It Pays to Check Your E-mails
For the vast majority of people, leave means just that. Phone off, out-of-office set and head for the hills. For the officers and airmen of 1 Air Mobility Wing (1AMW), the term "leave" is slightly more flexible. As a Very High Readiness Air Combat Service Support Unit (VHR ACSSU), at any given time there is a flight of up to 40 personnel on operations, a similar number deployed around the world in support of the defence exercise programme (DXP), a highly trained standby team of 8 personnel on 3 hours notice to move 24/7 and around 60 personnel maintaining 24/7 operations at RAF Lyneham. So on the occasions that you are lucky enough to find yourself on leave, it's wise to check in now and again just in case there is something in the pipeline with your name on it.
Having taken the opportunity to avail myself of some leave in late September 10, I found myself Island hopping down the Dalmatian coast with my long suffering girlfriend. On a particular sunny afternoon I was marched inside to hide my very pasty Northern Irish skin from the midday sun, and thus found myself idly logging onto MSN. As I opened my email account beer in hand, I was expecting some snippet from work about fitness tests or SJARS; however, what I found was an altogether more interesting email. The first line of which read "How do fancy 6 weeks in India?"
Regrettably, long gone are the peripatetic days of Harry Flashman; consequently opportunities like this come around all too infrequently, and even then you have to be in the right place at the right time to accept. Fortunately, as a 1 AMW team leader with a few free weeks during the DXP phase of the force rotation cycle, I was in just that position. After replying with an emphatic yes, a quick reread once I was over the initial excitement revealed that I was to travel to Delhi to assist the Air and Naval Attache as his "admin clerk, trouble shooter and deputy attache". This would include assisting with a visit by the Secretary of State for Defence (SoS) and the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), interacting on the Air Attaches behalf with HQ Indian Air Force, managing the arrival of air and sea freight into India, solving logistics problems in relation to a Typhoon exercise taking place near Kolkata and finalising diplomatic clearance for aircraft. As a bolt on, I was asked to perform Royal Air Force Liaison Officer (RAFLO) duties in Kolkata for the recovery of the Typhoon exercise. This looked like an 18 month tour squeezed into 6 weeks, encompassing air movements, staff work and high level visits. As it turned out, it was as challenging as it appeared and resulted in more than a few late and nights and a smattering of weekends.
The first hurdle was packing. Exactly how I was going to get all the kit required for a 6 week det into one bag was something of a mystery, especially given the range of clothing I would require. However the old adage of the longer you have to do something the longer it will inevitably take, is a sound piece of advice. With this in mind I decided to leave the packing until roughly 1 hour before MT arrived, it's amazing how big a black kit bag can become with a little time pressure.
After 12 hours of travelling it was in a slightly dazed state that I ventured out of the arrivals terminal at Indira Ghandi International Airport New Delhi. Here I hoped to be met by my point of contact from the British High Commission (BHC), Mr Tom Ryder. Unfortunately after 45 minutes of aimless wandering about and double checking the names on the arrival boards, it became apparent that Tom either had somewhere more important to be or he had forgotten about me. It transpired to be the latter, which meant I would have to make my own way to the BHC. A simple enough task you would assume, however anyone who has ever been to India will vouch, nothing is ever as straight forward as it seems. After taking some advice and using the prepaid taxi service, I expectantly settled into the back seat of my Ambassador taxi to take stock. Warning bells should have sounded after I had to repeat "THE BRITISH HIGH COMMISSION PLEASE" for the sixth time to the same blank face. Having directed my rather apathetic taxi driver using the map of Delhi in my Lonely Planet guide, I eventually arrived to be met by Tom. A charming fellow who was most apologetic, however I was only won over after the promise of several complementary bottles of the local grog was realised, by midnight all was forgiven!
My first week was surprisingly rather slow after my hectic arrival. The Attache had unfortunately become ill with what later transpired to be dengue fever, a rather unpleasant illness of which I will spare you the details, consequently no one was entirely sure what to do with me, apart from one man, the Brigadier. As I sat at my desk reading the Times of India at lunchtime on the second day he sternly asked me what I was doing, to which I replied rather frankly, not a lot. This made him chuckle and he told me to leave, do some sightseeing and await further orders. I didn't need to be told twice! By the time my paper had hit the desk I had left the office, jumped into a tuk tuk (auto rickshaw), raced back to the hotel and was busy planning the rest of my day.
The remaining 5 weeks were not quite as cushy. By the second week the Attache was still rather poorly however work could no longer wait for him to return to the office, so we took the office to him. Later that afternoon Tom and I left the Capt's (RN) house with enough work to keep an army of administrators happily amused for a month, not bad for an ill man. Most of the tasks we were required to complete were with regard to the impending visits by SoS, CAS and Air Officer Commanding No 1 Group (AOC 1GP), a late addition probably worth remembering about. I was to create programmes for CAS and the AOC using the outline the Capt had given me, it was here I had my first dealings with the Indians. There is a form for just about every imaginable purpose and nothing will happen unless this form is stamped in the correct place with the corresponding signature half on, half off the stamp. I took a long time to get my head around faxing a "note verbale" and to accept that when someone hangs up on you in the middle of a sentence, it's not because they are rude, it's more of a test to see how persistent you are. By the third call you normally got the information you required. As a result the simplest task could easily take up your entire morning, making the creation of a programme rather long-winded. Thankfully the rest of the office would laugh encouragingly as my frustration grew and they recanted similar stories of their first few weeks in India.
Notwithstanding the high workload, I was fortunate to have most evenings and weekends off, so it would have been an exceptional waste to simply sit in the grandeur of my hotel and press the room service button. Instead I ate out as often as I could and took every opportunity to travel. Some of the more memorable sights were the Taj Mahal, The India Gate, white water rafting in the Himalayas and the delights of the Diwali festival. My trip to the Taj was memorable not only for the grandeur of the simply spectacular structure, but because of a slightly less than successful start to the day. The previous evening I had been invited to the Brigadier's house for dinner and was subsequently asked to stay for a few drinks. Having tried my best to keep apace with the Brigadier, something I will never again attempt, I was eventually poured into a taxi at around 0100 hrs. Having amazingly made it to the train station for a 0630 departure, I then boarded the wrong train and settled down to sleep. Thankfully I was not only on the wrong train, but in the wrong seat and was woken up by a confused looking family. Having then been escorted to the correct train, I promptly went back to sleep. This time I was woken up as the train was pulling out of Agra station and had to perform a few moves James Bond would have been proud of to avoid missing my stop completely. I am pleased to report the rest of the day was much less eventful!
The undoubted highlight of the trip was accompanying AOC 1 Gp on his trip round India. I had organised the vast majority of this trip and was as keen as anyone to make sure it was a success. A helpful piece of advice imparted by the Capt after I had been discussing my career aspirations was, "If you mess this up I am sure AOC 1 Gp will make sure you never get a permanent commission, so make sure its right!". Solid advice which stuck with me during the late evenings preceding the visit. "No plan ever survives first contact with the enemy". Unsurprisingly there were several occasions when events deviated somewhat from my well rehearsed plan, and as I saw my career flashing quickly in front of me, I was very glad I had considered the "so what" and immediately deployed smoke and mirrors to get things back on track. My reward for making sure the visit went smoothly was rather unexpected and surreal, but a memory I will have for a very long time to come. Boarding the HS 125 with the AVM I was more than happy just to be there and was deep in contemplation about my imminent and boastful FaceBook update when, AOC 1 Gp asked me where I would like to sit. With the words still ringing in my ears I instinctively replied "Anywhere Sir" and was duly positioned in the "principles seat" I would imagine it will be quite a few years before an opportunity such as that ever arises again!
M A FULTON