I was beginning my second week of routine duties in the troop, and I’d spent the entire morning in the armoury dealing with the cleaning of the Comms Troop weapons. There were a total of eight NCO's and men available for the job and between us we got through all of the rifles and pistols belonging to the troop. Some guys were of the opinion each man should clean their personal weapon. Yes, in the ideal world, but those of us involved were aware of the importance of the task.
All of the Land Rovers I had dealt with so far had been the GS type which had a conventional battery under the bonnet. The rear section of a GS vehicle was used for personnel or cargo and didn’t have batteries fitted.
The Land Rovers used by Comms Troop were long-wheelbase FFR (Fitted For Radio). Being FFR's they had a pair of vehicle batteries fitted in front between the seats under a hard insulated cover. The radio batteries were of a different type and situated under a removable wooden cover in the rear.
In the cargo area, across the width of the vehicle and fitted neatly above the radio battery cover was the breadboard. This board was equipped with clamps to secure the various equipments in place.
Maintenance of the radio batteries on an FFR was as important as maintenance of the vehicle, but due to the fittings and cables, it took longer to get to the batteries than it did to conduct the maintenance.
I’d be taking over one of the trucks. At 14:30, I checked over the tools, equipment, vehicle and trailer, and signed for Romeo Four (R4). Following a cursory inspection of my truck, After the maintenance, I’d give it a lick of paint.
I had enjoyed my first routine week because I’d kept myself busy every day, helping other guys with their detachments. My second week was off to a good start, and I was looking forward to working on my detachment. After the final works parade of the day, the Troop Staffy called me to the office.
Staff Temple said, “Following a discussion between Lt Foulkes, Sgt Morrison, and me, it’s been agreed to give you the opportunity of doing an extraordinary task. You’re well turned-out, eager, and maintain your composure under pressure.”
“Thank you, Staff,” I said and took a seat when he nodded for me to do so.
Staff Temple outlined the role offered to me. He said Cpl Jenkins had been performing the job for a year and would be the man to tell me more. If I accepted, I was to be on standby for the remainder of the week. I thanked Staff Temple again and went back to my truck, but my head was in the clouds.
Things were looking up and my day improved when I received a letter from Diane.
After only three days of being in charge of R4, I’d checked the detachment from top to bottom, including the engine compartment. I cleaned and serviced the tools, batteries, leads and radio fittings. I painted the outside of the vehicle and had just finished painting the inside when the Troop Staffy approached me. It was 14:30.
“Faulkner, you’ll be needed shortly,” Staff said. “In an hour a Scout helicopter will be landing and fitted out with the Heli-Tele. Two technicians will install the equipment, but I’d like you on hand to watch.”
I nodded and turned when I heard a tap on the open door.
“Hi Staff,” Jinx said as he entered the office.
“Hello, Cpl Jenkins. I was about to brief Faulkner on the sortie, but it would be better coming from you.”
“Wilco Staff,” Jinx said, and turned to me. “Are you excited mate?”
“Yes, I’m looking forward to it.”
Staff Temple sat back to enjoy his coffee while Jinx tested my knowledge of the layout of the city of Londonderry and surrounding areas. He was happy with the result and reminded me of the importance of recognising and rapidly locating the border crossing points.
In preparation, I had studied the layout of the city and the shaded areas of the map to recognise predominantly Catholic and Protestant areas, plus the landmarks, of which there were several.
Jinx said, “Remember, when you look out of the aircraft to the ground you’ll see places easily, but turning back to your monitor may throw you.”
I said, “What’s the best way to conquer the change of view?”
“Your monitor is black and white, but roads and tracks will stand out. Before you look out of the Perspex, set your screen zoomed out to cover a wide area. When you turn from viewing the ground back to your screen, you can zoom in rapidly.”
“Will I have a practise before we start the operational sortie?”
“Yeah, don’t worry mate. Before take-off, you’ll have a test card to let you check the camera, and it will be a good time to play around with the zoom features.”
I would be the cameraman and radio operator on the sortie. My flying helmet was a good fit, and I knew the theory of the role. I would go out there and prove I was capable.
Jinx said, “Remember one other important point mate - the Brigade Ops Room attracts a lot of attention when Heli-Tele is in use.”
“I’ll keep it in mind,” I said. “Does the Brigadier take an interest?”
“The Brigadier loves the idea, and if Heli-Tele is in use, he’ll be in the Ops Room. He’ll probably have the company of the Brigade Major, the Ops Officer and a couple of commanders from local units.”
“No pressure, eh?”
“You concentrate on your job Jim, and you’ll enjoy yourself.”
I was the envy of all the operators. Not as if any of them would tell me. I went around to the helipad with Jinx and met the pilot, Captain Steve Donoghue of the Army Air Corps. The officer shook my hand and showed me around the aircraft.
While I was getting my ‘ops brief’ the other preparations were taking place near the helipad at the edge of the hockey pitch, and at the back of the compound. The technician crew had wheeled the trolley out with the bulky camera equipment, including the lens in its glass-fronted container.
Outside the fence, at the back of the compound was a small hut used for Heli-Tele equipment. Beside the shed a long wheelbase Land Rover was fitted out by Cpl Nick Stacey and his crewman Pete Stewart.
Nick had a standard FFR vehicle but when Heli-Tele was being used his detachment became the Heli-Tele mobile, and deployed with special aerials and a 23-inch colour TV monitor. The detachment also carried the standard C42 radio.
Upstairs in the Brigade Ops Room, a 23-inch colour monitor was permanently wired up to a video tape recorder, which, like the Heli-Tele was advanced technology.
My only experience of helicopters thus far had been a short flight in a Westland Wessex - which were associated with Air/Sea Rescue. In Dortmund, while preparing for our Op Banner tour we’d been taken up in the Wessex as eight-man patrols. It was a hard training session to forget. We were kitted out for foot patrol, complete with our rifles, and from 50ft were to descend on a rope.
I thought it looked easy enough until I was standing in the doorway of the aircraft, at the appropriate altitude. I was ready to grab the rope and lower myself to the sports field, and watched in disbelief as the loadmaster swung the metal arm out which held the rope. I prayed and jumped simultaneously. One of the massive exhausts was warming the air and the six-foot gap to the thick line. I was worried, but made it and held onto the rope for a few seconds before lowering myself, hand under hand.
Back in the present, as I watched the fitting of the equipment on the Heli-Tele, I was taking in the size of the Scout helicopter in front of me. The cockpit was about the size of a family car without the bonnet. Attached to this Perspex hatchback was the boom with the encased tail rotor. This aircraft was not a big machine and how it flew defied imagination.
I felt a tap on the shoulder, and I spun around.
“You can get in and get comfortable mate,” Captain Donoghue said.
I nodded, climbed in and held my white flying helmet on my lap. Jinx approached and took me through the layout and functions of my controls for the camera, and the radio/intercom.
I was sitting in the seat on the front left side of the cockpit, but because of the task my seat faced towards the back. The rear half of the cockpit would usually be fitted with bench seats to carry a patrol, or it would be empty to carry a small cargo. On this flight, the cargo area held the two large containers which made up the Heli-Teli equipment.
I pulled on my helmet, plugged it into the communications system, and strapped myself in with the crossover straps as shown by Jinx. To my front was a 10-inch monochrome monitor, and below this were three panels containing a variety of switches and tuning knobs.
The first switches were related to the overall picture, allowing the operator to zoom in or out. Again, I recalled my briefing from Jinx.
“Understanding the zoom capability is crucial,” he’d said. “At 800ft, if you zoom out you’ll show the whole city and surrounding countryside up to a couple of miles. From the same altitude, when you zoom in you’ll read a car number plate from a mile or two, depending on weather conditions.”
Below the zoom controls was a set of knobs and switches which enabled control of picture height, width, contrast, and focus. The third panel down had the comms switches, which allowed the operator to switch between talking to the pilot, the Ops Room, Radio Room, or the mobile Heli-Tele Land Rover.
The selector switches labelled with plastic Dymo tape served as a reminder this system was at the experimental stage. There wouldn’t be much margin for error if any of those labels fell off. To the right side of the operator's seat, near the Perspex window was an armrest fitted with a small joystick at the end. My headphones buzzed.
“Hullo Romeo Three One Echo this is Zero,” the Ops Officer said. “Begin test card, over.”
I selected ‘Ops’ on my control panel. “Romeo Three One Echo ... Roger, test card starting now, out.”
I checked my small black and white monitor, and the screen was grey mist. I glanced down at the large glass panel below and saw the large camera pointing half way across the concrete hockey pitch.
At the distant end of the pitch, two soldiers were standing either side of a six foot by four foot wooden test card. The pattern of vertical and horizontal lines was similar to those on a regular TV screen.
While I manipulated the joystick, I observed my monitor and glanced down at the camera to check the rate of reaction. It took five minutes to get accustomed to the controls. I focused on the card and practised zoom until the card details were crystal clear and filling the entire screen.
Jinx was standing outside the aircraft watching me and grinning. He gave me a thumbs-up sign beside the window. I smiled and returned the gesture.
“Hullo Zero this is Romeo Three One Echo,” I called. “Settings complete, over.”
“Zero roger. Report when operational, over.”
“Romeo Three One Echo, Roger out.” I turned to the pilot. He was standing off to one side of the aircraft with his flying helmet under one arm chatting to Lt Foulkes. I waved and gave him a thumbs-up.
The pilot ended his chat with Lt Foulkes, took another walk around the helicopter, and spoke briefly to Jinx before shaking his hand. The pilot clamped a gloved hand on the NCO’s shoulder demonstrating their familiarity.
Captain Donoghue climbed in and plugged in his helmet. He flicked a switch, and I heard a light buzz in my helmet before his voice.
“All okay mate?” The pilot raised his right thumb simultaneously while asking.
“Ready to go, Sir,” I said. “Test card complete. Is it okay to practise while we attain operational altitude?”
“You can try,” he said, and he chuckled as he secured his crossover straps. He made a visual check from his seat and acknowledged Jinx, who was standing off to one side, nodding and giving the all-clear.
The pilot flicked a selection of toggle switches and a high pitched whining issued from the engine. I looked up through the Perspex canopy to see the long, floppy rotor blades slowly turn.
The lightweight body of the helicopter rocked gently. As the blades increased in speed and became a shimmering blur, the rocking became a steady, vibration. The machine was eager to leave the ground, but being restrained. The engine revolutions increased until the whine became a high-pitched scream. The pilot flicked a switch and had a brief conversation with somebody regarding the flight.
I glanced at the monitor and noticed the test card was gone. The screen was showing an out of focus shot of the female soldiers’ accommodation. The block where the girls lived was a hundred metres away. I worked quickly with my controls and centred on two girls dressed in civilian clothes. They were watching the helicopter from across the length of the hockey pitch.
I concentrated on the focus, honestly believing it was good practise.
“Nice shot lad,” the pilot’s voice boomed inside my helmet. When I turned to him and smiled, Captain Donaghue grinned, looked around the immediate area outside and spoke to the Ops Room.
The engine was screaming to be airborne, and with a movement of the collective control, the pilot gave the helicopter freedom to leave the ground to hover. I was becoming accustomed to being airborne when I felt pressure on my internal organs. We went rapidly from a hover to a near-vertical lift, banked, and flew across the River Foyle climbing steadily.
Our initial flight path took us over the course of the River Foyle, and we continued to gain height. Due to the upward and forward-leaning attitude of the host vehicle, the camera lens was temporarily forced into the bottom left hand corner of its large glass case. I’d have time to settle before operating.
“Levelling at 800ft,” the pilot’s voice said into my earphones. We were over the northern part of Londonderry. He continued. “We are now at operational altitude for the sortie.”
“Roger,” I said, both to acknowledge the pilot, and to check I could speak.
Before calling in on the radio, I glanced down at the city below, checked the colour-coded map on my right thigh, and chose a target for my first airborne camera shots. The ideal subject was well within range. I practised my zoom and focus for a few seconds, flicked a switch, and called into the Ops Room.
“Hullo Zero, this is Romeo Three One Echo, now operational, over.”
“Zero Roger, The Diamond is looking good. Well done. We’d like to look in detail at all four gates, and afterward, we'll have a look around the Creggan Estate, over.”
I recognised the voice at call-sign Zero as the Ops Officer who had been on shift during my early days in the Radio Room. I heard the usual Sandhurst tone, but the man had an idiosyncrasy. Whenever he started a sentence, he gave a short, imperceptible cough.
I gave my reply knowing the Ops Officer would also have recognised my voice. I was the only Scotsman on Radio Room shifts, and I was aware how distinctive my accent was over radio.
“Romeo Three One Echo, roger ... commencing with Butcher’s Gate, out.”
Captain Donaghue turned in my direction and nodded to let me know he had heard and understood the instructions. Apart from this particular sortie the pilot would be keeping up to date with other aircraft in the area, and watching for anything which could be a threat to our well-being.
Earlier, Jinx told me there would be several practise targets allocated to let me get comfortable. I acquired my suggested targets with ease, using full zoom and homing in to give such detail as the plates on vehicles in the area, or close-ups of pedestrian’s faces. Performing the task was a joy.
I bore in mind what Jinx had told me about the pictures I was sending to the top brass. I may be up there with a small black and white monitor, but they were receiving my views in full colour on a large TV screen.
After the first half hour, we landed at the Creggan Camp base to refuel. When we were airborne again, I had a variety of tasks. Acting on requests from the Ops Officer, I captured close-up shots of cars, people, streets, and individual houses. On one session I filmed the border crossing points which were not evident.
It was strange to think a boundary existed between two countries down there in the picturesque landscape. County Londonderry of Northern Ireland juxtaposed to County Donegal of the Irish Republic.
By the time my first sortie was over, I was exhausted from the concentration, but I had thoroughly enjoyed myself. Captain Donoghue told me the next time we would be conducting a classified sortie. We’d be tasked to locate specific vehicles, buildings, or possibly people. We would be used to monitor a big political demonstration which was taking place in the city. I looked forward to the next one.
The sight of a helicopter flying overhead would never be the same again.
Tuesday 6th June 2017
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