RAF Chinooks are engaged in some of the most audacious and difficult aviation operations the UK has ever conducted, according to Chinook Force Commander, Group Captain Andrew Turner.
Because of its versatility the current Chinook Force is operating at full stretch, says Gp Capt Turner, with both crewmen and helicopters ‘wrung out when they return to the UK’.
More aircraft are arriving, more crew are being trained, and more engineers are being recruited over the coming 12 months: “This will allow us to raise our game,” he said.
So, why isn’t every single Chinook being sent to Afghanistan right now? “There are three distinct groups of helicopters – those in Afghanistan, those used for training at RAF Odiham and elsewhere, and those undergoing in-depth maintenance,” said Gp Capt Turner.
The average Chinook goes through a five-season cycle, spending between eight and 13 months (800 flying hours) in Afghanistan – and that’s gruelling: “When they come back we get around 400kg of sand out of the aircraft,” said Gp Capt Turner. “It is a spectacular feat of engineering on the ground to keep these aircraft in the air.”
So it’s not surprising that, after being ‘run ragged’ for a year, Chinooks need a significant amount of work to make them ready for further service – hence the so-called deep maintenance period.
Following this they head back to RAF Odiham where they are used for basic training – teaching new pilots how to fly and new engineers how to maintain the Chinook. Then there is training with land forces, such as 16 Air Assault Brigade, before they are redeployed to Afghanistan.
There isn’t an operation in Afghanistan that doesn’t involve Chinooks, whether it is transporting troops to battlefields, taking supplies to remote forward operating bases or evacuating casualties:
“Chinooks are absolutely at the heart of this vital campaign,” said the Minister for Defence Equipment and Support, Quentin Davies, on a recent visit to RAF Odiham, the UK base of the heavyweight helicopters and their crews.
“And, because they are at the heart, they are taking risks with their lives every moment they are flying.”
The two helicopters lost in separate incidents in August brought home this fact.
Pic: RAF Chinook