Chapter 21 – The Loadmaster’s Story
The aircraft movements woke him again, specifically a Nimrod MR4A blasting off at 10:00 hrs to commence its eighteen hour patrol, hoovering up electronic intelligence with its 90 antennae. The Nimrod turned north and began the long, cyclic patrol above Iraq, data pouring in from the sensors like Wiltshire Police Service’s monitoring of 16-year-olds’ Twitter accounts.
Gilmore knew that further sleep was impossible, so he chugged half a bottle of water and headed for the Gym. It was a large, well-appointed and air conditioned luxury and one of the few benefits of being on Ops along with the food. He plugged himself into an MP3 player and listened to the Lightning Seeds’ upbeat and cheerful ditties. He had run five miles and was halfway through a forty minute stint on the cross-trainer, when he became aware someone was lurking just behind his right shoulder, so he paused and turned round. It was his little friend, the MT driver.
She smiled, “Hello, Gary.
“Oh, hello errr.”
“Faye, I did tell you.”
“Yes you did. Sorry, Faye. What is it?”>
“The SWO wants to see you and asked me specifically to come and get you. He said: ‘Don’t let the wriggling bastard get away and tell him it’s a hat’s on, no coffee type of meeting. And no, he hasn’t been awarded the Air Force Medal.’ Have you been up to something naughty, Gary?”
Gilmore mopped his brow with a green hand towel and wondered why the hell the Station Warrant Officer wanted to see him.
“I’ll need a shower first.”
“He said: ‘Once you’ve found him, don’t let him out of your sight.’”
“Well you can’t come in the bloody shower with me. It would appear that I’m in enough trouble as it is.”
Faye made a pretend, pouty face.
Fuck me, she really is a gorgeous little thing, “You can wait in my corimec and I promise I won’t do a runner.”
“OK, Gary,” she said brightly.
While Gilmore was in the ablution block, Fay discreetly went through his things. His pistol and holster was hanging over the end of the bed. Very naughty as all weapons were supposed to go in the armoury when not in use. Typical bloody aircrew, a law unto themselves. There were bluies on the top shelf of his locker with a woman’s writing on the address label. She definitely didn’t want to look at those. His clothes and t-shirts were hanging up, just the smell of fresh laundry. A picture of a little boy of about two stuck on the inside of the locker door. That made her feel sad and empty. But she consoled herself that there was always a chance of detachment rules applying.
He came back with a towel wrapped round him and she was sitting on his bed.
“Err, Faye. You’ll have to go out while I get changed.”
“Oh yes, sorry. I’ll wait in the Land Rover.”
As they drove to the Headquarters of the RAF contingent about ten minutes later, Gilmore asked if she knew why the SWO wanted to see him.
“No idea, but he said he wanted to speak to you before you spoke to anyone else.”
The RAF Admin cell was inside blast walls of Hesco Bastions and none of the corimecs were air conditioned. As fitting for the most senior non-commissioned officer on the base, the SWO had his own office. Gilmore was wearing a beret rather than a floppy desert hat. He knocked and went in. The SWO was sitting behind a desk, a shaven, bullet-headed man with the RAF Regiment Mudguards on his shoulders. Gilmore came to attention, realising he was probably in the shit.
“Good morning, Mr Gilmore. I’ll cut to the chase. Why did you twat a BBC cameraman and threaten to physically assault a sound recordist by inserting a large microphone up his rectum?”
Gilmore grinned, “So that’s what this is about.”
“It’s no laughing matter, sunshine. The complaint against you had gone straight up to Multidivisional Headquarters and the General is involved. This is now an RMP matter and you are under investigation.”
“That’s complete bollocks, sir! I didn’t twat anyone. I may have shouted at them because they were filming a medical incident in front of a hostile crowd, even when I asked them to stop. The situation was getting dangerous and in my opinion, by continuing to film an injured child, they were inflaming the crowd. I asked the cameraman to stop filming. He told me to piss off, so I pushed the camera down. It may have accidently caught him in the face.”
The SWO nodded, “Did anyone else witness the incident?”
“The medics must have seen it.”
“All right, relax, Sergeant. I thought as much. The Army hate the fact the RAF run BAS and they are always making mischief. The fact one of the one-winged master race is involved is grist to their mill. You’re caught up in a turf war and you’d think they would have more to worry about, than who has the biggest willie on Basra Air Station.
“So here’s what you are going to do. Stick to the story as you’ve told me. Play up them telling you to piss off. If there is any film, insist that they show all of it from at least thirty seconds prior to the incident. If they won’t, tell them we have film from the medics’ helmet cameras and this will show them refusing to obey a reasonable order in potentially a combat situation. I know your crew will back you up because the Squadron Commander has already spoken with them. You’ll probably be interviewed by the red death tomorrow. Go in hard, Mr Gilmore.”
Gilmore was stunned but grateful to the SWO. He came to attention and turned to leave when the SWO stopped him.
“A couple more things. Why, in the heat of the Babylonian Desert do you sport a hairstyle that makes you look like an ageing punk rocker.”
“Why thank you, sir.”
“And for God’s sake, ask Flying Officer Skelton to wear some supporting undergarments. I find it extremely distracting to have to look at what amounts to two little boys fighting in a sack.
“I quite like it, sir.”
In the crew room, Gilmore’s so-called colleagues had been busy decorating his flying helmet with black arrows cut from duct tape.
“Very fucking amusing,” he told them.
“Gary, wouldn’t it have been easier to just stop paying your television licence, rather than beating up BBC employees?” Mount said to him as they walked out to the aircraft at the beginning of their shift.
“Oh not you as well, skipper.”
That afternoon they moved cargo and people around the Basra area. The Puma was jam packed full of the necessities a modern army needs to maintain a battle group in a city the size of Newcastle. Endless pallets of water and rations. Steel boxes of ammunition, replacement clothing and kit. Mail sacks. Army Publication amendments that some poor bloody clerk would have to go through page by page.
They went into the Old State Building complex with an underslung load of ammunition and water in cargo netting. Gilmore hated flying into the Old State Building (OSB) because it was in the heart of bandit country, like Moss Side in Manchester crossed with Swilly in Plymouth. They came out at night… Mostly. RPG attacks were de rigueur around OSB as were AK 47 unloads. Mount came in deftly over the RPG screens, the underslung load rock steady. The ground handlers were waiting to unhook it, stripped to the waist but wearing body armour and helmets with goggles, like a scene from a war fifty years earlier and a continent away. Gilmore noticed that the soldier who would unhook the lifting shackle didn’t have a static hook.
The passage of carbon fibre rotor blades moving rapidly through the air tends to generate a great deal of static. This isn’t usually a problem as the helicopter earths itself while on the ground. However, while in the hover, the earthing point is usually through whoever touches the aircraft’s hard points, such as undoing an underslung load. Gilmore was hanging out of the starboard door, calling out the height. The dust came up as the Tom went towards the shackle underneath the Puma. The load was down and the straps relaxed.
“Earthing hook!” he yelled at the Tom. The two troops behind him waved at the loadmaster, telling him to shut up.
“For fucks sake!”
There was an audible whop, and the Tom screamed as he earthed the helicopter. His “mates” were rolling on the floor laughing. He picked himself up and dragged the straps away.
“You evil bastards” Gilmore said, trying not to laugh himself.
“What was that, Gary?”
“The endlessly hilarious no earthing hook trick on some gullible idiot, skipper.”
“Oh the oldies are the best,” Mount said as the Puma climbed away.
* * *
It was getting dark and the air was full of unburned hydrocarbons from the GOSPs in the desert. He was drinking a coffee outside the Ops building with Louise who was decorously smoking a cigarette. The welcome breeze was a cool nipple stiffener after the heat of the afternoon.
“These are the best times we will ever have, Gary.” She said with a certainty he found surprising.
“Oh yeah? My life’s just peachy at the moment, Louise.”
She ground the cigarette out under her desert boot and sighed, “We’re alive. People would pay good money to do what we do. I’m getting laid. You could be as well if you weren’t getting laid somewhere else,” she touched his arm in an intimate way, like they were a band of brothers, which of course they were, “Because despite your testosterone-fuelled bullshit, you’re a decent man, Gary. In twenty years I’ll have stretchmarks some kids and a nice, safe hubby. You’ll have a gut and prostate problems. We’ll remember standing outside an Ops building in Iraq and wonder what the hell we did with our lives. Andy Mount will of course be the Chief of the Air Staff, because everything he does seems to come so easily.”
She lit another cigarette, “Faye’s nice. I don’t know how you can keep your hands off her.”
And neither did he, “It’s because of my barbed wire garter and the cold showers.”
She laughed, “I’ve got corned beef sandwiches in my butty box. What about you?”
“I’ll swap you.”
* * *
Three hours later their empty Puma was rattling north towards Al Amarah. No cargo, no pax, just instructions to pick up four personnel and return them with all haste to BAS. They flared into the base at Al Amarah and their four passengers were waiting. It was the same four that they had dropped off on the outskirts of the city, less than forty-eight hours previously. They were dirtier and stank of stale sweat and nitrocellulose. Their faces were drawn and unshaven, but they still cuddled their weapons like they were the most important things in their lives. The hard-faced bastard with the sniper rifle sat down towards the back of the aircraft as though he were in a great deal of pain. Less than twenty minutes later, 500 feet above the Euphrates, it became obvious that he was.
One of them unbuckled and tapped Gilmore on the shoulder, “My oppo’s in a bad way. He needs a piss.”
“This isn’t a rugby tour bus. We can’t just pull into a layby,” he yelled in the soldier’s ear.
“He’s got something wrong with his bladder. He has to go.”
Gilmore looked at the man who was sweating with pain.
“Either you land and let him have a piss, otherwise it’s all over your deck.”
Gilmore ran through the options. Landing? Out of the question. Sick bag? Recipe for disaster. He delved into his daysack and pulled out a flask. He emptied the tepid coffee out into the slipstream. Most of it went over his glove and up his arm.
“He can piss in that.”
It was a particularly nice flask, the type beloved by aircrew that doubled as a large, insulated mug.
They all turned away while the deed was done. The soldier handed back the flask. Gilmore suspected it would be slightly warm and damp to the touch.
“It’s OK. He can keep it as a souvenir of the time when a Crab didn’t take the piss.”
The soldier laughed and emptied the flask out of the door. Rather irritatingly, none of it blew back in the slipstream.
* * *
The following morning at 07:45 Local, as Louise nestled closer to an engineering technician and cupped her warm breast with her hand, Gilmore was dreaming of flying pissoires that were full of holes and hard-faced attendants that demanded a flask as conditions of entry.
A Mercedes saloon was sitting by a junction in the Al Jameea area of Basra City. The two men inside the vehicle were wearing Arab clothing and headdress. A few street kids were playing football before school and one of them miss-kicked the ball towards the Mercedes. The ball bounced off the passenger door and the man turned towards the boy as he ran up to retrieve the ball. He stared at the boy with cold, bright green eyes. Green eyes are not uncommon in Basra’s Shia community. However, ginger hair is. The boy ran back and told his friends what he had seen. His friend told his brother. His brother told his friend. His friend was a mover and shaker in the JAM.
* * *
Gilmore’s ops phone went off an hour later.
“You awake Gary?”
“Skipper, it’s not nine yet.”
“We’re on the battle order. Now. Everyone is. The shit has well and truly hit the fan. Get your arse in now, Gary. No shave, shower or shit. Ten minutes. Grab Louise, I can’t get her on the phone.”
“She can’t hear it because someone’s thighs are wrapped round her ears.”
“Doesn’t matter. I’ll get her.”
Fifty minutes later they were hard turning above a seething and burning city. The Puma jinked around tracer and the smoke trails of RPGs reaching up for them. Gary was firing off the chaff and flares like confetti. The radar warning was going off every time they climbed above the skyline. Twelve Toms in the back of the cab were tooled up with full fighting order and extra ammunition. War faces were applied and locked in. No more hearts and minds bullshit. No more patrolling in soft headdress because some stupid senior officer thought it was a good idea and would look less threatening on the news. These boys were going to fight the JAM on their terms and they were fucking looking forward to it. They were going to kick arse and get the undercover team being held in the police station by the JAM. Gilmore was fairly certain he was going to get to fire the GPMG today. He was terrified.
“Gary, I’m putting them down on the cloverleaf junction. No fucking around if it’s too hot. If anyone comes close, hose them down with the General.”
Be careful what you wish for, Gilmore thought and held up two fingers to the stick leader. They made ready while still in the aircraft He did the same with the GPMG. He looked at the columns of smoke rising from the buildings. The sky seemed full of helicopters and every road was choked with vehicles.
“It’s the Al Markazi junction according to the map, two blocks from the police station and the first objective for the Warriors,” Louise said watching the roads and buildings ahead.
The Puma followed a descending, weaving course and Mount aimed for a stretch of open ground just east of the junction with plenty of walls and buildings for cover. The helicopter flared in the dust and the troops were out and rapidly deploying while Gilmore covered them with the GPMG.
The Puma rose and bowed forward, Mount making a rapid transit out of the area. Two hundred meters on their ten-o-clock a much faster Lynx rose up from between buildings heading to cross their path.
“Aircraft on ten-o-clock, crossing our course,”
Mount banked hard right and switched on the strobe light. The change of course was taking them towards the river at Arvand Rood and across Sinbad Island. Because the helicopter was hard banked to the right, Gilmore’s body weight pressed him against the GPMG mount. The aircraft was at about fifty feet above the Shat al Arab waterway, when Gilmore to his horror saw the smoke and fiery rocket trails of two RPGs rise from the vicinity of the Fayhaa Mosque. At first they moved slowly but soon closed like an express train.
The first one hit the top of the pilot’s cockpit door, the high explosive anti-tank warhead sent shards of the projectile’s casing into the cockpit, killing Flight Lieutenant Mount instantly. A large fragment entered Flying Officer Skelton’s side just below her rib cage. It ploughed through her liver and lodged against her spinal cord in the vicinity of vertebrae T12. The hollow charge sent a supersonic jet of molten metal upwards, completely removing one rotor blade and damaging a second. The Puma’s rotor head screamed and vibrated the gearbox to destruction. The second projectile hit the aircraft’s tail just below the intermediate gearbox. The tail rotor shuddered to a standstill. By any accounts it was an exceptionally good piece of shooting.
Louise Skelton tried to keep the helicopter stable, but she had no function or feeling below the waist. The shattered main rotor pitched the helicopter into a nose-up attitude and it immediately started to spin. She was so calm as she fought through her agony to save them. The gearbox warning was screeching, the rate of descent warning klaxon was bellowing, the ground proximity radar was yelling Pull Up, Pull Up!
“Mayday, Mayday, Argus Three-zero. I am hit and going down in vicinity of Sinbad Island, east of water way.”
Gilmore kicked away from the gun and grabbed the edge of the cockpit bulkhead as the spinning became nausea inducing. The Puma slammed down in the reeds and soft mud on the eastern bank of the waterway. This may have absorbed some of the impact, but the front of the helicopter crushed backwards and was inundated with muddy water. Gilmore’s ribcage rammed against the bulkhead, he felt ribs break and he screamed and screamed…
* * *
Sent: 30 October 2005 at 02:23
Subject: Where are you Giles?
Giles my love,
I know that you’ll never read this, because in my heart of hearts, I just know that you’ve gone on to wherever it is we’re destined to go. This day started out so normally. I did some shopping and treated myself to a trip to Bicester Village and the Garden Centre. Danny slept most of the afternoon and I was preparing tea for us, when I saw the Station Commander, OC Admin and the Padre coming down the path. My heart stopped and I just wanted them to fuck off somewhere else, because they must have made a mistake,
But they hadn’t. I think they were shocked that I barely said anything, I just wished they would go and leave me. They were nice and OC Admin sounded positive in as much that you were missing and not dead. But you are, aren’t you. Something’s gone from inside me.
Your mum phoned in hysterics. She heard about it on the fucking BBC. I can’t be strong for all of us Giles, not for me, Danny and your mother as well. I’ll never meet anyone like you ever again. I’m just glad I had you when I did. I hope you didn’t suffer, because I would rather that you were dead than wearing an orange boiler suit while those bastards cut your head off. I’ll love you always. I can’t write any more
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