May 26, 2009 (by Neale Adams, RAF News) - As the drawdown in Iraq gathers pace, RAF Hercules aircraft and their crews will be the last to fly out of the region later this year.
Having been the mainstay of operations since May 2003, the aircraft are helping transport more than 4,000 troops and their kit back to the UK.
24, 30, 47 and 70 Squadrons based at RAF Lyneham have all been deployed to Iraq over the last six years, with the first two squadrons using the 'J' variant of the C130, spending the most time in Basra and the Middle East.
A permanent deployment of engineers, ground crew and air crew (made up from all four squadrons) has been working through freezing conditions, sand storms and intense heat in Iraq since the beginning.
For those on 30 Squadron, the drawdown is business as usual.
Officer Commanding 30 Squadron, Wing Commander Mike Wilson, said: "The drawdown is exactly like a Relief in Place but just going one way. Troops are not being taken from the UK back to Iraq.
"Certainly by the end of July our footprint in the Gulf will hopefully have gone completely as a Herc detachment."
A major challenge will be to ensure the Hercules flights out of theatre are on time to link up with charter aircraft at another base in the Middle East. They will then will fly the troops back to the UK.
The Hercules has been vital in all areas of operations, including more recently flying a greater number of VIPs in and out of Iraq. Major General Andy Salmon, the last British General Officer Commanding, was flown out as the British handed control of military operations at Basra Airport to the Americans earlier this year. The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, Peter Mandelson, led a UK trade delegation to the area last month.
Squadron Leader Dave Stewart, a C130J pilot, has recently returned from Iraq and has spent what he describes as at least two years of his life in the region because of the number of tours he has completed. His first was in 2003.
Sqn Ldr Stewart said: "At the start we were living in the buildings at the airport - in one of the departure lounges. There was no air-conditioning and no power. There were no lights in Iraq - only in the compounds. Now you fly around Iraq and there's a spider's web of lights, which is quite a difference.
"Iraq has become home from home for most of the fleet."
In the early days of the conflict, Sqn Ldr Stewart flew in a South African veterinarian, called in by the American Secretary of State, Donald Rumsfeld, to look after Saddam Hussein's son Uday's rare white tiger.
Now the Hercules crews are looking forward to the end of operations in Iraq. Wg Cdr Wilson said: "It's been high tempo for six years, 365-days-a-year, non-stop. And people need a rest. Our other global ops have been reduced as a result of the number of aircraft employed elsewhere. Having more aircraft back at Lyneham will be a big bonus for us."