Cutting Edge – The Air Hospital (Channel Four, UK)

C17 Globemaster on slow pass
Image by tripletrouble via Flickr

Channel 4 broadcast a documentary on the work of the RAF’s 99 Squadron in Afghanistan this evening. The production from IWC Media looked at the use of the C17 Globemaster as a flying intensive care ward, shuttling critically wounded service personnel from Afghanistan back to the UK. This is the work of CCAST – Critical Care in the Air Support Team – operating into Camp Bastion and Kandahar.

Not unexpected was the professionalism of the CCAST medics and the aircrew. It was refreshing to see the huge Globemasters employed in more humane tasks – the more familiar image is of these ‘trash haulers’ flying into RAF Lyneham with the bodies of fallen troops prior to the moving processions through the village of Wooton Bassett. The documentary touched on this, as well as the ferrying of new troops with recent surges back into hostile territory.

The pilots – often derided by their fast jet colleagues – played down their own abilities, seeing themselves as glorified bus drivers and belying the skill needed to bring a 200 ton aircraft down from 30,000 feet into hostile territory within minutes. Business Class this ain’t. There is no VIP lounge at Kandahar or Camp Bastion. There are numerous steely-eyed nutters watching for a chance to take out one of 99 Squadron’s finest.

Appropriately, the interviews concentrated on the medical teams and the soldiers cared-for by them up in the air. The team looked extremely tired at the end of each trip, knowing that their mandated 24 hour crew rest could be recinded if a mercy dash back to the warzone was needed. The effort of the loadmasters and medical teams in equipping the aircraft to care for the critically wounded was demonstrated, with a more human element to this programme. There was much comment from all focussing on the sense of loss, the obvious escalation in the violence of the work in Afghanistan (last year, CCAST carried out more than 120 medical evacuations – double that of 2008). But they commented too on their sense of cameraderie with their patients – men they may never meet again. Unusually, the patients interviewed spoke little of CCAST and more of comrades less lucky than themselves with what seemed to be survivors’ guilt.

The producers could have taken a much different tack. Unlike other Afghanistan documentaries seen and reviewed here, this was a calmer presentation. There was less overt sentimentality or drama for its own sake – despite the subject matter – and the viewer comes away informed and lifted by the work of the RAF.

Filmed, produced and directed by Paddy Wivell.