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Gary Parsons reports from Carlisle Airport

This exercise involved the Support Helicopter Force (SHF) of the RAF in and around the Scottish Borders, Dumfries & Galloway, Cumbria and Northumberland. Six Chinook HC2 and six Puma HC1 helicopters were involved, based at Carlisle Airport where the SHFHQ and other temporary accommodation was erected for the one week stay. The purpose of the exercise was to train the SHF in the event of deployment to anywhere in the world to support ground forces, particularly for UN peacekeeping missions and humanitarian relief. The RAF SHF is considered the 'railroad' of Britain's Armed Forces, providing logistical support twenty-four hours a day if required. At present, the SHF has detachments in the Falkland Islands and Bosnia, and has deployed to Albania and Zaire within the last twelve months. The SHF has to remain prepared for short notice deployments, as today's political climate has generated many small intra-state conflicts which both NATO and the UN have become embroiled. The number of 'hot-spots' around the world also bring a wide range of differing climates to which the SHF must adapt, from desert (i.e. the Gulf conflict) to jungle to deep winter (such as the winters in Bosnia).

The Players:Fuel 'bollox' ready for action
Commanded by Group Captain Dick Lacey, OC RAF Benson, the SHF contingent comprised some 500 personnel drawn from a variety of units, both flying and ground based. The helicopters were drawn from three squadrons, numbers 7 and 18 from Odiham operating the Chinook HC2 and 33 from Benson, flying the Puma HC1. Ground based support comprised RAF Regiment II Squadron from Honington for airfield and forward operating base (FOB) defence, the Tactical Supply Wing from RAF Stafford for fuel, spares, etc., 2 & 21 Signal Regiments, the Mobile Meteorological Unit and perhaps most important of all, the Mobile Catering Support Unit! The end-user for this exercise was 5 Airborne Brigade, who took the opportunity provided by this primarily RAF exercise to undertake further training in the Northumbrian mountains. A FOB was established at Otterburn, some twenty minutes flying time to the east of Carlisle, at which a detachment of twenty was based, primarily to provide fuel. The Otterburn ranges provided an ideal location for the helicopters to perfect the low flying technique necessary in to survive in today's multi-threat battlefield scenario, especially with the more prevalent use of laser guided surface to air missiles for which the Chinook has defensive aids such as chaff and flares. Night flying is aslo becoming more important, so part of the exercise contained an element of this using night-vision goggles (NVG), but taking into consideration disturbance to the local population the actual time available was very limited.

The Scenario:

The good guys to the south, the Cumbans, have been invaded from the north by the baddies, the Grampians, who have taken possession of gold mines and also several Cumban nationals. The SHF has been tasked with assisting 5 Airborne Brigade with resisting and ejecting the Grampians from land to the south of Hadrian's Wall, all with authority from the UN. Various Army units played the role of the Grampians, approximately 900 soldiers being involved on both sides.

SHFHQ:Carlisle Airport played host to the main part of the detachment, chosen for its location close to the Dumfries/Galloway border and Otterburn ranges. A supply depot was established at Kirkbride to the west, forming part of the 'Express Chain Management' that is essential to keep a fleet of twelve heicopters operational at a remote site. Carlisle Airport, formerly RAF Crosby-on-Eden, is normally home to a few civilian flying outfits and the Solway Aviation Museum, but still has the three wartime runways and extensive taxiways intact. These proved ideal for dispersing the helicopters and providing suitable lifting and refuelling areas, although interestingly the civilians weren't obliged to curtail their normal operations for the week, the sight of a Cessna on approach with a Chinook hovering seemingly yards away was common.

The SHF: the Future

It is recognised that the RAF is deficient in strategic airlift capability, so the impending purchase of C17 Globemaster III heavy lift transport aircraft will provide the SHF with a means of deploying to more remote parts of the world with more speed. An additional 14 Chinooks are to be provided for Odiham, some to HC3 specification which is similar to that of the US CH47E Special Forces example. 22 Squadron is to reform at RAF Benson in April 1999 with the EH101 Merlin, providing a timely replacement for the venerable Wessex which is being phased out of frontline operations. These measures provide assurance to the SHF that it is a fundamental asset to Britain's Armed Forces and will ensure that it will not be found wanting in future conflicts to come.

Aircraft involved included: Chinooks ZA720/P, ZD982/EK, ZA670/BF(SFOR), ZA681/ED, ZA677/EG, ZD981/-.

Pumas XW213, XW227/NJ, XW206, XW222, XW232. Gazelle HT3 XX406/P.


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