RAF Chinook helicopter crews recently travelled to the United States to train for Afghanistan in the heat and high-altitude terrain of southern California.
A large proportion of the RAF Odiham-based force has rotated through US Naval Air Facility El Centro (NAFEC) in southern California in preparation for ongoing operations in Afghanistan.
This deployment was a first for the RAF's 18 and 27 Squadrons. It follows on from earlier detachments to the same location by the Army Air Corps Apaches and Lynx aircraft and the RAF's Merlin Force.
RAF Odiham Station Commander, Group Captain Steve Shell, said: "It is clear that El Centro replicates Afghanistan better than previous Environmental Training locations and offers greater potential for other combat ready workup training sorties."
Situated some two hours east of San Diego, NAFEC is a small base that serves as a forward operating base for a number of units.
"The facilities are incredible," said Flight Sergeant Dan Baxter from 27 Squadron. "El Centro has everything you possibly need to deliver realistic training. The Colorado River has its own 'Green Zone', just like the River Helmand. We were therefore able to overlay what exists in Afghanistan and conduct framework tasking, deliberate operations and simulated Immediate Response Team (IRT) tasks. To all intents and purposes, we were in Afghanistan."
During the exercise, codenamed Ventus Magnus, both squadrons deployed their intelligence officers, who, along with the individual aircrew and training staff, were able to produce up-to-date, realistic tasking for the crews.
In addition to their normal under-slung load prep task, personnel from the RAF Odiham Joint Helicopter Support Squadron (JHSS) acted as 'white force' during tactical exercises, playing the roles of passenger handlers, Army Commanders, and even simulated casualties for evacuation tasks, "... although using strawberry syrup for the blood might have been a mistake," said JHSS Detachment Commander, Flight Lieutenant Paul Mason, with a grin.
"I think the guys were excited about deploying to the USA as most of them had only previously undertaken mission rehearsal training on places like Salisbury Plain," said 27 Squadron's Second-in-Command, Squadron Leader Rich Harris. "The realism really inspired people and means that they are far better prepared for combat operations than they have ever been."
This was echoed by crewman Sergeant Chris Longbottom RAF, who recently completed the Chinook Operational Conversion Flight: "It has been fantastic to emerge from the training system and be able to throw myself in with the guys with whom I will deploy in a few short weeks. It really opens your eyes and makes you step up a gear."
El Centro has been described as offering the best pre-deployment training the Chinook Force has ever seen, and Ventus Magnus ensures that UK helicopter crews are better prepared for action in Afghanistan than they have ever been.
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