Dawn of a New Era

It is another beautiful Middle Eastern dawn and ZJ693 taxies into the distance, shrinking and sinking, its tail fin finally consumed by the shimmer.

The familiar roar of take off power searches across the airfield and moments later the Sentinel breaks the surface of the sun cast pools and climbs. It is getting airborne on its 513th, and final, mission in support of Operation HERRICK from the airfield that 5(Army Corporation(AC)) Squadron has called home for the past two years. Flying into the sunrise as an ironic sun sets on the end of an era for the Squadron.

The rear party of engineering staff has tended this final departure and they return to an empty office. Computers now anachronistically positioned on plastic garden furniture, sun bleached silhouettes revealing the former positions of boards and tools and finally, the aircraft documentation betraying this depiction of austerity as a working engineering office. Gathering what is left into the remaining vehicles; the final squadron members shut down the computers switch off the lights and close the door on operations. But this is not the end of the article and by far from the end of the tale……

The caravan heads north and is reunited with the main party. The advance party has been at the brand new purpose built facility for a week and the main party just one day, but preparations are well underway.

The portacabin bedrooms of old have been replaced with single storey blocks on the Domestic Site. Personal furniture and comforts had already been sent up and the rooms are already laid out. Kit is dumped and the whole team take the short walk to the Technical Site. Temperatures are already a debilitating 40 degrees set to climb and it is only 8 o’clock in the morning. A short time later and the welcome chill of air-conditioning provides shelter from the sun’s relentless barrage. This brief exposure serves as a simple but effective reminder of the temperatures that the troops, weighed under by body armour and kit, all over Afghanistan face daily and that we are here in these relatively lavish surroundings to support them.

The new engineering office is the antithesis of the portacabin that has just been left. A brand new modern office is integrated within an enormous hangar. The desolation of the dismantled office is a distant opposite of the bustle unfolding now.

Two hours to go and lunch beckons. Sunglasses and hats are donned for the procession to the all ranks cookhouse. The chill of the air conditioning is welcome but no time to linger as it is straight back to work. The office buzzes as final preparations are completed and, with time to spare, the paternal pacing of the expectant father commences, “will she be early?” Operations give a 30 minute call. The Ground Engineer and Aircraft Maintenance Mechanics are accompanied by the whole 5(AC) Squadron detachment, Officer Commanding 902 Expeditionary Air Wing and a multitude of onlookers.

The skies are scanned but with the threshold some 2 miles away from the ‘pan’, the aircraft will be small and with no sound to cue eyes. Finally, she is spotted on short finals. Completing the opposite of the morning, she plunges into the shimmering surface disappearing from view, emerging with a rumble of thrust reverse.

The Squadron Detachment Commander is moved into position to marshal the aircraft in. Completely trustworthy but nevertheless, the Ground Engineer is quite protective of his ‘girl’ and, like a mother giving instruction on supporting a baby’s head, gives him a final rehearsal on the signals before handing her over, he is Infantry after all!

The aircraft meanders to a rest and the whistle of engines winds down. The door opens and the crew emerge some 8 hours after they got airborne, a short mission today! A jolly good hand shake is had by all and the crowd dissipates across the ‘pan’, diffusing into groups and scattering back to their own places of work.

The crew are shown to the 5(AC) Squadron operations facility and they debrief a successful mission. During their relocation from one location to another they have completed some 3000 miles, including their mission time over Afghanistan, on the way.

The crew are launching again tomorrow and preparations begin straight away. The Airborne Mission Commander completes a telephone call to the Liaison Officer in Afghanistan and obtains an outline of the next task. The Intelligence Operation Support Sergeant is briefed and he begins to prepare for the following days briefing. The pilots start the weight and balance calculations for the aircraft base don fuel required. Finally, all is done for this days outing.

As the crews head back to their rooms the similarities with the irony of the morning fade into clarity. As sunrise brought the metaphorical dusk of the old base, so sunset at the new base brings a new dawn for 5(AC) Squadron operations and tomorrow will see the sun rise over the next chapter of the Squadron’s prodigious history.

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