Mechanics struggle to keep army moving

WAR, goes the saying, is 95 per cent boredom, five per cent fear. Or in the case of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers "hours of boredom and then a mad rush to get the cabs ready".

By James Fraser

WAR, goes the saying, is 95 per cent boredom, five per cent fear. Or in the case of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers "hours of boredom and then a mad rush to get the cabs ready".

The REMEs' job is to keep the helicopters of 3 Regiment Army Air Corps up in the air – which in the hot, gritty conditions of the Iraqi desert is no easy task.

The day begins for Sergeant Carl Short, a helicopter engineer, at first light – that's 2.30am GMT or 0230 Zulu as it is known in military circles. Local time, which is universally ignored, it would be 4.30am.

If none of the Lynx helicopters of 3 Regiment Army Air Corps need servicing after their night flying, he is able to wash and shave with water with from a jerry can

"Some of the guys like to warm their water but I don't bother," Sgt Short, 35, an avionics engineer from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers – known in the AAC as 'Remes' (to rhyme with 'creams').

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"We have a solar shower [a bag of water with a tube] which we leave it out in the sun for a while so we generally use that later in the day when it has heated up otherwise it's a cold strip wash in the morning, standing up in a bowl.

"But you feel dirty all the time because of the lack of washing facilities. All clothes are handwashed so you never get anything really clean. And the weather is very, very warm so you are always uncomfortable."

Sgt Short, from Cedars Park, Stowmarket, is attached to the regiment's 653 Squadron and maintains the squadron's two Lynx Mark 9 helicopters – the general purpose 'cab' for the AAC.

"The cabs all have scheduled maintenance and there is unscheduled maintenance.

"For instance, I've just done a 25-hour service which took a couple of hours and then a cab came in with a windscreen smashed by a stone which needed replacing. That took three hours."

This was the third windscreen to be broken in this way with spares brought up the logistics chain.

On the Saif Sareea exercise in Oman last year, it was the Lynx engines that regularly fell victim to the desert's soaring temperatures and ubiquitous sand and problems were expected. But protected by sand filters, they are in fact bearing up well.

It is the tail rotors and main rotor blades that have received the most damage from the hail of grit churned up every time the aircraft take off and land.

Despite an extra layer of paint and heavy-duty tape bound around the rotors, these showers of tiny stones are one hazard.

The array of small arms fire, bazookas and artillery the Iraqis have levelled at the AAC's helicopters, of course, is another – but so far the squadron's Lynx have escaped unscathed.

"We check the airframe for holes every time they come back," said Sgt Short, adding that the aircrew remain blissfully unaware if they had been hit because the noise of the aircraft and the constant radio traffic in their helmets blocks out most of the peripheral noise.

"They wouldn't have a clue – unless one of the aircraft's components had been damaged."

"We work throughout the day and we don't work at night unless it's absolutely necessary. We technicians are one of the few people allowed to use torches at night."

Lunch is biscuits and tinned paté and chocolate from the 24-hour ration pack. "We fit eating around our duties, which all depend on when the aircraft come in." 'Rat pack' boil-in-the-bag stew and a hot pudding is the not-exactly-haute-cuisine menu for dinner, cooked in the tent to shield the light.

Off-duty 'downtime' is used for washing clothes, writing letters, listening to music, and reading.

"You rely on you friends and family to send you magazines and books. At Camp Eagle [where the unit was based before pushing into Iraq] we had power so you could set up a TV. We have generators here but they are only used to power our tools."

In the rear, physical exercise was the main form of relaxation. But water supply for showers means that 'phyzz' is limited to press-ups, pull ups and pumping dumbbells.

And when the sun sets at around 1530 Zulu, it's time for bed. And what is the last thing he thinks about before dropping off? "My family – and my wife Karen."

· The REME were founded in October, 1942 and have been the main repair arm for the British Army ever since. Today they are one of the largest corps, making up around 10 per cent of its strength

· Around 100 REMEs are serving with the Army Air Corps in Iraq. They provide what is known as 'first line' service. Members of 7 Air Assault Battalion, REME, who are based with the AAC at Wattisham Airfield provide 'second line' servicing which incorporates any work that takes more than six hours to complete.

· There also REME attachments to other regiments such as armoured units and artillery

· HRH Prince Philip is colonel-in-chief of the REME

The AAC has moved location four times since deploying to the Gulf. And each time they set up camp the first thing to do is dig a 'shell scrape' – a pit to jump into to give some amount of protection from shrapnel should a bombardment rain down.

Some shell scrapes are customised with seats and steps that would make Groundforce proud. They can be anything up to six feet deep depending on the ground and can take an hour of hammering with a pickaxe to break up the ground and shovelling dirt - hot work under a desert sun. Then the 'cam net' goes up over the vehicles, then the communal or individual tents are erected to make a home sweet home…until the next move.