IF A helicopter goes down in Afghanistan, these are the men sent out to repair it.
The elite aircraft engineers from Portsmouth’s 1710 Naval Air Squadron recently marked six years of duty stationed on the hectic flight line at Camp Bastion.
They deploy twice a year for three months to make sure there’s always four or five of them on hand in case of an emergency over the Taliban badlands.
Their job is not to look after helicopters on a day-to-day basis, but to carry out complex repairs to aircraft damaged by rough emergency landings, serious wear-and-tear and enemy fire.
At any moment they can be sent ‘outside the wire’ in a Special Forces helicopter with their tools and expertise to keep vital missions going.
The squadron has overseen many repair missions since it started coming to Afghanistan in 2006.
Chief Petty Officer Tony Fisher and Petty Officer Simon Whittell used to maintain the navy’s Harrier jets in Kandahar. But since the sad demise of the fabled jump jets, they have been retrained to look after helicopters.
‘Although we’ve been to theatre before, this time our role is very different,’ said CPO Fisher, 38.
‘Where before we were busy maintaining aircraft as part of a large squadron, this time around we’re part of a small team and have to remain very reactive to all forms of damage across the three services.’
This means the engineers have to master everything from the army’s Apache gunships to the navy’s Lynx helicopters, Sea Kings, and the troop-carrying Chinook and Merlin aircraft.
‘Since coming to theatre, we’ve carried out repairs to some aircraft we hardly ever see in the UK,’ said 27-year-old Petty Officer Liam Sutherland, adding: ‘I’m looking forward to using my knowledge to help less experienced members of the squadron get ready for their Afghanistan tours – after some post-operational leave, of course.’
Lieutenant Andy Betts said the squadron has noticed a definite change in the Afghan mission since six years ago.
‘We can see that in the frequency and type of damage we are being asked to repair,’ he explained.
‘A few years ago it would have been mainly damage due to enemy action, the majority of work we are now seeing is down to aircraft fatigue and the difficulties of operating in the dusty Afghan environment.’