While locations such as Camp Bastion or Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan look like small cities, the RAF deployed operating base at Trapani has the feel of a village, with just a cluster of prefabricated buildings, tents and storage containers covering an area about the same size as a football pitch.
But it provides most of the same facilities as its larger cousins and hosts the VC10 refuelling aircraft and the E-3D Sentry AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft that are both vital capabilities for NATO’s Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR, the operation to enforce United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 and protect Libyan civilians at risk of attack.
Wing Commander Rob Sutton is the man in charge at Trapani, having just arrived from the UK. He said:
I am intensely impressed. For such a small detachment, people’s morale is excellent and they are working hard to support two key assets. It has come a long way since the early days.
Corporal Jacob Salter, who works in Mechanical Transport (MT), explained how far his area has come:
I had six hours’ notice to pack a bag. I arrived on March 26. I stepped off the C-17 and I’d got here before the vehicles. The first month, there were two corporals building up an MT section from scratch.
The critical role of Trapani is illustrated by one MT task - the logistics drivers from the section refuel the VC10 aircraft which in turn refuel UK and coalition aircraft.
So the fuel pumped into the aircraft by UK personnel at Trapani will sustain operations not only by UK Tornados and Typhoons but also French Rafales, Canadian F-18s and other partner nations’ aircraft.
It’s not just the aircraft that need fuelling though. Aircrew, groundcrew and supporting personnel need feeding, and that task falls to a team from 3 (Mobile Catering) Squadron (3 MCS). As well as providing mess tents, they also provide inflight catering.
The E-3D will fly a nine- or ten-hour mission, co-ordinating the whole NATO air operation over Libya and controlling hundreds of aircraft, in a role that demands sustained intense concentration. Making sure that the crew have the energy needed to do the job is therefore important, and the catering team ensure the aircraft is well-stocked.
Food is not the only life support required however. Corporal Nicola Prewitt from 3 MCS explained:
They need somewhere to lay their heads and they need clean clothes.
She combines the roles of accommodation manager and laundry manager, operating the first RAF Operational Hygiene Unit (OHU) to deploy on operations. The OHU is a deployable laundry, in an adapted shipping container, which can easily handle the demands of the detachment personnel.
Inside the next building, supply, movements and a ground equipment section share a combined office and stores. Boxes of aircraft spares and equipment are neatly laid out on the floor, ready to keep the aircraft flying.
It may be a small detachment but in every part there’s another small team or a single person carrying out one particular function or another, all working to support RAF aircraft which deliver capabilities that underpin the whole NATO mission.
Wing Commander Sutton summed it up:
We’re providing a full range of support to the deployed aircraft. In the UK my work is about generating these supporting units, getting them ready for deployment. It is really good to see the effect they are having on operations.