30 January, 2015, marks ten years since Hercules C130K XV179 was shot down over Iraq killing all ten crew.
It was Sunday, 30 January 2005 and I was at home with my wife and two daughters. At the time I was the Squadron Boss of 47 Squadron based at RAF Lyneham. I had crews deployed in the Falklands, Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere around the world on smaller operations, training exercises and routine air transport missions. The then Station Commander, Paul Oborn, was away and as his most senior Wing Commander I was left in charge of the Station.
My father-in-law phoned just after lunch, asking if I'd seen the news. Switching on the TV, I was shocked to learn that a British C130 was reported to have been shot down by Iraqi insurgents. At first I couldn't believe it, as we had not lost a Hercules to enemy fire at any time in the RAF's proud history of operating the aircraft. It had to be a mistake surely?! The press had obviously mistaken an American, Australian or another nation's Hercules.
The RAF Lyneham operations had received no report of an accident, but I knew Lyneham families would be concerned. Hoping for the best but steeling myself for the worst, I dressed in my Number 1 Service Dress and set off for RAF Lyneham - only a ten-minute drive away. In those few minutes I endured massive amounts of emotions as phone calls first told me it was another nation's aircraft, followed almost immediately by confirmation that it was a British C130 but not from 47 Squadron. I was entering the gates of the Station when the phone rang again and the young chap from operations said the words no Squadron Commander ever wants to hear, "I'm sorry, Sir, but it has been confirmed that the aircraft was Hercules XV179 from 47 Squadron."
Having lost some very dear friends in a Hercules training accident in 1993 when their aircraft crashed in Scotland I knew what was to come. But having seen how my then Squadron Commander, Chris Le Bas, handled the incident and indeed himself I knew what I needed to do.
The RAF Lyneham team swung into action. The OC Logistics Wing handled media while my other fellow Wing Commanders all volunteered to visit the families of the lost crew and give them the most heartbreakingly tragic news: that their loved ones would not be returning home.
As the aircraft had been brought down in insurgent dominated territory we couldn't immediately get troops on the ground to substantiate the loss of life. When it was announced that all ten men on board had been killed, my fellow officers were already standing by outside the homes of the crew and I gave the order to inform the families. Just four hours had passed since the first reports.
I shall never forget their sacrifice:
Flight Lieutenant Dave 'Steady' Stead (Captain)
Flying Officer Andy 'Smudge' Smith (Co-Pilot)
Flight Lieutenant Paul Pardoel (Navigator)
Master Engineer Gary Nicholson - 'Gary Nick' (Flight Engineer)
Master Aircrew Mark 'Gibbo' Gibson (Air Loadmaster)
Chief Technician Richie 'Delia' Brown (Ground Engineer)
Sergeant Bob 'Logical' O'Connor (Ground Engineer)
Corporal David Williams (Safety Equipper)
Lance Corporal Steven 'Jonah' Jones (Signaller)
And Squadron Leader Patrick 'Paddy' Marshall who was on his first day in theatre
I remain extremely proud of how the Station and its personnel responded - no one could have asked more of them. But this was dwarfed later by the pride I felt, and still feel for the widows and families of my lost crew. My last act as acting Station Commander was to let everyone at RAF Lyneham know what had happened which I wanted to do personally. I then went back to my family at 0100hrs on the Monday morning - hugged my wife and kissed my sleeping kids.
In the days, and now years following the crash, the RAF Benevolent Fund has provided support for the families of those killed, whether with financial assistance or helping put some of the children through school or university. While ten years has passed, the commitment of the RAF Benevolent Fund to these families will endure for their lifetimes. Having seen how the charity supported those families was one of the main reasons I wanted to get involved with the RAF Benevolent Fund when I left the RAF.