News story

Apache pilot reaches 5,000 flying hours

An Army Air Corps (AAC) Apache pilot with 20 years flying experience has clocked up his 5,000th hour in the air while currently deployed to Afghanistan.

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Army Air Corps pilot Captain Antony 'Thomo' Thompson in the cockpit of his Apache helicopter in Helmand province, Afghanistan

Army Air Corps pilot Captain Antony 'Thomo' Thompson in the cockpit of his Apache helicopter in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan [Picture: Sergeant Alison Baskerville, Crown Copyright/MOD 2011]

Captain Antony (Capt) ‘Thomo’ Thompson is coming to the end of an intense, five-month deployment to Afghanistan. Spending up to eight hours a day in the cockpit of his attack helicopter, Capt Thompson and his fellow crew members have been protecting the men and women deployed out on the ground across Helmand province.

Capt Thompson joined the military at the age of 17, recruited into the Royal Signals having left school with few qualifications. He said:

The Army gave me a chance and everything I had done before that point did not matter anymore. I had a fresh start.

Working as a telecommunications engineer, Capt Thompson threw himself into Army life and quickly began to explore the options that his new career offered him by taking up parachuting, which invigorated his interest in flying and led him to become a member of the Royal Signals Parachute Display Team:

I spent so much time in the aircraft watching what the pilots were doing I thought ‘how hard can this be?’” he said. “In 1990 I filled in my paperwork for aircrew selection.

The basic requirement for members of the Army to attend flying selection is to first reach the rank of lance corporal and be recommended for promotion to corporal. This is in contrast to the other two Services, where they are required to commission before flying:

It gives everyone a fair crack at having the chance to fly, regardless of your background and qualifications,” said Capt Thompson.

He worked hard and successfully completed his initial flight testing of three weeks, and was accepted into Flying Training at Middle Wallop. After 40 hours of flying a fixed wing aircraft, Capt Thompson converted to rotary and began his career as a helicopter pilot.

With his new set of wings, Capt Thompson quickly found his feet flying Gazelle and then Lynx in Northern Ireland before returning to Middle Wallop, the home of the AAC, to take up a slightly more glamorous position as an instructor and display pilot with the Blue Eagles:

It was really quite amazing to see the amount of people who would queue up just to see the aircraft. However,” he added, “we did put on a pretty good show; the crowds loved us.

In 2002, after twelve years of flying, Capt Thompson converted to the Apache AH1 helicopter. With a wealth of experience behind him, he deployed from Wattisham to Afghanistan in April 2011 to take up the job that both he and his colleagues train for; supporting deployed troops on the ground.

Ground crew check over a British Army Apache attack helicopter

Ground crew check over a British Army Apache attack helicopter prior to take-off at Camp Bastion in Helmand province [Picture: Sergeant Alison Baskerville, Crown Copyright/MOD 2011]

With a payload of hellfire missiles, CRV7 Rockets and a 30mm cannon, the Apache is a deadly but effective deterrent against the insurgents. Talking about his time in Helmand, Capt Thompson said:

This has been a very challenging time, but it makes me feel better to know that the guys and the girls on the ground feel safe when we are up there watching over them.

Colonel Peter Eadie, Commander Task Force Jaguar, commented on Capt Thompson’s achievement in reaching the 5,000-hour milestone:

I congratulate Thomo on reaching 5,000 hours; a really significant achievement. Thomo’s skills, experience and example continue to bring on and encourage younger pilots.

The sight and sound that the insurgents most fear over Afghanistan is that of the Apache helicopter.

Capt Thompson was recently awarded a commendation by Major General Glenn Walters, Commanding General of the United States Marine Corps 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), for his skills and professionalism in an attack on armed insurgents from his Apache helicopter. Capt Thompson said:

There are opportunities out there for everyone in life, but you have to be prepared to look for them. Don’t let your past stop you from changing your future.

Published 19 September 2011