THERE was trouble brewing for the Taliban when a Scots-based Tornado squadron unleashed their tea boy – armed with a laser-guided 500lb bomb.
Junior pilot Chris Whitehair dropped the Paveway 4 on an enemy compound during his first combat mission as British troops encountered fierce fighting on the Afghan battlefield below.
His devastating debut was a million miles from his usual role – boiling the kettle for 12 Squadron’s other pilots at RAF Lossiemouth. Chris, 26, is just one cog in the RAF machine that played a pivotal role in the bloody battles of Operation Panther’s Claw.
He said: “As a junior member of the squadron, I am responsible for doing the tea bar and making sure there is enough milk and stuff.
“It was a bit of a contrast going from that to taking out Taliban positions.
“It was a baptism of fire – I had only been on the squadron for nine months and it had been building to action like this.
“Guys who have been flying for a year or two may not get to drop a Paveway – so it was unusual that I had to do it 30 minutes into my first mission.
“The bomb went into a compound and destroyed everything inside but left the walls standing. It is a precision weapon.”
Chris and his comrades – pilots and groundcrew – have been in Kandahar for just a few weeks, operating their fleet of eight fighterbombers 24 hours a day from one of the world’ busiest runways.
They have brought a fearsome array of weapons and skills to bear on the Taliban.
Flight Sergeant John Ellis and his groundcrew team ensure the supersonic Tornado GR4 jets are cared for and their hi-tech arsenal primed for action.
There’s the Paveway 4 – the world’s most advanced “smart bomb” – and the Raptor imaging system, which can spot a roadside bomb from the air then send ground troops a picture of its location.
Pilots stay safe as sensors allow the aircraft to remain outside heavily defended areas, lowering the risk of missile and rocket attack.
John, 50, of Alexandria, Dunbartonshire, said: “It’s very rewarding to know that our work is making a real difference to our soldiers on the ground.
“It takes us 16 minutes from a standing start to get the Tornadoes up in the air.
“Our Tornadoes are responsible for reconnaissance overwatch, which means looking after ground forces, and scramble as and when they are needed. We can be flying more than six sorties a day.
“It’s a pretty harsh environment to be working in and when we came here, we just hit the ground running.
“We just do the job and don’t expect a pat on the back. It is hardest for our families who are left behind and are just wondering how we are getting on.”
John and his team hope that their gizmos will lead to fewer civilian casualties.
He said: “We now have some amazing pieces of kit. Gone are the days when bombs damaged whole areas. This technology can target the bad guys and also save lives.”
His team feel they are doing good. Senior aircraftman Gareth Henderson, 26, from Stonehaven, Kincardineshire, said: “It’s a tough place to work in but I have been to Afghanistan before and you get used to it. It was good to be part of things like Operation Panther’s Claw.
“We are the last link in the chain before the planes go out so we do have the pilots’ lives in our hands. It is a high pressure job but it goes with the territory.
“You feel as if you are really making a difference here. It’s hard being so far from luxury and I miss my girlfriend Nicky.”
Stephen Murray, 25, from Uddingston, Lanarkshire, said: “It is very rewarding to be able to help the guys on the ground. We don’t really see the enemy so it’s not really something we think about.
“I am really proud of the role we played in Panther’s Claw. That’s what it was all about and it was good to be part of such a successful operation.”
Weapons technician John Ferguson, 38, from Paisley, said he was still amazed by the technology. He said: “It can deliver a bomb to a target with an accuracy of a foot or so. That is impressive.”
Ace pilot Joe Nixon, 36, is the squadron leader and has notched up more than 2000 hours’ flying time.
He said: “We have only been in Afghanistan for a few weeks but it has been very busy already. We get to see the guys come back from recent operations like Operation Panther’s Claw and it can be satisfying to see their relief at getting back.
“It’s rewarding to be able to help out our guys and to get them back safely.
“It’s unusual for us to be so close to the guys – normally we are in a more detached location rather than in the combat zone.
“But here we get to see the results of our work after missions. We are glad to get the recognition of a job well done.”