For Anyone who has had the Tristar Experience from Brize

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An excellent look at our AT problems from an Economist Journalist - I think most of us have had this experience...........

AFGHANISTAN'S POLITICS
Feb 12th 2007

Our defence correspondent passes a point of no return

MONDAY
NEVER more will I associate the word "military" with "efficiency". We
are supposed to fly to Afghanistan care of Britain's Royal Air Force,
but when we turn up at Brize Norton, west of Oxford, we are told our
flight has been cancelled for lack of crew. When we turn up the
following day at 10am we are told the flight is full because it has to
take on the previous day's stranded passengers, and journalists are
"not a priority". A few calls to the Ministry of Defence soon set the
record straight. No doubt some poor Royal Marines are told to come back
tomorrow. Let's hope they don't catch up with us in Afghanistan.

Brize Norton is a throwback to a different era of air travel. Unlike
Heathrow airport, it has no swanky shopping mall, only a stationer's
shop and a little coffee-bar that has run out of hot dogs. Goodies on
sale include spare bootlaces, insect repellent, camouflage paint and
other essentials for the combat soldier.

My eye is drawn to a display case of "prohibited items" for military
flights (shown below). Remember the nail clippers and cigarette
lighters that are imperiously confiscated from ordinary passengers in
civilian airports? Here they worry about commando knives, machetes,
pistols, ammunition and knuckle-dusters; the kind of thing a Royal
Marine might forget to leave at home. At least bottles of water are OK.
Flak-jackets and helmets are compulsory in the cabin, to be worn on
landing in the Afghan war zone. We are soon to discover, however, that
the more immediate threat to our lives is not the Taliban, but the
appalling state of the RAF's fleet of 30-year-old Tristar transport
planes.

The buses to the plane are loaded according to rank. Colonels and
lieutenant-colonels go first, followed by officers, and then other
ranks. We journalists appoint ourselves majors, in the hope of getting
decent seats. Just as we are about to reach the aircraft, though, the
retreat is sounded. The plane has developed a technical fault and we
must wait some more.

We finally make it on board on hour or so later, only to face more
delays. One of the anti-missile defence turrets has broken down, and
the captain must obtain permission to fly finally from the higher-ups.

It is dusk by the time we take off. In the galley, crew members have
pinned up a map showing our intended progress with hand-written
crosses. Somewhere over the Caucasus there is one marked "point of no
return". Beyond that, explains a crew member, "if anything goes wrong
we don't have enough fuel to go back". The plane would have to limp on
to Kandahar, or negotiate for permission to land in a possibly
less-than-hospitable country along the way. I am assured it would not
be the first time this has happened.

Everybody in the British forces, I discover, has an RAF horror story to
tell. Transport delays are commonplace, eating up valuable R&R leave.
One soldier recalls how, instead of closing the doors before take-off,
the crew accidentally inflated the escape chute. Another recounts how
his plane hit the runway too hard on landing and damaged its tail. Even
the crew members are keen to retell their experiences of flying in
these rust-buckets.

Not long ago Tony Blair delivered a speech explaining why Britain still
had to exert hard power around the world. If so, he'd better order some
new planes. British cabinet ministers long ago stopped using the RAF
transport fleet, preferring the Queen's Flight, or even posh private
charters. But they still send the boys to war in clapped-out aircraft.
The captain tells us that, in the case of a loss of cabin pressure,
oxygen masks will drop down. But above my head I see only a hole. The
ceiling panel has come off, revealing the inner guts of the fuselage.
Spare parts, apparently, are hard to come by.

Still, we make it into Afghan air space without mishap--only to hear,
as we circle Kandahar, the captain announcing that we will not be
landing after all. Another turret has broken down, and we must divert
to an American base at al-Udeid, in Qatar.

It proves to be an American city in the desert, complete with outlets
for Pizza Hut, Baskin Robbins and Burger King. The British reception
tent has dusty camp beds and some tea on offer; the American chow-hall
offers pancakes and bacon, the air-conditioned accommodation tents have
lovely bunk beds with orthopaedic mattresses. A British NCO briefs us
on our behaviour on base. The Royal Marines must honour the British
uniform, and compliment their American hosts whenever possible. "You
will be subject to American military discipline," he bellows, "they
arrest you first and ask questions later." Forget the special
relationship. For America, Britain is just the poor relation.

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