June 18, 2012
Captain Charlotte Madison (a pseudonym) was the first female Apache pilot in the British Army Air Corps. She completed two tours in Afghanistan, which she details in her 2010 book Dressed to Kill. In the excerpt below, Madison and her copilot, stationed in Kandahar, await clearance to perform an air test.
As we sit waiting for clearance on to the runway, ATC [Air Traffic Control] is busy and I can’t get a word in edgeways. I drum my fingers on the cockpit dashboard and Darwin whistles tunelessly. Seconds tick by, and the radios buzz with voices.
“Mayday Mayday Mayday, this is Death 23 Death 23 Death 23.”
An American man’s voice booms over the radio, and the first three words make everyone listening freeze.
Mayday is a call only made when the aircraft or the crew is in immediate peril, and everything stops to ensure the safety of the stricken crew. To have a Mayday emergency in a hostile environment is a crew’s worst nightmare.
“Shit,” we say together, reaching in tandem for our radio volume dials so that we can hear every word. I can practically feel every aircraft within a ten-mile radius listening in.
“Death 23, this is Kandahar Air Traffic, your Mayday call is acknowledged. Send your position and type of emergency,” the calm voice of the girl in ATC replies immediately.
Darwin and I hold our breath for the details. My heart beats against my harness straps, imagining if I was one of the crew inside Death.
“Roger, stand by.” Death’s voice is clear and slow—he doesn’t sound as stressed as I’d be.
“He sounds chilled out, doesn’t he?” Darwin notices.
“Well, it’s all recorded, isn’t it? You don’t want to sound like a Wiener when they listen to the tape at the Board of Inquiry, do you?” I stick up for Death. We used to sit around on bad-weather days on the pilots course bragging about the radio call we’d make if we were ever speeding towards the ground in a flameball. There was a famous tale of a fast-jet pilot who’d fatally crashed into a cliff, and just before impact he radioed his base with: “Better cancel the hot lunches.” It was legend with all baby-pilots.
“What kind of aircraft is Death anyway?” I ask Darwin.
“Beats me.” He’s distracted, waiting for details.
“Kandahar traffic, this is Death 23. We have suffered an engine failure after take-off. We are currently 500 yards east of the 27 threshold. We are on the ground, repeat: on the ground.”
“Roger,” ATC responds. “Can you confirm that you are still inside the wire?” If the aircraft is inside the safety of the barbed-wire fence around the Kandahar base, then it’s not as bad as it sounds, I think. If not, it’s the worst news imaginable.
“Death is outside the wire,” the voice drawls back.
“Why the hell is he so relaxed about it then?” Darwin says loudly. “Shall we?”
“I know,” I say, as the idea comes simultaneously to me. “I’ll offer to go into overwatch.”
We are armed and scary-looking; we can hover over the scene of the accident as a deterrent until some ground troops can recover the wreck and the crew. It works overhead Kajaki, so there’s no reason we can’t prevent an enemy attack here too.
“Kandahar, this is Ugly Five Four,” I transmit.
“Stand by,” ATC cuts in.
She’s not happy with my interruption. She radios Death and urgently asks for his coordinates; he tells her to wait. He’s clearly in no rush, whereas she is now starting to sound worried.
“Kandahar, Ugly Five Four can lift immediately and cover the accident. We are armed.” I transmit this in one long sentence so she can’t cut me out.
“Roger,” she responds, then swiftly relays our offer to Death.
There is a pause, and then, unbelievably, he declines.
“That won’t be necessary,” he calmly tells ATC.
For some minutes, we repeat this exchange with increasing levels of urgency. Death is outside the wire, unprotected. At least the crew seem to be fine. I keep telling ATC that we can be overhead in less than a minute; she keeps suggesting it to Death, Death keeps refusing. My mouth is dry and my heart is beating so hard it’s as if something is kicking me from inside. Sweat starts to form in beads on my back and shoulders but I feel strangely cold.
ATC is getting into the swing of things now and asks Death whether they have any injuries on board.
“Negative. No pilots or crew onboard,” Death replies.
“Ha! No wonder he crashed, with no pilot,” shouts Darwin.
I’m confused. What the…?
ATC is confused too.
“Confirm NO crew?” she repeats.
“Affirm, ma’am. Death is an unmanned aerial vehicle. I’m talking to you from my office.”
I can’t believe I wasted heartbeats on him. I look at Darwin in the mirror. He looks back, shaking his head. Nothing needs to be said, and I can hear him chuckling into his microphone.
Thanks to reader Mark Mallari for directing us to this book.