Life with the RAF Chinook detachment in west Africa

Monday 17th January 2022 7:00 am
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‘Battle of Britain Night’ was held in one of the UK’s hangars with a Chinook backdrop

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PERSONNEL from RAF Odiham and numerous other units from across the UK Armed Forces continue to support the French counter insurgency ‘Operation Barkhane’ and the United Nations MINUSMA missions from Gao Airbase in Mali.

The RAF’s 1310 Flight is equipped with Chinook helicopters and performs a range of missions, from the transport of passengers and freight between main operating bases to the insertion of troops to desert locations.

These missions now include support to the British Army’s Long Range Reconnaissance Group, a contingent of the UN’s MINUSMA mission.

On continuous rotation between RAF 18(B) and 27 squadrons, the Joint Helicopter Command squadrons have had a presence in Mali since July 2018, when the first Chinooks arrived in the country at the request of the French government.

Since then, more than 3,500 hours have been flown, with nearly 22,000 passengers and over 2,000 tons of freight transported. To achieve this the detachment regularly overcomes the challenges of the environment, ranging from intense desert thunderstorms to searing heat, with temperatures regularly peaking above 40 degrees and seasonal flooding.

Describing everyday life for deployed personnel, Flight Lieutenant Jamie Johnson from 18 (B) Squadron said: “Life for the personnel of 1310 Flt has been, on the whole, relatively simple. The tents that made up Camp Roberts in the early days of Op Newcombe are kept in full-time use.

“Thankfully, the days of tented accommodation that many experienced at the birth of Op Newcombe are, for most however, a thing of the past. The majority of the personnel deployed on the Flight now inhabit blocks of rooms that resemble shipping containers. These do have the windows and air conditioning essential to any permanent habitation in Mali.”

Operations are maintained 24 hours a day, but 1310 Flt still finds the time to engage in social events to maintain morale. The main hub for most social activities is ‘The Queen’s Head’, at Camp Roberts.

Flt Lt Johnson continued: “The Queen’s Head has been made over the years by the Flt’s personnel. It resembles what can only be described as the offspring of a shipping container and a scrap wood bin, though held in high esteem by all who frequent it!”

Most weeks during Op Newcombe some form of social event takes place, ranging from pub quizzes to film nights and even the odd karaoke event. On occasion the Flt has had time to expand its social horizon, a recent example being a Battle of Britain Night held in one of the UK’s hangars with a Chinook backdrop.

This allowed for a full dining in night for all of the Flt’s personnel, a rare chance to get everyone together in a formal setting and an even rarer chance to mingle with a number of international colleagues from across the base at Gao.

Wing Commander Tom Carter, the Officer Commanding 18 (B) Sqn, said: “The Chinook deployment on Op Newcombe is an example of what is likely to come for a growing number of UK operations in the future, working closely with European allies, perhaps without the heavy involvement of the United States. Op Newcombe looks set to continue for the foreseeable future, with many more personnel from RAF Odiham gaining the opportunity to deploy.”

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