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Beast of Boscombe Down


Long suspected to be a refugee from foreign parts, last month the government revealed that this scarcely-seen visitor was, in fact, a creature brought to our shores by the MOD. Two decades ago,

HERE’S been a strange mysterious beast occasionally spotted among the hills of Wiltshire in recent months.

helicopters were the subject of British Intelligence. Now it is British aircrew – and predominantly Naval at that – flying these former Eastern Bloc aircraft above the green plains of Wiltshire, teaching members of the Afghan military.


really want to achieve something here. They are dedicated,” said Lt Bridget Compain, an experienced Commando Helicopter Force Sea King pilot, but now part of the Special Duties Squadron.

She continued: “It’s rewarding to see them coming through from nothing.”

“They work really hard. You can question them mercilessly and you know they’ll come up with the goods,” added Lt Cdr Tim Hayden.

Four of the five instructors on the Mi-17 are from the Naval service; three RN and one RM. Lt Cdr Davidson said: “It’s

The Mi-17 is a beast of a helicopter to the uneducated eye. But the British pilots have relished flying them and the chance to teach the keen Afghan students. “There is real passion. They

The Afghan aircrew themselves are focused on one thing – bringing stability to their country. This is no political posture. These are brave young men, who are thinking all the time of their families at home. Two Afghan pilots spoke to the audience: “We want to bring peace to our country. That’s why we work hard here. “I wanted my government to

a nice aircraft to fly. It has its own peculiarities, but so does any aircraft. “And teaching the Afghan students to fly is great. We teach in English, so they’ve had to learn English. But they’ve done very well. And we’ve adapted our situational style to teach them.” He stressed that the students

● The Russian-designed Mi-17 that has been fl ying from Boscombe Down

give me this job. I want to bring peace.” The Afghans are frank about the success of the Joint Helicopter Command’s Project Curium: “We came here as nothing. We are finishing as pilots.” The two men spoke with respect of the high standards that they had been taught, and how they were looking forward to taking back to Afghanistan the knowledge and experience they had gained. It’s been a long process for these Afghan officers pulled far from home. The training programme typically took some 12 months, and was based on the experiences of the Defence Helicopter Flying School at RAF Shawbury. An introduction to rotary- wing flying with the Gazelle was followed by a second period flying the Mi-17 – the Russian-designed helicopter that these men will be flying in Afghanistan itself. In fact these men will possibly be flying these actual Mi-17s – as March ends so does the British commitment to this flying training, and the two Mi-17s will be transported to Afghanistan to join the nascent Flying corps there.

were keen to learn and very receptive. The Afghans were made up of a combination of experienced helicopter pilots, and those who were totally new to flying – “They need the old and bold, and they need the young guys to come through. “I’ve loved my time on the I’ve been here for 18


months, then back to Yeovilton to CHF.” The Naval officer found his CHF background useful: “It helps because we can relate special techniques in our teaching for how to fly in Afghanistan. “So for example we can tell them that if we were coming in to a dust environment, you would have overlanded here.” Lt Cdr Hayden commented: “All the training here has an operational slant. We explain this is why we’re teaching this, this is how it will apply in Afghanistan.” As to the tasking that might fall to the Afghans, this falls outside

the British remit; Lt Cdr Davidson again: “We can teach them what they might end up doing. It’s really up the Afghan government from here.

towards the end of a Naval pilot’s training, and ready to go to a front-line unit where they would

be considered ab initio.”

All the Naval personnel admit to being sad now the project is coming to an end. They’ve enjoyed the challenge of getting to grips with this very different helicopter – Lt Cdr Hayden: “It’s quite strange compared to anything I’ve flown before.

the way it operates. The flight engineer is more involved.” Royal Marine Sgt Lee James is one of the two Flight Engineering Training Officers. His background is the Sea Kings of CHF, but he praises the Russian helicopters: “They’re fantastic. Very efficient, and very reliable. It is different to what we’re used to. “So it’s been challenging, but

personally very rewarding. “We were a fortunate group to come here to do this. Because of what I’ve gained personally as an instructor, and the end goal of peace – to that we’re committed.” Lt Compain added: “Now coming to the end of the course, when you fly with the Afghans they’ve achieved so much. “They are professional


● Lt Bridget Compain in the cockpit of the Mi-17

“There’s a different concept in “In RN terms, they are coming

It is defence research firm Qinetiq that has had the tricky task of ensuring that the former Bulgarian Air Force helicopters were carefully transported, upgraded, and registered with the British military for use. The first graduates from the Joint Helicopter Command programme returned to

● Sgt Lee James RM, Lt Cdr Tim Hayden, Lt Cdr Neil Davidson, and Lt Bridget Compain of the Special Duties Squadron

Replica models hand cast in white metal, black washed and polished to give a pewter effect, mounted on a wooden plinth 11” x 2” with polished plaque. Picture A CLASS all models £40.00 + £3.00 p&p (UK only)



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September. Of the 27 men who have been through the system, only one did not achieve his goal of qualifying. Wg Cdr Al Smith is the officer in charge of the Special Duties Squadron, and his executive officer is Lt Cdr Neil Davidson. The RAF officer said: “The aircraft is in a very similar configuration to those in use in Afghanistan. “Our first batch of trainees are already flying the Mi-17 in Afghanistan.” He added: “The plan was to train 27 aircrew and we’ve met that requirement.

“It is difficult to train their aircrews in theatre in the hostile environment. It’s better quality training here in a benign environment.”

Afghanistan in

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● Instructors from the Special Duties Squadron

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