Cracking Catering Couple

One of the main jobs of the Media Officer or Public Relations Officer on an RAF Station is to promote the good work that the personnel based there are doing.  Sometimes it’s a bit difficult as they can’t deploy on every Exercise or Operation so they don’t always hear what wonderful things people have been doing (and some personnel are just shy about telling of their amazing exploits too!).  It’s also essential for the Media Officer to protect our personnel and the assets on our Station: operational and personal security are always paramount!  This can mean that it’s difficult to tell the general public some of the things that our personnel have been doing, simply because it could put them, or their colleagues, in harm’s way.

Therefore, a lot of their work is done based on what is happening on the Station.  Sometimes it can be a bit difficult to spot a ‘different’ story as, to many who work here, we do pretty much the same thing we do every day (and that’s not a Pinky and the Brain reference for anyone old enough to remember them!).  But every once in a while you meet someone whose story just has to be told and one of our Media Officers was lucky enough to meet two of those individuals recently who share a lovely story – Christian Mullan and Claire Pickering.

Claire Pickering and Christian MullanBoth Christian and Claire are 21 years old and SACs (Senior Aircraftman) who work in the Officers’ Mess at RAF Benson.  Both have recently been given the top awards by their instructors and heads of department at the School of Catering based at RAF Halton in Buckinghamshire.  Not unusual – we often have two individuals in one location that are given awards!  What’s unusual is that Christian and Claire actually met at RAF Halton and are due to get married later this year and together they make one heck of a partnership in the Mess!

Christian is a chef and has been recognised as the Royal Air Force Young ‘Chef’ Student of the Year, whilst Claire has been awarded the Royal Air Force Young ‘Caterer’ Student of the Year – both top honours for individuals who have studied at the RAF Catering School.  Christian also beat his fiancée to take the title of Overall Student of the Year, but we’re sure that she won’t hold a grudge!

Whilst chatting during a rare break over a coffee, our Media Officer got to hear what it was like training as an RAF caterer, how they met, and what their plans are for the future.  When he left the interview our trainee media guru’s first reaction was “They are so happy! And two of the nicest people you could ever meet!”.

Christian had a short background in civilian catering before he joined the RAF but that wouldn’t have prepared him for the intense, and unusual compared to civilian life, trade training he undertook at the School of Catering at RAF Halton!  After completing his basic recruit training at Halton, he remained there to transfer to the School of Catering for training specific to the trade he had signed up to do: chef.

The training is intense as not only do you complete your trade training, you also continue to develop as an airman/woman, which can mean long, hard days!  Christian explained, “It was really tough! Not only were we physically pushed but we were mentally pushed.  Each day would begin with an intense physical training session followed by a full day in the kitchen where we would continually have to meet demanding deadlines!”

It was worth it though as Christian developed into one of the finest young chefs in the RAF.  His bosses have described him as a ‘selfless individual’ with ‘determination and zeal’ who is ‘well known for his respectful demeanour, smartness, deportment and exceptional work ethic’.  Not only is he all of this but the work he presents is always of the highest standards – not easy to achieve when you’re being everything else too!

It’s not surprising that Claire found him irresistible, even though they met on trade training during what Christian describes as a ‘particularly difficult’ endurance run.  Rather like the Grease ‘Summer Loving’ song with a bit of role reversal, Christian was struck by cramp and Claire stopped to check on him and since then “things have really blossomed”… so much so that they’re getting married later this year at a do catered, of course, by their RAF catering colleagues (no doubt under Christian’s watchful eye – we just hope he can keep out of the kitchen long enough to say ‘I do’!).

They’re not just perfectly matched out of the kitchen though – Claire is just as revered as Christian in the workplace too.  Her bosses describe her as having ‘maturity and leadership well beyond her years’ and displaying ‘inner strength and determination’, which saw her sail through her training.  Like Christian she is also described as ‘selfless’ and is known both through training and at RAF Benson for her ‘exceptional talent and professionalism’.

The awards they have both received are a reflection of the high standards they attained and still maintain now!  A huge well done to them both and we wish them well for the future; both in their careers (which we are sure will be long and bright) and for their life together.

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Engineering Excellence

When the Commander of Joint Helicopter Command, Air Vice Marshal Carl Dixon, visited RAF Benson recently he was thrilled with the sterling work that our personnel are doing.  As part of his visit, there was a formal presentation of commendations and medals in the Officers’ Mess.  We’ve told you about of one of the commendations, Flight Sergeant Mark Alden-Court’s, and now we thought we should tell you about some of the people who make it possible for Mark to do his job… our engineers!

Engineers probably make up the largest group of personnel we have on Station as whilst it only takes three or four personnel to fly the helicopter, it can take dozens to get it ready for flying as well as fix anything that goes wrong on it.  There are various ‘specialist’ trades within our engineers who are responsible for specific aspects of the complicated machines including avionics and mechanics, and not all are employed in a ‘hands on’ role – some need to have oversight of the vast amount of work to be done, plan the best use of the helicopters so there is adequate time for servicing in between flying, and investigate any complex problems that may arise.

One of these specialist engineers is Chief Technician Andrew Luscombe.  Andrew is the lead avionics Senior Non-Commissioned Officer with the Merlin Force.  He is responsible for the maintenance of the most advanced avionics system in the UK Armed Forces Support Helicopter Fleet.

Whilst a Sergeant, Andrew was instrumental in the resolution of a complex set of problems in the avionics system.  If you can imagine the complexity of electronics systems in your home or car, multiply that by a big number and you’ve probably just about reached the complexity of the electronics, or ‘avionics’, systems in a Merlin helicopter.  It is state of the art and as many readers may know, start of the art things have a habit of having very difficult problems to resolve… even the simplest thing going wrong with the electronics in your car and you’re likely to head to the nearest garage, quite possibly on the back of a tow truck if it’s one of those new cars that needs electronics to even get in the door!

When you get a complex set of problems on a Merlin helicopter, the first step to resolution is usually our engineers on Station.  If they’re unable to find the answer quickly there are a number of avenues they can turn to for assistance, with experts in every part of the system on hand to assist.  Keeping those aircraft flying is essential, whether it is in the UK or overseas.

Andrew is one of those special breeds that we often find we have in the Royal Air Force.  A complex set of problems had arisen and it had the potential to create a major aircraft availability issue in the UK.  With a real danger of aircrew training and currencies being lost due to the unavailability of aircraft, Andrew selflessly elected to work far outside his normal working hours to investigate the issue.

Within 48 hours Andrew had modestly presented the findings of his investigations in writing to his chain of command and, through his outstanding technical knowledge and tenacious approach, Andrew solved the problem before it had the chance to impact on frontline crews!  Even the experts were amazed at the results he had achieved!

Andrew’s commendation was not just for this amazing feat of engineering investigation though, he has also deployed on numerous occasions with the Merlin Force to Iraq and Afghanistan.  In addition, he made a significant contribution to providing efficient use of Merlin helicopters during Exercise MERLIN VORTEX; the intense pre-deployment training exercise conducted in late 2009 with fierce time constraints and tough environmental conditions.  His outstanding professionalism ensured that all personnel were adequately prepared prior to the deployment of the fleet in support of Operation HERRICK.

Andrew is typical of the personnel we have at RAF Benson – hard-working, professional, tenacious, knowledgeable, determined.  His commendation was extremely well-deserved and we congratulate him on his efforts.  Without Andrew and other personnel like him, RAF Benson would not be able to achieve the amazing operational outputs that it does!  Thank you!

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Heroic Merlin Crewman

Yesterday the Commander of Joint Helicopter Command, Air Vice Marshal Carl Dixon, visited RAF Benson and during his visit he formally presented four commendations, a flight safety award, and 6 Long Service and Good Conduct Medals.  Over the next few days we’ll be bringing you details of what each of the four commendations were for, which we hope will give a brief insight into the work of our fantastic personnel.

Flight Sergeant Mark Alden-Court outside the Officers' Mess following his presentationThe first Commendation was a Personal Commendation from the Commander Joint Helicopter Command and it was awarded to Flight Sergeant Mark Alden-Court.  Mark is a Merlin helicopter crewman currently serving with 28 (Army Co-operation) Squadron at RAF Benson.  He’s an incredibly experienced crewman, having joined the Royal Air Force in 1990 and completed tours in the Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Northern Ireland and the Falkland Islands.

During an operational tour in Afghanistan in May 2010, Wolverhampton born Mark was involved in an incident that showed his incredible ability to work under pressure.  One of the key roles that the Merlin Force undertake in Afghanistan is the rapid deployment of the Counter Improvised Explosive Device Team (often known as the Counter IED team).  This team basically disarms or safely destroys IEDs before they can cause injury or, even worse, loss of life.  The Merlin is perfectly suited to this role as it can move quickly and relatively quietly (compared to the inimitable loud noise of the Chinook), moving the team without any wastage of valuable space on the aircraft to wherever they need to go.

On this particular mission the Merlin crew had collected the Counter-IED team and were transporting them quickly across Helmand to where they were urgently needed.  Shortly after take-off one of the smoke grenades that a member of the team was carrying deployed unexpectedly whilst in his day sack.  If you’ve ever seen a smoke grenade you’ll know that they very quickly deploy a thick plume of smoke, which, when confined in the cabin of a Merlin helicopter, could have been catastrophic, especially if the smoke had reached the front of the aircraft, as the pilots could have lost visual references.

Mark’s instincts and training took over and he swiftly grabbed the bag and prepared to jettison it from the aircraft.  However, whilst handling the day sack mark realised that it contained sensitive electronic counter-measures equipment that, in the wrong hands, could have compromised operational security and the safety of troops on the ground.

Quick thinking Mark took decisive action and in a split second he had used his knife to cut the grenade from the day sack.  Despite the thick plume of smoke he was inhaling and the intense heat burning his hand through his gloves, Mark jettisoned the grenade from the aircraft before the rest of the crew were affected.

Despite the intense pressure, not only from the inherent danger of smoke filling the cabin but also from the hazardous flying situation in an area of extremely high threat, Mark remained calm throughout the incident and displayed what his commanders called “the highest level of professionalism”.  His quick thinking and decisive actions, disregarding his own personal safety to ensure that operational security was maintained, were made all the more spectacular by his communicating the situation to his fellow crew members throughout the incident.

Air Vice Marshal Dixon presents Flight Sergeant Alden-Court with his CommendationOur warmest congratulations are extended to Mark on his truly well-deserved commendation.  The awards are not handed out lightly and are a reflection of the meritorious service that Mark has displayed.

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A Final Kenyan Adventure

Adventurous Training is a valuable addition to British military training.  Whilst to some it may appear simply as a ‘jolly’ or a ‘bit of fun’, when properly conducted it has been found to enhance an individual’s ability to withstand the rigours of operations and rapid deployments.  In the final blog post from Kenya, Andy ‘Lucky’ Marsden, one of our Puma engineers, gives us a great insight into Adventurous Training (AT) whilst on Exercise there.

We set off from Panga at 0830 hours (8.30am) ready for our day of AT. We jumped in a ‘Jingly Wagon’ and headed to our AT guides home which was opposite the new Nanyuki Show Ground. We quickly jumped into their Matatu where our bones were thoroughly shaken for just over an hour as we headed cross-country into the wilds of Kenya. On the way there we had to take a small detour as the ford we needed to cross was too deep, which was promising for our first activity; Canadian Canoeing. We got to the camp just before 1000hrs (10am) and had a good look; it was a beautiful location set at the side of the river which was swelling today. It was a tented site with a small field kitchen, dining area and comfortable living quarters.

There wasn’t much time before we were straight into action though!  First up was a 6km paddle down the river but before we did that we got a good five minutes practice on the calm stretch outside camp to prepare us for what lay ahead; how little did we know!

After the practice session we threw the canoes into the back of their ginat off-road truck and we climbed onto the roof.  If possible this ride was even worse than the Matatu but it was good fun… especially as the driver aimed for every thorn covered tree on the way!  After 15 minutes we descended down to the point on the river that would be our start point.  We unloaded the canoes and dragged them down to the river bank.  It was 2 to a Canoe so we all teamed up; Ann with the JengO [Junior Engineering Officer – aka the Boss], Swiss with Dirk, Jonny C with Smithy and that left me in the front boat with the AT managers son; Ed.  It wasn’t lost on me that the 2 gingers went first to test that the course was safe for everyone else…

We set off down stream and within 20 metres we were already at our first challenging section of white water. We headed straight for it and taking Ed’s advice I leant as far back as I could, trying to lower our centre of gravity to make us more stable. We all got through it unscathed and our confidence was given a well needed boost. We followed the river for a kilometre or so with little bits of white water to make it interesting but it was still nothing more than a gentle paddle… but this was soon to change!

Up ahead we could hear loud flowing water and as we came around the bend we could see its source. A 2 foot drop off with giant rocks dotted around for good measure. We picked our line and hit the drop straight on, leaning as far back as we could. The bow dipped into the water but soon popped back up leaving us soaked but still a float. We drifted down stream and watched behind us as Swiss and Dirk followed our example and made it down unscathed.  Next up it was Ann and the Boss’ turn, we watched as they headed for the biggest rock in the centre of the river and hit it side on as there diversionary tactics failed. They struggled to keep upright until the inevitable happened and they capsized. Their canoe filled with water instantly and started to sink as they were being dragged towards the drop by the strong current. The other 2 boats managed to get to shore and helped get them and their boat out of the water whilst Ed and I went down river to catch up with their paddles. Eventually everyone was back in their canoes, wet but unharmed.

We set off down the river again and Ed decided to share with me that he’d never done this section of river before and didn’t know if we would be facing anything worse; we soon found out that we would. Another kilometre down the river and the ominous sound of thundering water was coming towards us. We waited for it to come into view and my heart sank – in front of us were 2 options; either a 4 foot drop on the left, or 2 consecutive 2 foot drops on the right. We quickly weighed up our options and we headed towards the right; bad move. We hit the first drop which knocked us off course for the second and we hit it sideways. We capsized on impact and got swept underneath the flow from the 4 foot drop, which pounded us between the upturned canoe and the rocks on the river bed. I was desperately clinging onto the canoe for dear life when I looked up and saw Ann’s canoe miss my head by inches.  Somehow they missed both Ed and I and got down with falling in.

With help from the current, Ed and I managed to get the canoe down stream and away from the rapids and towards the bank. Battered and bruised we turned around and watched as first Swiss and Dirk became unstuck, followed closely by JC and Smithy. We managed to retrieve both our oars and empty the water out of our boat as we saw Swiss floating past. He’d hurt both his arm and leg and was staying afloat courtesy of his life jacket. We hooked him and Dirk to the side of the river with their canoe and emptied it of water.  JC and Smithy were on the other side of the bank and we all crossed the river to join them, fully empty our canoes and re-group. No-one was badly hurt and with the adrenaline pumping we were all in surprisingly high spirits.

We climbed back on board confident that nothing else was going to be as bad as what we had just done, which was true if only just. We hit another couple of big drop offs that saw us plunge back into the brown murky river; Swiss again coming off worse when he couldn’t move his legs or arm but was at least impressed with himself for retaining his oar. We ignored Eds suggestion of letting Swiss float down stream in the hope he’d be alright and got him back into his canoe. The rest of the journey was relatively uneventful and as fun as it had been, we were glad to see the camp appear on our left hand side. We dragged our canoes onto the bank and got changed whilst reminiscing our lucky escapes and comparing injuries. Just as we were sitting down to our wonderful meal of pasta and mash we spotted something breaking the water in the river. We walked over to the side of the river and further upstream we saw the cause; a hippo swimming upstream. 10 minutes later and we would have been meeting him head on and guaranteed one of us would have hit it which would have been interesting!

It rained throughout lunch and after it subsided a little we donned our mountain bikes and headed into the bush. The ride was fun but largely uneventful, the long up hills punishing our battered legs but the views from the top were more than worth it. After an hour of riding we were given the option to climb, with Swiss, Ann, JC and Smithy volunteering. The rock face was still wet and with mud covering their stickies they found it hard work but all achieving a relative degree of success considering the conditions. As they climbed I looked out from a top of the rock face and spotted giraffes walking around and even heard what the JengO was convinced was a male lion.

We made our way back to camp and had a drink and a sit down before jumping back into the Matatu where even the worst road in the world couldn’t stop my head from dropping. Overall it was a great day that I’m sure we would all do again, our bumps and knocks actually added to the adventure part of it and I left feeling that I’d accomplished something.

Congratulations to everyone for making it through what was most definitely an ‘adventure’!

Our thanks to 33 Squadron B Flight for keeping us entertained with their activities in Kenya over the past month or so.  Our thanks especially to Flight Lieutenant Tim Smith for his help in getting the material back to the UK through the sometimes sporadic communications system, all whilst still completing his own training and flying regular missions to support Land Forces!

Our next few blog posts will be something a little bit different, based on commendations that have been awarded to our personnel.  We hope they’ll give everyone an insight into some of the functions of RAF Benson.

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A Football First!

Apologies for the short break in blog posts, particularly to those following our updates from our 33 Squadron B Flight personnel in Kenya.  Normal service will hopefully be resumed over the next few days.  We also hope to start introducing some more blog posts from personnel on Station and about events on Station as 33 Squadron B Flight prepare to come home from Kenya to their families who are eagerly awaiting their return.

Sport is often a great way for our personnel to integrate with civilians in the local community when they are deployed on Exercise, and it can also help to break up the monotony of continuous training to ensure personnel remain alert and receptive (imagine doing the same tasks in hot and humid conditions, in the middle of the desert, for weeks on end!).  Our footballing heroes give us a quick run down of their latest, and greatest, matches…

The leveller…

Following the ground breaking 1-1 draw earlier in the Exercise, the Joint Helicopter Force (Kenya) (JHF(K)) team once again took on the Kenyan’s in the weekly Wednesday match.  The weather, which had previously been scorching had now turned rather cloudy and showery, which definitely suited us Brits!  We started well and much to our surprise were 2-0 up within 20 minutes; however the Kenyan’s rallied and had leveled the game at 2-2 by the half time break. With 20 minutes to go in the second half, the game was tied at 3-3.  As the light faded and time was running out, we scored and held off late Kenyan pressure to take the game 4-3 and record JHF(K)’s first ever victory.

The decider…

With 3 games played and one win each and a draw, we entered into the deciding game.  Both countries put their best sides out and we even had referees and linesmen.  The Kenyan’s started well and were passing it around nicely but against the run of play we scored to take a 1-0 lead into half time. The second half was a cracker with the Kenyan’s stepping up their game to take the score to 2-2.  After surviving several close calls we scored two great goals in 10 minutes to win the game 4-2.

A momentous occasion for JHF(K) taking our first ever overall victory!

Well done to all on 33 Squadron B Flight’s football team and our commiserations to the Kenyan team… although I’m sure the rest of the Puma Force, and perhaps the Merlin Force too, would probably say “thanks for letting them win, we’ll never hear the end of it now though!”

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An afternoon at Simba

Whilst many readers may recognise Simba as a Disney character, it’s also a training location in Kenya used by our personnel and the Army Battalion’s they are supporting.  An afternoon at Simba is definitely not akin to a Disney movie though as Flight Lieutenant Andy Campbell explains…

The crew in the casualty evacuation tent, preparing for the day's taskingTasked with providing 24 hour casualty evacuation support to the exercising troops, a crew forward based to the Archers Post training area 60 miles to the northwest of Nanyuki.  In addition to our primary responsibility of casualty evacuation, we were tasked with providing an ‘overwatch’ capability for a convoy patrol. 

This basically means that we established communications with the convoy, conducted a reconnaissance of the route, and reported ‘enemy’ movement ahead of the convoy. 

An aerial shot of Puma on a dust approach in KenyaAt the request of the convoy commander, we also flew some low level passes of specific locations along the route to obtain more details and to act as a show of force.

An hour into the task we were re-tasked on a casualty evacuation; one of the highest priorities on all exercises and operations.  We flew direct to the Forward Operating Base Twiga where we picked up two heat stress casualties, who were immediately evacuated to the regimental aid post at Forward Operating Base Simba for treatment.

In all, it was a satisfying end to a good afternoon of tasking in Kenya!

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Good company!

A lot of our personnel deploy as a ‘formed unit’, which means each Flight on the Squadron will deploy together on exercise or on operations, including aircrew and engineers.  This helps to ensure excellent working relationships as the Flight also works together at RAF Benson whilst not deployed.

In order to further develop these relationships, socialising together outside the workplace is also encouraged where possible.  Sergeant Si Craig explains how a dining-in night (a formal dinner) went down with the personnel of 33 Squadron B Flight in Kenya:

The night of the all ranks field dining in night was a great success. Good food, good wine and good company was shared by all. The highlight of the evening had to be the local dancers who provided entertainment for us all with a long display involving several of the guests (who looked suitably embarrassed).

After the plates were clear we enjoyed the national anthem of both the UK and Kenya and toasted both nations which went down well with our Kenyan guests. Following that LAC Budd gave a fantastic Mr Vice speech, which was amusing to say the least (although probably not all repeatable here!).

All in all it was a very enjoyable evening, well prepared by those involved and a night that will not be forgotten in a hurry.

All-ranks dinners don’t happen very often as the junior ranks, Sergeants and Officers all have their own Mess facilities, however they are an important part of RAF life.

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Kenyan air awareness training

Another typical day in Kenya for the Puma Force!  Flight Lieutenant Ian Griffiths, a pilot with 33 Squadron, explains how the Kenyans help greatly when it comes to training for the British Army and how the Puma Force help them to do this…

As part of the 1 Royal Welsh Battle Group’s Final Training Exercise in Kenya they have to overcome an element of “enemy forces”.  To make this as realistic as possible, the Kenyan Wildlife Service kindly volunteer to play this part. 

The crew smile for the camera prior to take off

So as a way of making sure they were properly trained to fly with us at a moment’s notice during the exercise, we spent a few hours with them to give safety briefs and some passenger flying experience (often called air awareness training).

This task coincided with us having 3 available aircraft and so the decision was made to send a relatively junior crew off to gain some experience as a two ship formation. 

The sortie went very well with Rob Gray speaking in fluent Swahili in order to conduct the safety brief (or was that just his Scouse accent!?).  The Kenyan Wildlife Service personnel got a lot of value from the sortie and thoroughly enjoyed it to boot!  I, as well, exercised my ability to punch numbers into our 252 (effectively a Tom-Tom sat-nav) and navigate the formation across the barren, featureless plains of East Africa!The volunteers from the Kenyan Wildlife Service disembark the Puma after a successful day

Sometimes we’re asked whether we’re welcome in countries that host our training, particularly when the training is continuous such as with Exercise ASKARI THUNDER in Kenya… as Ian has illustrated, our hosts are fantastic and often lend a hand in our training too!  The simulated ‘enemy forces’ can often be essential to effective training, and also help train our crews with working with personnel unfamiliar with our aircraft (something that we do quite often, both in the UK and abroad) so their support and assistance is greatly appreciated… and we hope that they enjoy their time doing something a little bit different!

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What a pleasant day!

Sometimes it’s difficult to remember that RAF personnel are normal people too, with normal family lives fitting around deployments.  With our personnel deploying so frequently, on Operations or on Exercise, they will often miss key moments in their lives and with their families, whether it is a child’s first day at school, a wedding anniversary, or as in Graham ‘Ginge’ Ford’s case, a birthday! Things aren’t ignored whilst you’re away from home though and the guys and girls will always rally around to make a special day special no matter where you are… Ginge describes his experience…

The scrummy chocolate cake the guys and girls managed to obtain for GingeSomehow I wasn’t looking forward to my birthday because, as last year, I was going to be away from home.  This time a year ago I was in Afghanistan and celebrated my 50th birthday living in a sweaty four man room with no alcohol available.  It wasn’t quite what I had in mind to celebrate the passing of a significant milestone, something more along the lines of a luxury cruise or several nights in a classy hotel would have been more appropriate!

So this year when I found out I was going to be away again, my expectations for a good day on my birthday were not too high.  However, as it turns out, I was pleasantly surprised! 

At one stage I was scheduled to be at work but the programme was changed and I had the day off: bargain!  So I got up at 8am and decided to go for a run around the perimeter of the local golf course near where we are staying in Kenya.  The perimeter is about two kilometres so three laps was my target, even though I momentarily thought of doing 51 to match my age! 

Three laps may not sound far but it’s a respectable distance in Nanyuki given that it nestles in the foothills of Mount Kenya at 6000 feet above sea level where the air is thinner and breathe more difficult to find. So I was pleased with three laps, especially for a fella of my age. 

After a shower and change, I found a sun lounger by the swimming pool at the golf club and settled down to read a book with a cup of coffee.  As Nanyuki lies on the equator, with the sun directly overhead, spending too long in the sun is not wise… unless you want to look like a lobster stick! 

After lunch back at base, the other lads with the day off took me down to Barneys, a popular restaurant to the south of Nanyuki, where we drank milkshakes.  They had also managed to get me a chocolate birthday cake with 5 candles, one for each decade, which we soon demolished.  Then it was back to base to meet up with the other lads coming back from work.  After a Skype call to home and good wishes from the family it was back out to Kongonis restaurant for a very tasty birthday dinner.

So overall, even though I spent this birthday away from home, it turned out to be far better than I had expected.

Happy birthday Ginge! And to all who are away from home serving their country when some special is happening in their own lives, thank you!  It may sound rather contrite but we do appreciate even the smallest of sacrifices all our personnel and their families make on behalf of RAF Benson.  We know that we can’t get those moments back for you but we hope that knowing what you do is fully appreciated by us all will go some way to making it feel a little better… and of course the chocolate cake never goes amiss!

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You’re having a giraffe…

The Puma Force’s role in Kenya varies widely.  One day they can be saving the life of a member of the Army working out there, another they can be saving the life of an animal that lives in the area.  Flying Officer Neal, a pilot with 33 Squadron, gives us a short insight into his morning with the giraffes….

Today was an early start for my first day of tasking as an aircraft captain in Kenya.  I woke up at 5am and went to meet up with the rest of my crew to get into work.  Our first task of the morning was a range clearance.

This involves clearing areas that the army need to use for live firing training.  These are generally very large open areas in the Kenya plains with no fences.  Our main job is to use our Puma helicopter to herd any wild animals clear of the live firing areas to avoid them being put at risk.

After flight planning and standard aircraft checks, we took off at first light, just before 6.30am, with the sun rising over a amazing view of Mount Kenya. We picked up a range warden and began by herding a large family of elephants by flying close to them to encourage them to move to a safe area.  

An overhead picture showing the giraffes in the distance, with the shadow of the Puma helicopter on the groundWe also encountered a group of almost 20 giraffe, which was quite a challenge to keep going in the right direction!  I have experienced range clearances on 2 previous detachments to Kenya but every time I find it incredible that I have the chance to view these amazing animals in the wild and in such a unique way. After clearing all the ranges we reported back that they were clear so the army could begin their training and we flew back to base for breakfast.

When our helicopter pilots join the Royal Air Force they will often think of the types of activities they will undertake… transporting troops, carrying supplies, lifting heavy gear as an under-slung load, supporting Army training and operations in the UK and around the world… herding elephants and giraffes before breakfast…!!! It just goes to show that RAF will do whatever it takes to support the Army…

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