan Singh and the other former/current IRT crews, "you folks are just awesome! Total Respect."

    From a Britsh Muslim.

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    Comment number 25.

    My son is currently serving in Afghanistan, it is so important that the general public understand what our service personnel are going through out there. This programme gives a good insite into how it is out there for them. I hope as many people as possible have watched these programmes and have gain a better understanding of how it is in Afghanistan and why this war is taking place.
    Well done all of you and keep your chin up and your heads down those that are out there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    I stumbled across this series by chance on a night shift, ( and only managed to catch the last two episodes), such a shame- late showing and on BBC3. I sat and watched with goosebumps. Such an insight to these guys lives out there.
    A very powerful programme which SHOULD be shown at a more primetime out of respect for what these people are enduring.
    PLease BBC, repeat all programmes at a time when they will reach more viewers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    I recorded this show and watched it with my wife. It was heart breaking and we both sat and watched it crying. Everyone featured made me so proud of our armed forces. The programme showed, graphically, the true horrors of war and the utterly outstanding acts of heroism people display on a daily basis. Fl Lt Singh's actions were that of a true hero, along with all the crew involved in that mission. Their humility and dignity was inspiring.

    Watching the father of Captain Griffiths and the mother of Kingsman Deady speak with such pride and dignity was truly heartbreaking. This was an outstanding programme and one everyone should see. Please repeat this, prime time, so others can appreciate the unbelievable attitude and actions of our armed forces and to see the dignity their parents held in tragedy.

    We must NEVER forget.


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