Armour in the form of Challenger tanks had yet to arrive in the area to the S of Basra. The recce screen of Scimitar were overstretched and 847NAS were tasked with providing day and night ARP's to the SW of the city.
Although we had been busy throughout the day, our crews were selected to rest in the afternoon prior to a night sortie. Battle prep and orders for the night mission included a number of flight safety concerns due to the low level smog from burning oil wells to the north. The met conditions were a high pressure with an associated inversion layer-this meant a thick layer of smog lay at around 80ft AGL covering around 200nm south of Baghdad. The dense oil smoke completely blocked any ambient night so the luminescence the NVG's would normally amplify was non existent. Just to the south of the objective area we placed an RV at some 200ft pylons that ran perpendicular to track in order to highlight this major hazard.
Usual night flying prep took place and we took off at 10pm. The Lynx lead the formation in order that the Gazelle could use their station keeping lights to maintain formation. Although maintaining 50ft AGL and nearly blind, Mark Hammond and Bertie Cross were partially on instruments, augmenting what little night vision the NVG's could achieve with the Thermal Imaging. In the Gazelle, Bill focused on check-nav and I flew in close formation relying solely on the station keeping lights and unable to see anything but the three infrared dots and the Lynx exhaust in the blackness.
Flying at reduced speed due to the visibility, the Lynx lead accurately up until the agreed slow down point for the wires. With 0.5nm to go, Bill broke radio silence and called "Pull-up, wires!"
The formation entered black smog at 80ft and climbed through it, the Lynx straight on track, the Gazelle breaking left for separation. The oil well smoke was so thick it seemed there was a risk of an engine flame out. Above the layer it was a clear starlight night, so we joined up and descended below again for another run in. In loose formation- on heading we broke clear below the layer at 50ft with the Gazelle just to the rear of the Lynx. As we headed north again for the second time, eyes straining in the darkness, thanks to Bill's check-nav, the pylons were narrowly avoided again. Perhaps the Lynx team had a different point marked for the hazard than us? Although completely blind, we climbed back up through the smog layer on Bill's call.
I had been concentrating hard on the formation side of flying and completely trusting in Bill for the Captaincy up to this point. But there above the layer with the Lynx at a safe distance again some common sense came to me to call "knock it off." Without hesitation we returned to base having achieved nothing but a feasibility study.
In the debrief it was agreed that we were more likely to suffer from collision on that night than of harassing any enemy as planned.
It came to light that the Lynx crew had been working so hard with the T.I to augment the NVG's in order to see anything at all below the smog that the navigation had suffered. Bill Hughes had in fact saved the formation from collision with 200ft wires twice.
Commanding the Gazelle, Bill Hughes with Steve Combe
Commanding the Lynx, Mark Hammond with Bertie Cross plus door gunner (a Corporal whose name Mark may have in his log book)
NVG Lux level minima are there for a reason in peace time training. War time "minima" are invariably inconvenient but just as valid if not more so. (E.g. where did the extra 150kgs capability suddenly appear from in the Gazelle MAUM limitation section just prior to Iraq 2003 for example?)
On the night in question, the unspoken pressure each of us must have felt to succeed on the mission could have swayed our judgement prior to take off. I remember not one of us mentioned NVG minima during the orders group.
Any member of the formation can call "knock it off", it doesn't have to be the a/c commander. As handling pilot it was my judgement whether I had sufficient visibility to avoid the Lynx in the smog/bad light. When the call was made, there was no question from the other crew to authenticate, we RTB immediately.
Low level sorties in little or no visibility invariably cause accidents (eg the USMC CH-53 that splashed into the deck at 120kts with Capt RM Phil Guy's recce patrol-42CDO ML's on the first night of the offensive due to a brown out).
847NAS had a CO (Lt Col Bill O'Donnel) that listened to his pilot's debrief comments and made judgement based on realistic safety margins. In spite of the pressure from Brigade to provide ARPS to contribute to a weakened recce screen, he understood his crew's limitations. Due to the extensive oil smoke at night, this was to be the first and last sortie flown by 847 NAS in the dark. Bill's leadership is a large reason why every last member of 847NAS returned home by June 2003 with many confirmed kills to their name.