The Army has been put through its paces in the Kenyan bush ahead of deployment to Afghanistan. The Army Air Corps, based at Dishforth, North Yorkshire, played a key role in Exercise Grand Prix. In his final article from Africa, Matt Westcott speaks to the squadron commander and the helicopter pilots about the challenges they face.

THE thrum of whirling blades shatters the relative silence of the African bush.

All of sudden a helicopter rises out of a valley, makes one pass over the landing site, before zeroing in and touching down.

Its doors slide open and the troops clamber out, ducking their heads to escape the effects of the down-draught.

They are returning after a night under the stars, tabbing, as they call it, around a dozen miles over testing ground.

Had it not been for the pilots of the Puma, their journey back would have been a whole lot more arduous. As the soldiers relieve themselves of their kit, their gratitude is obvious.

Somewhat unusually, for an Army training expedition, Exercise Grand Prix – based three-and-a-half hours north of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi – involves almost every unit you would expect to find on the battlefront.

It provides an opportunity for the soldiers and their support units, which include members of the Army Air Corps, based at Dishforth, North Yorkshire, to train alongside each other, rather than in isolation.

As they are all heading to Afghanistan next year, the lessons they learn will prove invaluable.

Conditions in Kenya, with its challenging terrain and high temperatures, are as close as makes no difference to those that troops will encounter in Afghanistan.

The helicopter pilots have been operating in two areas, with contrasting conditions.

One is 6,000ft above sea level, while the other is 3,000ft and where temperatures regularly hover close to 40C.

For Major Max Lytle, the officer commanding the joint helicopter force for the exercise and OC of 672 Squadron, there is no better place to prepare for warfare.

“It gives us a real challenge in terms of aircraft performance and that is replicated on operations in Iraq and particularly Afghanistan,”

he said.

“Those pilots here who are routinely familiar with flying in Afghanistan say this is as close as we can get on training exercises to flying in that country. The possible exception is the weather, which has been quite rainy recently. That has deadened much of the dust, which would also be an area that we would be keen to practice.”

Maj Lytle said that the aircraft, currently in use, the Puma and Lynx, while able to adapt to the situations presented, were not ideally suited to them.

“They were procured for temperate conditions, and it’s something we have experienced in Afghanistan.

There are definite performance limitations to the aircraft we have,” he said.

“If you look at the aircraft we have bought more recently, the Merlin and the Apache, they have power to get around the problems we have experienced.

“It is well known that the Puma and the Lynx are veteran aircraft in terms of aviation. They can still perform well on operations, we just have to know the limits and make sure we do not exceed them, and that is exactly why we are here.”

For Lynx pilot Lieutenant Richard Garner, those limitations do not give him too much cause for concern.

“I am quite happy and I have quite a lot of confidence in the Lynx now,”

said the 26-year-old who became known as Obama to the locals because of his apparent similarity to the US President-elect.

“It is on the limits, it is not a new piece of kit like the Apache, but I have got quite a bit of faith in it now.”

Afghanistan will represent Lt Garner’s first operational tour and he is looking forward to it, despite its dangers.

“It is something some people, especially my friends, have trouble with,” he said.

“But I look at it this way, if I was a doctor and I had been in medical school for seven years and never got to go to a hospital to work in A and E I would be pretty upset. This is the same thing, I do intend to go on operations and do my bit – it’s what I joined the Army to do.”

Thanks to this exercise, Maj Lytle believes that everyone involved will be able to “do their bit” that much better.

“Because we deploy at different times and for different durations we don’t spend as much time as we would like to with the battle groups,” he said.

“This exercise is fantastic because we are constantly working with soldiers. They are getting a much greater understanding of aviation operations – what they need to do to provide helicopter landing sites for us, how they inload, deplane from the helicopters.

“If you do not practice it, clearly, those skills are not there at all.

“The battle group is now coming towards the end of its training and will be much, much more air aware.

“The troops will know how to use aviation and get the best out of it, what it can provide, what its limitations are, what we can and can’t do and I think that will serve them well.”