Leaping into the dark to hit Gadaffi

Apache helicopters have received an awrad for their work in Afghanistan. Captain Matt Sandbach.
Apache helicopters have received an awrad for their work in Afghanistan. Captain Matt Sandbach.
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AN Apache pilot has spoken for the first time of the fear and the triumph of flying missions in Libya.

Capt Matt Sandbach, from Bury St Edmunds, was one of the team from 656 Sq at Wattisham who went out to HMS Ocean in the Mediterranean in April on a long planned exercise to perfect Apache operations from ships.

They thought they would be back in June but have only just returned.

“It took us two or three weeks to get used to the principles of taking off and landing from a ship,” he said. But it was only about a week later that they were ordered into action with Nato’s campaign.

Lt Col Jason Everington, Commanding Officer of 4 Regiment Army Air Corps, of which 656 is a part, said: “We were the first to fly Apache missions from ships. The Americans and, I think, the Dutch have trained for it but never done it.”

Capt Sandbach said that while the Apache was designed for the stresses of deck landings, it was not ideal with its narrow undercarriage. For take-off the ship must be steaming full speed into the wind to give the heavily laden helicopters lift. To avoid detection, she is blacked out and keeps electronic emissions to a minimum.

“When you take off into the blackness for the first 10 sec you don’t really know which way is up,” he said. “You’re hoping the engines are going to work and carry you above the waves.”

Landing means finding HMS Ocean in the dark and matching the helicopter’s touchdown to the ship’s rise, fall and roll.

But he said: “It was the chance of a lifetime to be involved in it. It was brilliant to see photos of main roads in Libya with ‘Thankyou NATO’ painted on them.

“At night we saw the public waving up at the sky at us. They couldn’t see us but they were waving at the noise.”

Apaches have sophisticated night vision equipment so the crews could see friend and foe on the ground at night.

Capt Sandbach added: “It was brilliant for the UK Apache force to be there at the beginning of the conflict and at the end of the conflict and hopefully we’ll be there for the end in Afghanistan, too.”