Tom Ross reflects on the events of over ten years ago.
I, like many others, wondered about the implications of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Was this just another conflict for the Middle East to contend with or would something have to be done about it on a much larger scale? I remember thinking that, although I didnt take much of an interest in world affairs, surely Iraq was still at war with Iran? Obviously not. News of the invasion seemed to be on the television every minute of the day and countless newspaper pages were filled with dramatic photographs and pleas from world leaders for the Iraqis to go home.
On 6 August 1990, four days after the invasion, things started to get interesting with the passing of Security Council Resolution 661, which imposed sanctions on trade with Iraq. The following day 48 F-15C/Ds of the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing flew non-stop from Langley AFB, Virginia to Dhahran in Saudi Arabia in an impressive display of strategic mobility.
At the time I was one of many servicemen carrying out 3rd and 4th line maintenance at RAF Abingdon. I worked as an electrician on Jaguar modifications. Two things happened on 9 August that made us all take a bit more notice. Firstly, the Security Council passed Resolution 662, which declared that Iraqs invasion of Kuwait was null and void. Secondly and more worryingly, the British government announced that one squadron each of Tornado F3s and Jaguars would be sent to the Persian Gulf. For a change rumour control was right on the nose, but would these mean lots of compulsory overtime or a free trip to somewhere hot and sunny? Some wag taped a sheet of sandpaper on the door to the toilets entitled Map of the Gulf.
Rumour control was rife over the next few weeks before our fate was dealt upon us. The Buccaneer hangar would be shut and all personnel would work at RAF Lyneham for as long as required. Nearly half of the engineers working on the Jaguars would go to RAF Brize Norton with a few others being farmed out for other duties such as Nuclear, Chemical and Biological (NBC) warfare wardens. I dont remember what happened in the Hawk hangar but Im sure that some of them would have been collared for other duties.
I reported to Brize Norton as ordered for a briefing where, after admitting to having working experience on large aircraft, the Nimrod, I was sent with several others to 216 Squadron and its fleet of Lockheed TriStars. Brilliant! I thought, We go to war and everybody changes job! Many others were sent to work on VC10s, experienced or not.
After a two day This is a TriStar introductory course it was straight onto shift work and the process of learning as much as possible. I had been told that at some point I would have to go down-route with the TriStars as they plied their trade wherever it was required. Normally three engineers would accompany the aircraft in addition to the flight crew, one of whom would be a ground engineer who has completed courses in all aspects of the aircraft systems. You just have to knuckle down and get on with it. The regular members of 216 Squadron were a source of accumulated vital knowledge that was there to be tapped into and used. We newcomers were not treated as Klingons (a fairly self explanatory term from Star Trek used to refer to individuals attached to a squadron for a detachment or exercise-it can be a very derisory term if a Klingon takes the place of a squadron member for no apparent reason!) but as new members of the Squadron who would have to do all of the same jobs as everyone else. All questions, no matter how basic, were answered as honestly as possible-they were there to help.
The next date that comes to mind was 14 November 1990, my third wedding anniversary. I was in my car on my way to Brize for day shift when a front tyre blew sending me off the road and into a farm wall at about 65mph. Unconscious, I was awakened to the sound of a fire crew ripping the drivers door from my car which was now banana shaped and three feet shorter than it should have been. My wife still hasnt forgiven me for destroying her favourite car! I remember thinking, Here we go as the wall filled the windscreen and relaxing. I believe that this and the seatbelt saved my life. After an over-night stay in the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford I was released with about forty stitches in my head and stiffness in every muscle and joint in my body. Ten days later I was on my first trip down-route to the Gulf!
We had all received additional NBC training and were issued one-a-day Nerve Agent Pre-Treatment tablets (NAPS) in addition to various vaccinations. All of the trips that I completed were to King Khalid International Airport (KKIA), Riyadh, Saudi Arabia either directly from Brize or via RAF Bruggen in Germany where we had a team of engineers pre-positioned to take care of any problems that the aircraft may have. Due to the constraints of flight crew rest times, the aircraft would be taken over by another crew in Riyadh either for return to the UK or for the onward delivery of people and cargo within the theatre. We would stay at the airport hotel passing the time away watching CNN on the TV or visiting the local markets and shops in Riyadh. There was almost always a good natured argument about who would have to sit in the front of the taxi before we were driven by someone with a seemingly basic knowledge of car control and road sense into town, having bartered a fare and passing numerous car accidents on the way. Having just had a road accident myself I freely admit to being more nervous than most! Three or four days later we would return to the UK and carry on our normal shift work and await the next trip. Normal aircraft tasking, for example to the Falkland Islands, and training would also be carried out during this build up to what everybody could only imagine would be war.
The air campaign began on 17 January 1991. The following day we could not believe our eyes when the first of the two TriStars to be painted desert pink arrived back at Brize Norton having been painted at Marshall of Cambridge. I dont recall which was first, either ZD949 or ZD951 (probably the latter), but when the second arrived back a week later they were soon christened Pinky and Perky respectively. As an addition for the modelling fraternity you may be interested to know that the first TriStar painted pink had a message painted in fresh pink paint, after the initial coats were dry, on the starboard fuselage, forward of the wing and above the cabin windows. When looked at from certain angles the message F*CK OFF SADDAM could clearly seen in freehand lettering about 12-18 inches high! The blue fuselage cheat-lines were retained as refuelling pilots use these as reference points.
On 23 of January I was again on my way to the Gulf, this time going to Al Jubail after a brief stop at KKIA. The captain made the mistake of telling the American air traffic controllers that our cargo consisted mainly of High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) rounds so after landing we were sent to the furthest corner of the airfield to await our turn for unloading. Looking out of the windows and open doors we watched a seemingly non-stop procession of Civil Reserve Air Fleet Boeing 747s and 707s land and take-off. It seemed that just about every helicopter in the USMC inventory was here. AH-1s, UH-1Ns, CH-46s and CH-53s were parked as far as the eye could see wearing a multitude of variations in camouflage. There was even a single two-tone sand coloured Lynx amongst this display of American military might. It wasnt long before the seriousness of the situation was brought to our attention. Still stuck in our own corner of the airfield a message was passed over the radio that Scud alert was in progress. Marvellous! Here we are stuck on a TriStar packed full of high explosive and with no way off except using the emergency escape chutes, watching everybody in the distance head for the nearest shelter! So we did what had been trained to do in these life or death situations, we put the kettle on and watched the world go by! The next time, if their was to be a next time, the captain vowed never to mention explosives if asked.
A little later we taxied to the apron to unload the aircraft and refuel. The AH-1Ws were still zipping about as they moved to and from the final arming point on their next missions. Soon, we were departing for Riyadh and a peaceful night in the hotel. As an aside, do you remember the Army Recruiting advertisement on TV where some soldiers are stuck in a snowstorm in their Land Rover and the question is asked Who would you give the blanket to? The answer is of course the vehicle, to keep the engine warm. It is often said that the RAF would leave the vehicle and book into a hotel! Well, maybe not if you happen to be in the Support Helicopter world, but thats another story.
We had just booked into the hotel and I was having a shower when the air raid sirens sounded. Now for our NBC kit to be effective it has to worn as the third layer of protective clothing, so not only had I to get dried but I also had to drag all of my kit from my bags, get fully suited up including respirator and then find the shelter, which happened to be in the basement bowling alley, not using the lifts from the fifth floor! Trust me you will make it happen, especially when you notice Patriot rounds being fired from the airport. I dont know how but I was not the last one into the shelter, not by a long chalk.
This makeshift shelter was full of military personnel from several countries all dressed in their own variation of the NBC suit, but worst of all was the sight of hotel staff, mainly from the Philippines, who had nothing more than a piece of cloth to cover their nose and mouth in some vain attempt at protection against whatever nastiness may have been placed inside those Scuds. Speaking to several staff later, I was told that although they would like nothing more than to be on the next plane home, their Saudi bosses refused to return their passports. They had no option but to stay and carry on as normal. Before long the all clear was given and I headed back to my room. No sooner had I got undressed ready for another shower when the air raid siren sounded again. Cursing, I repeated the suiting-up process and headed down to the shelter. All we could do was sit and wait and again I watched the hotel workers shuffle nervously surrounded by these faceless soldiers. I did not dare think what must have been going through their minds, but in the back of my mind I was ready to stop anyone who started twitching or choking trying to pull the respirator from my face. This alert seemed to last longer but eventually the all clear was given.
I watched several others unmask first before removing my respirator-just in case. On leaving the shelter I bumped into a friend that I not seen in a few years. We decided to sit in the lobby and have a soft drink catching up on old times. Ten minutes later the siren sounded again. Bonus - I didnt have far to go this time. It seemed that I was not meant to have a shower that night. No sooner were the doors to the shelter shut than the all clear was given. I was pretty fed up with it by now, but I was determined to have a shower as the NBC suits are not designed to allow cooling air in and wick moisture away like a lot of new man made materials. After running down to the shelter from the fifth floor it was fair to say that I had a bit of a sweat on. The respirator, or face welly due to its rubber construction, was also beginning to irritate the scars on my forehead from the car crash. I slept well that night.
The remainder of my trips were all to Riyadh. Fortunately I only experienced one more Scud alert on these trips, towards the end of January. This time we were on the tarmac at Riyadh and the first hint of trouble was when the team unloading the aircraft just disappeared. Again we just put the kettle on. I think that the attitude that prevailed was one of we would have to be pretty unlucky to get hit by a Scud here and as far as had been reported, all of the Scuds launched so far had only contained explosives. Fairly stupid in retrospect. I remained as part of 216 Squadron until mid-February. I had returned home from Riyadh at silly oclock in the morning only to be awakened by a phone call from my Sergeant in the Jaguar hangar asking why I was not reported back to work that morning? It was news to me! Apparently my presence had been requested from 216 Squadron due to the increasing amount of Jaguars coming through for maintenance - it was just that the request had yet to filter down the chain to the bottom where I was. The following day I set off for Brize to complete the necessary administration required to be released from 216 Squadron, said my good-byes and so ended my war, just a tiny cog in all that military machismo.
Back at Abingdon I found out that I was the last to return from our various secondments. There were stories to share, friendships to renew and inevitably work to get on with as the war veteran Jaguars started to roll through with tales of derring-do painted on their noses.