UK — Joint Helicopter Force keeps things moving in Afghanistan

Heli­copters are cru­cial to the suc­cess of oper­a­tions in Hel­mand, and, from med­ical evac­u­a­tion and troop move­ment to resup­ply and ground attack, the men and women of the Joint Heli­copter Force do it all. Report by Sharon Kean.

A Chinook helicopter brings an underslung load of equipment from Camp Bastion to Forward Operating Base Jackson in Sangin, Helmand province (stock image)
A Chi­nook heli­copter brings an under­slung load of equip­ment from Camp Bas­tion to For­ward Oper­at­ing Base Jack­son in San­gin, Hel­mand province (stock image)
Source: LA(Phot) Si Ethell, Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

There is no aver­age day for Camp Bastion’s Joint Heli­copter Force (JHF). It is respon­si­ble for around 150 flights every day and oper­ates five very dif­fer­ent types of heli­copters across south­ern Afghanistan.

The JHF may also be required to co-ordi­nate US flights. The day before my vis­it to its sur­pris­ing­ly small oper­a­tions tent, an explo­sion in a busy mar­ket saw emer­gency response heli­copters called out to lift more than 40 casu­al­ties to hos­pi­tal.

With the team some­times hav­ing to respond to more than ten emer­gency calls in a day, organ­i­sa­tion is key. Squadron Leader Pez Coles, the Chief of Staff, says:

“There’s nev­er pan­ic here because every­one knows what they are doing. But it can get fre­net­ic. The radios get very busy as air­craft move around the­atre. Yes­ter­day we got sev­er­al air­craft to come back and pick up a med­ical team before going back out again imme­di­ate­ly.

“We had two of our Chi­nooks fly­ing with Med­ical Emer­gency Response Teams, two Amer­i­can air­craft and two Apach­es over­head — one co-ordi­nat­ing the air­craft and the oth­er look­ing for any­body threat­en­ing them. And while those six air­craft were doing one thing, every­body else was car­ry­ing on around them. You can’t get too excit­ed.”

It’s not just the unpre­dictable emer­gency call-outs that keep the JHF busy. There is a hec­tic sched­ule of delib­er­ate task­ing — fer­ry­ing around essen­tial stores, kit and troops to the small­er for­ward oper­at­ing bases across Hel­mand province. In most cas­es reach­ing them by road is too dan­ger­ous.

Mak­ing sure these tasks are accom­plished is the over­all respon­si­bil­i­ty of Wing Com­man­der Simon Pater­son, the cur­rent Com­mand­ing Offi­cer. He over­sees thou­sands of fly­ing hours each month and ensures the flight and ground crews keep up-to-date with the rapid­ly chang­ing demands and the envi­ron­ment in which troops are fight­ing:

“The require­ment for mov­ing peo­ple and kit around the­atre is defined by the troops on the ground,” he says. “We know what we’re try­ing to do and the deci­sions made in this build­ing are about the tac­ti­cal safe­ty of putting the heli­copters out on the ground, how many are need­ed and the amount of sup­port they need from the attack heli­copters.”

The team can ramp things up dur­ing planned oper­a­tions such as the recent Op TOR SHEZADA, dur­ing which the town of Sayed­abad was tak­en from Tal­iban con­trol.

Both air­craft and air­crew fly­ing hours have their lim­its for safe­ty rea­sons, and these must be man­aged care­ful­ly:

“We try to front-load the peo­ple and sup­plies out to the bases so we have some hours to spare,” explains Wing Com­man­der Pater­son, “but the require­ment for heli­copters and fly­ing hours is pret­ty con­tin­u­ous and con­stant.”

In the event of a major emer­gency, do they ever sim­ply run out of heli­copters?

“On any giv­en day, at any giv­en moment, it’s pos­si­ble to be short of air­craft,” says Wing Com­man­der Pater­son. “If every­thing hap­pens simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, it’s a ques­tion of pri­ori­ti­sa­tion.

“Mov­ing stores is a low­er pri­or­i­ty than the recov­ery of some­one who’s been involved in an inci­dent, be it a shoot­ing or oth­er­wise. We’ll move the heli­copter to go and deal with the imme­di­ate, then return to the sus­tain­ing task that’s ongo­ing.”

The oper­a­tions room keeps in con­stant con­tact with the bat­tle groups on the ground using a com­put­er-based mes­sag­ing sys­tem.

A ded­i­cat­ed team fol­lows the updates as they come through, pass­ing on rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion to the heli­copter crews. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant dur­ing casu­al­ty extrac­tion mis­sions, which are often car­ried out under the high­est lev­el of threat:

“An air­craft called out to deal with a gun­shot wound and land­ing in the mid­dle of a fire­fight will come under fire,” explains Squadron Leader Coles. “We need to know exact­ly what’s hap­pen­ing, where it’s hap­pen­ing, and how best to get in and out of the zone.”

The JHF is a tru­ly tri-Ser­vice out­fit, with an equal mix of Roy­al Navy, Army, RAF and Roy­al Marines man­ning its 24/7 oper­a­tion. The air­craft are sim­i­lar­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive, with RAF Chi­nooks and Mer­lins, Army Apach­es and Lynx, and two types of Roy­al Navy Sea Kings. All fly out of Bas­tion.

It is pure­ly by coin­ci­dence that the cur­rent Com­mand­ing Offi­cer is the RAF’s Wing Com­man­der Pater­son. His pre­de­ces­sor was an Army Air Corps offi­cer. Who­ev­er takes charge next will have to main­tain the hec­tic pace of oper­a­tions, which shows no signs of slow­ing:

“It is get­ting busier and there are more tasks for the heli­copters,” says Wing Com­man­der Pater­son. “You man­age your sleep into odd cor­ners of the day and work for most of the rest.”

This fea­ture by Sharon Kean is tak­en from the new, Sep­tem­ber 2010, issue of Defence Focus — the mag­a­zine for every­one in Defence.

Press release
Min­istry of Defence, UK

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