Royal Navy Falklandâs veteran flies against Taleban
News Release issued by the COI News Distribution Service on 28 September 2009
A Royal Navy reservist and veteran of the Falklandâs conflict has volunteered for a tour in Afghanistan with 663 Squadron Army Air Corps, flying the Apache attack helicopter. Lieutenant Commander Bill OâBrien, 54 and from the South West, retired from active service in 2005, having originally joined the Royal Marines in 1971.
His first operational tour as a Royal Marine was in Northern Ireland in 1973 and then he flew during the Falklandâs conflict and the Gulf War in 1991. Lt Cdr OâBrien will be one of some 600 reservists from all three Services in Afghanistan, but the only one currently piloting a helicopter. Before signing on for this deployment he was a helicopter instructor at the School of Army Aviation in Middle Wallop, Hampshire and 1500 of his total of 6000 flying hours are on the Apache.
He said, âThe Apache had not been deployed when I retired so there is an itch yet to scratch. Iâm grateful for the hard work the Royal Naval Reserve and the Army have put in to make it happen. I believe I have a contribution to make; there is still some life in the old dogâ.
Lt Cdr OâBrien has more than 30 yearsâ flying experience. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal in the Falklandâs conflict while flying a Gazelle at the battles of Darwin and Goose Green, conducting a number of CASEVACs [casualty evacuation] and re-supply missions at the very front line. He will be at Camp Bastion for 4 months as part of the 155-strong team from 663 Squadron, whose base is Wattisham Airfield in Suffolk.
Lt Cdr OâBrien was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal for his actions during Operation Corporate, the 1982 Falkland Island conflict. At that time he was a Royal Marine sergeant and flying ammunition to, and bringing back casualties from 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment at Goose Green. His citation read: âSgt Obrien displayed exceptional courage and considerable flying skill in the face of the enemy.â
He said: âWe flew a number of sorties mostly at night in an armed Gazelle, not that we ever used the rockets in anger. I am not sure how effective they would have been if we had â they had a fairly basic aiming system just a chinagraph cross on the aircraft windscreen. It was the early days of night vision devices. They were fairly rudimentary and we taught ourselves how to use them on the way down embarked [training on this equipment was completed onboard ships transporting them to the South Atlantic].
Since 2005 he has been one of a handful of ex-military helicopter instructors who work alongside their Army counterparts at Middle Wallop to convert Army pilots from the Squirrel training aircraft onto the world-renowned Apache. At the same time he joined the Royal Naval Reserve Air Branch, where he is an operations officer with the Commando Helicopter Force at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton.
The father of three said, âMy wife Helen deserves a lot of credit; after all the sacrifices she made during my Regular service, she did not blink and has been positively supportive to me from the outset.â
This is 663 Squadronâs second operational tour with Joint Helicopter Force (Afghanistan) in 2 years, the first being 6 months long.
The Squadron Commander, Major Jason Etherington, said, âAlthough Bill joined the Royal Marines a year after I was born he still has the enthusiasm and dedication to match the younger members deployed to Afghanistan. Well known as an excellent QHI [Qualified Helicopter Instructor] throughout the Army Air Corps, Lt Cdr OâBrien can claim to have assisted in the training of almost every AH pilot within the Sqn; his technical knowledge, experience and maturity are well valued. He is a hugely popular individual who brings a great deal to an exceedingly professional organisationâ.
When asked what is it like flying in Afghanistan as opposed to the Falkland Islands, Lt Cdr OâBrien said: âThe intensity is more than I was expecting and is more than I recollect from the other place. It is full on all the timeâ. He added: âI fly an Apache so I donât feel terribly threatened, although the flying environment is quite hard work sometimesâ.
He added: âWe are here to support the guys on the ground. We are here to support the Afghan people. I believe the average Afghan, like any other human being, just wants to put food on the table, send his children to school, know that his family is safe and that the rule of law prevails. The job needs to be done properly and I believe I can make some small contribution to thatâ.
Lt Cdr OâBrienâs Co-pilot/gunner Captain Chris Vosper, 31, explained what it was like flying with the elder statesman of the Squadron: âIt is awesome, it is a privilege. Bill is a very experienced pilot and we have become a good team. I am the Squadron Operations Officer which is a very busy appointment and Bill offloads a lot of the hassle and the peripherals before each flight. He is very good and patient; his age isnât a factor â he just gets more respect because of his experience. It is just a shame he is so slow running to the aircraft! I think his Zimmer gets in the way. [said with a broad smile]â.
Captain Vosper continued: âAs an ex Royal Marine, Bill is happy to banter with the boys. He fits in really well into Squadron life â he is an optimist with a healthy positive attitude; he is very good for moraleâ.
As one of only 2 Naval officers in the squadron he is treated with respect. Lt Cdr OâBrien said: âIt is exactly as you would expect but they do treat me with a degree of respect and they seem keen to look after their Uncle Bill. There are 2 Naval Officers on the Squadron at the moment. The other one was called Shippers before I arrived. Now there has been realignment and he is called Shippers Minor and Iâm called Shippers Majorâ.
He added that they were good to him and that âdespite my Flight Commander not being born when I went to the Falklands. The Squadron have a RN Petty Officer engineer working on the engineering staff so they are well used to working with naval personnel. We have exchange officers on Apache and the other fleets, as do the other services, so there is a healthy cross fertilisation of ideas and practices; although some members of the Squadron seem a little confused by âJackSpeakâ [the peculiar language used by members of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines]â.
When asked if he was still enjoying flying, Lt Cdr OâBrien replied: âVery much so. There is just so much going on all the time, no two days are the same. The platform is so capable that you have to be on your mettle all the time and it seems that every day I learn something new or remember something I had forgotten â and I donât think that is just an age thingâ;
And when he was going to hang up his flying boots: âI canât say â probably if I were to lose my medical category â then there would be no choiceâ.
Lt Cdr OâBrien described his job: âItâs great. Iâm loving itâ.
1. Lt Cdr OâBrien arrived in Afghanistan in early September and has been busy flying tasks ever since: He has flown over 30 missions. On a busy day he could start tasking at 0300 and not finish until 2100 with tasking that can last many hours. He is not the first or last reservist to fly in Afghanistan, but at this time is likely to be the only one flying helicopters.
2. The squadron fly the Apache attack helicopter. The role is split between providing an armed escort for the lightly armed support helicopters and to provide armed âoverwatchâ and support for friendly ground forces. When escorting the big twin-rotor Royal Air Force Chinook transport helicopter and the smaller Royal Navy Sea Kings, the Apache will circle the area to ensure that no hostile forces attempt to fire at their more vulnerable charges. The Apaches also escort the Chinook Medical Emergency Response Team and US Pedro medical evacuation helicopters when they go to pick up casualties. As the ground action may still be ongoing as the medevac [medical evacuation] helicopters arrive, the Apache may be called to suppress enemy gunmen. When supporting troops on the ground, often the very presence of the menacing Apache is enough to persuade hostile fighters to leave the area. âOverwatchâ could be for a convoy or a patrol of troops. The Squadron do not just support British forces; they can be called to any ISAF nationality.
3. After 28 years in the Royal Marines, rising to become a senior non-commissioned officer, he received his commission and retired from the Royal Marines as a Major before transferring to the Army Air Corps for his final 6 years of military service. Lt Cdr OâBrien transferred to the Royal Naval Reserve from the Army Air Corp. As part of this transfer a decision on his eligibility to retain rank would have been made and his rank would have changed from Maj to Lt Cdr because of the change in Service