Captain Richard McCarthy lumbers forwards, completely encased in 80lb of Kevlar and ballistic plates, breathing battery-pumped air in a helmet that restricts his vision as he approaches the stolen silver Peugeot parked outside Heathrow. Painstakingly, he begins to examine the vehicle. Opening the boot, he finds what the police feared most: four mortar bombs primed to cause devastation.
A short while later the 26-year-old officer has saved the busiest airport in Britain from terrorist attack; or to be more accurate, he has just passed his six-monthly licensing test as a joint-service bomb-disposal operator – just one small step in the arduous marathon of examinations towards becoming one of the army's "high-threat" officers.
The word elite is overused in praise of many military units, but it appears justified when referring to the high-threat operators of 11 EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) k Regiment, Royal Logistics Corps – the men and women who make the "long and lonely" walk to dismantle bombs.
The devices can be anything from a firework with nails created by teens intent on blowing up a phone box, to the command-wire bomb found in Northern Ireland a couple of years ago that contained three chemical barrels with 250kg of explosives – enough to obliterate anything within a 30 metre radius.
The Heathrow scenario is anything but far-fetched. They may be more noted for their work dismantling make-shift bombs or improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Helmand, but 11 EOD dealt with 2,500 jobs in the UK last year. The regiment handled more tasks in Northern Ireland than Afghanistan in April, the month Catholic policeman Ronan Kerr was killed by a bomb planted under his car in Omagh. Of their 84 jobs in Ireland that month, many were IEDs.
As they put their younger operators through their paces on an army training area in Shropshire, the banter between the team is fast and furious. When one of their less svelte members waits uncomfortably to have his photograph taken, his colleagues bellow in unison, "Move over, we can't see the truck." It's a geniality that exists among this small team, a camaraderie that crosses the ranks, they explain, unlike more "formal regiments", because they have all earnt the right to respect. Less than a third of those picked to take the high-threat operators' course pass it. The training has to be exacting. A bad day in the office means death. Six of their small number have lost their lives in Afghanistan over the past three years.
Warrant Officer Class 2 (WO2) Colin Grant, 39, a decorated veteran of numerous tours, appears not to have a care in the world. But ask him about the toughest moment of his recent tour of Afghanistan and he is suddenly sombre as he remembers WO2 Charlie Wood, 34, of 23 Pioneer Regiment, a fellow member of the Counter-IED Task Force, killed three days after Christmas. His eyes welling up, he apologises for the surge of grief: "Sorry, I thought I was over it."
Captain Rebecca Darke, 28, is equally unable to recall Captain Lisa Head, 29 (killed in April as she tried to dismantle an IED), without breaking down. Brushing her eyes, she laughs and says: "She was a damn fine operator. Sometimes it is just not your day. Men and women, we have all sat in the bar and sobbed our little hearts out."
"You can't sit there and let it get to you. Unfortunately it is the trade you are in, there are going to be casualties," explains WO2 Iain Martin, who counted every one of those six lost as a friend. Last month, WO2 Martin was awarded the Queen's Commendation for Bravery. His citation states: "Fully aware of the danger he faced, he made the lonely walk more than 50 times, pitting himself against a tactically astute insurgent to defuse their IEDs. Rarely was he equipped k with his protective suit yet was always armed with his exceptional personal skills and immense courage."
Far from the maverick bomb-disposal officers of Hollywood creation made famous by the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, these men and women are acutely aware of the risks they face. It is hard to define the characters that choose to take on possibly the most dangerous job in the world. But what distinguishes them all is an ability to remain calm. "Even if under your skin you are shaking like a leaf, you can't let anyone else know or they would be scared as well," says Captain Darke, a Joint Service Operator hoping to pass the high-threat course one day.
Initially taken on and trained as Ammunition Technicians (or Ammunition Technical Officers if commissioned), soldiers must complete a 17-week course to qualify as Joint Service Operators, with another month's training before they are allowed to handle the destruction of explosives – in the words of one officer, "21 weeks from zero to hero". To become a high-threat operator, qualified to neutralise a bomb for forensics, can take eight to 10 years and regularly only four of the 12 candidates on each course will pass.
Each high-threat operator will work with a team including a No2 ammunition technician, a Royal Signals soldier to handle electronic counter-measures, and an infantry escort. They are often accompanied by a weapons-intelligence specialist and a dog handler. Alongside them, Royal Engineer and infantry search teams, who have also paid a brutal price in Afghanistan, hunt out the IEDs.
In late 2008, when the number of bombs in Helmand surged, there were just four teams, each with a high-threat operator, working punishing hours to try to keep up. "The tempo was so high we were not able to provide the high- threat operators but we recognised the capability gap," admits Major Karl Frankland, second-in-command of 11 EOD.
The death of one of the regiment's great characters, WO2 Gaz O'Donnell, 40 (who would receive a posthumous bar to his George Medal after being killed dismantling an IED in September 2008), was a devastating blow. "When Gaz was killed, it made the whole trade take stock and reminded us we are only human and made of flesh and blood," says WO2 Grant, who deployed just weeks later on a tour for which he would be decorated with a Queen's Gallantry Medal for his "selfless actions saving numerous lives" disposing of up to 60 IEDs.
Today in Afghanistan the four teams have been increased to 20: 10 that neutralise the device and 10 that destroy. While the American army has traditionally detonated devices at a distance, years of experience in Northern Ireland means the British choose to dismantle them for forensics, in an attempt to keep a step ahead of the bomb-makers and ideally bring them to justice.
In Afghanistan, they must work with what they can carry; the bomb-disposal suit Captain McCarthy wore for the "Heathrow" scenario is too enclosed for Helmand's stifling heat and too cumbersome when sharpshooters are often lying in wait. Six months ago, WO2 Martin was shot in the knee while trying to dismantle a bomb in the Nad-e-Ali area. "You need to be able to run and take cover," explains Warrant Officer Class 1 Nick Handy, the regiment's senior ammunition technician, as he adds that the size of the IEDs now being seen in Helmand make it redundant: "The bombs we are dealing with would kill you, suit or no suit."
Yet 11 EOD fiercely defends the need to take what might to others appear a more dangerous step. "We are capturing more and more [bomb-makers] in Afghanistan. We have had a lot of success in intelligence exploitation," explains WO1 Handy, pointing out that blowing up a device in the middle of a local village does little to endear the British Army to locals. "A neutralise operation takes less than two hours. A destroy operation takes longer."
The regiment's unofficial mascot Felix dates back to its Northern Ireland days. Legend has it that a young signaller was sent to the Officer Commanding 321 Squadron (now part of 11 EOD) to ask which radio call-sign the unit wished to use. The OC, having lost two operators that morning, decided on "Phoenix", to reflect the squadron rising again from the ashes to conquer terrorism in Ireland. This was misheard by the signaller as "Felix" and it has stuck ever since.
The cat's nine lives seem fitting for a team that regularly stares death in the face. In the past 12 months the Counter-IED Task Force in Helmand has dealt with 885 devices. "You couldn't get through six months (in Helmand) without seeing the demoralising effect of IEDs and other devices, both on the civilian population and colleagues who were hurt," recalls WO2 Martin. "Yet you know the next day, possibly that day, you will deal with one of those devices."
In May, it was revealed that the Defence Medical Services had found a "slight, but significant, increase in mental-health symptoms" in high-threat bomb-disposal officers. As a result, the Felix Fund has been set up to focus on providing therapeutic normalisation breaks for those returning from Afghanistan and raise money to support their many injured and bereaved. Yet, despite the lethal nature of their trade, it would be difficult to find a team with a more devoted passion for what they do. "It is a great feeling, the best feeling when you are on your way back thinking nobody has been hurt, I haven't been hurt," explains WO2 Martin.
Next summer, as the world gathers to watch the Olympics, they will once again be standing guard behind the scenes. While Scotland Yard's SO15 counter-terrorist command team, largely made up of former 11 EOD soldiers, will be responsible for the Games in London, it will fall to this regiment to protect sites outside the capital. As the crowds cheer the athletes, oblivious to any threat, it will be their job to inspect every hoax, aware that one might turn out to be a deadly device. In the words of Major Frankland: "[The operator] has to deal with that device at the expense of his own life if there is no time to evacuate."
Warrant Officer Class 2 Colin Grant
High-threat operator 39
"Right from school I wanted to be an EOD officer. It seemed exciting and a bit glamorous. I was successful on my second high-threat attempt. There were seven of us on our course and we were the first in a number of years to have a 100 per cent pass rate. We were nicknamed the magnificent seven. The proof is in the pudding: all of us are still alive and kicking with our fingers and toes.
"On my latest Afghanistan tour, I was Operations Warrant Officer, responsible for co-ordinating EOD tasks. We had a few casualties, a few fatalities. Some hit a little harder than others, because I knew them.
"Some people worry it is too much to ask, considering their family. Those who do remain do the job with enthusiasm. They decide it is a relentless line of work but it is enjoyable and very rewarding.
"Occasionally operators are shot at and you just take it in your stride. You are aware of it but actually that is not your job. Your job is to deal with the bomb. As soon as that firing stops you crack on.
"My wife understood when she met me what my job was. I made sure it was crystal-clear and she understood the implications. She is really supportive."
Warrant Officer Class 2 Iain Martin
High-threat operator 40
"When I went to the recruiting office to join the military they suggested ammunition technician. I was 25. I'd had numerous jobs from postman to pet-food salesman and I realised I had to get a proper job.
"The thing I remember most was passing the tests and the Senior Ammunition Technician in Northern Ireland saying to me, 'This should be the proudest day of your life. You are now part of a select few.' I went and told my girlfriend Gayle, now my wife; a few days later I was in Northern Ireland. It was 23 December.
"The first time I neutralised an IED was in Iraq in 2006. Within the first week we encountered three roadside devices in quick succession. It brought home the reality of our job and the lethality of it. The first one was at night time in Basra. I was quite nervous approaching it but once you get to the target area you are just concentrating on what you are doing.
"All six of the operators killed in the past few years, I knew them all. You learn lessons and pick yourself up and move on.
"It is a hard job but there is no point in doing something easy in life. I am not interested in sitting on my behind. I love my job. I wouldn't do anything else."
Captain Rebecca Darke
Joint Service Operator 28
"Everything I have done so far has been working towards becoming a high-threat operator. If I am not good enough, I don't want to pass. If I am not good enough, I am dangerous. It is not me I am worried about. I don't think I could live with myself knowing I could put anyone at risk.
"You don't just go in gung-ho. You calculate the risk. I don't see our job as being as dangerous as other people do. I am trained to take the risks that are necessary. Equally, I try not to think about it.
"Everybody is so humble. There are no self-proclaimed heroes. They can't be selfish either. The lads are intelligent, no matter what level. My number two could be a Lance Corporal. When I am down the road I am expecting him, at the ripe old age of 21, to have my back.
"I am 5ft 2in and a lot of people don't necessarily realise that I am the ATO [Ammunition Technical Officer]. They see a girl my stature and think I can't do it. But I think this job is genderless. People who are in it also see it like that.
"Captain [Lisa]Head [killed in April] was a good friend. It is sad and gutting and really upsetting, but I know she was sent out there knowing she was good enough.
"Sometimes it is just not your day and there is naff all you can do about it."