The Hercules transport from RAF 47 Squadron flew low and slow, heading for a secret coordinate deep in Afghanistan, in pitch darkness.
The crew — sporting special digital night-vision equipment — were looking for a makeshift desert airstrip. One they hoped they could into and out of, without getting shot up or suffering some other kind of unforseen disaster.
The situation on the ground, was indeed getting desperate.
A team of 20 elite Special Air Service soldiers (SAS) were left stranded in the province of Kandahar, hundreds of miles from friendly forces when militants took over, according to a report in the UK’s Daily Mail online.
As enemy Taliban fighters closed in for the kill — there would be no mercy in this part of the world — they sent an SOS request to Special Forces bosses back in Britain calling for immediate extraction.
But they could not use Kandahar airfield, once home to 26,000 international troops at the height of the military campaign, because it had already been overrun by Taliban.
The SAS unit was forced to fight their way to a secret desert location where they went into hiding. The coordinates of the location were then relayed back to Special Forces headquarters in a series of coded messages.
According to a source who spoke to the Daily Mail: “It was a very hush, hush mission. Kandahar had fallen to the Taliban on Friday and the guys were down there for five days after that. The enemy were rampant and killing a lot of Afghan Special Forces whom the SAS had been working with. So it was a very urgent mission.”
The dramatic desert rescue operation, which was put together by the Joint Special Forces Aviation Wing, all depended on the C-130J and its crew. If not, 20 of Britain’s most highly trains special forces would be dead within a week.
A daylight rescue was ruled out as too dangerous — it would have to be in total darkness.
The Hercules is the RAF’s major tactical transport aircraft and in its current versions, has been the backbone of UK operational mobility since it was brought into service in 1999.
Praised as “highly flexible” by the RAF, it has the ability to airdrop a variety of both stores and paratroopers, while landing and taking off from natural surfaces, such as a desert strip.
To conduct these missions, Hercules crews are highly skilled in low-level flying and trained to perform in both day and night.
According to military website Elite UK Forces, the RAF Herc is fitted with a suite of sensor systems as part of a Enhanced Vision System upgrade.
It features a SIGMA Thermal Imaging system in a Titan 385 turret under the aircraft’s nose, and a Low Light Level Television (LLLTV) camera in a fixed array above the nose.
These sensor packages allow it to better operate at night and in poor weather conditions.
On Wednesday night online flight trackers picked up a UK Hercules transport aircraft flying over the Gulf — until it turned off its Identification Friend or Foe sensors, disappearing into the night.
This ensured flight radars could not follow its route towards the area of desert scrub which SAS troops had identified as a possible landing strip.
One could only imagine what was going on in the minds of the crew — would they receive a rough welcome? Would the strip be sufficient for landing and takeoff?
What if they blew a tire on landing? And how would they find this remote landing area, in the dead of night?
A million things could go wrong.
In a mission that will go down in British military history, the big Herc came down on the desert wasteland at the covert rendezvous point, scooped up the SAS troops and was airborne and back on its way to safety, in minutes.
According to the source: “Credit to the Hercules crew from 47 Squadron for landing the aircraft at night on rough terrain and getting her airborne again with the guys and their equipment aboard. It was textbook.”
The dramatic desert operation was a success.
The aircraft would reappear on Thursday morning on flight trackers as it approached an international military base in Dubai.
Frustratingly for SAS chiefs the aircraft which rescued their troops is due to be retired as part of the latest reorganization of the RAF, the Daily Mail reported.
The SAS rescue comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepares to hold a meeting with the leaders of G7 countries to push Joe Biden to delay the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan to allow more time for people to be evacuated.
The UK wants to double its Kabul airlift numbers to 12,000 this week, but the PM accepts that the success of the mission is reliant on US troops maintaining control of Kabul airport.
Johnson said last night: “It is vital that the international community works together to ensure safe evacuations, prevent a humanitarian crisis and support the Afghan people to secure the gains of the last 20 years.”
Despite the entreaties from fellow leaders, President Biden has been non-committal, saying yesterday he “hopes not to” extend his current deadline. He made a pledge to US citizens that “any American who wants to get home will get home” but pointedly failed to mention his allies.
Source: The Daily Mail Online, Elite UK Forces, Express UK