Airborne Soldiers by Winston Forde – Chapter 3
During the civil war in Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002, the population became sensitized to regular helicopter activity over Freetown and elsewhere, by the visiting forces. The author has written Airborne Soldiers to develop the vision of a future Helicopter Squadron, attached to the Sierra Leone Army, and based across the river in the region of the International airport at Lungi.
Crews are trained to fly the new Crab helicopter, and the reader shares in their operational flying and personal lives. He has attempted to link this vision with the Mape Project planned for this area, in his dedication.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Chapter 3: Training
Judging from the letters received at home by their relatives and friends, and the regular reports that were submitted to the Sierra Leone Ministry of Defence through the Military Attaché at the British High Commission office in Freetown, it was apparent that Captain Kargbo, and his colleagues were having a very busy Summer with their training.
Back home, all through the corresponding months of the rainy season, those connected with the formation of the Flying Corps were equally busy trying to meet the deadline which was timed for the return of the pilots. Colonel Bindi had been charged with overall responsibility for the formation of the new Corps, and at the beginning of August, with barely four months to the deadline, he met the Press and reporters from the Ministry of Information at the Rokel Aeronautical Centre.
The Colonel was driven down to Kissy to join the 0830 ferry to the other side of the River Rokel. He was wearing his full ceremonial uniform and he was given the VIP treatment accorded a full Colonel.
The Aeronautical Centre had become well known to civilian air passengers who traveled across the river by ferry and then by road to the international airport, because two miles along the road from Tagrin Point there was a turning to the left. It was heralded for about three-quarters of a mile either way by a very high electrified security fence which was always patrolled by special dog handlers. The Colonel was one of the few who held oneof the special red security passes for the Centre, and he held it up against the window of his car so that the security guard would let them into the restricted area. Just inside the main gate there was a security building inside which was a room full of television monitors covering the whole Centre. Opposite this building there was a full-scale model of a helicopter with the word ‘Crab’ painted along its side. The Colonel was greeted at the security building by the Commandant of the Centre as he had been many times since the project started.
Next to the security building there was a transport section which was equipped with Honda mini-taxis. These taxis provided a continuous taxi service for all those on business within the Centre. They were very simple vehicles and could be used by anybody who could drive, so there was no need for a large pool of drivers.
Just beyond the transport section, there was a small roundabout with a road leading left towards the operational area of the Centre, with a helicopter landing pad and enough space for a full runway, and three servicing hangars. There were no buildings on either side of the road, and at the end of it there was a ‘T’ junction. Most taxis turned right at the junction as the road to the left merely led to the landing pad, and beyond that, the river.
Turning right at the ‘T’ junction, the Colonel’s car drove past the control tower on the left. This tower formed a vital part of the whole project. They drove through an ‘S’ bend and finally arrived at the main building.The Colonel’s army green Mercedes Saloon looked quite luxurious parked next to the mini-taxis in the car park. As they made their way into the main building, a pair of glass doors automatically slid apart to let them into the building. A lift swiftly took them to the third floor, and the Commandant led his visitor to a large conference room complete with table, projector, wall displays and a rostrum. They took their places at the head of the table. There were two other men at the table, the pressmen were already seated and the conference could begin. The quiet murmuring of the reporters stopped when the Commandant stood up.
‘Gentlemen,’ he said. ‘You all know Colonel Bindi, the Deputy Force Commander. In addition, may I introduce Commander Orlando from Italy who will be in charge of our conversion flying programme and Mr. Martinelli, my chief engineer who is responsible for all maintenance. After the Colonel’s opening remarks these two gentlemen will deal with the project in greater detail.’
Colonel Bindi was brief. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said ‘Many months have passed since the President announced on the radio that the government was negotiating for helicopters. Our first batch of pilots will soon have completed their training in England, and this morning you will hear whatpreparations we have been able to make. I trust you will afford the projectthe widest possible publicity through your various news media.’
The Colonel sat down and Mr. Martinelli spoke.
‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘the work at the Centre is primarily concerned with our new helicopter which we have called the Crab.’ He flashed a slideonto the screen on the darkened wall before he continued. ‘The Crab isessentially a very simple aircraft with a completely transparent cabin to make it easy for the Captain to make observations from the air. The aircraftis powered by a small engine and, therefore, we can foresee no difficultieswith servicing or maintenance.’
‘Do you think that a small engine will provide enough power to keep a Crab flying?’ asked a reporter from the front row/ ‘More than enough, and very economically too,’ replied the engineer. ‘The airframe is very simple and we have stockpiled all the spares we would need immediately. Any additional spares will be organized by this Centre and the army has no need to worry in this respect.’
Martinelli flashed two more slides onto the screen. One showed a Crab coming in to land on a normal runway with an undercarriage fitted with wheels, and the second shot showed a helicopter with fitted floats hovering over an area covered in marsh.
He went on: ‘Finally, gentlemen, without going into technical details, the cabin of the Crab will be big enough to accommodate—another member of crew who will be the winchman and can on occasions assist the pilotwith any problems of navigation, and also one other passenger.’
‘And that will be the maximum capacity?’ asked a Ministry official.
‘Not quite,’ replied the engineer. ‘At a squeeze, they will be able to accommodate another sitting passenger in the cabin or alternatively, if the operation they are involved in demands it, they will be able to sling a stretcher passenger underneath the aircraft whilst in flight, or for that matter, some other load.’
‘Will fuel be a big problem?’ another reporter queried.
‘No. The simple engine is not thirsty by any means, and in addition to the normal supplies available, we have built fuel dumps at this Centre, and at the Bollom Barracks, which will serve as our two main operational bases,’ Mr. Martinelli replied.
The Colonel next invited Commander Orlando to present his brief to the press. It was the Commander’s task to say something about the Crab in the air.
‘When the pilots arrive from the United Kingdom, it will be my job to put them through a short ground school training here, and give each of them ten hours conversion flying to make them fully operational on the Crab.’ The Italian officer flipped through the pages of a loose leaf booklet as he continued: ‘This is a copy of the pilot’s notes for the Crab, which each pilot will have to know like the back of his hand. Although it’s a simple system, they’ll still have to be fully conversant with the emergency procedures, and have a good idea of the systems; that is to say, the pneumatic system, hydraulic system, and so on.’
‘Does this mean that their training in England has been wasted?’ asked the Daily Mail reporter, in surprise.
‘No sir. It’s quite normal, even for fully experienced pilots, to undergo conversion training before becoming fully operational on a new type of aircraft. The training in England would have made competent airmen of your pilots, and it will be my job then to introduce them to the actual machine they will be required to operate.’
‘Won’t the helicopters get mixed up in the traffic of planes flying in, and out of the international airport at Lungi?’ asked another journalist. ‘Not unless one of our Crabs strayed away from the surveillance provided by the control tower, which you saw on your way to this building. Weoperate at quite low levels, and in any case, we are off-centre of the main approaches to the runway at the airport. Apart from that, they know our radio frequencies, and therefore our transmissions tell them our movements and intentions.’
‘From your experience, Commander, will you outline briefly what benefits the Air Corps is going to provide for us,’ he suggested.
‘Certainly, sir,’ replied the Commander. As a professional soldier the Colonel was interested in telling the people about the operational advantages the new Corps would provide for the army.
‘I think we all accept the fact that a squadron of helicopters is not going to give you air power in a global or international sense. Nevertheless, we cannot underestimate the advantages it will bring if only in a limited way. You will be able to carry out aerial reconnaissance which will always be invaluable to both the army, and indeed, the police, during an emergency situation involving internal security. It’s much faster to get from point to point by air, and the possibilities here are unlimited. In this respect, I intend to develop an air/sea rescue service within the Corps, and perhaps encourage a standing commitment along your beaches where the growing tourist trade is creating an increasing demand for such a service. And finally, I see the Crabs as a source of limited, and well-defined aerial attacks during an emergency.’ ‘That sounds a fair appraisal of the situation,’ commented Colonel Bindi, ‘not to mention the fact that introduction of the Crabs at this stage will no doubt help soften the reaction of the public to the new idea of local pilots operating over the area, and make it that much easier for our government to introduce our two new light aircraft, the Crocodile and Alligator, at a later date.’
That marked the end of the presentation, and the Commandant set off with his visitors for a short conducted tour of the Aeronautical Centre. They spent very little time in the building which consisted mainly of offices, and classrooms. The Commandant started with the officers’ mess where the journalists were able to see the conditions under which the pilots would live whenever they were at the Centre. Each officer was provided with a fully furnished single bedroom, including a three band radio set by his bedside. A sitting room was built between two bedrooms and the whole mess was served by a dining room large enough for staff and trainees. From the mess, the party drove to the control tower to see the control desks with the newly installed radio, and the radar equipment which would be needed to maintain contact with the flying Crabs. Finally they were brought face to face with the actual helicopters. Parked safely inside one of the large hangars were half a dozen Crabs, four of which were painted in camouflage colours of brown, and army green and two were painted in a bright orange, each with a picture of a Crab on the main fuselage.
‘Why have you used these horrible colours?’ asked the only woman reporter, as they viewed the new helicopters. ‘I would have thought they would bepainted in the country’s national colours.’
‘I can understand your feelings,’ the Colonel agreed, ‘but it had to be these colours, I’m afraid. As you can see these four have already been painted for full operational service with the army. These two are painted in day-glow paint as a warning to other aircraft in this area to be on their guard. It indicates to them that the pilot is still under training.’
‘If the day ever comes when the President has his own personal helicopter, would that have to be painted in similar colours?’ she asked. ‘It shouldn’t be necessary,’ replied the Colonel. ‘It will be perfectly all right for that one to be painted in the country’s colours and, for that matter, in any other colour scheme the President might choose.’ The journalistlaughed.
A short while later, after touring the recreational facilities at the Centre, which included a well-equipped gymnasium, and outdoor swimming pool the reporters returned to the main gates, and started their journey back to join the ferry for Freetown again. They had been very impressed by what they had heard, and seen at the Rokel Aeronautical Centre, and were sure the public was going to have the same impression when they read and heard about it the next day.
But that was not all. A week later the Colonel introduced a similar party to the small army unit at Bollom. The Crabs were going to be based there most of the time. Suitable space had already been laid out for the Crabs at the far end of the civilian airfield nearby. This consisted of a large hangar to house the helicopters and provide office space for the Corps, and a second smaller hangar used for minor servicing. Outside both hangars, concrete pads had been constructed for the helicopters to land on.
The Colonel was extremely pleased about the progress being made both at home and by the pilots in England, but he had many tasks to perform to ensure that the flying Corps would become a reality at the end of the year. One was to ensure that the military code was amended to cover the new
Corps. For this reason, he invited the Attorney General to a conference on the last Friday in August. Unfortunately, it was pouring with rain when Mr. Sami arrived, and they could hardly hear each other speak as they tried to unravel the legal implications of the new Corps.
‘I’m sorry to drag you up the hill on such a wet morning, Mr. Sami,’ beganthe Colonel, ‘but time is running out for us.’
‘That’s quite all right, Colonel; we can’t wait for the weather.’
The problem they had to discuss was that the Army Act only covered ground forces, and would need to be adapted to the needs of the Flying Corps when they were engaged in operational flying.
‘I have made a final draft of what I consider should be additional sections to the Act,’ Mr. Sami confirmed. He produced a folder, which he handed to the Colonel ‘The pilots would be liable for any damage caused either to aircraft and crew in the air or property on the ground, if negligence could be established.’
‘Would negligence be difficult to prove?’ asked the Colonel. ‘No more so than against officers of any of the other Services. They are all professionals at their various jobs, and the definition of negligence contained in the Act will apply.’
‘The pilots will invariably be governed by numerous operational rules and regulations, which must be strictly observed at all times. A new section of the Act will deal with infringements of these regulations.
‘Can you give me any examples of what you have in mind?’ asked Colonel Bindi.
‘The best one I can think of is the problem of low flying. The pilots will no doubt be forbidden to fly below a certain height in specified areas, for example, over the city or perhaps over particular buildings like State House, and they will disobey at their peril,’ the Attorney General explained.
‘Have you covered the problem of regulations, and orders?’
‘Not specifically. However, the notes defining a lawful order or command under the Act will be amplified to include those anticipated within the Corps.’
The two men discussed a few more points, some in detail, and by the time the Attorney General took leave of the Deputy Force Commander, it had stopped raining.
For the rest of that rainy season Colonel Bindi continued to check and re-check every aspect of the formation of the new Corps. A keen geographer himself, he was very interested in the new flying maps that were being produced at the government Cartographic Department which would assist the pilots with their navigation. Finally, there was the ceremonial aspect to attend to. The President had ordered a full ceremonial parade to take place at the City Stadium after the officers’ conversion training. Then the new Corps would be inaugurated and the new pilots presented with theirwings. This would be the big day for which so many people had beenworking so hard for so long.
- Why is the Aeronautical Centre given such heavy security?
- What are hangars? What is a ‘fuel dump’?
- What was the purpose of the press conference held by Colonel Bindi?
- What is the major work of the winchman?
- Who would be responsible for the pilot’s ground training and
- conversion on their return from the United Kingdom? What is the
- purpose of the ‘conversion training’?
- (a) Why were four helicopters painted in camouflage colours? (b) Why were the other two helicopters painted with ‘day-glow’
Look out for Chapter 4 next week!
by Winston Forde http://www.winstonfordebooks.com.
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