How Apache Crews Have Handled Challenges Posed By Lockdown

Troops, dependents and contractors based at Wattisham Airfield have had to adapt their way of working, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

For more than a decade, Wattisham Airfield in Suffolk has been the main operational base for the British Army’s force of Apache attack helicopters.

Over the years they have seen action over Afghanistan and Libya, but the coronavirus outbreak has brought a new set of challenges to the thousands of soldiers, dependents and contractors based there.

Also known as the home of the Apache, Wattisham Airfield is the base for five squadrons of attack helicopters. 

Troops based at Wattisham train for different battlefield scenarios, but COVID-19 tested the Army Air Corps in an unprecedented way.

Crew at Wattisham Airfield moving an aircraft while enforcing social distancing during covid19 180520 CREDIT BFBS.jpg
Flying has resumed at Wattisham Airfield, but social distancing rules continues to apply to crew members and other personnel on site.

Lieutenant Colonel Nick English, Commanding Officer 3 Regiment, Army Air Corps, is one of the Army's most experienced Apache pilots.

For three weeks at the start of the nation-wide lockdown, his unit became a virtual regiment.

They reduced flying to a minimum and many of its soldiers worked, learned and exercised from home using digital communication systems.

"We've been back at work for three or four weeks now, learning how to maintain and operate our aircraft so that we can safely go and train, whilst at the same time, absolutely protecting our people and protecting their families by making sure we don't spread the coronavirus," Lieutenant Colonel English said.

"We've run everything from physical training patterns over Zoom, we've run cooking lessons over Zoom, people have qualified as Field Track Operators and people have taken the opportunity to make themselves better and develop themselves," he added.

"We were able to do that for three or for weeks, but ultimately we have to fly helicopters.

"Being a combat unit requires our aircrew to get in the aircraft and practise all of those high-end skills," he explained.

"We have to fly at night, we fly low-level at night - those are really perishable skills that we have to maintain."

Hangar at Wattisham Airfield with lining and one-way system coronavirus pandemic 180520 credit bfbs.jpg
As part of the precautions taken to help reduce the spread of the virus, a one-way system is in place in the hangars.

While flying has resumed, many of the restrictions remain in place to prevent the spread of the virus at the airfield.

Some of the precautions in use include a one-way system around the hangers, the splitting of some shifts and the enforcement of social distancing measures even during breaks.

One of the frontline flying units at Wattisham Airfield is 663 Squadron.

Aircraft, personnel and vehicles from the squadron should have been overseas, taking part in a large-scale NATO exercise across Germany and Poland.

However, due to the pandemic, they have instead planned a domestic exercise while also adjusting to the restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19.

"It has come down to the point of when we're touching areas and making sure that we clean it," Corporal Adam Newton, Army Loading Point Commander, said.

Socially distanced tea break at Wattsiham Airfield amid coronavirus pandemic 180520 CREDIT BFBS.jpg
Social distancing measures also apply while troops are taking breaks.

British Army Apache helicopters entered frontline service in 2005 and over the following years were used in the fight against the Taliban and over Libya, where they suppressed Colonel Gaddafi's forces.

The Apaches, like most helicopters, requires a reasonable amount o maintenance. 

Skilled teams of aviation engineers are crucial to keeping 663 Squadron flying.

However, maintenance of the aircraft has been one of the areas where it has been most difficult to implement social distancing.

"Different measures have been put in [place]," Lance Corporal Sam Neal said.

"We're now saying each working bay is an island, so when you come over you disinfect yourself, sanitise your hands.

"When we open up the tools now, we have to disinfect all the tools, because, obviously, different people will be working at different times.

"Every single tool has to be disinfected."

Social distancing sign at Wattisham Airfield during coronavirus pandemic 180520 CREDIT BFBS.jpg

With social distancing being a necessary measure during this unprecedented health crisis, Apache aircrew also had to adapt to this new way of working.

"It's much easier than you'd expect, because in-between the two cockpits is a four-centimetre-thick piece of armoured glass, so whilst it looks like they're sat next to each other, actually both cockpits are entirely separate," Lt Col English explained.

"Probably the easiest place to social distance in this whole thing is actually when you're sat in the helicopter."

While the coronavirus pandemic is one of the challenges the squadrons at Wattisham Airfield are having to face, they will have to confront another challenge in a few months.

They will soon start the process of getting new helicopters, as the Apache Ds will be sent back to Boeing to be remanufactured into E models.