It started with the fact that I hadn’t stopped the blast that killed them.
I was over 100 miles away staring at my watch, wishing time away so I could go home. Maybe, back at the airbase, it would be pizza night or I might start the next series of '24'.
You see, my world wasn’t a swelteringly hot cloud of dust and debris.
I didn’t have the wreckage from one of my Land Rovers spread over half a kilometre of a town, far from home, that nobody cared about. I couldn’t hear anyone screaming for help in my cockpit and, as I looked out towards the snow-capped mountains, the clouds were fluffy and the sun was bright.
I was so bored.
And, if anything, a touch warm - I turned the aircon down a little.
I don’t think I’d spoken to my Weapons Officer for over forty minutes - everything we needed to say had been said in the previous three hours. I could see my wingman a couple of miles away; Steve was new to the Squadron but solid. He was beginning to understand that our tour of Iraq was going to be anything but exciting.
'Exciting' for a military fast jet pilot is anything that involves death, either the delivery or the acceptance.
It’s part of the job and comes with the territory.
There is a romanticism to military flying and, even though I’ve done it for the last twenty years, I still get a buzz thinking about it.
It was my job - I was a low-level strike attack pilot and my aircraft was the Tornado GR4.
An all-weather, day and night, terrain following, map of the earth flying, swing-wing ‘messenger of death’ and here I was, finally taking her to war.
Except my war was anything but ‘romantic’.
I was sat at 20,000 feet over a small town in Southern Iraq babysitting an insurgency we had yet to see. Occasionally, we’d watch over a convoy or take some pictures of suspect vehicles but mostly we were just looking for anything strange.
And to me, everything looked strange.
Each day the Squadron would send a couple of jets north for the hour and half journey to the southern border of Iraq. There we’d have to refuel from a tanker before starting a three hour ‘watch-ex’ where precisely nothing would happen.
Then we’d go and find the tanker again which would often be up around Baghdad; it would take us forty minutes just to get there.
If we were lucky, one of us would struggle to get into the basket on the end of the re-fuelling hose and we’d have the excitement of having to try a little harder.
But normally, it all worked out just fine.
Then we’d do another hour or so before finding the tanker again and trudging off home for ninety minutes of autopilot pleasure before landing.
Sometimes my Weapons Officer would stay awake and chat but often it was good for one of us to get some sleep – the sorties could be up to eight hours at times.
I remembered a line I’d once read in ‘Chickenhawk’ by the pilot, Robert Mason, on flying helicopters in the Vietnam war.
‘Boredom was breeding widespread depression. With apparently no one to fight, the Cav was just twenty thousand men sitting in the middle of Vietnam in their mildewing tents, wondering why they were here.’
I could identify with that - my war was indeed ‘disappointing’.
Before we’d deployed, the Squadron were given some legal briefings which largely amounted to ‘We’re not sure that, at the moment, we have a legal justification to be in Iraq, so if you do drop a bomb, you’ll probably end up in court.’
‘Always good to know!’ we thought.
As a result, our aircraft flew with a flowchart that told us who to get authority from if we were tasked with having to fire on a target. It was complicated and one of those things that you really didn’t want to do, like changing a car tyre on a dark and stormy night. Except using a thirteen year old UN resolution to justify being in a conflict that the Secretary General had said was illegal, sucked a little bit more.
‘How you doing over there?’ I called to my wingman.
‘Just trying to stay awake.’ came the reply.
Sometimes the boredom would get interrupted by something amusing like the time my Weapons Officer decided that bringing a packet of Skittles with him, was a good idea. At 20,000 feet the cabin pressure is about half of what you’d expect on the ground and this causes things that were packed at sea-level, to expand in the cockpit.
Bulging seams makes them hard to open as aptly demonstrated one morning over the town of Najaf.
‘Ah, slight snag back here.’ came the call over the intercom.
‘What have you done?’ I replied.
‘OK, so you know how I said that I was going to bring some Skittles along to spice up those bland American lunches we've got?’
It was an accepted fact that we thought the pack lunches given to fast jet crews were a cruel trick being played by the catering staff back at base. Apples, sandwiches, crisps and a fizzy drinks carton all proving highly difficult to smuggle under a carefully fitted oxygen mask whose sole job was to keep us conscious.
Basically, you could live and go hungry, or eat and die.
‘I didn’t know that.’ I commented, ‘And you know I didn’t know which makes me think that you are trying to get my buy-in for something bad you’ve done.’
‘Um,’ came the guilt-dripping reply.
‘What have you done that is bad?’ I said.
‘Well,’ came the explanation from the back-seat ‘let’s just say that a packet of swollen Skittles can indeed be opened in the cockpit but then they all tend to, how do I say this without you getting upset - wander off?’
And thus the first big bang of my combat tour was an ‘in-cockpit Skittle explosion’. I still wonder if anyone on the ground ever looked up and questioned why a heavily-laden combat aircraft was flying upside down for so long as we frantically tried to pick small coloured sweets off the top of the canopy.
And then it happened.
We were over the southern town of Basra when the radio call came.
‘Monster 13, Chariot - troops in contact, standby.’
It was the call we’d been all been waiting for but that none of us ever wanted. It meant our guys on the ground were in trouble and, if they were requesting us, then it was ‘BIG’ trouble.
‘Monster 13, activity reported 100 miles north of your position, Chariots directs you route to Amarah and wait for further.’
‘I guess we’re going.’ I said to my back-seater.
‘Let’s get up there!’ came the response.
As I rocked both throttles into the reheat range, I felt the dull kick of afterburner ignition. Pushing them both fully forward signalled that we were on our way. It was only 8 minutes flying time but we were heavy and carrying large fuel tanks, a fully loaded cannon, electronic suppression kit, targeting pods and a Paveway 2 Laser Guided Bomb.
I left our wingman to complete the task down south whilst we checked out the action. The radios were frantic and we eventually managed to dial into the British Army unit on the ground.
It was devastating.
They’d driven into a massive IED, multiple casualties, many severe. There was still hostile activity in the area and they were having to treat the wounded in situ. It was obvious that, without our help, people were going to die.
‘Monster 13, Chariot - they are requesting your immediate assistance, they have suspected insurgent activity inbound.’
‘We’ll be there in 3 minutes!’ I called as I trimmed the wings back even further.
But we had other problems.
Whilst I had been analysing the situation on the ground, my Weapons Systems Officer was preparing the targeting pod and working some fuel calculations.
‘We need to go to the Baghdad towline, now.’ he stated coldly, ‘We don’t have the fuel for any time on task at the moment.’
We’d burnt a lot more in the transit than we’d anticipated. With only 15 miles until we hit the soldiers’ location, we were going to have to disengage and route another 200 miles to hit the tanker up by Baghdad.
I couldn’t believe it.
‘Let’s get the others up here,’ I said before calling Steve to come and find us.
‘Chariot, Monster 13, we need immediate routing for the towline - we are fuel critical.’ I called.
But sometimes, and often when things are going badly, something extraordinary happens. In this case a mystical voice, that seemed to have no place in the madness of the current situation, came over the radio…
‘Look up, boys!’
…and as we did, the silhouette of an RAF VC-10 tanker slowly drifted over us - it couldn’t have been better timed. They’d heard the intensity of the situation and redirected the US Navy F-18s they were about to service to another towline. They knew we’d be hurting for fuel so had broken with protocol and had come down to find us.
It was an awesome sight.
Thirty seconds later we screamed over the incident scene in full reheat and with the wings fully back.
We were fast, low and loud and any insurgents left in the town could be under no illusion that their nemesis had arrived.
The scene was chaotic with soldiers rushing about and shredded vehicle parts spread across an area the size of a football field. A large crowd had gathered to the north of the main road and troops were holding it back.
‘Don’t worry guys, we’ve got your back!’ I thought, as I saw Steve arrive on scene like something out of a Star Wars movie. I explained the situation and climbed up to get some fuel.
Then one of the injured soldiers died.
The unit on the ground called us up directly to tell us the news - we were stunned.
Nothing prepares you for that. In all the training we’d done, I’d never heard a call like it. It’s a strange feeling being over your own troops and being powerless to help.
As I came off the tanker I sent Steve to get some fuel, too. The radios were respectfully silent.
Soon there began a discussion on whether any insurgent targeting could be done, except nobody knew who to target. We could see angry crowds gathered near to the scene but nothing outwardly hostile.
Then another soldier died.
It was like a double punch to the chest that we couldn’t do anything about. For the next hour we just flew around in circles, detached from the horror below. I felt an intensity of wanting to be down there with the guys. It’s something, to this day, that I still find hard to describe.
Soon we heard that our helicopters were inbound to deliver support and we got called off station to return home - our day was over.
For many of us, our wars didn’t involve getting shot at or shooting down enemy jets, though I’ve trained plenty of pilots who have done just that. They say that PTSD comes to pilots 30 years after the event, for soldiers it’s immediate - I worry for them both.
But there is another form of stress that comes from being there but not being there. It comes from being unable to do anything to help, being unable to retaliate against an attack. It comes from the unfairness of it all and the loss of trust in your ability to make a difference. Those soldiers couldn’t shoot back at anybody after an IED took the lives of their friends. Their attackers were ghosts in a crowd; all the weapons training that those young guys had done was useless in that moment.
There was to be no retribution, no justice for their lost mates - just anger, guilt and a lifetime of self-doubt.
The insurgents knew this; it’s why they used IEDs. The actual blast being the first part of the devastation, the second part being the years of self-loathing and questioning yourself about whether there was anything else you could have done.
They couldn’t have stopped the attack and neither could I. I was in command of two Tornado bombers armed to the teeth and ready to fight; this is what I’d trained to do - I just needed a target.
We all just needed a target.
When I left Iraq, at the end of my tour, I was on a troop plane that also happened to be carrying some of the soldiers that were on the ground that day in Amarah.
It was a pure coincidence that I got talking to a young guy who told me about his time in country before asking about the flying. After a bit of banter and a few laughs he told me about the incident, it was clearly still affecting him.
He had been with one of his friends who’d been hit in the blast.
‘When I heard the noise of your jet come over, I knew we were going to be OK and I said to him ‘We’re OK, the jets are here, we’re going to be OK!
He just relaxed, closed his eyes and then he died.’
Saddest thing I ever heard.
I decided to save the Skittles story for another day.