Clapped out in Qatar Feb 12th 2007 From Economist.com Our defence correspondent passes a point of no return Monday NEVER more will I associate the word âmilitaryâ with âefficiencyâ. We are supposed to fly to Afghanistan care of Britainâs 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 dayâs stranded passengers, and journalists are ânot a priorityâ. 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. Letâs hope they donât 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 stationerâs 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 âprohibited itemsâ 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 RAFâs 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 âpoint of no returnâ. Beyond that, explains a crew member, âif anything goes wrong we donât have enough fuel to go backâ. 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. But useful on a long flight 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 mishapâonly 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. âYou will be subject to American military discipline,â he bellows, âthey arrest you first and ask questions later.â Forget the special relationship. For America, Britain is just the poor relation.