Flying the Taliban's ultimate target
They're the £15m sitting ducks in the sky - the Chinook helicopters who carry everyone from dignitaries to injured Afghan children. Neil Tweedie speaks to decorated pilot Flt Lt Alex Duncan, author of a new book which reveals the full extent of their bravery.
Flight Lieutenant Alex `Frenchie' Duncan, Chinook pilot and author of 'Sweating the Metal'. Photo: ANDREW CROWLEY
'Sweating the Metal’ by Flt Lt Alex ''Frenchie’’ Duncan DFC, published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton,
By Neil Tweedie
9:00PM BST 14 Jun 2011
The Soviet-designed RPG – rocket-propelled grenade – is a crude weapon by today’s standards. A ''dumb’’ projectile, devoid of a guidance system, it simply follows a straight line when fired and can easily miss. Find yourself on the receiving end of its lethal warhead, however, and you know about it – for a moment. Imagine, then, sitting in the cockpit of a lumbering helicopter as RPGs rip through the air around you – one of them, maybe, with your name on it. Flt Lt Alex ''Frenchie’’ Duncan has endured this kind of thing time and again in the skies above Afghanistan.
The war in that country, necessary or futile, take your pick, is portrayed largely as a ground campaign of sudden vicious ''contacts’’. The airmen appear to have it easy, cruising at 20,000 feet and waiting to release their ''smart’’ munitions before returning to the comfort of their air-conditioned bases. Flt Lt Duncan sleeps in a base, also, but his experience of Afghanistan is altogether more immediate than that of the fast-jet fighter boys or the technicians monitoring consoles in high-flying surveillance aircraft. As a Chinook pilot, he must sit there counting the seconds as his helicopter idles vulnerably on the ground, allowing troops to disembark or casualties to be loaded, his machine a perfect, £15 million sitting target.
His new book, Sweating the Metal, is a description of the Afghan war from the cockpit, the highs and lows of combat-flying at its most dramatic. Frenchie, 34, is still a serving officer – he will be returning to Afghanistan in August – and the book has the blessing of an RAF anxious to advertise its contribution to a conflict so far chronicled mainly from the ground. His is a tale of heat and dust and short, hyper-intense encounters with violence. Even successful operations take their toll as fatigue mounts and nerves fray.
“We land back at [Camp] Bastion, tired but pleased at a job well done,” he writes. “I’m exhausted, partly because the flying has been so intense, but I also feel wrung out with stress. OK, the mission went without incident, but how the hell did we get away with it? All the warning signs were there: we were in Taliban territory, we were big and bold, low and slow in places, just waiting for it to happen. There was nothing we could do; we were a big f------ target in the sky.”
Back in London, Frenchie recalls receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross from the Queen. He earned the decoration, awarded only sparingly for “exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy in the air”, after two exceptional displays of flying, the first of which narrowly averted disaster. “The first thing you know about the DFC is that you turn up to the boss’s office, more often than not expecting a dressing-down, and there’s a surprise,” he says. “It was a big deal for me.”