25 Flt Army Air Corps Departs from Belize
By August 2011 the British Army Training Support Unit Belize will drawdown and reduce its support to the Field Army. With this, 25 Flt AAC will pack its bags and relocate to the glorious pastures of Middle Wallop, thus ending the permanent air support that the British Armed Forces has provided to the Government of Belize since 1972. It seems timely to remind ourselves of the work accomplished by Army Aviation there.
British Honduras (as Belize was known) had been part of the British Empire, and subsequently the Commonwealth, since the Battle of St Georges Caye in 1876. Renamed Belize in 1973, it has been self governing since 1964 and gained full independence in 1981. There has been a constant British military presence in the country since the early 1970s. In recent years both RAF and AAC units have supported the Field Army on exercise and Adventure Training. However, latterly 25 Flt AAC was the only permanent aviation unit based there.
From the early days Army Aviation played a vital role in Belize. Sioux, Scout, Gazelle and Lynx have all operated there. However, these aircraft were not well suited to this challenging environment. It wasn’t until 2003, with the delivery of the first Bell 212 helicopter, that 25 Flt could meet this challenge with a suitable platform.
The withdrawal of the Lynx and Gazelle saw the REME detachment return to the UK. The Bells are leased from, and maintained by, FBH Ltd, and are operated under a ‘Military Registered Civilian Owned’ arrangement. Based on the original UH-1 Uroquis, (more commonly known as the ‘Huey’), Bell 212 is perfectly suited to the jungle environment. Fitted with a winch the aircraft provides 25 Flt with an unrivaled Forward AeroMedical Evacuation (FAME) capability. The aircraft could now deliver a fast response medical team to the most remote parts of Belize to pluck anyone to safety – and it has! The diverse and complex nature of both the environment and the tasking makes flying in Belize challenging, highly rewarding and exciting.
Although tasked primarily to support British training, 25 Flt maintained a commitment to the people of Belize, and therefore mounted 24hr FAME coverage in order to rescue anyone in country and fly them back to the hospital in Belize city. On 30 minutes notice to move 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, 25 Flt has come to the aid of soldiers and civilians alike.
Although the Flt has never suffered a fatal aircraft accident it has suffered the loss of members. Tragedy befell the Flt on two separate occasions in the 1990s. In September 1994 Captain Julian Pooley AAC was killed in a road accident in Mexico. In March 1996 Corporal Simon Sutcliffe REME was killed in another road accident.
In 2009 ZJ965 crashed within ten miles of Belize International Airfield. The aircraft was lost to fire, but the crew were able to walk away with no injuries. This left the Flt with only two aircraft, and so another 212 was sent out from the UK. This aircraft – known as ‘Kermit’ – has never been fitted with a winch, nor is it NVG compatible. However, the Flt were able to utilize its extra carrying capacity for larger troop moves during the exercises held in 2010 and 2011; one of which, in the last week of operations in Belize, required two aircraft to lift 150 soldiers stranded in a hilltop fort back to civilisation!
January 2011 witnessed a first in the Army Bell 212 fraternity – Ab initios. Thought by many to lack the experience and skill set to be able to deal with the challenges of jungle aviation; the two new boys (Lt Jones and Sgt Tysoe) have proven their critics wrong! They have also managed to drop the Flt’s average age and Body Mass Index below 30! Credit is also due to WO1 Mike Sinclair, who has trained and nurtured his wards to good effect.
The three 212s and the twenty two personnel who operate them will be the last permanent British military aviation asset in Belize. They signify the last in a long line of military aviators who, through varying forms, have committed themselves to the protection and safeguarding of the Belizean people. A diverse mix of cultures, politics and the environment has led to an equally diverse challenge for those lucky enough to have operated in Belize. This history is something in which all who have played a part can be rightfully proud.
We now look to the future – at Middle Wallop. Our role will be to support the Field Army, utilizing the aircraft for trooping, abseiling, Command and Control and under-slung load training. 25 Flt lives on and will maintain the traditions of the past, not forgetting the fallen and in true AAC style.