Sergeant Steve Blake is a professional Army Photographer with the Royal Logistic Corps. A trained soldier, Steve is currently serving a six-month tour of Afghanistan as part of the three-man Combat Camera Team (comprising a trained journalist, photographer and video cameraman).
Steve and the team are based at Camp Bastion in Helmand province but will spend most of their time out on the ground, capturing life on the front line.
AAF on parade
As Christmas was over, the CCT were off, straight after Boxing Day to Kandahar, in the East of Afghanistan. One of our main focuses was on the Afghan Air Force (AAF), and an open day they were planning. This was their 3rd annual open day, that hoped to draw the attention of around 700 local children and elders.
Their aim was to highlight the cooperation between NATO and Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) and also to illustrate the capabilities of the AAF. This was done in hope that the youngsters would one day join the AAF or another part of the ANSF and work together for a peaceful Afghanistan.
The whole of the AAF were on parade, awaiting the arrival of their Commander. Once that was over, and he had briefed his men, it was inside to await the arrival of the locals.
At first, we thought no one was coming, until we remembered that we were on Afghan time. Before long the locals arrived, first in small groups, then in bus loads.
The opening ceremony was led by AAF Commander Major General Wardak. He welcomed all visitors to the Kandahar Air Wing (KAW) and from there, the visitors explored the Afghan and Coalition static aircraft that were parked on the flight line.
The visitors that day, consisted mainly of children, ranging from about 10 to 16 years of age. As with all Afghans, guessing their age can be difficult. We also had a school teacher accompany his pupils, which came in handy for those not very good at English, which surprisingly, was very few.
Within the area that the AAF operate in Kandahar, the hundreds of children enjoyed a fun packed day. They were able to climb over the Afghan Aircraft, as well as see several American and British fixed-wing and rotary aircraft.
After their time on the flight line was over, they all went back to the AAF hangar for lunch and a few lectures before leaving. By the looks on the kids faces, they all had a good time.
Shortly after this job, we departed Kandahar for Bastion. We had a couple of days editing and admin before our next jobs rolled in.
Focus on Merlin and Lynx
As the first part of this blog is about aircraft, I thought I’d follow on the theme throughout. This job was about Joint Helicopter Force (Afghanistan) (JHF(A)) who are based out of Camp Bastion.
The pilots, ground crew and engineers do a round-the-clock job, in order to keep our aircraft moving, which in turn, keeps our troops operating, our mail getting through and our vital supplies getting to the front line. This role often goes unrecognised, so it was our job to update their image library, and provide suitable material for an up and coming story in the national press.
The main focus was to be on the Merlin and Lynx helicopter.
We went for our morning brief, collected our flying helmets and were set for the off. We had six drop-offs to do across Helmand, some stores, but mostly troops returning to their Patrol Bases (PBs). We started in the Lynx for the first three, before changing to the Merlin.
The Lynx was very cold and windy, so sticking your lens out of the door trying to photograph the accompanying Merlin proved interesting. We provided overwatch for them while they landed at the locations, giving us scope to get some images of them static on the ground too.
Once the first three drops had been done, we had a quick trip back to Bastion to change aircraft. With the rotors still running, and fuel going in, we loaded into the merlin, put our harnesses on and got ready to go again, much to the confusion of the boarding soldiers.
On the Merlin we had more room to move, allowing me to get onto the tailgate for some close-ups of the gunner while he does his thing. Another three drops-offs done, it was time for the final part of the day… dust landings.
We headed to a well-known area to the flight crew to perform the landings, which is a bit of an art in itself. Once you start to lower the aircraft and the dust starts churning up, you lose visibility in the cockpit, making things tricky. You have to rely on your two loadmasters to guide you down, and give you some indication as to how close to the ground you are getting, otherwise landings can be very hard, and potentially damage the undercarriage mechanics.
So we land, with other passengers onboard who probably wondered what the hell was going on, and run off the tailgate into nowhere. The Lynx departs just before the Merlin leaving two of us, alone, in the middle of the desert! Weird feeling I can tell you, quite surreal and peaceful.
By the time the aircraft return, they must have done a mile or more round trip, to get the right heading for the landing. The Lynx landed first, in a big dust cloud about 40 metres away. Not too bad. But then Merlin headed towards us and started to lower about 20 or 30 metres away. All seemed fine, but then, the dust starts rolling, and before you know it, we are covered from head to toe. The downdraft is bigger than the Lynx, and boy could we tell!
Once the Merlin loadmaster gave us the ‘thumbs up’ we ran back on and headed back, doing some awesome tactical flying the whole way in. At this point, the lads in the back were still as confused as when we first ran out the tailgate some 30 minutes ago. Hilarious! I bet they thought something was wrong. If only the aircraft wasn’t so noisy, or we could have told them.
On the way back, the crew on both aircraft popped some flares for us. We were lucky they could. The ones currently onboard were about to expire their serviceability date, so that meant everything had to get used, or sent to the ‘controlled explosion people’ in Bastion to be destroyed, which is no fun!
So, that was it, job done! A cracking day out, and some great images in the bag. Sadly there isn’t room for them all here, but I hope you like the ones I’ve selected for you.
Well, this will be the last post from me for a couple of weeks, as I head home for my Rest and Recuperation (RnR) leave soon.
With several good jobs already planned for our return, I look forward to updating you with all our news!