Pumas in the Sand

Over 140 personnel, mostly from RAF Benson, deployed to the Middle East for nine weeks Exercise SHAMAL BLADE.

The three Puma HC Mk2 aircraft along with all required engineering supplies for the Exercise were delivered by 3 C-17 transport aircraft from RAF Brize Norton. However, by the completion of the Exercise, the rapidly evolving Puma 2 capabilities had progressed allowing the movers to get TWO Pumas into one C-17, saving both time and money. At the other end, just reattach the rotor blades and instant operating helicopter. The concept of being able to deliver two Pumas by air and have them flying again within four hours has been proven.

The main party for Exercise SHAMAL BLADE deployed on 20th February 2015 to conduct environmental training for Puma Force aircrew to prepare them for operational duties worldwide. On top of flying training, there was also a real support role and associated tasking; the British Army were exercising over 1,000 troops in the area and had asked the Pumas to support their Exercise. This meant that everyone was going to be kept busy with their own work, and liaising with their counterparts in both the host and British armies.

The first thing you notice is the heat – even in February, spring was in full force in the area and the temperature steadily rose from 22°C to 38°C over the course of the deployment. The heat stress element made the job for the majority of the personnel who were working outside that much tougher – already difficult from dealing with sand and wind. Although some brave souls were running back from the airport to the accommodation at the end of the working day at 28°C in the early evening, not everyone could hack the 7.5 miles required.

Facilities at both the airport and the accommodation were first rate, but that didn’t stop the Exercise having its fair share of issues. And of course everyone had their fair share of comedy moments navigating the language barrier with Arabic speaking airport staff, military personnel and security.

The gritty, sandy dust in the desert plays havoc with helicopter components, so training was only possible down to the excellent engineering support in unusually difficult conditions. As the machine gremlins fought against stellar efforts of the engineers to coax helicopters into the air, the logistics staff were kept busy finding resourceful ways to bring the necessary spares out to the Exercise. Of course, it is easy to think of the deployment in terms of the ‘sharp end’, but nothing would have worked without the dedication of a great many others including the safety equippers, armourers, ops staff, movers, drivers, administrators and suppliers. A special mention should be made of personnel from other units who fitted in so seamlessly supporting the Exercise; 16 from the Army’s 244 Signals Sqn, four medics from Tactical Medical Wing, 11 from Tactical Supply Wing, and six from the Joint Helicopter Support Squadron.

Two detachments of aircrew were cycled through Ex SHAMAL BLADE to get the maximum number of aircrew their environmental qualification with the swap over happening on the 25th March 2015. The two pilot and two rear crew instructors had their work cut out: attempting to get 43 aircrew awarded their desert environmental training. The main part of this was practising landing in dust, a complicated job for both pilot and crewman; the latter use their viewpoint from further back in the cab and ability to move around to accurately talk the pilot down onto the ground. They also had to become practised at this at night which increases the complexity, and with summer approaching the hours of darkness steadily decreased.

For the aircrew, it was great experiencing the local terrain from the air, with moonscapes and huge sandstone mountains rising out of the desert. “Flying through the area at low level was a privilege and having access to 5,000ft mountains ten minutes from the airfield with few weather concerns, provided good opportunities for training,” said Flt Lt Gary Mackay, one of the two instructors on the Exercise.

The making of a Hollywood film in the area became both a positive and a negative. Matt Damon, Ridley Scott and a large production team were staying in the area filming “The Martian” for around four weeks. The Puma Ops staff liaised closely with the crew to de-conflict efforts and ensure both parties could operate safely and efficiently. Some people even managed to get ‘selfies’ with Mr Damon with the producer and production manager visiting Exercise SHAMAL BLADE after filming finished.

Even with all this going on, the Detachment Commander, Sqn Ldr Mike Greene, drove hard to get as many people as possible to participate in Force Development training (FD). “Training for operations isn’t only about the “here and now” of your job; it is about understanding the world in which we operate, understanding the people we meet and understanding your limits. And if we have fun doing it, why wouldn’t we?!” Every FD day was carefully timed to allow day to night engineering shifts to switch, and accommodate the moon phases to limit the impact on the flying programme. Everyone who wanted to take advantage of at least one of these amazing opportunities was able to; and most did.

Most trips involved long walks – 230 Squadron’s Sqn Ldr Chris Greenwood nailed 22km in flip-flops! Otherwise people took part in some adventurous training such as swimming, climbing, snorkling, off-roading, scuba-diving and a lucky few even rode horses and camels. None were to be missed, and although the outings meant a lot of extra hours for the hard working drivers, they too enjoyed an excellent opportunity to learn about the cultures and peoples of the region and experience terrain and customs similar to that which Pumas might be deployed to in the future. In particular, it helped greatly to appreciate some of the deep seated problems of the Middle East in their historical and cultural context.

When not working or experiencing the local wonders, most people made use of the gym and swimming pool at the accommodation. Unlike most Exercises, there wasn’t too much gym competitiveness, but there were certainly a few people who were making the most of the lack of distractions to crack personal goals. FS Dave Hughes, from Benson’s PEd Flt, did sterling work keeping morale up; his enthusiasm in organising off-shift activities, such as sports against local teams, quiz nights, practical games and even an envelope draw was infectious.

The deployment as a whole was keen to give a little back to a city that had been so welcoming, so some of the prize money won at the various events was put into a charity tin. We were very pleased to be able to hand over the equivalent of £250 to a small local charity that supports children with cerebral palsy – it was good to know that Flt Lt Dean Bailey’s moustache had been auctioned for a good cause.

An especially friendly det, Exercise SHAMAL BLADE ran on trust, mutual respect and common sense. The professionalism and adaptability of all was not found wanting. Striking the right balance between work and play made the time away from friends and family more palatable. This was the first deployment for engineer SAC Angel Ramirez, who is preparing for operations later in the year.

“The det has been really interesting. I’ve enjoyed the experiences and seeing new cultures. We’ve definitely worked hard but we have bonded well as a group too.”

Even the ‘old sweats’ appreciated their time away; MAcr Gareth Attridge said, “Not withstanding some of the frustrations that come with running a flying detachment in an environmentally challenging location, the facilities and opportunities available on this det were superb.”

The Puma Force, and RAF Benson, are still learning and mastering the Puma 2 and this Exercise has gone a way towards solidifying the effective team working with them, and confidence in the Force’s ability to deliver on operations in the future.

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