Son of a gun
You walked into the party like you were walking onto a yacht
Your hat strategically dipped below one eye
Your scarf it was apricot
You had one eye in the mirror as you watched yourself gavotte
And all the girls dreamed that they’d be your partner they’d be your partner and
You’re so vain
You probably think this song is about you
You’re so vain (you’re so vain)
I bet you think this song is about you
Don’t you don’t you?
Just before midnight on a late October evening in 2005, a Puma helicopter took off from Basra Air Station (BAS) and headed north. The aircraft showed no lights, a contrast to the city passing on its starboard side and the gas and oil separation plants (GOSPs) in the desert that were lit up like Christmas trees. Once clear of the city, the helicopter swung right and picked up the River Tigris that wound its convoluted path through the desert, southeast towards the Persian Gulf. The Puma was heading in the opposite direction, north-northwest towards Maysan Province.
In the rear of the helicopter, the Loadmaster sat behind the right hand door’s 7.62mm General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG), his lower legs dangling in the warm slipstream. Four other men were sitting in the dull-red canvass seats. They were all armed and wearing clothing that was festooned with strips of hessian and dirty rags. They only had fighting order webbing with extra water bottles. None carried bergens, but all had personal role radios and three were armed with the L85 rifle upgrade. The fourth man had a long rifle across his knees and cradled in his arms to protect it from the vibration of the aircraft. Parts of the rifle and its telescopic sights were also draped with strips of hessian.
The Loadmaster leaned forward as far out into the slipstream as he dared and drank in the heady aromas of a helicopter travelling at 130 knots at 500 feet. Sergeant Giles (Gary) Gilmore was inundated by the scream of the engines and the hot winds from their passage across the desert. The oily reek of AVTUR was unmistakable and compulsive. He avoided looking directly at the sodium lights of the GOSPs through his Night Vision Goggles (NVGs), but instead looked down between his boots at a lonely pickup parked below showing no lights. Two men looked up trying to spot the helicopter passing above them. Gilmore thought about the helicopter attack sequence in Apocalypse Now, he hummed the opening bars of the Ride of the Valkyries and said to himself: I’m being paid to bloody do this. Thank you God.
Gilmore didn’t know the names of his passengers. He didn’t know their cap badges and he wouldn’t dream of asking. He just knew that they would be up to no good and was grateful to them, because this whole, stinking Operation in Iraq was falling apart. Sergeant Gilmore turned round and tapped one of the passengers on the leg, extending two digits from his fist. Two minutes. The team became alert and started to check their equipment. They didn’t have NVGs, just their night vision. While essential for pilots, NVG’s tend to give the wearer a sense of tunnel vision that overrides all the other, equally vital senses. They would need all of them once they were on the ground. The pilot headed for a pool of darkness on the outskirts of the district and flared to lose speed. By now the loadmaster was flat on his belly, hanging out of the door and calling out the height.
“Twenty metres, fifteen, ten,”
The four men were crouched behind him in the door.
“Five, four, three, two, one…” he thrust his arm out, pointing.
The four man team disappeared into the dust thrown up by the rotor blades. Gilmore broke a cylume stick and shook it, sweeping the floor of the helicopter to make sure no kit had been left behind.
The Puma’s pilot applied collective and cyclic control and the helicopter pitched forward, accelerated and gained height, before turning left and heading towards the base at Al Amarah. The wheels hadn’t even touched the ground. The Puma landed at the Al Amarah base and the ground handling party of UK Mobile Air Movements Squadron and the refuelling party from Tactical Supply Wing (TSW) were waiting. It would be a hot refuelling with the engines still turning and while the pilot and co-pilot stayed in the cockpit, Gilmore jumped down and went over to the movers.
“There’s been a change of flight plans. Instead of going back to Basra with equipment, you’ve got six pax. Five have appointments and referrals at the field hospital in Shaibah and the last one has a repatriation flight arranged. His mother’s sick.”
“OK, Gilmore shouted above the din of the helicopter, “Five to Shaibah and one for BAS. Anything else we can take?”
“We’ve got three Lacon boxes of out of date medical supplies you can dump off at the field hospital.”
The Loadmaster went back to the Puma and pushed his head into the cockpit. The TSW team had started refuelling and no lights were been shown on the apron.
“Change of plans, Skipper,” he said to the pilot in the right-hand seat, “Six pax. Five to Shaibah and one to BAS.”
Flight Lieutenant Mount nodded and turned to the co-pilot, “Change the ATO please, Louise. Shortest transit to Shaibah and back to BAS, avoiding the bad guys.”
Flying Officer Skelton licked her thumb and wiped away the Chinagraph line on the laminated map on her knee. To Gilmore it was strangely erotic, but then again Louise had that effect on men and women. She drew in the new course and checked it with a Silva compass for bearings, then imputed the data into the inertial navigation. Gilmore smiled in the darkness. He just loved watching her being so precise and conscientious. She was new to the job. The bad habits would come later.
The Lacon boxes went on first while the fuelling was still underway and he strapped and frapped them to hard points on the floor of the aircraft. The TSW boys pulled the hose away and he waved in the passengers. Al Amarah was in the heart of bandit country and a Puma helicopter refuelling and loading would make a tempting target for rockets and mortars. Gilmore made sure the passengers were strapped in, checked his safety tether, took up position behind the GPMG and then went on the intercom.
“All secure in the back.”
The Puma’s engines ramped up the power and the helicopter rose, then pitched forward sharply to gain the angle of attack for thrust. The passengers hung on to the seat frames while Gilmore grabbed the GPMG’s mounting to stop himself sliding out of the door. Once it reached cruise and safety height, the Puma banked sharply to the left and Gilmore had to use a great deal of effort to lean forward and maintain observation out of the door at the rear of the aircraft. Amaraha’s lights pivoted below the Puma’s tail and they headed southeast to Basra. Over the desert a hose of tracer reached up for them. Lazy and inaccurate. Nonetheless Gilmore triggered the Defensive Aid Suite and he looked away from the chaff and flare to protect his night vision.
“Stop playing and posing, Gary,” the pilot gently admonished, “The armourers will have to replace that.”
It’ll give them something to do, he thought to himself. It was 0230 Local, Gilmore had a gritty tiredness behind his eyes and he realised that he should have had a piss at Al Amarah. But nothing could detract from the joy he felt flying in a military helicopter at low level across the desert. I fucking love my job! The bottoms of his trousers flapped in the slipstream and the Glock was hard against his thigh. If only Lorna was here with him, he could unload his bollocks, get rid of the frustration and it would be perfect. But she was three time-zones away in a dank, autumnal Oxfordshire. She once told him that he looked like Jean-Jacques Burnel from the Stranglers. He didn’t know who Jean-Jacques Burnel was, so he asked Mr Google and was delighted that he had to agree with her. Lorna had such exceptional taste, he concluded and adopted the Burnel, disinterested pout. It lasted until the other guys on the Squadron realised his strange affectation and mercilessly took the piss. Ground crew would start singing No More Heroes every time he walked past. Gilmore quietly parked his Jean-Jacques Burnel persona.
On the flare into Shaibah it was clear that there were a few more pax lurking behind the ground handling party, waiting for a trip to BAS. The Helicopter Landing Point Commander guided the Puma in with two cylume sticks held aloft. With NVGs it was all rather unnecessary, but hey, that was the way the Army did things. Once on the ground, all the passengers in the helicopter started to dismount.
“Hoy, where are you going?” Gilmore said to the lad who was for the onward trip to BAS. The youngster blinked uncertainly and Gilmore remembered that he was probably worried sick about his mother.
“This is Shaibah. Your stop’s Basra. Sit back down. We’ll be off again in no time. Can I get you anything?” the Loadmaster asked the bewildered looking youngster, realising just how hopelessly lost he looked.
“I could do with a drink, Sarge.”
Gilmore jumped down and met the ground handlers, “How many?”
“Three including the Colonel.”
A senior officer was pacing impatiently next to the ISO containers, arrogantly smoking on the landing point.
“Fine. He gets on last after the other pax and any cargo. Can you give the lad in the back of the cab a bottle of water?”
The handlers grinned.
“And I need a piss.”
“Behind the ISOs as good as anywhere, Sarge.”
Gilmore studiously ignored the Colonel when he clambered on board after the mail sacks and had pressing business in the cockpit. He gave Flight Lieutenant Mount a report on their passengers and cargo, then tried to ascertaining whether Louise Skelton was wearing a bra under her body armour. She had cut the sleeves off her top (very naughty given the fire risk) and as she reached up to adjust an overhead instrument, giving him a good view of her armpit and right-side-boob. She wasn’t. Oh, Louise. You naughty junior officer, you. It never occurred to him to think if he could see so much of the co-pilot’s side and nether regions, just how shit the body armour was that they had been issued with.
Back in the air the Puma headed north to BAS, keeping well clear of the city and the town of Zubyar, because the locals had a tendency to do a full magazine download at anything flying over them. The helicopter landed on the main aircraft servicing platform, a few metres away from the overhead cover. It meant the ground crews could wheel the Puma under cover to service and re-arm the chaff and flare Defensive Aid Suite (DAS) in the shade. Andy Mount shut down the engines and as he was unclipping his safety harness, Gilmore was annoyed to see the Colonel get off the aircraft without a word or glance, strutting off to find his transport. Wanker, Gilmore thought to himself, I hope his next shit is a pineapple.
He supervised the pax getting off and was pleased to see that the young Tom had a member of the A1 admin team waiting for him. From now and until he arrived at the hospital where his mother lay in intensive care classed as very seriously ill, the young soldier was in the hands of the Joint Services Repatriation Team. Once the movers unloaded the lacons, the crew disembarked and gathered by the aircraft’s nose.
“Another successful one,” Mount observed patting the cockpit door. It was his little ritual. They walked towards the ops room to file the report and get a brew before turning in. Gilmore felt good as he sniffed the cool early morning air.
“Hey, Louise, my roomie is back in the UK on R&R, if you fancy a nightcap in my corimec.”
She pulled off her flying helmet, stuck her flying gloves inside the helmet and undid the bun at the back of her head, shaking her long hair loose. She fixed the loadmaster with a contemptuous stare, “This may come as a complete surprise to you, Sergeant Gilmore, but once you’ve tried a bit of girl-on-girl action, anything with a cock, particularly one as small as yours, just doesn’t measure up.”
Andy Mount laughed and pushed Gilmore away. The loadmaster pretended to be crestfallen, slouched and dragged his feet like a stroppy teenager, “So I suppose doing my ironing is out of the question?”
“Do fuck off, Gary,” she said good-naturedly.
The Ops building was largely empty except for the duty officer and the Immediate Response Team (IRT) medics and aircrew who were sleeping in any comfortable nook and cranny they could find. Gilmore asked the Ops Officer if he could use one of the computers and he nodded to one in the corner. Gilmore logged in with his MoD account and accessed his email account.
“Come on, come on, come on,” he muttered waiting for it to open. There was a load of dross about fitness testing times, signing his FMT 600 otherwise he wouldn’t be able to drive the Squadron vehicles and an unpaid mess bill from the Sergeants’ Mess back in the UK. Finally he saw the email and it was as though something warm was wrapping itself around his heart. Feeling as though he was sixteen again he clicked on it.
Giles my love,
I hope that you’re OK and you’re getting enough to eat and enough sleep. I’m also hoping that you’re staying away from the laydeez, coz I’ve bloody heard about detachment rules applying. No they bloody well don’t.
There have been lots of Wokkas flying around with underslung loads. The kids love it but the locals don’t seem too pleased when they transit over Wallingford. Probably think it will affect the house prices. Why are they here? I thought they were tucked up in Odiham. They’re not coming out to where you lot are, are they? I love seeing them. They make the house shake. One of the Loadies waved at me from the rear ramp, as I got out of the car at the post office. It went over at about fifty feet. Cheeky sod! Still, they must be a lot cleverer than you, coz their helicopters have two lots of spinning thingies.
I’ve got a bit of bad news. Danny posted some toast and marmite in the drawer of the DVD player and I’m afraid that it’s stopped working. Really sorry. Giles, but I can’t watch him every minute of the day. I’ll be glad when the little sod’s old enough to go to play school and I can get back to work.
OC Admin Wing has been badgering all the wives to attend a meet and greet in the Station Social Club, so we can all share stories about how we’re coping with our hubbies being away. I know he means well, but this isn’t the bloody Army. Anyway, this morning we all trotted off like good little girls and stood around sipping tea and pretending to be united. There was even one poor sod who was a bloke, married to one of the female engineers and boy did he look uncomfortable. I wouldn’t have gone, had it been me.
At this point Gilmore grinned. He knew the female engineer. Louise also knew her… Very well. He wondered if the bloke would have been angry, or just want to watch.
Personally, I found it all rather patronising and contrived. This is the 21st Century and us ladies lives don’t revolve around the one and two winged master race. Sorry to disappoint you.
There followed a detailed account of just how much Gilmore’s wife was missing him and what she was going to do when he came home. He rubbed his eyes and groaned.
So that’s it as far as my life goes. Boring isn’t it? Not like your exciting life. Just stay safe and don’t come back with any bits missing.
Love you, Giles xxx
PS: Danny sends you a big, dribbley kiss.
He started typing:
Sent: 27 October 2005 at 03:20
Subject: RE: The bed’s too big without you
Hello Lorna, Love,
Your arrangements regarding my homecoming are to my liking and I will dwell on them, during the lonely, empty hours in my corimec. The problem is that by the time I get home I will have to wheel my bollocks off the Tristar in a wheelbarrow.
The Chinooks may be heading further east to that other, well-known shithole. Don’t know why they’re flying round our gaff. Probably doing some pre-deployment training with the Pongoes over at Abingdon. That Loadie couldn’t have been waving at you, because it’s a well-known fact that they are all gayer than a Christmas tree.
Don’t worry too much about the DVD player. Just tell Danny if he does it again he’ll be sent to a medical research laboratory. Give him a manly hug from me.
I’m fine and eating well, too well. Andy is looking after us. He’s good and steady and doesn’t take unnecessary risks. Louise is coming on in leaps and bounds now that she’s been licked into shape and is popular throughout the det. Don’t worry. I wouldn’t get a look in and I don’t want to.
Most of the time we do the shuttle runs around the Div area, boring really, but tonight we dropped off some tough hombres who were probably going to do some bad things. It pays not to be too curious. Tomorrow we go on stag for the IRT.
That’s pretty much it for me for now as I’m off to bed. Really miss you, babe.
All my love,
He pressed send then leaned back from the screen, suddenly feeling really tired.
“See you tomorrow, Gary,” Mount called to him as he and Louise opened the door to leave.
“The offer still stands, Louise,” Gilmore said with a grin.
“Which I’ve heard is more than your cock does. Goodnight Gary.”