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Page added on April 4, 2012
During the civil war in Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002, the population became sensitized to regular helicopter activity over Freetown and elsewhere, by the visiting forces. The author has written Airborne Soldiers to develop the vision of a future Helicopter Squadron, attached to the Sierra Leone Army, and based across the river in the region of the International airport at Lungi.
Crews are trained to fly the new Crab helicopter, and the reader shares in their operational flying and personal lives. He has attempted to link this vision with the Mape Project planned for this area, in his dedication.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
And sure enough, they soon did find out. By a quarter to two several officers were sitting tensely in the cinema at the far end of Wilberforce Barracks. Captain Kargbo looked around. He recognised everyone there. In addition to Captain Jones and Lieutenant Frazer, there were Lieutenant Mansaray and Captain Vamboi seated in the row in front of him and three of the company commanders were also present. He knew that several other officers had been through the rigorous tests, but they were not here.
Nobody was talking much as they waited. Colonel Bindi was very keen on punctuality and as the hands of the clock on the wall moved to two o’clock the side door opened and he led two gentlemen dressed in light grey tropical suits into the hall and ushered them to two armchairs that had been provided from the mess for the meeting. The Colonel introduced his two visitors as soon as the officers were seated.
Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘it is my pleasure to introduce to you the Minister of Defence and his private secretary. No doubt you will all have been puzzled by what has been happening to you over the past few weeks, and wondering what it was all about. Now we are going to tell you. The Minister has come from the President to speak to you before you hear an announcement which
is due to be made over Radio Sierra Leone tonight. Most of what you will be told is classified as secret and you are forbidden to discuss the subject outside this hall until the announcement has been made. Gentlemen, the Honourable Minister.’
The Deputy Force Commander sat down amidst murmurs from the audience who were naturally very eager to hear what the Minister had to say.
The Minister extracted a file from his briefcase and took up his position on the rostrum that had been provided for him. He spoke in a soft voice to small audience now silent, and attentive.
‘Gentlemen, I have been asked by our President to bring you a Cabinet decision. After many discussions both at home and overseas, we have now completed all negotiations and arrangements for the formation of a Flying Corps within the lmperial Sierra Leone Military Forces. We feel it is vital in the national interest to have an air capability, albeit a limited one, and you, gentlemen, have been selected to form the initial intake of Corps pilots.
You will be given all the details by your senior officers but in broad terms, this means that you will leave shortly for the United Kingdom where you will undergo several months intensive flying training with the Royal Air Force, first on fixed wing trainer aircraft followed by another specialist course on helicopters. This helicopter course is very important as it is our intention to equip the flying Corps with helicopters. On your return, you will be required to fly a new type of helicopter, called a CRAB, which has been developed to meet the special needs of countries like ours. You leave at the end of January. You’ve been selected because your country thinks highly of you and needs you. I’m sure you’re all proud of this. We depend on you to give us your best. Good luck.’
Colonel Bindi escorted the Minister to his car and then came back to join his officers, who by now were really beginning to realize the implications of what they had been told.
‘Well, gentlemen, now you know what it’s all about. I’m sure you’ll have many questions.’
There were obviously many problems going through their minds, and Captain Vainboi was first off the mark.
‘Isn’t this too concentrated a course, Colonel?’ he asked.
‘No, Captain. The Government is paying a lot of money to secure this training for you and you will be getting maximum attention from your instructors during your training, and as much flying as possible. You will note that by the time you have finished your familiarization school, it will be Summer in Europe when the weather should be at its best whilst we struggle through the rainy season back here. By the time you get back at the end of the year the dry season will be with us, and you’ll be able to consolidate your experience here.’
‘Is that when we shall start flying the Crabs, sir?’ asked Lieutenant Frazer.
‘Yes. On your way back you will visit the helicopter factory in Italy, and a team based locally here will be responsible for your conversion training at the Rokel Aeronautical Centre. They are on secondment to our Republic from Italy at considerable cost to our government.’
‘The whole project appears to involve a lot of expense for our government,’ observed Captain Kargbo. ‘Do you think it’s really justifiable?’ he asked.
‘The bulk of military expenditure by any Government is invariably difficult to justify to the ordinary thinking man. As professional soldiers, however, you will appreciate that the Flying Corps will add a third dimension to our security forces. No longer will we have to worry about obstacles on land like rivers and forests because when we need to move troops quickly, our Crabs will fly over them,’ replied the Colonel.
‘What worries me is our safety!’ confessed Captain Vamboi. ‘Who’s going to be responsible for servicing the helicopters, and making them fit for flying? And what about air control?’
The Deputy Force Commander had a convincing reply to that. ‘A good question, Captain Vamboi. As to the first point, the Crab is a very simple aircraft with an engine no more complicated than that of a car. Already we’ve got a team of winchmen and mechanics training with the Italian company that will supply the helicopters. These men will be fully trained to service, and maintain the Crabs when the Corps becomes operational.
Some of them are enlisted soldiers who will be transferred to the new Corps and others will be civilians. As to your second point, again there will be no problems. The Crabs will be based either at Bollom Barracks, or at the Rokel Aeronautical Centre itself, or they will be sent on detachments to certain towns up country. In all these areas, you boys will be under the direct control of the local civilian air traffic controller. We f difficulties at all.’
Lieutenant Frazer was ready with another question.
‘Does the Government intend to concentrate only on Crabs, Colonel?’
‘At the moment that is the plan. However, as special information for your privileged ears only, our Italian friends are also working on two light aircraft which, if successful, might come into service at a later date. But for now, if you have no more questions, you are dismissed. You may have the rest of the afternoon off, and remember, not a word until after the announcement on the radio at six o’clock tonight’
The officers stood to attention as the Deputy Force Commander, and the company commanders left the hall, and then they broke into excited conversation.
‘What’s going to happen to you and Sampa now, John?’ asked Lieutenant Mansaray.
Captain Kargbo had been thinking about this. ‘I’ll have to break the news to her this evening, won’t I? Unless she can come to England with me, I think we’ll have to postpone everything until I return. What about your own love life, Alfred?’
‘Well, you know me. The few days before we leave will not be long enough for me to go round and tell all my girlfriends about it, and say goodbye!’ replied Lieutenant Mansaray.
‘That’s a bit unfortunate for them. No doubt you’ll be able to pick up the threads when we get back, and make a whole set of new conquests,’ Captain Kargbo suggested.
‘I should have very little difficulty then, because all the eligible beauties will want to be dated by a pilot!’
‘It’s no good counting your chickens at such an early stage, Alfred. You’ve still got to get through the training,’ cautioned Lieutenant Frazer.
The group broke up soon because each one wanted to consider the implications of what he had heard. John went straight back to his room in the single quarters of the Mess and collapsed on his bed. He lay on his back and gazed at the ceiling in deep thought. He was soon joined by Kevin, and Alfred who came in and sat on his bed with him.
‘I can hardly believe it’s happening to me,’ began Kevin.
‘Neither can I,’ said John. ‘Just think, in a few months, we’ll be flying regularly as pilots!’
‘It’s fantastic! I’ve always fancied myself at the controls of an aircraft,’ Alfred agreed. ‘I wonder why just helicopters though?’
‘Somehow, I agree with the ‘decision of the Government. We don’t want any of the big military Jets at this stage.’
‘But what good is it just having helicopters?’ asked Alfred.
John remembered a lot from his earlier military training overseas. ‘A helicopter is versatile. We can use it for aerial reconnaissance and abroad it is used in air/sea and mountain rescue.’
‘How?’ asked Kevin.
‘The crew usually includes a winch man, and when they arrive at the scene of the rescue, the winch man guides the pilot from the cabin until they are flying directly over the person to be rescued, and also low enough to be able to winch him up to the helicopter.’
‘That’s interesting. Let’s go across to the camp library and see whether they have any books on the subject,’ Alfred suggested.
‘That’s a good idea,’ John agreed. ‘If we can’t find any, we’ll have to try the Central Library in town.’
The afternoon passed more quickly than John had expected. Back in his room, as he prepared to drive into town with Sampa’s dress, he felt proud to be a pioneer in this field, and had no doubt that his parents would be even prouder. Perhaps his mother would think only of the dangerous side of flying when she heard the news, yet this was to be expected. He must call in and see them on the way to Sampa. Poor Sampa, he thought, how was she going to take all this? She would be disappointed about postponing the wedding date, but surely the fact that she would eventually be getting married to a brand new pilot, one of the army elite, would more than make up for the delay.
It was still only five o’clock when Captain Kargbo set off to visit his parents. He had a new car, and he had only just started repaying the loan which he got to help him buy it. He therefore drove at a very sedate speed along the steep, winding road from the barracks. At the crossroads at the bottom of the hill, he joined the main highway and increased his speed until he reached the Waterloo Street exit leading to their family home at Number 65 named ‘The Marvel’ as it had seemed like a financial miracle that his father had been able to build it on his limited resources!. His mother was sitting on the verandah as usual when he arrived. She was always pleased to see him, and got up quickly to greet him.
‘Hello John,’ she said, smiling. ‘What brings you home today?’
‘We were given some unexpected time off, Mama, so I thought I’d pop down and see you.’
‘Why were you given time off? You don’t often get that. Is anything special happening?’ His mother showed her usual intuition.
‘There is, as a matter of fact, and that’s what I’ve come to tell you about, because I’m right in the middle of it.’
‘Are you in trouble, son?’
‘Nothing like that, Mama; this is something you’ll be proud of. You’ll have to wait to hear the news on the radio at six.’
‘There are only a few moments to go; tell me now,’ she said impatiently.
‘No, I can’t tell you before the announcement is made. Meanwhile is there anything to eat?’
‘There’s some food under the cover on the table. Take what you want, but turn the radio up before you start. I don’t want to miss this important announcement.’
His father arrived home from work just as the President came on the air, starting with his usual phrase, “My people,—”. As the President told the nation about the Crabs, John listened intensely, and waited for his name to be mentioned as one of the first five pilots.
His mother’s face lit up with joy, and his father embraced him.
‘That’s wonderful news, John!’ he exclaimed. ‘We always knew you’d be successful in the army.’
‘I’m so relieved you’re both pleased about it, Mama. The only snag is that all the arrangements have been made, and we are to leave for training in England on the first of next month. We’ ll be away until the end of the year.
You know what that means, don’t you?’
‘Oh dear. You’ll have to postpone your wedding!’ exclaimed his mother. ‘How did Sampa take the news and what are you two going to do now?’ she asked.
‘I’m just on my way to talk to her now. I’m going to tell her that we must postpone all our arrangements, and get married when I get back from training.’
Will she accept that?’
‘I hope so. You see, we’ll only be away for nine months because the Government has negotiated a comprehensive training programme for us, and after all, it’s her father’s Government that has made the decision.’
‘She’s a sensible girl. I’m sure she will understand. But she won’t like it.’
‘I know, Mama. Neither do I. But now I must go.’
As Captain Kargbo walked through the garden at State House, the French windows facing him flew open and he saw Sampa standing on the threshold with a big smile on her face waiting to greet him.
Captain Kargbo barely had time to say hello before he was embraced by his fiancé. They kissed and went in together holding hands.
‘I told you I’d call tonight, Sampa, and here I am with your dress, and all.’
‘Skip the self praise. Why didn’t you tell me your good news that Papa has just announced on the radio?’ asked Sampa.
‘You mean you didn’t know about it before today?’
‘Of course I didn’t know, John. You don’t think that Papa shares all his State secrets with me, do you?’— ‘Well, you are his daughter!’ They settled on their favourite settee and Captain Kargbo got straight to the point. ‘As your father said in his message, we’ll be leaving for England at the end of January and, of course, you know what that means, my dear, don’t you?’
Sarnpa did not seem particularly perturbed or disappointed. ‘It can only mean one thing, darling,’ she replied. ‘We can’t get married until you return from England.’ She seemed so calm as she continued. ‘Of course, I hate that idea, but I realize that your work must come first.’
Captain Kargbo was most relieved. He now knew that in really important matters Sampa was truly as sensible as his mother had said.
Breaking the news to their immediate relatives and friends was just as uncomplicated for the other four chosen men. Everyone was so pleased with the honour which had been given them that they accepted separation gladly.
Starting the following day, the five officers did everything together as a group during official hours. There was very little to do in connection with their travel arrangements as the Army settled everything. They spent many hours in the gymnasium getting as fit as possible and they started some preliminary reading which would help them with their theory work at Ground School. All this helped the time to pass quickly, and soon it was time for them to depart.
The group left for England on a scheduled flight of Sierra Leone Airways, amidst good wishes from relatives, and friends who had gone to see, them off at the International airport.
Look out for Chapter 3 next week!
by Winston Forde http://www.winstonfordebooks.com.
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