View from a Gazelle
HUNCHED in the cramped Perspex bubble cockpit I was afforded little protection - even from the lowest calibre of small arms fire.But as the Gazelle helicopter - a reconnaissance aircraft that boasts no offensive weapons whatsoever - sped towards its mission over the oilfields of Rumaila, mine and the safety of the two-man crew lay in the capable hands of the pilot.
HUNCHED in the cramped Perspex bubble cockpit I was afforded little protection - even from the lowest calibre of small arms fire.
But as the Gazelle helicopter - a reconnaissance aircraft that boasts no offensive weapons whatsoever - sped towards its mission over the oilfields of Rumaila, mine and the safety of the two-man crew lay in the capable hands of the pilot.
"Being a reconnaissance vehicle we usually go forward first and we're the least well armed," said Captain 'A', the 28-year-old pilot, whose name cannot be given for operational reasons. "So the pilots have to be particularly good."
His jocular boast was well founded and showed the agile machine was no slouch despite being in service for more than 30 years.
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Wheeling around on 60 degree turns, hopping over electricity pylons and literally skimming the surface of the desert below, the Gazelle can direct artillery fire and call in fast jets and better armed helicopters like the tankbusting Lynx Mk 7 and American Cobra and Apache gunships. Observers in the back of 'the cab' complain that hours in the air keep their behind permanently numb.
But this time the aircraft was the eyes of an 'Eagle VCP' – an airborne vehicle check point patrol – as British troops continue their bid to root out the bands of Fedayeen fanatics waging a guerrilla war on coalition forces in the south.
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Flying in an arrowhead formation with RAF Pumas and a Lynx Mk 9 chopping the air before us, a huge convoy of swamp-green US Marine armoured personnel carriers (APC) headed north below us on the main road to Baghdad.
Littered across the desert either side was the debris of what looked like last week's fighting – a Marine APC that was going nowhere with its tracks shorn off and Iraqi tanks whose dug-in positions had offered no protection from whatever it was that had reduced them to charred hulks, perhaps as long ago as twelve years before.
As 'Spenno', the aircraft commander sitting next to the pilot, explained: "You can't really tell because when a tank has been hit all the explosives go off inside and the paint peels off. Something only a few days old looks rusty."
Back home Spenno likes to relax with his darts team at his local in Hadleigh, Suffolk.
This time the target was a white pick-up truck was travelling south on the road below us – exactly the type of vehicle that Saddam Hussein's loyalist militia has used as launchpads for rocket and machine gun attacks on allied forces across southern Iraq.
The Pumas swooped down to deliver their detachment of paratroops from the Dover-based 1 Battalion The Parachute Regiment to the ground as their doorgunners covered the ground with machineguns.
While the Paras fanned out on the carriageway of the six-lane highway to carry out their search, the Lynx and Gazelle from 16 Air Assault Brigade's 3 Regiment Army Air Corps remained circling in the air, on the look-out for any vehicles that peel away and try to evade the checkpoint.
"We do this a lot in Northern Ireland," said Spenno. "People do a U-ey if they've got something to hide but most of the time they just want to avoid a logjam. And here there isn't a maze of country lanes to disappear into."
Nothing suspect was found in either the pick-up or a passenger coach which also targeted for this stop-and-search operation and military sources suggest that the Allies are beginning to "stabilise" a volatile situation in Iraq's southern oilfields.
But while the Fedayeen remain a threat, the Gazelle means forewarned is forearmed in this game of cat-and-mouse. The Gazelle is by no means toothless, it is the hunter.