Apache squadron returns from Helmand
After running sorties around the clock during their four-month deployment to Afghanistan, 130 personnel from an Apache Attack Helicopter Squadron returned home to their East Anglian base last week.
Members of 656 Squadron, 4 Regiment Army Air Corps (AAC), came home to Wattisham Station, Suffolk, after being deployed to Camp Bastion, the UK's biggest base in Helmand province. It is the squadron's third operational tour to Afghanistan in three years.
Speaking about their latest deployment, the Officer Commanding 656 Squadron said:
"Operations in Afghanistan are very demanding for the pilots. Flying missions are frequent, at all times of the day and night, and the sorties are varied. We might be tasked to reconnoitre a bridge to see if it's still in position after a flood, and mid-flight diverted to support ground troops in a contact with the enemy, or tasked to escort a casualty evacuation. We have to be very flexible, and mental and physical endurance is a pre-requisite.
"The high temperatures in Helmand and frequent aircraft sorties are also very demanding for the ground crews, who re-arm and re-fuel the aircraft; the aircraft technicians, who maintain and service the Apaches; and the signallers in the operations room, who co-ordinate and control the missions. We all work to the beat of the twenty-four-hour, seven-days-a-week operational tempo. It's non-stop. Working in an AH [Attack Helicopter] Squadron is a team effort. And, as a team, 656 Squadron is second-to-none."
One of the members of the ground crew is Warrant Officer Class Two Alex Fortune, 33, who is the Artificer Quartermaster Sergeant from 7 Air Assault Battalion, Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME), attached to 656 Squadron. He said:
"I look after a squadron of REME Aircraft Technicians to ensure that as many Apache aircraft are ready to fly as possible. We look after all the engineering requirements. We've got about 50 soldier technicians out here. They work 24-hour shifts to make sure the Apache fleet can support the troops on the ground. And that's what keeps the team motivated, when they're working through the night. They know that the troops fighting on the ground are depending on them.
"It's been a great tour and I've really enjoyed it. The job satisfaction is immense. The Squadron REME workshops have worked very hard to turn the aircraft around again and again to support the troops on the ground where the Apaches are needed. On this tour, as we've produced just under 2,000 Apache flying hours, in order to achieve those 2,000 flying hours, we've put in just under 30,000 hours of maintenance. That's a fantastic achievement for the squadron workshops."
Officer Commanding 656 Squadron added: "It's an extremely rewarding theatre of operations [Afghanistan], because whether we're engaging the enemy or not, we know that by just being 'on station' in the air above the ground troops, we're providing protection and support.
The squadron is flying the most sophisticated weapon system currently in service with the British Army, the Apache AH-Mk1 attack helicopter. The Apache can operate in all weathers, day or night, and detect, classify and prioritise up to 256 potential targets in a matter of seconds. It carries a mix of weapons including rockets, Hell?re missiles and a 30mm chain gun that can be slaved to the gunner's helmet-mounted display.
Sergeant Al Bond, 31, a pilot in 656 Squadron, said: "The Apache is a fantastic aircraft and I can't think of a safer place to be in the air. The British version that we're flying, the Apache AH-MK1, is a highly capable platform given the additional equipment that we've fitted in the UK. As helicopter pilots we're privileged to fly such a well-designed and versatile aircraft."
The 130 men and women from 656 Squadron have been away from friends and family for an extended period. Prior to their tour of duty, the squadron trained for two months in Arizona, USA, in order to acclimatise to Afghanistan's harsh desert conditions.
"We had some very good pre-operational tour training in Arizona for two months, working alongside US Apache squadrons. It was good conditioning, because, unbelievably in Arizona, it was hotter than the 40 plus degrees centigrade that it reaches out here in Afghanistan."
The squadron is now looking forward to its post-operational tour leave. Lance Corporal Cherie Ali, 19, an Avionics Technician in 656 Squadron's REME workshop, is looking forward to celebrating a special occasion. While preparing to leave Helmand she said:
"It's been hard living and working out here, but a great experience. I'm very excited to go home. I can't wait. I haven't seen my husband for four months. We were married just before I deployed to Helmand and didn't have the chance to get away before my tour of duty. I'm really looking forward to going on honeymoon."
Source: UK Ministry of Defence
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