Apache pilots' tale of Afghan war

VIDEO As jobs go it has recently been voted as the second best in the world - missing out on the top spot to driving a Formula One racing car.

Russell Claydon

AS jobs go it has recently been voted as the second best in the world - missing out on the top spot to driving a Formula One racing car.

And now a pair of Apache helicopter pilots have chronicled the ups and downs of life in the cockpit during an emotional tour in Afghanistan.

The Wattisham Airfield-based pilots' book - which will help raise money for injured soldiers - is the first to tell the story of what life is like flying one of the British Army's £35million “flying tanks”.

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Major Baz Hunter and Warrant Officer Steve James, who are attached to 662 Squadron, 3 Regiment of the Army Air Corps, tell of their experiences over a 100 day tour of Afghanistan on a spring offensive between May and August 2007.

The pair, whose real names have been changed to protect their identity, hope Apache Dawn, will make Suffolk residents feel proud the county is home to the British Army's only fleet of life-saving helicopters, as well as giving people an insight into what flying one in combat is all about.

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And for Major Hunter there is nothing to match the experience of life in the cockpit.

“It is second to none,” he said. “This is the Spitfire of today. We are in the one everyone else wants to fly. The difference is it is a fully armed weapons system.

“We can guarantee finding the enemy and destroying them in these and we could not before.”

He added: “Our mere presence in the Apache puts off the Taliban from attacking our troops and can mean we do not even have to fire. They call it 'the mosquito' as that is how annoying we are to them.”

Built up from their war diaries and interviews with the pilots, Apache Dawn - written by Damien Lewis - is the first of a two-part look at of one of the world's most advanced fighting machines.

Major Hunter said: “We felt there were experiences and stories that needed to be told to depict the true situation in Afghanistan from a soldier's perspective and also how we operate an Apache - the first time that has been told.”

WO James said he saw the book as an opportunity to justify to the public the huge cost of the helicopters - which run up reported bills of £32,000 an hour while in the air.

“It is a very expensive machine but by saving one life it's worth its weight in gold,” he said. “Doing the book is like releasing steam - but in a good way. I found it is quite a relief and I do not have to keep the memories locked away.”

The pilots said flying in an Apache is like being “cocooned in cotton wool” against some other vehicles on the frontline.

“We are the only aircraft people want to see over there when they call in support,” Major Hunter said. “The people of Suffolk can be justifiably proud of it.”

Apache Dawn is now on sale in hardback in all good book stores, with a percentage of royalties going towards the Help for Heroes fund.

Apache helicopter

Wattisham Airfield is the only place in the UK to hold the Apache helicopter.

Afghanistan is the first country the helicopter has been despatched to in active combat since the British Army acquired the fleet and there are now a minimum of eight based there at any one time.

Each £35m machine is powered by a Rolls Royce engine.

The Apache can carry two people and can be flown from the front or the back cockpit.

A 30mm canon can fire 11 rounds a second and each machine carries “hundreds” of rounds on each mission.

Sensory technology enables pilots to fire weapons in the direction their helmet is facing.

Even if the fuel tank in the helicopter is breached a sponge mechanism allows the vehicle to continue flying on an emergency supply.

As a safety mechanism the propellers can detach from the helicopter on hitting the ground.

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