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Emotional welcome for RAF troops back from Afghanistan

RAF heroes returning to Wittering after an arduous seven months in Afghanistan deserved the rock star treatment.

RAF heroes returning to Wittering after an arduous seven months in Afghanistan deserved the rock star treatment.And from the moment the engines on the chartered plane which brought them home yesterday (Sunday, 31 August) fired up, they got it.

Because at the controls of the Astraeus aircraft was Bruce Dickinson, the singer with heavy metal band Iron Maiden, who leads a double life as a captain with the British airline.

As the sun-bronzed members of 3 Squadron RAF Regiment were reunited with their families and friends after the plane had touched down on the Wittering runway, some were agog at the fame of the flier who had piloted them from Cyprus following a stopover on the island.

Squadron Leader "Albert" Finney, the senior air traffic control officer at RAF Wittering, had a surprise brush with Bruce.

He said: "I wanted to speak to the captain because we are not used to handling such large aircraft, and I needed to check he was happy with the taxi-plan. The captain happened to be Bruce Dickinson.

Related features:

Jonny Muir writes from Kandahar in Afghanistan, July 2008.

David Old spent a week with The Royal Anglians in Afghanistan, September 2007.

"I knew he flew for Astraeus, but what were the chances of him being the pilot? He was as proud as punch at flying the lads and wanted to tell me all about his Boeing 757."

Also amused at the bizarre final twist in 3 Squadron's Afghanistan campaign was Acting Sergeant Stuart Bland (29), who was reunited with wife Sian (27), daughter Morgan (8), and son Leighton (5).

But he admitted the deaths of Senior Aircraftman (SAC) Gary Thompson (51), a reservist from 504 Squadron attached to 3 Squadron, and SAC Graham Livingstone (23), were on everyone's minds.

The two men died in an explosion in April while on patrol outside Kandahar airfield, which 3 Squadron were tasked with protecting.

He said: "Some of the lads were having their photographs taken with Bruce Dickinson.

"It's just great to be home. It's been a long time coming. The experience of being away is nothing new – this was my seventh tour in the desert – so it doesn't come as a surprise.

"But the sad thing is the deaths of the two lads. It's been a long time since that incident and the other lads have been getting on with it, but they still remember them and they are still part of the regimental family." Continues on next pageAs emotional scenes unfolded around him, Corporal Sean Langston-Jones (26), a former pupil at Orton Longueville School, in Peterborough, had added reason to remember SAC Thompson.

Cpl Langston-Jones, who normally serves with 504 Squadron and lives in Orton Malborne, said: "I am an instructor at 504 and I took Gary through his training, but I have had to try not to think about what happened.

"Going to Afghanistan makes you more appreciative of all the things we have in the UK which they don't."

Cpl Langston-Jones, who won a commendation from the commander of Kandahar camp for his outstanding service, said he had enjoyed the tour, despite the tragedy and danger.

As he met family members including mum Susan and sister Emma Wilson-Jones again, he said: "I loved it – the responsibility, doing the job, and seeing a different country.

"It's been good for me as an instructor to get the experience."

His girlfriend, Emma Coley (23), said: "It's been difficult and he's had some lows, but I think in some ways he will miss it."

About 125 members of 3 Squadron returned to Wittering yesterday, after facing temperatures of 50C, the threat of mines and roadside bombs, and the demands of patrolling an area of 200 square miles.

Tomorrow (2 September), they will mark their return home with a parade in Stamford before most enjoy some well-earned leave.

Wing Commander Scott Miller, officer commanding 1 RAF Force Protection Wing, which includes 3 Squadron, said: "We faced a very inventive, ingenious and cruel enemy, but acquitted ourselves admirably and did a professional job keeping him away from Kandahar."

Related features:

Jonny Muir writes from Kandahar in Afghanistan, July 2008.

David Old spent a week with The Royal Anglians in Afghanistan, September 2007.

 

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