Friday, March 25, 2011

Crash bang wallop

Army Air Corps Gazelle

As a claims officer working in Germany for HM forces I would sometimes have to visit the scene of air crashes involving military aircraft.  Crashes were like buses; none for ages and then 2 or 3 seemed to come along at once. My job was to make an initial assessment of the damage to the landowner’s property and try to keep any subsequent damage to a minimum. With the exception of pollution to the soil by aviation fuel (the smell of which is unmistakeable), most of the damage was caused not by the crash itself, but by the recovery operation.  I remember the Royal Engineers  going to great lengths trying save a field full of rapeseed from the effects of the huge low loader trucks, which were being used to recover a small Gazelle helicopter lying in the middle of it.  It was a curious sight in the midst of this bright yellow crop which painted your clothes with a golden dust.

Sadly, air accidents sometimes had a human cost. I recall an army Lynx helicopter crash in about 1994 when 2 soldiers were killed. We were all kept about 200 metres away from the scene until a doctor arrived to certify them dead, but frankly you didn’t need a medical degree to do that.  Even from a distance there was no doubting what the charred remains were.  While we waited we were greeted by an ashen faced Lieutenant Colonel, whom my colleague happened to know.  He had actually been in the helicopter.  It had dropped him off, taken off again and promptly crashed.  It was a last minute decision for him to get out when he did, and the poor man was still shaking like a leaf hours afterwards.
Fortunately, pilots of jet aircraft are usually able to eject to safety. This was the case quite soon after the Lynx tragedy when an RAF Tornado crashed on land belonging to a German ‘Graf’ or Count.  After being introduced to him, the aged but rather dapper Graf drove us in his truck through a forest to the remains of the stricken aircraft. He seemed a little tetchy, which is fairly understandable, but nobody intentionally crashes a fighter jet.   After a while he stopped in a clearing where the trees were sparse and unhealthy looking. “This”, he informed us “is where an RAF Harrier crashed on my land in 1975”.  He still seemed quite annoyed about it 20 years later.
We continued to the site of the Tornado crash and went about our work – taking photographs, measurements, soil samples, etc.  I was intrigued by a number of very deep craters, some filled with water.  They were clearly nothing to do with the Tornado, but they seemed out of place in a wooded area.  The Graf soon enlightened me.  “That is where the RAF bombed my land during the war” he said.  He had a rather hurt look on his face, even after 50 years.  “It’s nothing personal” I replied smiling.  There was an awkward silence for a few seconds; I waited for some cutting remark, but instead he laughed.  Possibly he liked my merry quip; but more likely it was because I chose that same moment to step into a ‘puddle’ which turned out to be an 18 inch deep hole.  It wasn’t much revenge for him after half a century, but it was better than nothing.

Tornado GR4

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