Hercules pilot Flight Lieutenant Stu Patton speaks about his involvement in the missions to evacuate British civilians from Libya in the last week of February.
There were three air operations using Hercules C-130 aircraft based out of RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire, with support from E-3D Sentry AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft, to evacuate people from Libya.
Flt Lt Patton was involved in all of them, the first of which took place on Thursday 24 February and involved the rescue of 64 entitled persons, 51 of them British, and a dog, from Tripoli.
Volunteering to be involved in the Libyan missions, Flt Lt Patton said that on arrival in Malta his crew barely had time to rest before the phone rang, tasking them to fly to Tripoli International Airport to collect people seeking to leave Libya as a result of the security situation, and return them to Malta.
On arriving in Tripoli, Flt Lt Patton and his crew had to wait eight hours as people were processed, but otherwise it was a straightforward operation.
Two days later, Flt Lt Patton and his crew were called in to work again. This time they would be going back to Libya as part of a mission to rescue the workers stranded in the oilfields of the desert areas.
These were to be combined RAF and Special Forces operations, and the first operation, which took place on Saturday 26 February, recovered 176 people (74 British) from desert locations south of Benghazi. Flt Lt Patton talks about his apprehension before the mission: “We would be landing on desert strips to evacuate the trapped workers. We took off with questions racing around our head - what would the strip be like, and what would the ground situation be? Would we be allowed in? And what would happen if they didn’t speak to us?
Libya has extensive anti-aircraft defences and we didn’t want to find out that they weren’t happy to see us after we’d committed ourselves into their airspace. There was one Hercules ahead of us and we learned from the E3-D Sentry that was providing threat information to us that they had made it into the country.
Hoping we would have similar luck, we carried on and stated openly on the radio that we were a humanitarian flight, without stating where we were going. When radio contact with Tripoli was lost, they hadn’t said we could come in, but then they hadn’t said no either, so we pressed on.
After the two aircraft had landed on a small desert airfield, they proceeded to taxi to an area that the crews had earlier identified as a suitable location in which to safely receive their passengers and make a quick getaway.
As the passengers began to turn up, the other RAF Hercules crew reported that they were airborne but that the ground situation in their location had begun to deteriorate:
Not long after that, we found out things weren’t good where we were either,” Flt Lt Patton explained. “A quick discussion regarding people attempting to block the aircraft was summarised to me by the loadmaster over the intercom, ‘we need to go now!’, with the noise of ground troops shouting ‘GO!’ audible in the background.
We’d prepped everything for just this eventuality and were rolling down the runway before he’d finished his sentence.
At this stage, we had 40 evacuees on board, and were stunned to learn over the radio that the other aircraft had 136 evacuees, a huge number for our type of aircraft.
A quiet hour followed as we headed north for the border, with everyone waiting for any contact from Libya or the E3 to say that something was happening. As we reached Maltese airspace, everyone visibly relaxed, and as we landed and shut down, we were jubilant.
The next morning, Flt Lt Patton and his crew were off again, this time going as the third aircraft. He explained the mission:
We were to go to two strips to rescue evacuees, and another set of hastily printed-out information was handed to us. We took off and things began in much the same way as the day before.
The E3 announced that the other two aircraft had made it across the border and we began the same routine as yesterday, calling Tripoli on the radio and declaring our status as a humanitarian flight. This time there was no answer, so we didn’t force the issue and just listened for any sign of trouble. “Around this time we had our first destination changed and had found out that the other aircraft were having similar experiences - some of the strips had been blocked and someone back at HQ was doing some rapid rethinking.
We found our first target without issue and continued as we had the day before, recceing the area, landing and then prepping for a quick getaway. Again we waited for our passengers, this time pressured by the failing light that we would need to safely recce the second airfield, which was only a 10-minute flight away.
We took off with the sun beginning to set, and 27 evacuees on board. We quickly found the next airstrip, and it was immediately clear that the first portion of the strip had been blocked with oil drums and large containers. Following a very thorough inspection, we could see that the strip was in poor repair, but was still suitable and made a landing.
We had only just touched down when we heard over the radio that one of the other aircraft had taken damage. Everyone was quiet, and it was hard to fight the temptation to ask what was happening to the other aircraft, but you know you have to leave them to get on with it and wait for them to pass an update.
When it came, we were faintly relieved to know they were hoping to make it back to Malta and just hoped we’d be on the way soon. News was passed that there was no-one for us at this strip, which was massively disappointing but did at least mean we could get going. “It was dark by this stage, and we climbed away into the dark with the aircraft unlit, using NVGs (night-vision goggles) to keep a good lookout. From there, the return to base was similar to the day before, but with the added tension of knowing one of the aircraft had been damaged by ground fire.
We kept hearing reports from the damaged aircraft and were extremely relieved when we landed back at Malta, and even more so to see the damaged aircraft land a short while after.
The three RAF Hercules evacuated a total of 189 people, including 21 British nationals, from the Libyan desert on Sunday 27 February. No- one was hurt on board the damaged Hercules.
Flt Lt Patton said:
It was incredible to have been a part of something like this, and the shared experience amongst all the crew members was one to remember for a lifetime. It’s all too obvious when things like this happen just how important every person in the chain is, and very clear that the professionalism of all involved was at the heart of the success of the weekend’s missions.