Sheffield’s commanding officer Matt works his magic in Merlins

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Afghanistan is not just a busy place for troops fighting on the front line. Star reporter Richard Marsden, in Afghanistan with our troops, met other service personnel from South Yorkshire performing vital roles.

THE son of a Sheffield bus driver is running a transport service of a different kind – as the officer commanding the RAF’s Merlin helicopter fleet in Afghanistan.

Matt Tandy, a former pupil at All Saints’ School, Granville Road, who also used to be a paper boy delivering The Star, is in charge of pilots, crew and maintenance staff for the aircraft.

Merlins, together with Chinook helicopters, are the main transport for forces personnel and equipment around Helmand Province.

Matt, Squadron Leader at B Flight 78 Squadron based at RAF Benson, in Oxfordshire, said his father Trevor Tandy had only retired from driving for First in Sheffield last year.

The 39-year-old, who pilots some of the helicopter flights around Afghanistan himself, said: “My dad was a bus driver and I’m a bus driver of sorts, too, only my buses are big and green, and have rotor blades.”

Matt, who grew up in Gleadless Town End, has been in the RAF for 17 years since leaving school and was sponsored through university at Durham, where he studied physics.

He said: “How my life has turned out is down to a combination of very supportive parents and teachers at All Saints.

“I was commissioned as a navigator but moved across into being a helicopter pilot, starting on Merlins in Bosnia in 2003.

“My current job involves running a team of 81 people, 26 are air crew and the rest engineers and support staff.”

Merlins operate a planned schedule of flights connecting Camp Bastion, the main British base in Afghanistan, with forward bases dotted around the province,

But Matt must also be on stand-by to change the schedule at very short notice if an urgent additional journey has to be made by the helicopter fleet.

Matt, married to Lizzie with whom he has two daughters, Ellie, 10, and Lottie, five, added: “The posting is very rewarding. I cannot imagine having a better job.

“Everyone I work with is superbly trained and flexible in order to keep a very complex aircraft in the skies.

“Although it is the RAF’s most modern helicopter, it has problems in the sand and heat but then again, what machine doesn’t?”

IN NUMBERS:

700 – highest number of passengers on Merlin helicopters in Afghanistan each week.

12 – number of hours crews work in one go.

4 – number of crew per Merlin flight including pilot.

RICH HAS BUSY JOB TRANSPORTING TROOPS

ONE South Yorkshire man has an important aviation role in Afghanistan - ensuring a hassle-free arrival and departure from the war zone for hundreds of troops every day.

Flight Lieutenant Rich Mills, 35, of Higham, Barnsley, is a duty Air Movements Officer at Camp Bastion.

The airfield at the base in Helmand is the third-busiest UK-run airport counting helicopter flights – and Rich has a busy job helping to make it run smoothly.

Rich said: “My responsibility is for passengers and baggage from every aircraft that comes in or goes out. There are approximately five flights in and out each night.”

Management of flights needs to be flexible, as planes are sometimes laid on at short notice, such as for royalty and visiting dignitaries, wounded service personnel and compassionate cases such as when troops need to be flown home in case of a sick relative.

The Star joined Rich as he was overseeing the arrival and departure of an RAF Tristar plane which had just brought more than 100 soldiers to Afghanistan from RAF Brize Norton, in the UK. It was due to take off again with a full load of passengers for a return to the UK.

“It normally takes around two hours to turn around the aircraft. There is refuelling, checking the plane for any faults, unloading and loading luggage,” he said.

The work takes longer than on a civilian aircraft because normal airports have dozens of people carrying out the duties.

The RAF team numbered less than 10, some of whom had to push giant metal crates of luggage weighing more than 300 kilogrammes from inside the aircraft onto a platform for transfer into the terminal, then reversed the process. Other cargo, such as blood supplies, was unloaded by hand.

Meanwhile, other crew checked every inch of the aircraft with torches to ensure it was in safe condition to fly again, and supplies of food and water were brought on board. The plane took off again exactly two hours after landing.

Rich added: “In total I have almost 50 people working under me but they do different shifts. We turn around up to 1,000 passengers some nights.

“We also deal with civilian freight aircraft, as well as transferring people to Kabul and Kandahar, on our Hercules planes.”

Rich has been in the RAF since 2005, having transferred from the Army. He is a former Penistone Grammar School pupil whose parents John and Sue still live in Higham, Barnsley.

He added: “As well as our normal flights, we have to handle visits by dignitaries.

“We also recently helped with the transfer of some Afghan artefacts to the country’s national museum in Kabul.

“The role is a massive privilege.”

12TH TOUR OF DUTY FOR DEDICATED IAN

HAZARDS in Afghanistan are not only bullets and bombs – with fire being just as lethal a threat as back home in the UK.

Helping to keep the thousands of people stationed at Camp Bastion, the main British base in Helmand, safe are a team of firefighters including South Yorkshire man Ian Ellis.

Ian, of Cudworth, is a sergeant in the RAF Fire Service, which mans Camp Bastion Fire Station together with a detachment from the US Marine Corps.

The 47-year-old father-of-two, married to Lisa, a clerical assistant at Birkwood Primary School in Cudworth, is on his 12th tour of duty.

He has previously been stationed in the Falklands and Iraq four times each, plus Cyprus, Kuwait and Oman.

Ian said: “I have been in the RAF Fire Service for 21 years. On previous tours of duty I was a crew commander but now I am a fire safety official.

“My job involves going around Camp Bastion doing risk assessments and checking to ensure buildings are as safe as possible.

“The biggest dangers are like back home – electrical fires and smoking.”

He added: “We have previously had two fatalities from fires on the camp in a fire which happened last year.

“Safety is particularly important because the tents, which house most of the people here, can take just 34 seconds to be destroyed in a blaze.”