Safety journey nears end at last for RAF Hercules

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More than two-and-a-half years after 10 servicemen were killed north of Baghdad when their RAF Hercules C-130 plane was hit by ground-to-air fire, the aircraft which transport troops across the two war zones will now finally be fitted with vital anti-explosive foam.

The move comes after a lengthy campaign by relatives of those who died on 30 January 2005. Flight XV 179 – carrying nine RAF crew from the special forces support 47 Squadron and a Royal Signals soldier – was en route to an American base in Balad that day when a fuel tank was hit by ground fire, exploded and the right wing sheared off. The board of inquiry said a contributory factor was the fact the Hercules' fuel tanks were not fitted with "any fire retarding technology, either foam or inert gas" to prevent an explosive fuel-air mix developing – standard on American planes since Vietnam. It recommended that all C-130s should be fitted urgently.

The Ministry of Defence said that before the crash "it was judged that there was a low risk of a fuel tank explosion" and that priority was given to the threat of missile attacks rather than lighter weapons but promised to fit the device on the aircraft which can carry up to 70 people.

Yet in October last year the families called for "urgent action" after learning the RAF had only upgraded two of its fleet of more than 40 Hercules. Leaked documents showed that RAF pilots had requested the fuel safety device be fitted three years earlier. Sarah Chapman, whose brother Sergeant Bob O’Connor, 38, was killed that day, said the troops were being treated like "expendable assets".

The process which involves fitting 500 different pieces of foam, is a long laborious one and hampered by the need to bring the ageing planes back from operations for the process.

However, The Independent has learned that all Hercules in Iraq or Afghanistan are due to be fitted with the safety device by the beginning of October. It will mean that troops being transported across war zones as well as the RAF crews flying them daily will now have the added protection.

Nigel Gilbert, a former Hercules pilot who flew with 47 Squadron and knew several of the crew killed in 2005, said yesterday: "It is great news but what a nightmare it has been to get there. All the families wanted was that no-one else should got through that again. At least now they know a single bullet won’t bring a plane down."

Meet the aircraft crew training for service in Afghanistan and Iraq

By Terri Judd

Flight engineer Mark "Skid" Brown's most memorable experience in Afghanistan revolves around a group of men who will never know his name or remember his face, soldiers too terribly injured even to be aware they ever met.

"The moments that really stick in my mind are pulling the wounded out of (Camp) Bastion, actually getting them to medical aid in time to save their lives," said Master Aircrewman Brown a crew member on one of the RAF's Hercules aircraft - the workhorses of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We could be thinking that our day was over, everybody was going to the showers and we would get a call there was a badly wounded person who needed to get to Kabul. Our work can run into 24 hours but it is a rewarding aspect of the job." The Warrant Officer and the crew of the RAF C-130 Hercules never meet their fragile passengers again but they always check reports on their outcome.

On a spectacularly picturesque and remote beach in south Wales this week, the hulk of the C-130K - nicknamed Fat Albert, "the old lady" to Master Aircrewman Brown - descended from the skies almost silently until the sudden roar when pilots threw the propellors into reverse thrust and deftly touched down in a marked box just 90ft by 500ft. Their runway was soft sand only 3,000ft long.

One landing successfully accomplished, they took off in an equally short distance, banking hard as they became airborne, the 40-year-old plane a surprisingly graceful sight despite her rotund frame. They were the RAF Hercules pilots practising for the harsh and hostile landings strips in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These ancient aircraft cross the countries countless times each day, transporting troops, equipment and the injured. Four have been lost in the past three years. One was shot down north of Baghdad in January 2005. In May 2006 hit a mine on landing in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan, another hit an improvised explosive device on a tactical landing zone in Maysan, southern Iraq, in February this year, while a fourth was destroyed crash landing near Kabul last week.

The C-130s - ageing aircraft due to be replaced over the next few years - and their crews are pushed to their limits but, they insist, not beyond. "I would definitely go on record as saying we"re stretched. We"re busy and it's demanding work but I would not say we are overstretched," said Wing Commander Fraser Spence, officer commanding operations wing at RAF Lyneham.

Their work is rarely recognised until moments like January 2005 when the Hercules was shot down, killing all 10 on board. Flight XV 179 - carrying nine RAF crew from 47 Squadron and a Royal Signals soldier - was en route to an American base in Balad when a fuel tank was hit by ground fire, exploded and the right wing sheared off. The board of inquiry concluded that a lack of explosive suppressant foam was a contributory factor and The Independent learnt this week that all those on operations are now expected to have it fitted by the beginning of next month. "We"ve got to be lucky every single flight. They only have to be lucky once," said Wing Commander Greg Cook, who believes the crews rarely get recognition for the perilous task they perform.

"We don"t get shot at as often as the army but we are getting shot at most days," added the officer commanding 47 Squadron. After 23 years of service, Master Aircrewman Brown, of 70 Squadron, has had to cope with the loss of too many friends.

"Naturally it affects us. We"re all aware of our mortality. It doesn"t impact straight away. It just leaves you dead inside. A few months down the line, that is when it really bites. It impacts when you see the families and the effect on them. You have a hard time getting your head around it but it doesn"t stop you doing the job."