Heathrow’s Stephen Lunn remembers his time as an Apache pilot
We’ve delved into the yourHeathrow vault this Remembrance Day to help remember our former servicemen and women. Meet Stephen Lunn, a former Apache Attack Helicopter pilot for the British Army who served in Afghanistan and now works at Heathrow.
As an Apache pilot and aircraft mission commander one of my roles in Afghanistan was to provide direct fire support to troops on the ground as well as providing integral support to the Chinook force whilst they conducted their missions of picking up wounded soldiers. We provided a short notice support function 24-hours-a-day that could be called upon to provide that support or escort a Chinook in to pick up the soldiers.
There is one mission back in 2010 that will always stay with me…
Over the previous few days a dust storm had been building, reducing the visibility down to about 100 metres at best. Most of the ground operations had been called off as a result, due to the much reduced capability of any direct support from either us or the Chinook fleet.
Unfortunately, some units had already been out on patrol prior to the dust storm including a squad from the Duke of Lancashire Regiment. They had taken refuge in a small compound to weather out the storm. Whilst moving into the compound their Platoon Commander, a Captain, stepped on an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), severely wounding him. Our operations room immediately got the call and we were mobilised.
Both my back seater and I, along with the Immediate Response Team (IRT) (a Chinook crew and medics fitted out to be a flying operating theatre) ran to our aircraft to start up, even though we knew the Operations room would not want us to lift off due to the much reduced visibility. I got onto the Radio with the Commander of the Chinook, John, a pilot who I’d gone through flying training with, and came up with a plan that might enable us to make it to the wounded Captain.
I should point out the Apache Attack Helicopter is still one of the most advanced aircraft flying today. It has a multitude of devices that greatly enhance the ability of the pilot including a Forward Looking InfraRed device (FLIR) which utilises the minute differences in heat to see, instead of light, as well as an extremely accurate guidance system that feeds data directly onto a monocle over the pilots right eye. This system allowed me to accurately see the attitude and orientation of the aircraft along with speed and heading information even if I couldn’t see anything else. The FLIR allowed me to see a little further than the naked eye and the navigation system gave me the confidence to know where I was going even though I could only see approximately 150 metres in front of the helicopter.
The plan that John and I came up with… was for me to lead him in close formation, low to the ground, directly to the site of the wounded Captain. We formed up on the short runway at Camp Bastion and departed together. We flew at about 90knots (just over 100mph) and 80 feet, it was imperative that the Chinook not loose site of me otherwise they would have no alternative but to abort and return to Bastion utilising the Air Traffic Radar to get them in. In perspective, the Apache is normally operated at around 1500 feet due to limited armour on the aircraft.
I gave the chin mounted 30mm cannon to my back seat to control whilst I flew us to the site. We got an update from the troops on the ground and a very accurate grid reference which we entered into the computer. This put an icon in my right eye as to their location and I used this to guide the Chinook direct to the site.
We remained directly overhead whilst the troops did an amazing job of loading the injured Captain in, in about 45 seconds. I had remained at 50 feet throughout this stage as I did not want to lose sight of the Chinook because it would have been extremely difficult to form up for the return to Bastion. The Chinook lifted and formed back up with us so that we could lead them back to Bastion and the Field Hospital there.
The Captain was “medevac’d” back to the UK and his family was able to see him in hospital though regrettably he died of his wounds a few weeks later, a fact I did not find out about until 2 years later. The skill and dedication, and bravery, shown by the Chinook crew, medics and ultimately the rest of the Captain’s Platoon will remain with me. John and myself went on to help create a standard procedure for carrying out that type of escort in reduced visibility, to enhance the capability of the Apache and Chinook crews carrying out the High Readiness task.
NOTE: This article was originally published in 2013.