A CRACK team of service personnel from RAF Brize Norton have returned from aiding international forces in Mali.
The French-led conflict, backed by the international community, began on January 11 against Islamist rebels in the West African country.
France does not have aircraft able to carry large loads of equipment, so the team of about 20 from RAF Brize Norton transported French armoured personnel carriers on the RAF’s C17s.
The aircraft are capable of carrying up to three armoured vehicles on each run and have operated about 20 trips to date.
After being delayed by a technical fault, the first C17 arrived in Bamako – Mali’s capital – on Monday, January 14.
Squadron Leader Andy McIntyre, of 99 Squadron, has just returned from five weeks there.
He was flown out as part of a 12-man British team from the Army, Navy and RAF to get the airport ready and organise the unloading.
He said: “From when I got the call to say I was going, I had to be in the car to go to the airport two hours later. That included getting my kit, personal weapon and body armour. I had only landed from an Afghanistan deployment 24 hours before, so it was quite a tight turn around.”
The team flew through the night, stopping at three civilian airports en route, to reach the West African country.
He said: “We were there so quickly that the French were not there in force when we arrived.
“We had a couple of hours of frantic activity to establish contact with the French and work out where we were going to stay.”
He added: “There were security concerns but it was no different from what we are used to.”
The team worked for 40-hour sstraight to get the airfield ready for the C17s and then liaised with RAF colleagues in France to coordinate the flights. Sq Ldr McIntyre added: “The RAF was the only one with a team on the ground, other than the French, so we ended up supporting the Canadians and helping out the Americans. I became the international C17 liaison officer.”
Meanwhile, Sq Ldr Spencer Wild was based at Evreux Air Base, near Paris, where the RAF was loading up armoured vehicles to fly out to Mali.
He coordinated with colleagues in Bamako to assess the situation on the ground and prepare the planes flying out there.
He said: “We had six maintenance specialists who would quickly service the aircraft before it was reloaded again and flown back out.
“We were constantly shuttling back and forth. The biggest challenges for us were minimising the fatigue of the crews, who were working 18-hour shifts.”
Meanwhile, teams from 1 Air Mobility Wing (AMW) based in Evreux and at RAF Brize Norton have been organising the transportation logistics.
HISTORY OF THE CONFLICT
SINCE January 2012, rebel groups have been fighting an insurgency against the Malian government for independence of the north.
The president was ousted in a coup d’état in March, leading to rebels seizing northern Malian towns and declaring independence.
In May, two rebel groups merged and declared northern Mali an Islamic state. Al-Qaeda in North Africa endorsed the deal.
West African countries, with United Nations and African Union backing, agreed military action to recapture the north in November.
In January this year, Islamist fighters captured a central Malian town and planned to march on the capital. The new president asked France for help.