Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (18 & 19 July 2018)
Date of Auction: 18th & 19th July 2018
Sold for £40,000
Estimate: £40,000 - £50,000
Never more was this apparent than on 17 May 2008, when through his brilliant evasive flying and the heroics of his crew, Duncan managed to save the lives of Gulab Mangal, the Governor of Helmand Province, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s entire Provincial Reconstruction Team during an organised assassination attempt by a Taliban RPG team. Duncan’s VIP flight came under RPG attack, and as he said immediately after effecting a successful landing: ‘I walk around the cab and when I take in the extent of the damage, I can’t conceive of how we stayed aloft after the incident. We’ve been hit by three separate weapons systems: as well as the RPG passing through the pylon and taking out part of the aft rotor, we’ve taken a significant degree of shrapnel damage, seven or eight rounds of .50 cal and some 7.62 mm. In total there are thirty-four holes in the aircraft.’
Just six days after being hit by the RPG, Duncan and crew narrowly averted a similar fate whilst on a night mission - Operation Oqab Sturga (Eagle Eye), ‘I look down and see it through the glass panels below my pedals as it flies under my feet. It’s so close, I feel I could put my hand out and grab it. The tail crackles and sparkles as it passes underneath me, jetting purple and yellow fire that is close enough for the reflection to dance across the instruments in the control panel. My NVGs show it in green, but it’s close enough that I can see it through the gap where the tubes meet my eyes. Instinctively, I lift my feet off the controls as though by leaving them there they’ll burn in the rocket’s tail.’
Having survived two RPG encounters in quick succession, Duncan went on to further distinguish himself, 4 December 2010, when flying a series of epic IRT missions during ‘brownouts’, and virtually no visibility at night - landing in battle areas with ‘Contact’ taking place only 100 metres away. His gallantry was recognised with the award of the A.F.C., and ‘the events of that night proved a salutary lesson for all of us in the crew - that out here, you don’t always have to face the enemy to find yourself confronting fear. The weather we faced was sufficiently bad that it saw all other flights grounded, so I suppose the obvious question is: was it worth the risk in us being deployed? So far as we were all concerned, the answer has to be yes. Us fighting our way through the gloom meant that a six-year-old child was treated quickly, and survived; the ISAF soldier we picked up would have died had we not got to him when we did, and the other ISAF soldier we hooked up kept his eyesight. Against that backdrop, it was worth it all and more.’
Distinguished Flying Cross, E.II.R., reverse officially named ‘Flt Lt A M Duncan RAF’ and dated ‘2009’, in Royal Mint case of issue; Air Force Cross, E.II.R., reverse officially named ‘Flt A M Duncan DFC RAF’ and dated ‘2011’, in Royal Mint case of issue; Iraq 2003-11, no clasp (Flt Lt A M Duncan RAF); Operational Service Medal 2000, for Afghanistan, 1 clasp, Afghanistan (Flt Lt A M Duncan RAF); Jubilee 2012, in card box of issue; Royal Air Force L.S. & G.C., E.II.R. (Sqn Ldr A M Duncan DFC AFC RAF 5208968H) in named box of issue; together with N.A.T.O. Medal 1994-, 1 clasp, ISAF, in case of issue, generally very fine or better (7) £40000-50000
FootnoteD.F.C. London Gazette 6 March 2009:
‘In recognition of gallant and distinguished services in Afghanistan during the period 1st April to 30th September 2008.’
The recommendation states:
‘Flt Lt Duncan was the aircraft captain of a Chinook involved in two distinct operations. In the first, he was the captain of the third of a 3 aircraft formation tasked to fly a VIP party, including the Governor of Helmand Province, from Lashkar Ghar to Musa Qal’eh on the 17th May 2008. In the second, he was involved in a 4 aircraft night air assault in support of 2 Para Battle Group a few miles South of Musa Qal’eh on the 23rd May 2008.
On the 17th May, Flt Lt Duncan captained a Chinook flying from Lashkar Ghar to Musa Qal’eh. Whilst flying at ultra low level the aircraft was concurrently engaged and hit by Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG), heavy machine gun (HMG) and small arms fire. Flt Lt Duncan was immediately aware that his aircraft had been hit due to the uncontrolled lurch of the aircraft during flight. Assessing that he still had sufficient control of the aircraft, he manoeuvred to clear the immediate threat area and weigh up his options. Having lost one hydraulic system and a large portion of a main rotor blade he decided to return to Forward Operating Base Edinburgh making a safe landing and offloading the VIP party without incident.
Just 6 days later, Flt Lt Duncan was part of a 4 aircraft 2 wave night air-assault in support of 2 Para Battle Group that was likely to be opposed. The lead pair of aircraft was engaged by RPG, HMG and small arms, although not hit. Flt Lt Duncan led the second pair into the hostile area and departed, before returning to lead the second wave into a second hostile landing site under continued engagement by RPG and HMG.
Throughout both events Flt Lt Duncan displayed consummate professionalism and strength of character, in the first instance taking immediate and appropriate action to recover a badly hit aircraft with a VIP party on board, and in the second pressing ahead an air assault in the face of intense fire to ensure the force protection of the battle group troops. His actions, bravery and stoicism are worthy of formal recognition.’
A.F.C. London Gazette 30 September 2011:
‘In recognition of gallant and distinguished services in Afghanistan during the period 1st October 2010 to 31st March 2011.’
Alex Duncan was born in 1976, the son of a French mother and a Scottish father. He grew up in Paris, prior to moving to England in 1995:
‘I don’t think the French Air Force ever figured in my thoughts, even from when I first dreamed of flying; it was always the R.A.F. When I learned about World War II, I always imagined I was in the cockpit of a Spitfire. So when it came to choosing a university, it had to be one in England. I read Aerospace Engineering at Manchester and after graduation in July 1999 (alongside my degree, I also acquired the nickname ‘Frenchie’) I was accepted into the Royal Air Force as a direct-entry pilot.’ (Sweating The Metal by Flight Lieutenant Alex ‘Frenchie’ Duncan D.F.C, A.F.C., refers)
Duncan was commissioned into the Royal Air Force in August 2000, and carried out his 6 month officer training at R.A.F. Cranwell. He passed out as Flying Officer in February 2001, and went for his initial training at the Elementary Flying Training School. Duncan was selected for rotary wing training, and was posted to R.A.F. Shawbury (home to the Defence Helicopter Flying School and the Central Flying School (Helicopter)) in March 2002:
‘I arrived ready to learn everything I needed to know about rotary-winged aircraft... At this stage, I really didn’t know a great deal about them, but when I looked at the R.A.F.’s fleet I set my sights on the Chinook from the off. There was something different about it. That said, I still felt apprehensive. To me, helicopters were the devil’s machines. I know how fixed-wing aircraft stay aloft but I regarded helicopters as little more than six million separate pieces flying in an unstable formation. So far as I was concerned then, it was aerodynamically impossible for a helicopter to fly, so the only conclusion that I could draw was that they’re so fucking ugly that the earth repels them. I wasn’t sure I could deal with that.’ (Ibid)
Duncan carried out his initial training in Squirrels, and was subsequently posted to 705 Squadron (also at Shawbury) for Instrument Flying instruction as part of advanced flying training. He then progressed to Griffins and was with 60 Squadron when he gained his ‘Wings’ in May 2003.
Having qualified as a pilot, Duncan was posted to the Operational Conversion Flight, R.A.F. Odiham, for conversion to Chinooks in July 2003. After completing the course he was posted to ‘A’ Flight, 18 Squadron, R.A.F. Odiham, and deployed with the Squadron on board H.M.S. Ocean (helicopter carrier) in May 2004. The Squadron went on operational exercise with the carrier across the Atlantic, in support of the Royal Marines who were to take part in Exercise Aurora in the US. On return Duncan was employed in some taskings in Northern Ireland, prior to being deployed in Iraq at the start of 2005. After two months in Iraq, Duncan returned with 18 Squadron to Odiham and underwent further training prior to being declared ‘combat ready’ in June 2005.
18 Squadron received notice that they were to be deployed to Afghanistan in April 2006. In the interim period Duncan and the Squadron were to be prepared for that deployment, including undertaking flying in testing weather and environments, such as a two month detachment to the Falkland Islands at the end of 2005:
‘Given the Falkland Islands’ isolation and its uncontrolled airspace, you can do things there that just aren’t possible anywhere else in the world…. It’s like a playground for the UK military, but it’s hugely beneficial from an operational readiness perspective.
We used to do something called the ‘Tiger Run’. We would call the R.A.F. Regiment over the radio and say, ‘Tiger Run - game on,’ and they would then turn on the radar for their Rapier anti-aircraft missile system. The object of the game would be to fly the aircraft as low and fast as possible to see how close we could get to the airfield before they managed to get missile lock on us. To beat our personal score meant flying through some of the gullies that ran in from the west straight into the airfield. The flying was intense and took a lot of focus, but it was to prove hugely beneficial when we got to Afghanistan.’ (Ibid)
In January 2006, the Squadron was briefed that they would be deploying to Afghanistan as a component of 16 Air Assault Brigade and flying in support of ops carried out by 3 Para Battlegroup, the latter under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Stuart Tootal. Duncan would ‘be flying to Kandahar Airfield and operating between there and a newly built British base called Camp Bastion. At that stage, I don’t think it was much more than a few tents and a dirt runway…. We also knew that we’d be flying on ops with the Army Air Corps’ Apache AH-1s.’ (Ibid)
Afghanistan - A Hostile Environment
Duncan left Brize Norton with the rest of the Squadron, and arrived in Kabul, ‘but because of our late arrival time we had to wait until the following morning to take the short flight via Hercules to Kandahar. We landed at the main base for ISAF forces in Afghanistan around midday; even though it was only May, the first thing that struck me was the heat. Fuck me, it was oppressive! Acclimatising was going to be a bitch.
Kandahar and Helmand, where we would be operating from, is unforgiving territory. It can take over three weeks to acclimatise on arrival. The temperature in summer months rarely drops below 48 degrees and reaches as high as 55 degrees, with humidity consistently around 9%. It’s arid, hot and dusty - the sand’s consistency is like talcum powder and it clings to everything. Heatstroke can be almost as much of a threat as the Taliban; so too is the dreaded D&V ( Diarrhoea and Vomiting), which can strike down a whole patrol within days. You need to take in eleven litres of water a day just to stay hydrated, and there is almost no shelter from the sun.’ (Ibid)
The handover was provided by the OC of 27 Squadron, Squadron Leader D. Startup, who gave the new arrivals their brief:
‘Okay, the set-up is pretty simple. The Chinook Force in theatre is known as 1310 Flight, and we’ve got a total of six cabs here - nowhere near enough. Two cabs are at Bastion on IRT [Incident Response Team] and HRF and there are two here for taskings, plus another two in various stages of maintenance. The rotation at Camp Bastion is two days on IRT followed by two on HRF (Helmand Reaction Force). On the fourth day, you handle the afternoon’s taskings and end up back here at KAF. The tankers will fly down to take over from you. The IRT and HRF cabs are permanent fixtures at Bastion and there will be three crews forward there at any one time, as well as a few engineers to handle routine and maintenance and minor repairs.’ (Ibid)
Later the same day they received another briefing, this time from a Squadron Leader of Joint Helicopter Force (Afghanistan):
‘Guys, be under no illusions: this is not going to be easy. People here want to kill you and they will try everything they can to achieve that. They hate Chinooks and Apaches equally and it’s their stated aim to shoot one down.’
You could have heard a pin drop. Two days before we arrived, a patrol of French Special Forces operators working with the ANA were slaughtered and the area was apparently littered with dead bodies when 3 Para were sent in to try and rescue the survivors. One of the French guys was reportedly gutted alive. That got our attention. We’d expected things to be shit, but this was far beyond what we’d imagined. I think Dinger’s words carried even more weight because they were coming from a guy we all knew and trusted. You could see the worry etched on his face as he spoke to us.
‘You can’t be too careful, guys. You’ll need to apply all the tactics we’ve practised. You cannot give them an inch. They will try to kill you. And make no mistake; they are sophisticated in their tactics. They might wear pyjamas and flip-flops, but they know what they’re doing and are ready for you.’
All this happened on day one. Welcome to Kandahar.’ (Ibid)
Duncan was to be mainly tasked with supporting the ground troops in the Forward Operating Bases and Platoon Houses, resupplying, moving troops and freight in theatre. Combining this with flying in the IRT, which was to deliver engineers, medics and support to any situation where they were needed. Duncan’s first operational sortie in Afghanistan was as IRT for evacuating casualties from a crashed Hercules aircraft at Lashkar Gah airfield.
Working in tandem with Tootal’s 3 Para, the Chinook Force continued to be stretched as their infantry force was by the increasing Taliban attacks on Now Zad and Musa Qala in Helmand. As the troops moved in to try and counter the Taliban offensive, the Chinook Force, which comprised of just 6 aircraft in the theatre, struggled manfully to keep pace. Flying missions as a four-ship, with two Apaches escorting two Chinooks.
The above was 3 Para Battle Group’s first major pre-planned operation since deploying to Helmand Province:
‘Its aims were simple: a cordon and search op focused on a mud-walled residential compound about 3km east of Now Zad, in an area consisting of dense orchards, irrigation ditches and inter-connected walled compounds.
Intelligence indicated the compound was the base for a Taliban High Value Target (HVT). It was thought it was being used as a weapon and ammunition dump, bomb-making facility and safe house for insurgent commanders all rolled into one. The intel also suggested that the majority of the Taliban HVT’s fighters had melted away following the arrival of British troops in the Now Zad DC. The intel was wrong.
We knew something was afoot on June 3rd, the day before the operation was planned, because there was a lot of coming and going and all the Flight’s captains kept disappearing. Nichol Benzie finally briefed us later that evening; we received our orders for the operation, which would turn out to be one of the defining battles of the Paras’ tour, with a six-hour firefight that almost involved everyone.
The plan involved a hundred or so men, encompassing 3 Para’s ‘A’ Company and Patrols Platoon and a platoon of the Royal Gurkha Rifles, together with some Afghan National Police. The Gurkhas were based with the ANP in Now Zad District Centre so they, together with Patrols Platoon, were tasked with moving forward and establishing an outer perimeter. Our role was to insert ‘A’ Company into the compound, which they would then assault and capture. Air support would be provided by the Army Air Corps Apaches together with A-10 Warthogs and B-1 Bombers from the US.
We were all quite keyed up because this represented a break from the usual diet of taskings and IRT - something proactive. It was also to be the Apaches first offensive op in the theatre. The briefing, led by Lt Col Tootal at the JOC, was packed with everyone from ‘A’ Company there, right up to the level of Section Commander. On the R.A.F. side, there were the crews for the four Chinooks that would be inserting ‘A’ Company - Nichol Benzie and Mike Woods; Andy Lamb and Chris Hasler; Dave Stewart and Mark Heal; and Craig Wilson and me. The IRT crew was also there - they’d be on standby to scramble for any medevacs. There were also four Apache crews - at any one time there would be two in the air, with two on standby at Bastion to provide continuity of cover when they needed to return to rearm and refuel.
Stuart Tootal introduced the orders, which basically boiled down to us inserting ‘A’ Company, who would then flush out any HVTs at the compound. Any that were missed would be picked up by the troops manning the outer perimeter. The lift was planned for 12:00hrs and our mission meant each of us carrying a third of ‘A’ Company - roughly thirty men each. Nichol and Woodsy’s role was to provide an airborne Command and Control platform for Lt Col Tootal.’ (Ibid)
The following day the helicopter force left Camp Bastion, with their respective cargoes, in a gaggle formation of four Chinooks with two Apaches. Flying low and in figures of eight:
‘Finally, we got the call to go. We are number two in the formation so we slot in behind Andy’s cab on a north-easterly heading with 50ft on the light and 40 on the noise at about 120 knots. You have to strike a balance on a job like this - we would prefer to fly quicker but that would mean a rougher transit and it’s no good delivering the troops so shaken up that they’re not ready for combat.
When we are three minutes from the drop point, the crewmen in the back of the cabs give the troops a three-minute warning so they can organise themselves and their kit - check weapons and ammo and basically get themselves ready to run straight out the back as soon as the ramp drops. Craig gives the crewmen their Fire Control Orders..... The target compound we’re headed for is L-shaped. About 30m due north is a field roughly 150m wide, 100 deep - Chris and Andy plus Craig and me will be landing there... I wanted to line our cab up on a south-north heading so that when the ramp came down, the troops could run straight off with their weapons pointing toward the target compound rather than landing front or side on, where they’d have wasted valuable seconds looking for it.....
We’re running in to the target with a minute to go now. I can see the village building up below as more and more compounds appear closer and closer together, often linked one to the next. There are no women or children around and I feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.... We’re on the approach now... Andy goes in and there’s no dust whatsoever so we go straight in next to him. Craig flies in carrying a lot of speed but it’s tactically sound - it’s more aggressive and dynamic but a moving target is harder to hit.... We’re bracing ourselves for a dust cloud that doesn’t come. A slight bump as the wheels settle on and the suspension compresses slightly and a metre or so of run on. Craig applies the brakes, the rear ramp goes down and, in less than five seconds, all thirty of the fully armed and kitted up Paras who were sitting in the cab have charged off....
It’s the first time I’ve landed in an enemy compound and I can feel my heart pounding in my chest.... My eyes are darting all over the front and sides of the aircraft looking for threats - enemy gunmen or RPGs lining up or coming out of the wood line immediately ahead of us.
‘Come on,’ I say out loud. We’re a sitting duck here, except we’re loaded with ammunition for the guns and 1,600kg of fuel, so we’re like a duck sitting on a bomb. As soon as the Paras feet touch the ground, the radio sparks into life with calls of ‘Contact, Contact!’ as they’re engaged. So much for the intelligence that said resistance should be light to non-existent. There are enemy in various positions and the Paras are taking heavy fire from inside the compound. We’re immediately behind them so that means we’re taking fire too.
‘Scan your arcs, guys. If you see a threat, take it out,’ Craig warns the crewmen. It’s daylight, so tracer doesn’t show and you can’t hear the telltale ‘crack’ of rounds coming in over the noise of the blades. The only way you know you’re taking fire is either from the ‘tink’ sound that rounds make when they penetrate the skin of the aircraft, or the spiderweb of cracked glass that occurs when they hit the windscreen or chin bubble. Basically, you’re either going to be dead or wise after the event. I think the only thing that saves us that day is the fact that we are shielded from view of the enemy by the height of the compound wall.
‘Ramp up, clear above and behind,’ from the back. And not a second too soon.
Due to concerns over dust from Andy’s aircraft, the brief is for us to depart to our 12 o'clock for a sharp left-hand turn followed by a climb to fly south at height, but Craig decides that, as there is no dust, he’s going to depart with a right-hand turn and fly over a 1,500ft high range of hills to the East of Now Zad and hold in this area. It’s a spur of the moment decision, made on impulse, that quite possibly saves our lives. As we later learn, an enemy team were dug in with an RPG at around the point where, had we departed and turned left as briefed, we’d have been flying at 50ft at around 20kts. Had we followed our planned route, we’d have been low and slow, directly over them at the most vulnerable stage of our departure, giving the RPG firer unobstructed shot at the cab’s underside. It would have been like shooting fish in a barrel.’ (Ibid)
Having departed under fire, Duncan’s Chinook returned several hours later to extract the Paras and was once again exposed to machine-gun fire. The engagement, which was supposed to be short-lived, lasted over eight hours with approximately 20 Taliban fighters killed.
First British Casualty in Afghanistan
On 11 June, Duncan was in action again, this time on IRT duties with Craig Wilson as captain of aircraft. They received three calls that night to evacuate casualties from the same area, coming under rocket fire on both of the first two occasions. Having received the first call at 19:00hrs, the final call was made in the early hours of 12 June:
‘By now it is around 04:00 and all of us are done in... We’ve been up since the previous morning at 08:00 and flying since around 20:00 the previous night, so we’re beyond tired. My whole concept of time is skewed as I sit there. It’s a concept too far for a brain that’s been on the go for eighteen or more hours..... Woodsy appears. He’s not smiling. I look at Craig, who looks back at me, our faces impassive. This is Groundhog Day.
‘Guys, it’s bad news, I’m afraid. I’m really sorry but you’re going to have to go back to the same area. That patrol has got a KIA - Captain Jim Philippson.’
My heart sinks. It had to happen sometime - someone had to be the first; but why now, why him? He’s the first British casualty of our deployment to Helmand Province. It hits hard. It’s difficult to believe now, looking back across a sea of Britain’s dead in Afghanistan that numbers over 360 at the time of writing, but Capt. Jim Philippson was the first to die in Helmand from enemy action.
‘There’s more to it than the KIA,’ Woodsy continues. ‘There are a lot of guys bogged down in a firefight with enemy forces that have been there since the first T1 you picked up yesterday evening. We need to insert a company of troops in support so they can flush the enemy forces out. And don’t feel obliged or think you’ll be judged if you turn this down; you’ve all worked more than hard enough. I can always raise the other crew.’
We look at each other - Craig, Rob, Jonah and me. We’ve all got the beginnings of a beard... We are all stinking, wide-eyed and knackered. Jonah, Rob and I nod.
‘No, we’ll do it,’ Craig says. ‘There’s no point breaking in another crew when we’re already this far down the line. Keep them fresh for duty as rostered. We’ll do the insert.’
Back in the UK, it’d be illegal to fly this tired, for this long. But then again, we wouldn’t be flying as low as we do here either. Here, Concealed Approach and Departure means we can fly at whatever height and speed we want. In the UK, when we say height commensurate with safety of the aircraft, it means when I’m flying at 20ft I’m flying at 10 knots. In Afghanistan, if you’re flying at 10ft, you want to flying at 150 knots! That’s what’s going to make it safer...
We take off again at first light flying as part of a three-ship formation with two Apaches in support, freshly armed and refuelled. A whole company is spread across three Chinooks with Craig and me in one cab, Nichol leading the pack from another and Scot Eldridge flying the third. In the event, it is pretty straightforward; we drop our element of ‘A’ Company, 3 Para and are then diverted to FOB Robinson along with Nichol to repatriate Jim Philippson’s body to Bastion....
We are more than a little ragged by the time we lift from FOB Robinson. It is like looking at the world through a veil, like we are six degrees of separation removed from events; they are happening but there is a weird kind of lag to everything, as though space-time has become distorted.... When we eventually shut down the cab, it’s twenty-four hours and thirty-five minutes since we’d started duty. It is for the missions we’ve flown this night that Craig is later gazetted and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.’ (Ibid)
Shortly after this intense operation Duncan was posted back to the UK on a month’s leave. He was then posted to ‘C’ Flight, 27 Squadron, R.A.F. Odiham, in September 2006.
Second tour of Afghanistan - Captain of Aircraft
Duncan returned to Kandahar for a second tour of operations in early July 2007. This time the Chinook Force was deployed in support of 12 Mechanised Brigade, whose principal infantry units were the Royal Anglians and the Grenadier Guards. Duncan returned as captain of aircraft, initially flying with Squadron Leader M. Oxford who handled the navigation. He flew similar taskings and IRTs to his last tour, and at the end of the month flew on IRT support for Operation Chakush. The latter was a British-led NATO operation aimed at clearing the Taliban out of the area around Hyderabad and Mirmandab.
In early August, Duncan flew as part of a four-ship gaggle in support of a major four day offensive in the Upper Gereshk Valley. This culminated in some extreme flying, landing troops in a cultivated field of maize completely surrounded by trees in a very hostile and active area. Following this:
‘August 11th 2007 is a day I’ll never forget. Rich [Hallows, also known as ‘German’ due to his Aryan countenance] and I, together with crewmen Jim Warner and Bob Ruffles, were on the third day of a four-day stint in Bastion, which had been dominated by trips to and from Forward Operating Base Inkermann to extract a significant number of British casualties. The base, which was home home to ‘C’ (Essex) Company Royal Anglians, is situated about eight klicks north of Sangin and acted as a buffer between the town and the Taliban for whom it seemed to be some form of ordnance magnet.
Everyday was the same. Sometime between 13:00 hrs and 14:00 hrs, the Taliban would launch concerted attacks on the base, employing every weapon at their disposal. Those inside the base got used to a daily diet of recoilless rifle, RPGs, rockets, mortars and small arms fire, and in giving as good as they got, they took a number of casualties. In the two previous days, we’d recovered at least eleven troops, including the body of Private Tony Rawson, who had been shot dead while on patrol...
The morning of the 11th had been quiet... At around 13.30, just as we were arriving back at the IRT tent, the Taliban had launched another attack on the base and a mortar round had landed on a fuel tank, causing multiple injuries. An RPG had also found its mark, hitting an observation tower in the middle of the base, severely wounding Captain Hicks [David Hicks - the Company Commander}. We got the call just after 14:00...
I’m captain, so Rich and Jim head straight for the aircraft to get her spun up, while Bob and I head for the JOC to get the details. There is no need for us to wait for the Apache on IRT duty to escort us; the crew is already overhead at Inkerman helping out the beleaguered guys inside with some close air support.... I brief the crew as soon as I don my helmet and connect the pigtail.
‘It’s a bad one, guys. FOB Inkerman. We’ve got two T1s, four T3s and a walking wounded to pick up. The LS was still hot when I left the JOC and the Apache was letting loose with everything it has, so it could be interesting on the way in...’
‘OK, same drill as usual,’ I say as we climb to height. ‘No rank bollocks on my cab. I’m Frenchie or Alex, this is German, you’re Bob and you’re Jim. You have my authority to engage without reference if you identify a firing point. Clear?’
‘All clear, Frenchie,’ from the back.’ (Ibid)
Having tested weapons en route, Duncan flew in through the Sangin Valley and awaited to be called in by the Apache:
‘The site is still hot as hell and we wait for a lull in the fighting so we can put down. The Apaches are doing everything they can to speed that moment along and are directing a huge weight of fire at the Green Zone. The 30mm cannon fire a stream of High Explosive (HE) shells earthwards and then they let loose with their flechette rockets... They are just the thing for the fuckers who are causing all the misery at FOB Inkerman.
The site is still hot, but we know there are seven casualties down there who are depending on us. The AHs are raining fire down to suppress the enemy below in an effort to get us in, so it’s in our hands.
‘Guys, we could wait ‘til the end of the tour for this LS to go cold. Are we all happy to make a move with it still hot?’
All three of them agrees. We’re going in. ‘Ugly Five Two, Doorman Two Four, request you keep the pressure on. We’re going in,’ I advise.
‘Roger that, Doorman. We’ll keep their heads down,’ I hear against a deafening live soundtrack of 30mm cannon fire.... As Rich sets up in the gate at 100ft and 30kts, the LS is still taking fire. Suddenly the Defensive Aids Suite detects a threat. Some sort of weapons system has engaged us and the DAS has picked it up.
BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! It fires out a series of flares.
‘60ft, 30kts,’ I say as Rich brings the nose up.
Jim and Bob take over the talk-down and within seconds I feel the rear wheels land on.
‘Two wheels.... six wheels on,’ from the back.
The ramp goes down and the doctor heads out to meet the troops who are already with the casualties and heading for the aircraft. At the front, Rich and I are busy scanning everything and doing all the checks we can so that as soon as we get the nod, we can lift; we know the crewmen are busy and they’ll signal to us to get the hell out of Dodge the minute they can...
I look down and see a pair of feet in the 2ft narrow ‘corridor’ that leads from the rear of the cab to the cockpit. Something’s wrong though; they belong to an ANA who is laid on his back and his toes are pointing down towards the floor, not up as they should be. Both ankles are broken.
I catch Jim’s eye. ‘This guy’s in a bad way, mate,’ he says. ‘I’m just putting a tourniquet on him and it’s my tourniquet cos we’ve run out of them in the back.’
Fuck me, it must be bad; I’ve never heard of that happening before. I look towards the ramp and a scene of absolute bedlam greets me: six wounded British casualties and a wounded Afghan soldier on board - two T1s, four T3s and a walking wounded. I can’t even remember a time before when we had that many casualties in the cab. There are stretchers taking up every spare inch of floor space and almost nowhere for the QRF guys to go. IV drips hang from every point, the floor is awash with blood; I can almost smell it. It’s a scene of utter devastation - broken bodies and medics working like crazy in the dark, cramped dusty cab...’ (Ibid)
The Chinook was engaged again as it attempted to lift, with the DAS flares firing as a distraction. Amongst the casualties on board was Captain Hicks:
‘The team are trying to stabilise Captain Hicks. I ask Bob how he is.
‘He’s taken a head wound, Frenchie. They’re doing CPR on him at the moment.’
They manage to revive him, but I’m in awe of the crewmen. Already overworked with running the cab and managing the aircraft, they’re up to their elbows in all the worst aspects of conflict - bloodied, battered bodies of young soldiers. It’s hard enough for us looking in the mirror and seeing the guys working on them, but there’s no escape for the crewmen - they’re up close and personal. I look at the MERT team working on Capt. Hicks; he has multiple arrests but each time they perform CPR he comes back. I will him to hang on. We want him to live.
We run down as fast as we can down the east side of Sangin, along the east side of FOB Robinson, and once we clear that we do a right turn towards the south-west, north of Gereshk and a straight run for Bastion.... With the nose dipped, we are wringing every single ounce of power the cab has, flying at the aircraft’s VNE or Velocity Never Exceed. The ASI shows us at 160 knots - even more at times.... We try everything we’ve got. We’re flying faster than I’ve ever done before in a Chinook and it’s shaking like a bastard. We can’t fly a straight line back - the risk to the cab from ground fire is too great. We have to weigh up the options: save thirty seconds and risk losing the seven casualties, the crew, the medics and the cab, or go the longer way round? It’s a no-brainer. We can’t go as the crow flies so we take the quickest route we can. It adds maybe thirty seconds to our journey, but it feels like an age. I feel like we’re watching an hourglass and the sand’s about to run out.
Bastion’s in sight now. I can see the wire. Nightingale and the HLS are on the nose. We’re seconds away. Rich is working it like a madman; we’re digging deep to give everything we can.
‘How are things in the back?’ I ask.
‘I’m sorry mate, I think it’s over. He’s had a heart attack and they’re stopping CPR,’ says Bob.
I feel like the bottom has dropped out of our world. It’s absolutely heart-wrenching. But there’s still a chance, so we don’t stop. We don’t ever stop until we’re on the ground and we’ve done everything we can. We rip the aircraft all the way to Nightingale and the team are waiting for us. Rich stops the cab on a sixpence, we land on and the ramp goes down. The casualties are off, but we’re too late for David Hicks - sadly, he doesn’t make it.’ (Ibid)
Third tour, third time lucky - a D.F.C.
Duncan returned to the UK on leave at the end of his 2nd tour of Afghanistan in September 2007. After a period of pre-deployment training with 27 Squadron at R.A.F. Leuchars, Duncan was redeployed to Helmand in April of 2008. The Chinook Force was to once again support 16 Air Assault Brigade, with 3 Para to fore. This time Duncan had a formed crew, flying with Pete Winn, Mick Fry and Barry Fulton for the first part of the tour. They were engaged with similar taskings to before - resupply runs, underslung loads, troop insertions and extraction. By the end of April he formed up with a new crew, consisting of Alex Townsend, Bob Ruffles and Neil Cooper, all of whom would stay with him for the remainder of the tour.
The arrival of May was to test Duncan’s capabilities as a pilot to the limit:
‘The week or so following May 15th was unusual in the extreme but, at the time, there just seemed to be a marked increase in activity on the Taliban’s part. As it turned out, the series of seemingly unrelated events we experienced over that ten-day period were all part of a concerted effort by the Taliban to achieve a series of spectaculars; it was only down to an extraordinary degree of luck, daring, and some spectacular flying by the Chinook Force that they failed.
Over eight days, several cabs took rounds and an assassination attempt was made against Gulab Mangal, governor of Helmand Province, while I was flying him to Mua Qala. Also, the Taliban used a suicide bomber in a crowded market in a cynical attempt to lure a Chinook into a position where they could try and shoot it down.... (Ibid)
On the morning of 17 May, Duncan started the day on a routine three-ship tasking carrying freight from Lashkar Gah to Musa Qala. The two other cabs were flown by JP and ‘German’, with the latter also collecting some VIPs upon arrival at Lashkar Gah. Five miles north of Bastion, ‘German’s’ aircraft had a Defensive Aids Suite problem and was forced to put down at Bastion - thus leaving his VIPs stranded. Duncan and JP completed a trip to Musa Qala, before it was decided that they would take over ‘German’s’ tasking and take his passengers to Musa Qala.
In order to carry out the tasking both Chinooks stopped off at Gereshk to refuel. It was whilst this process was taking place that a huge fuel leak was discovered on JP’s aircraft. Duncan called his fellow pilot over the radio:
‘Black Cat Two Three, Black Cat Two Two. Seeing as you’re stuck here, we’ll fly on to Bastion with the Apache and take over Rich’s tasking. We’ll get the VIPs on board and I’ll speak to Bastion Ops to arrange for an armourer to come to my cab. I’ll drop him off here, en route to Musa Qala with Rich’s pax, so he can change your flares over.’
‘Black Cat Two Two, thanks for that, copied. We’ll stay here and await the armourer.’ (Ibid)
Having arrived at Bastion:
‘Coops goes off to locate Rich’s VIPs and returns a short time later, a line of well-dressed passengers following him like he’s the Pied Piper of Hamelin. We wait. And wait.
The heat is stifling, the dashboard too hot to touch. A bead of sweat draws a path under my helmet down my forehead and I can feel it heading inexorably for my eyes - my gloved hand swipes it away. The rotors turn, fuel burns, but we’re going nowhere. Where the fuck is the armourer?
I check my watch; we’ve been sitting ‘turning and burning’ for fifty minutes now.... [Once the armourer has finally arrived] I look past him to the full load of VIPs. I don’t know who they are except they’re very formally dressed so they look a bit out of place. Their questioning glares and furrowed brows tell me they’re an unhappy group of suits. I’m pissed off and I’ve only been waiting for an hour; they’ve been sat in the cab almost as long as I have, and they were waiting in the heat for over an hour before boarding. No wonder they’re not smiling.’ (Ibid)
Duncan successfully deposited the armourer at Gereshk, before flying on for Musa Qala:
‘Ten more minutes and we’re about six miles from the target. I radio ahead to the Apache: ‘Ugly Five Zero, Black Cat Two Two. Inbound. Next location in figures five.’
‘Black Cat Two Two, Ugly Five Zero, visual. Be aware, enemy forces moving weapons along your route. Hold, we’re checking it out.’
We don’t have long to wait.
‘Black Cat Two Two, Ugly Five Zero. Enemy forces moving weapons to the south-west - suggest you try alternative routing. Guys, the ICOM chatter has got ten times worse. They’re up to something.’
That’s the second time they’ve told us that today. Maybe something is going on after all. I feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, I click the PTT button on the end of the cyclic to confirm I’ve received the message.
What I don’t know is that the Taliban has brought in an assassination team especially to take out our cab - and with it our VIPs, who include Gulab Mangal, the governor of Helmand Province and a crucial figure in Britain’s long-term plan to stabilise the region. Mangal’s support for UK Forces in Helmand has been instrumental in securing approval for foreign troops among the Afghan population, but that and his hardline stance against corruption and the poppy trade have made the governor a prized scalp for the Taliban. Also aboard are his bodyguards and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s entire Provincial Reconstruction Team.’ (Ibid)
Duncan decided to fly a feint, to make it look as if they were landing at FOB Edinburgh:
‘I brief Alex. ‘Okay, I want you to put us four miles north of Edinburgh. There’s a deep wadi there and I want to be flying low through it at max speed on the approach....’
‘Bob, get on the starboard Minigun. Standard Rules of Engagement; you have my authority to engage without reference to me if we come under fire. Clear?’
I want him on the right because, looking at the topography of the area, that’s where we’d most likely take fire from. He can scan his arcs, I’ve got the front and right, and Alex and Coops have the left. We’re as well prepared as we can be, even if it does feel like we’re flying into the lion’s den.
Alex gets us into the perfect position and I drop low into the wadi as I fly us towards FOB Edinburgh at 160 knots. Trees are rushing past the cockpit windows on either side, but I’m totally focused on the job in hand so they barely register. We’re so low, I’m climbing to avoid tall blades of grass as we scream along the wadi... throwing the aircraft around. Anyone trying to get a bead on us is going to have a fucking hard time.
It’s about twenty seconds later when I see the Toyota Hilux with a man standing in the back. It’s alongside the wadi in our 1 o'clock position and about half a mile ahead. It’s redolent of one of the Technicals - the flat-bed pick-up trucks with machine-gun or recoilless rifle in the back that caused so much mayhem in Black Hawk Down. They’re popular with the Taliban too. Suddenly, alarm bells are ringing in my head. They’re so loud, I’m sure the others can hear.
‘Threat right,’ I shout as both Alex and I look at the guy in the truck.
My response is automatic. I act even before the thought has formed and throw the cyclic hard left to jink the cab away from danger. Except the threat isn’t right; the truck is nothing to do with the Taliban.
The threat lies unseen on our left, on the far bank of the wadi. The team brought in specifically to take us out is waiting there and they have a view of the whole vista below them, including us. I’ve just flown us right into the jaws of the trap they’ve laid just for us and Gulab Mangal, the VIP that the Taliban is desperate to take out.
BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG!
The Defensive Aids Suite explodes into life and fires off flares to draw the threat away from us; too late though. Everything happens in a nanosecond, but perception distortion has me in its grip, so it seems like an age.
I feel the airframe shudder violently as we simultaneously lurch upwards and to the right. I know what’s happened even as Coops shouts over the comms: ‘We’ve been hit, we’ve been hit!’
There’s no time for Bob to react on the gun. The aircraft has just done the polar opposite of what I’ve asked of it. And for any pilot, that’s the worst thing imaginable - loss of control.
‘RPG!’ shouts Coops. ‘We’ve lost a huge piece of the blade!’
The Master Caution goes off and I’m thrust into a world of son lumière. Warning lights are flashing and the RadAlt alarm is sounding through my helmet speakers.
‘Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Black Cat Two Two, Mayday. We’ve been hit!’ says Alex over the radio. Then, ‘Frenchie, we’ve lost the No. 2 hydraulic system and the AFCS, both secured.’
‘It could be worse,’ I think. The AFCS in an auto-stabiliser that helps keep the aircraft straight and level, but I can fly without it. The No. 2 hydraulic system is more of a concern, but it’s not life-and-death. The real concern is the blade; I’ve no idea how badly damaged it is, or how long it will last.’ (Ibid)
Whilst struggling to keep control of the shaking aircraft, Duncan formulated a plan:
‘C’mon, think! I tell myself. I consider putting the aircraft straight down and immediately dismiss the thought. It’s not feasible - I have sixteen civilians in the back, we have four rifles between us to defend them with, and we can’t be any more than 400 metres from the firing point - we’d have no chance.
I’m really worried about losing the blade completely - if that happens we’re fucked. I set myself small targets - you know, ‘I just want to make it to that tree over there.’ My aim is just to put some distance between the cab and the kill zone. At the back of my mind I know I have the option of putting the aircraft down, just throwing it in. I need to gain a bit of height, but will keep us low.
‘Rebug the RadAlt to 40ft your side, Alex,’ I say as I reset the bug for the light to 50.
‘RPG!’ shouts Bob as another one streaks past us, fire streaming from its tail. It misses us by a matter of feet. I can almost feel its heat. The whole cockpit is shaking like a food processor on its fastest setting.....
‘Guys, I think we’re going to be alright. She’s a bitch to fly but she’s hanging in,’ I tell the crew, sounding more confident than I feel.
‘Coops is securing our pax, mate. They’re obviously a bit shaken up,’ says Bob.
I see FOB Edinburgh on the nose and for the first time since we got hit, I start to believe that we might actually make it.
‘I’m going to go for a baby basic dust landing at the LS,’ I say.
‘It’s dusty as fuck at Edinburgh, so I’m not going to fuck around and try and put it anywhere specific - just right in the middle.’ (Ibid)
Despite the threat of further RPG fire, Duncan and his crew effected a zero speed landing at FOB Edinburgh amid a swirling cloud of dust:
‘Fuck me, Frenchie, that was an awesome bit of flying mate,’ says Alex.
‘Guys, I think we can all give ourselves a good old pat on the back,’ I tell the crew. ‘That was a real team effort. Well done!’
Coops shepherds our pax to safety. Then the thought occurs to me: ‘Guys, we can’t shut down here, it’ll block the FOB and nobody will be able to get in. We may need the space to land another aircraft full of engineers and spares to repair her. The cab’s got us this far, so I don’t think it’s going to give up on us now.’ (Ibid)
Despite their best efforts to get the Chinook flying again, it will not engage and it would appear that their landing was not a moment too soon:
‘I unbuckle my chin strap and remove my flying helmet, placing it on the centre console. I run my hand through my matted hair. All I can hear is the ticking sound of the engines cooling. It’s over.....
Alex and I look at one another across the cockpit. ‘Mate, you look fucked!’ he tells me. I smile. I don’t care how I look - I’m alive!
‘You’re not exactly going to make the cover of Vogue yourself mate! I retort. ‘How fucking lucky were we, though? Two RPGs nearly hit us! I guess we were lucky that we were only hit by small arms, although I reckon it must have been a .50 cal to take out the blade like that.’
The two of us unstrap ourselves from the machine that almost took us to our deaths, and walk through the cab and down the ramp. Coops and Bob are standing there looking at the aft disc.
‘Fucking hell, Frenchie, look at the twist on that blade,’ says Coops and I look up to see a massive chunk of it missing. The whole outer end of one of the blades has ceased to exist.
‘How the fuck could a .50 cal do that? I ask.
‘That was no .50 cal,’ says Coops. ‘We’ve been hit by an RPG!’
I look at Alex and all the colour has drained from his face. He looks like he is in shock.... I look at the aft pylon and there are huge football-sized, RPG-shaped holes through both sides of it, and that’s when my blood runs cold; it feels like it’s turned to ice in my veins..... It can’t have armed - if it had, it would have taken the cab out in a huge fireball and there’d be nothing left. It’s hit the aft head in an upward trajectory, passed clean through both sides of the aft pylon and travelled up and through the blades.
I walk around the cab and when I take in the extent of the damage, I can’t conceive of how we stayed aloft after the incident. We’ve been hit by three separate weapons systems: as well as the RPG passing through the pylon and taking out part of the aft rotor, we’ve taken a significant degree of shrapnel damage, seven or eight rounds of .50 cal and some 7.62 mm. In total there are thirty-four holes in the aircraft.
The thoughts are coming thick and fast as I play it back in my mind. I saw a Toyota Hilux and jinked the aircraft left suddenly, a second before we were hit... I shiver as I realise that that probably saved our lives, because the RPG would have hit us square on otherwise. The angle at which it hit means it didn’t arm; it struck us more of a glancing blow.... I mull over the irony of our call sign, Black Cat Two Two. To take an RPG and have it punch a hole through your rotor - that’s got to be all nine lives lost in one go.’ (Ibid)
Despite what had happened, the crew decided to return to tasking and were up in the air again the following morning. Later that day ‘German’ survived another RPG trap attack.
Duncan was coming to the end of his tour, however, he was to be engaged in one last major operation - Oqab Sturga (Eagle’s Eye), 23 May 2008. The latter was a night raid, with four Chinooks flying in pairs with Apache support. They were to move hundreds of troops to disrupt the Taliban south of Musa Qala. Flying with Townsend as his co-pilot and ‘German’ as his wingman, Duncan and crew were faced with a horrifyingly familiar situation just six days after being hit:
‘I transition and start to fly over a wadi at around 100ft when my peripheral vision catches a massive flash to the left, and the fabric of time stretches and becomes elastic. It’s ‘bullet time’ and everything slows.
‘R...P...G!’ I shout, but the words seem to take forever. It’s flying straight for us and I watch its fiery tail describe a lazy line behind it. I’m transfixed as I watch it s...l...o...w...l...y and inexorably head for the cockpit.
I look down and see it through the glass panels below my pedals as it flies under my feet. It’s so close, I feel I could put my hand out and grab it. The tail crackles and sparkles as it passes underneath me, jetting purple and yellow fire that is close enough for the reflection to dance across the instruments in the control panel. My NVGs show it in green, but it’s close enough that I can see it through the gap where the tubes meet my eyes.
Instinctively, I lift my feet off the controls as though by leaving them there they’ll burn in the rocket’s tail.
Then German calls ‘Contact!’ as he sees an explosion to the right of our aircraft and another RPG flies harmlessly behind us, where it hits the ground beneath and explodes.
‘The Taliban have got two firing points,’ says Alex and I’m thinking, ‘For fuck’s sake, not again. Surely not again?’
Almost unbelievably, we’re away and time reverts to normal speed again. The danger is behind us - for now.’ (Ibid)
Later in the operation, with conditions still hot, Duncan’s wingman narrowly avoided another RPG attack. Duncan then had to contend with the following:
‘We’re not going back to Bastion though; not yet. We have another mission to fly as a four-ship, extracting some other British soldiers from a grid in the desert. As dust landings go, it’s horrible - one of the worst I’ve experienced before or since. A complete dustbowl full of aerials, tents, troops, without any visual reference at all, so having faced a barrage of fire, we have to keep our nerve and execute perfect landings.
There’s nowhere to run on. The landing site is surrounded ahead and on both sides by tents and soldiers. JP and Hannah have already been and gone and in doing so, they’ve left a soft dust cloud behind them for us to contend with. As I fly approach, Stu Hague is tight on my left so I have to fly smoothly to make his life as simple as possible and help get him in. It’s not going to be easy. You might think, ‘Yeah, so what? You’re helicopter pilots; it’s what you do,’ but there’s difficult and then there’s nigh-on impossible, and you don’t get to cry off the really hard ones. This is real life, not a PS3 game - we’re playing without extra lives and we only get one chance.
Twice I tried and twice I had to overshoot as the ground wasn’t visible, even from 40ft. I repositioned for a standard 100ft, 30kts gate in order to trim the aircraft five degrees ‘nose up’ for the descent. Using this technique the aircraft literally flies itself to the ground, ensuring you make all the other gates on the way down.
The landing is so heavy it knocks the air out of my lungs and I’m thrown forward so far that I’m only held in by my straps. We made it. The aircraft is in one piece.... We quickly got the troops on and lifted off.
Then JP calls me on the radio. A point about JP - he never does that. Ever.
‘Black Cat Two Two, Black Cat Two Three, are you ok?’
I look at Alex and he says, ‘What the fuck?’
‘He must be shit scared for us. It’s not like him at all.’
‘Yeah, Black Cat Two Three, shaken not stirred!’ I reply, and with that we begin the forty-minute transit back to Bastion.’ (Ibid)
Duncan flew his last kinetic op of the tour on 25 May, when he went on IRT to extricate 3 Royal Marines whose vehicle had been blown up by an IED. Landing in a wadi, Duncan once again came under fire before managing to extract two of the casualties. The third, Marine Dale Gostick, had been killed.
The last sortie of Duncan’s tour was an air test, which took place on 28 May. The helicopter concerned was the very one he had almost been shot down in. Duncan got to fly her first air test before her return to service. At the end of his tour Duncan returned to the UK, and after a period of leave, was posted to R.A.F. Shawbury to train as a Qualified Helicopter Instructor in December 2008. Having qualified he was posted as a QHI on ‘C’ Flight, 18 Squadron - the Chinook OCF. Whilst stationed with the latter, Duncan was informed that he had been awarded the D.F.C. - the first for 27 Squadron since they had reformed with Chinooks:
‘I was recognised for the two missions I flew in my 2008 Det - the one in ZD575 when we were shot down, and for Op Oqab Sturga six days later. I feel enormously proud and privileged to have been awarded the D.F.C. for those ops, but I couldn’t have done them alone. My crews on the two missions - Alex, Bob, Coops, Andy and Griz - were as much a part of what happened as I was; so to me, the award is for them to.
Fortunately, the crew was acknowledged by the Guild of Air Pilots and Aviators, which awarded Black Cat Two Two its coveted Grand Master’s Commendation for 2008/09, at a lavish banquet in London’s Guildhall. The Guild had earlier recognised all of us by granting the Grand Master’s Commendation for 2007/08 to everyone at the R.A.F. Odiham Chinook Force.....
I was looking forward to visiting Buckingham Palace on July 15th 2009 to receive my award. When they first wrote to me with the invitation, I replied by return asking whether they would permit me three extra tickets so that I could bring Alex, Bob Ruffles and Coops - the whole crew - along. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they wrote back and said sorry but space was really tight. They did however let me have one extra ticket; so, as he was my co-pilot on both missions, I invited Alex, along with Alison and my parents.’ (Ibid)
A.F.C. - one of the most decorated pilots in the Royal Air Force
Duncan requested a return to operational flying, and rejoined ‘C’ Flight, 27 Squadron in Summer 2010. He redeployed with them, for a fourth tour of Afghanistan, in October 2010. At the end of October he led a formation of three Chinooks, of a force of five, as part of a massive operation against the Taliban’s equivalent of Sandhurst on the Pakistan border:
‘This operation involved more than 800 people in support. There was a US Marine battalion of light armoured reconnaissance vehicles on the ground - basically 150 small tanks. Above us there were two Apaches, two Sea Kings with sensors, two A-10 Warthogs, two F-18s, one Compass Call Electronic Warfare Hercules, one Spectre, two Predators and two B-1B bombers; all that to support us. We inserted more than 130 troops.’ (Ibid)
A huge aerial bombardment prior to, and after, the Chinook landing on the area resulted in 36 Taliban killed, vast quantities of drugs destroyed, ten tonnes of explosives captured and two senior Taliban members killed.
On 1 November, Duncan passed over 2,000 hours flown on Chinooks. He continued to fly mainly IRT out of Bastion for the remainder of the month, with the amount of IED explosion victims constantly increasing. On 4 December 2010, Duncan flew on a night IRT which resulted in an A.F.C. for him and the first ever award of the A.F.C. to an Army Air Corps pilot on operations in Afghanistan:
‘The weather took a turn for the worse today. The wind is routing all the way round Helmand and as it travels it gathers dust, creating brownouts that obscure and mask everything. The dust storms are the worst I’ve ever experienced here and the visibility is down to just 500 metres. I’m on IRT, which is the only type of mission allowed in such low visibility; all other taskings have been cancelled as the weather is deemed too risky for any flights that aren’t about saving lives’ (Ibid)
Earlier in the day Duncan had flown an IRT to pick up a six year old boy who had been shot in the abdomen. With the sun behind the helicopter visibility was increased to 1,000 metres, even so Duncan managed to only narrowly avoid two masts that loomed up en route:
‘I have to manoeuvre the aircraft harshly to avoid two compounds as the HLS is surrounded by woods and the wind is coming from behind. I slam the aircraft on the deck bang in the middle of what would be considered a confined area in the UK, thus requiring at least two orbits to get in. That makes me smile.
The JTAC informs us that fighting is going on one hundred metres south of our position; that wipes the smile from my face. The little boy is loaded and we’re back off to Bastion.... When we get to the airfield it’s difficult to see the runway or the tower until we are on top of them.... I pray we won’t get scrambled tonight as the visibility is going to fall even further - there’s no moon and no cultural lighting so it’ll be red illume. With no ambient light to amplify, NVGs are useless in these conditions.’ (Ibid)
The weather did not abate the fighting, and that evening Duncan was called out on IRT to Sangin:
‘I speak to Neil, the pilot of Ugly Five Zero, our Apache escort for this shift, and we discuss tactics should we be called out after dark. The solution is crazy but it’s the only way - flying in close formation so that I can hang on to the AH’s tail lights while he flies using his cab’s FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared). The Apache’s 36-times magnification FLIR camera can see over 2,000 metres through the dust; it’s not perfect but it’s better than my Mk. 1 Human Eyeball, which sees nothing in these conditions. My prayers go unanswered; we’re called out to Sanguin at 19:20 to an ISAF soldier who’s been shot in the stomach. As we lift all I can see are the AH’s position lights, but even that’s hit and miss and, when I’m flying just 30 metres from Neil’s, I lose sight of it. I get him to switch from infrared lighting to normal position lights on. I can see him again. I can’t see the ground, I can’t see the horizon, all I can do is try to keep the Apache’s lights in the same position in my windscreen.
We transit at 400 feet above ground but it’s so dark I can’t even tell how close we are to the Apache. I ask Neil to advise me of the range between my aircraft and his using the AH’s radar and when he tells me, I’m shocked. I think I’m close but I’m 500 metres away; I think I’m way back but I’m 30 metres aft. Not ideal when our wings are rotating at 400 mph on each aircraft; the idea of what would happen if we touched each others’ wings is unthinkable.....
It only takes 30 minutes to approach Sangin but it feels like 30 hours. Neil has arranged for infrared mortar rounds to be fired from the PB to give us some illumination; it should provide enough light for pour NVGs to perceive, but it’s so dark that even with this mortar illume we can’t see the ground. It’s so desperate that I request that the camp turns all vehicle lights on. I start the descent following Neil on the way down. Through 400ft, no sign of the ground. 350, 300, 250, 200, 175... I can see some faint light ahead, but there’s still no sign of the ground. As we pass through 150ft I am just able to see some water reflection in the light from the IR mortar.
I manage to control the aircraft in a slow hover-taxi even though the disorientation is total and I can’t see how fast we’re moving across the ground. I continue low and slow and, eventually, I find the camp, skip over the fence and land on. We wait for the casualty to be loaded. ‘Phew!’ Mick Fry, my No. 1 crewman, says.
‘You know, Frenchie, I’ll always back you but I think this time we found the edge of the envelope!’ (Ibid)
Whilst loading the casualty, the crew was requested to make another pick up - this time a ISAF soldier wounded by an IED on top of a hill. Duncan accepted this mission, but was forced to abort as the visibility had reduced to 150 metres. Having made another difficult landing back at Bastion, they were requested to go out again and return to Sangin to collect the ISAF soldier who had been moved there:
‘We are all in shock after our last sortie. I’m shaking, adrenaline coursing through my veins.... Neil’s gone off shift, so I want to brief the new crew on what tactics we’re going to use. Turns out that the new crew includes Captain Steve Jones, a guy I’ve enjoyed working with throughout this Det - we have some good banter going, which helps to boost the crew’s confidence.
When we set off again, conditions have deteriorated and the visibility is even worse. However, I’ve a frame of reference now so I have some idea of what to expect - and I’m more than aware of all the disorientating tricks my mind might play on me.’ (Ibid)
Working to the same method as before, and keeping within two wingspans of each other, Duncan and Jones progressed slowly but surely towards the landing site. However, the conditions had deteriorated even further causing them to overshoot:
‘I look right and notice Steve’s Apache is really close to us, so I turn left by twenty degrees to increase the separation. When I look again, though, he is closer still. This induces something in me called ‘the leans’, which can occur when you have no visual reference for the horizon; without it, the balance organs in my ear tell me that I’m turning right, even though I know I’m turning left. I feel as if I’m falling out of my seat, so I concentrate on the head-up display in my NVG monocle and my visual reference to the artificial horizon clears the problem.
I look right again and despite my turn left, Steve is closer still - there can’t be more than one span between us! I call him over the radio: ‘Check your heading mate!’ and he corrects. It turns out that when he saw some lights pass under his aircraft, he thought they had overshot Sangin, got disorientated, looked down at them and up again, and he got the leans too, which caused him to turn to the left because it felt straight and level to him.
While all this is going on I see some faint lights ahead. We pass through 200ft and we’re still not visual with the ground, so I move ahead of Steve’s Apache and call visual with what appears to be the camp, intending to make the approach. At 100ft, I finally get eyes on the ground and that’s when I realise that the lights aren’t those of the landing site! I notice a flag painted on the wall ahead bearing the symbol of the Afghan National Police. We are hovering just outside the door of Sangin’s Police Station!
I check the GPS and realise that we’re east of where we should be and instead of being over the PB at Sangin, we’re just south of a place called Wombat Wood, which was a favourite firing point for the Taliban. There we are in the hover just 20 feet over one of the most dangerous places in Helmand Province! Realising this, I quickly get my bearings, crosscheck with the GPS and hover-taxi the last half mile to the camp, where I once again hop us over the fence and on to the LS where the casualty is promptly loaded on board.’ (Ibid)
Duncan managed to negotiate his way back to Bastion without further incident:
‘The events of that night proved a salutary lesson for all of us in the crew - that out here, you don’t always have to face the enemy to find yourself confronting fear. The weather we faced was sufficiently bad that it saw all other flights grounded, so I suppose the obvious question is: was it worth the risk in us being deployed? So far as we were all concerned, the answer has to be yes. Us fighting our way through the gloom meant that a six-year-old child was treated quickly, and survived; the ISAF soldier we picked up would have died had we not got to him when we did, and the other ISAF soldier we hooked up kept his eyesight. Against that backdrop, it was worth it all and more.’ (Ibid)
Duncan came under fire again, whilst flying a series of taskings on 15 December 2010. The attack took place whilst flying over the Green Zone, east of the Helmand River, when the Chinook took rounds to the engine, and a RPG exploded outside the port door. Despite multiple system failures Duncan managed to nurse the stricken Chinook back to Bastion:
‘Luck seemed to be with all of us that day, but none more so than Mick Fry. The RPG that detonated next to the aircraft caused the port door to cave in, burn marks to the side of the aircraft and shrapnel that tore through the root of one of the blades on the aft head. It exploded at the precise moment Mick stuck his head into the cockpit. Had he stayed where he was, he’d have taken the full impact of the explosion and would almost certainly have died.’ (Ibid)
A week later, Duncan had completed another tour and was back in the UK. He carried out his fifth and final tour of operations in Afghanistan from August 2011. It was to prove another eventful tour, with Duncan’s helicopter taking rounds during the first week (a round passed through the rear cabin just missing a passengers head), and then him flying a mission (despite just coming off duty) to rescue a stranded Chinook crew who had been shot down six miles short of Bastion. He returned to the UK in October, having flown 170 hours in two months - the equivalent of a year’s flying in the UK.
Duncan was invested with his A.F.C. by the Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palace, 14 February 2012. This time he managed to get invitations for his entire crew. Duncan subsequently advanced to Squadron Leader and was posted to the Command of the Oxford University Air Squadron:
‘I feel I have given 110% to combat ops in the Afghanistan Campaign but I know that I am not indispensable - there are plenty of younger, more talented pilots ready to take on the role and fly into the face of the enemy. By day or by night, in good weather and bad, they will take the war to the Taliban and perhaps more importantly, risk all to pick up any ISAF soldier needing assistance. To the crews, that is the most important part of the Chinook missions and as long as British and ISAF soldiers remain on the ground, the Chinook force will be ready to respond whenever and wherever they need us.’ (Ibid)
Sold with the following original related items: 2 Royal Air Force Pilots Flying Log Books (30 July 2001 - 19 January 2018); 11 mainly annotated photographs from various stages of recipient’s career; marked operational maps from service in Afghanistan; a copy of Watchkeeper’s Log for 17 May 2008 - detailing events of the day as they occurred; copy of immediate Confidential Report to MOD and Cabinet Office detailing the actions of 17 May 2008; Investiture ephemera for 15 July 2009, and Investiture photographs for both the D.F.C. and the A.F.C.; a signed copy of Sweating The Metal by Flight Lieutenant Alex ‘Frenchie’ Duncan D.F.C, A.F.C.; a large scrapbook replete with newspaper cuttings from various national and local papers, and a large number of letters of congratulation, including from: Air Chief Marshal Sir Clive Loader, Commander-in-Chief Air Command, dated 9 March 2009; Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy, Chief of the Air Staff, dated 6 March 2009; Rear Admiral C. A. Johnstone-Burt, R.N., Commander Joint Helicopter Command, dated 17 March 2009; Air Commodore S. O. Falla, Deputy Commander Joint Helicopter Command, dated 5 March 2009; General Sir David Richards, Commander-in-Chief, Headquarters Land Forces, dated 12 March 2009; Lieutenant General Sir Nicholas Houghton, Chief of Joint Operations, Permanent Joint Headquarters (UK), dated 6 March 2009; Air Vice-Marshal C. N. Harper, Air Officer Commanding Headquarters No. 1 Group, dated 4 March 2009; Group Captain A. M. Turner, Commander United Kingdom, Joint Aviation Group Afghanistan, dated 5 March 2009; Wing Commander D. Toriati, Officer Commanding 27 Squadron, dated 6 March 2009; The Rt. Hon. James Arbuthnot, M.P., dated 25 March 2009; Air Chief Marshal Sir Simon Bryant, Commander-in-Chief, Headquarters Air Command, dated 30 September 2011; Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, Chief of the Air Staff, dated 30 September 2011; Air Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, Chief of Joint Operations, Permanent Joint Headquarters (UK), dated 26 September 2011; Air Vice-Marshal S. D. Atha, Air Officer Commanding No. 1 Group, dated October 2011; Brigadier J. T. E. Illingworth, Deputy Commander Joint Helicopter Command, dated 2 October 2011; Group Captain S. J. Shell, UK Chinook Force Commander, Station Commander, dated 26 September 2011; and Air Commodore A. Turner, Permanent Joint Headquarters, dated 26 September 2011.