For Anyone who has had the Tristar Experience from Brize

Discussion in 'Current Affairs, News and Analysis' started by THE_EDITOR, Feb 16, 2007.

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

    Feb 12th 2007

    Our defence correspondent passes a point of no return

    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

    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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