Puma Force delivers on Op RUMAN
The first Readiness State 2 (R2) contingency operations deployment for Puma 2 saw the Puma Force, represented by 33 Squadron A Flight, carrying out tasking in the wake of hurricane Irma just four days after being given the green light to deploy.
The aircraft, crews, engineers and support functions went on to complete almost 200 flying hours of demanding tasking across 19 operating days in locations spanning hundreds of miles despite tough conditions and the onslaught of another hurricane!
7 September began as any other day on the Force however this soon changed as direction was given to prepare for an R2 deployment to an as yet unconfirmed part of the Caribbean. Preparations began immediately and initial instructions were for personnel to be packed and ready to go, possibly as early as late morning the next day. The support from sections all around the station was outstanding with everyone involved dropping what they were doing – along with normal working hours – to get the detachment prepped to leave.
The Puma Force holds a permanent R2 commitment to Defence. This is a 5 day notice to move requirement however in 18 hours there were 2 Pumas with 100 flying hours available on each cab at Brize Norton, along with Engineers and essential Joint Helicopter Force (JHF3) personnel and support functions. A third aircraft would be ready just days later; an incredible achievement from the engineering team. FS Rob Calverley, not long back from running the Op TORAL engineering detachment, took the role of DEngO for the det of over 20 Engineers and took the advance party out with the first Puma to get the aircraft rebuilt and ready to fly in whatever situation they might find themselves.
Back at Benson the DetCo, Sqn Ldr Tom Holgate, had gathered his four crews for the Op. These were largely made up of 33 Squadron, A Flight aircrew who were holding the R2 commitment following their return from TORAL two months previously. Despite traditionally being known as ‘Arctic’ flight, Flt Lt Steven Mills, the 2ic was confident they would be at home in the warm seas, sandy beaches and tropical climate of the Caribbean and the flight even welcomed a lone tiger in to the detachment in the form of Flt Lt ‘Gus’ Spiers of 230 ‘B’ Flight.
The advance party arrived at the US Virgin Islands, the operating base for the Puma detachment to provide support to the British Virgin Islands (BVI), with the engineers working all hours in austere conditions with little to none of the equipment they would normally have at a well found base and only a borrowed hangar floor to sleep on when they could.
Meanwhile the main body of crews, engineers and support personnel were held at Benson on readiness notice to move until space became available on the Air Transport. Planning for various locations, scenarios and possible tasks was carried out during the wait. The call forward came on Saturday 9 September and the eagerness to get going was only slightly dampened by finding out we would be leaving at 3am on Sunday morning to go via South Cerney. About 16 hours after leaving Benson, our Voyager aircraft touched down at the airport in Barbados and then it was on to a C17 to take us to the operating airfield on St Croix, US Virgin Islands.
The first crews to fly out to the BVI came back describing islands that had been completely devastated. Where St Croix was lush, green and the vast majority of buildings were untouched, the BVI were brown and stark, hardly a leaf on a tree or anything green surviving and man-made structures were destroyed with debris littering the whole area. Clearly the people living on the islands were in a lot of need; they were without power and clean water and, prior to the marines arriving, there had been looting and the situation could have quickly destabilized. Tasking was challenging. In flying terms, there was nothing that crews don’t routinely train for, operating in and out of confined areas, mountainous terrain and changeable weather. However the combination could be tricky and finding suitable landing sites on an island where anything loose had been ripped away and strewn about the place was challenging. The last thing we wanted to do was make the situation worse or injure someone. Sqn Ldr Holgate took the reins on the first sorties and the crews identified some safe landing sites, including a hospital landing site near and around the main city of Road Town on the largest of the islands, Tortola. Comms were poor all round and it was often a frustration to try and effectively task initially – at times the crews would be handed a tourist map with a finger pointing or an X marked on it which marked the location of a supply drop. On arrival at the (very approximate) location it would be a challenge to find a suitable place to land on an island where the hills slope down in to the sea – beaches often became a go to option!
At St Croix, no sooner had Rob Calverley got the Engineering line well set up and running as best he could in a borrowed and shared hangar, than the det was told to move out to make space for more US Blackhawks coming in for their relief effort. An abandoned hangar at the opposite end of the airfield was found and the Eng team decamped to here, setting up tents outside and once again making the best of the situation. Not much more than a day after this however, the island was hit by torrential rain. Those in tents on both ends of the airfield found themselves flooded out and there was a period of an hour or so where everyone shuttled back and forth in truly monsoon like conditions, rescuing what kit and equipment they could. Undeterred however, some made the best of the conditions by getting an outdoor shower while the going was good.
The flying task continued despite the setbacks and everyone was keen to do as much as possible. 40 Commando began to increase the amount of tasking as they realised what the aircraft could offer and the ops team and crews would actively pursue tasks via the BVI Main Airfield at Beef Island and through engaging with FCO and DFID teams wherever possible. Typical tasks at this point were troop movements for 40 Commando and moving supplies to sustain them, moving support equipment, moving aid and shelters around the islands for the marines to distribute and moving government personnel on recces. With fuel available at Beef Island airport, the aircraft could transit to the BVI in the morning and task there all day before heading back to St Croix once the day was over. It also meant we could position a Medical Emergency Response Team at the APOD and provide cover for the marines and islanders if required. This capability was put in to practice with a patient transfer between the hospital and the airport on Tortola in the early days of tasking.
No sooner had tasking got in to full swing when the news broke that hurricane Maria was headed our way. After some deliberation, Permanent Joint HQ confirmed that the aircraft should be moved away from the storm track in case of damage if they were left hangered at St Croix. Three brave crews and nine engineers were chosen to evacuate the aircraft and run away. Maj Jeff Donaldson USAF was voluntold to stay as the only person with experience of winds above 30kts since he wasn’t born in the UK. Sgt Caven also stayed behind although he did actually volunteer! The remainder of the engineers and JHF3 remained at St Croix and prepared as best they could to ride it out. However, Maria strengthened as she arrived in the Caribbean and an nth hour evacuation was carried out.
As soon as Maria had passed the three aircraft were flown back from their place of shelter in St Vincent’s, to St Croix. The island had been badly hit by this hurricane and the airport had not escaped. The hangar that the aircraft had been in was damaged and the main door had blown in on to the vehicles inside – where the helicopters would have been had they stayed! After all the hard work making the best of the situation on the airfield and the limited infrastructure, the det was worse off than back to square one. There was no power or water on the airfield now, which made living conditions difficult even for the minimal numbers that had returned at this point. We were in the unusual position of operating out of a base that was, in some ways, temporarily worse off than the place we were flying forward to help!
Nevertheless tasking picked up again with plenty of supply moves, including carrying over 1.5 tonnes in an underslung load – a first for Puma 2 operationally since the limit on the hook had previously been just a tonne. Some more out of the ordinary tasking came up including providing overwatch for prisoner transfers on the island after a break out; a night medevac in poor weather from one of the outlying islands; giving a recce of the affected areas for Commander Joint Operations on his visit and landing on the helipad at Sir Richard Branson’s private island.
The flexibility of the Puma was again demonstrated in a rapid deployment to base out of Guadeloupe, assisting in evacuating entitled personnel out of Dominica until HMS Ocean could arrive.
A few more days of tasking back in the BVI saw tasking beginning to wrap up. Roads were clear, and the airport was reopening along with ferry services between the islands beginning to run again. The emphasis began to move towards handing back control to local government and focusing on redeploying the considerable amount of manpower and equipment back to the UK.
The Op had been an incredible experience to be a part of, albeit with mixed emotions due to the suffering of those hit by the hurricanes contrasting with the rewarding nature of the tasking to help them out. It had also been a great success for Puma 2, both in the speed at which the aircraft, personnel and equipment was deployed but also in the flexibility of the contribution that was made to the Operation.