HE IS the man now charged with ensuring Oxfordshire’s licensees are not breaking the law but nothing he has to face is as dangerous as his previous occupation.

Tony Cope, who is now a Thames Valley Police licensing officer, was part of a seven-man RAF crew who evacuated 20 passengers from a burning plane in Afghanistan after it hit a landmine and burst into flames.

The 46-year-old former RAF sergeant yesterday told of the moment he came close to losing his life and how the crew’s training took over to get everyone to safety from their Hercules transport plane.

Mr Cope, who was based at RAF Lyneham, in Wiltshire, was three weeks into a six-week posting in Afghanistan when the incident happened in May 2006.

The father-of-two, from Garsington, said: “We had landed on a desert airstrip and as we came in, we struck a landmine and it blew up the left undercarriage, which penetrated the fuel tanks and set fire to the aircraft. All the fuel caught fire.

“There was a huge bang and an explosion and we could see debris flying around in front of us.

“We had 40 seconds to get of the aircraft before it became completely unsustainable.

“In that time we had to get the aircraft to a standstill and evacuate. It was very quick.”

Mr Cope, who left the RAF in 2007 to join the police after 25 years in uniform, said Stephen Evans, the then Ambassador to Afghanistan, was on board and thought the whole incident was a training exercise.

He said: “He said during the whole process he thought it was a training exercise, because he couldn’t see any flames and he just heard us talking and we were so calm. It was only when someone said ‘evacuate’ did he think he ought to get off.

“It was all the training we do to cope with the unexpected so when it does happen, no one flaps.

“The worst thing you can do is hesitate, which can lead to panic.

“When the fire first caught and hit the left wing I thought ‘this could be quite bad’. There were a couple of times when I thought we were going to die.

“It was hot. I felt the hairs burning on my arms.”

Mr Cope, who could not reveal any further details about the top-secret mission, added: “We ran quickly away from the fire.

“While we were running away, we were being shot at by our own ammunition that was catching fire and going off.”

He added: “Everything is automatic until afterwards and then it hits you.

“We were thinking ‘how are we going to explain the loss of a £50m aircraft?’ “It was the most dramatic thing to have happened in the job.

“Every time you flew in Afghanistan, you knew there was a risk. There was always a little bit of apprehension preparing to fly but as soon as you started, you would carry on as normal.”