While having a beer in Joe´s Bar in Plakias one night my Dutch pal Jorge asked how confident I felt in the ocean.
I´d just passed Advanced Open Water scuba diving (meaning I am now qualified to do basic mathematics on my knees at 30 metres while sea turtles flap past me) so I replied that I was super confident and why was he asking?
For 11 days every year, spread over 6 weeks from October to November, a military base in Crete is used by NATO to train soldiers how to fire Stinger, Patriot and Hellfire missiles. The rockets cost between €150,000 and €1.2 million EACH and each man authorised to use such lethal and expensive machinery has to be trained to a high level. The German, Greek, US, Dutch and Italian armies all vie for time in the gunner’s chair so there are always young chaps ready to launch ludicrously cost prohibitive shit into the air, what with the “troubles” in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The targets they aim at are unmanned rocket drones, hand made and carrying lots of funky stuff ranging from smoke canisters to flares and “hot nose” cones. Problem is these things are themselves pants-wettingly dear and cost between €60,000 and €150,000 EACH.
The drones are fired off a catapult launching pad via slingshot before the kerosene is ignited and a few seconds later, a few miles away, the eager beaver getting trained up has to launch the killer after it. Five to eight seconds later they meet which, provided things are working to plan, results in a loud boom and the end of both the missile and the drone.
Which is where Jorge´s question came in.
With Crete being so close to Libya etc. and the drones being secretive and their manufacturers being jealous about their (dead) babies getting into the wrong hands, the remains have to be collected once they have been shot down. Over land or on the water they want the drones back asafp and are nervous from the moment it’s been kicked out the air, until the chopper pilot radios in to say the mangled remains are on their way back to base.
So…a crew is assembled to deal with this.
A chopper pilot and a ground runner are 50% of the team. They go out the moment the drone goes down in order to scout out its location. If it´s on land then the ground runner deals with it, sprinting jauntily over mountain terrain and goat paths before hooking it up to a rope and towing it back to base.
If it goes down over the ocean it´s slightly more messy, especially if the sea is rough.
The GPS coordinates are given to both the chopper crew and a speedboat crew who then have to blat it out there in triple quick time in order to find it. An RIB (rigid inflatable boat) is used for the journey which contains a skipper and a diver. The locations can be between 1 mile and 25 miles offshore and the depths are around 800 metres. Once the drone is found the boat crew assess the risk and if calm enough the diver suits up with a wetsuit, mask and flippers and jumps in the sea. He then disarms the power switch, cuts the parachute free, deflates the buoyancy device (cock-shaped nose cone balloon) with a knife and wraps a rope with hooks around the twin turrets. He then swims back 20 metres while holding a looped end of the rope and signals to the skipper to signal to the chopper to lower a cable with an industrial hook on the end. The chopper then hovers over the diver (who tries to avoid getting twatted in the face by the hook) who connects the cable to the rope around the drone, swims clear and signals for lift off. The chopper then tows the drone back to base.
As Jorge was unable to do it this year he’d been asked by the skipper if he knew anyone else who might be interested. They wanted someone who wouldn’t shriek like a little girl and shit himself in open water and who preferably had previous military or police experience. The wages were €150 per day, meaning about €1350 for 9 days work.
I said of course I was interested and asked him to pass my phone number on to the skipper.
Arriving at the ferry port for the skipper to pick me up in early October he arrived in what looked like a military jeep with a military-esque logo on each side (a shield with his company name embossed on it) and heaps of boat gear in the back. We went out for dinner at a beach bar with the chopper pilot and the ground runner. The pilot was ex German army and had retained some of the habits of that time with closely cropped hair and Ray Bans plus a penchant for talking down to people while the ground runner was a German female, 40-something, super fit marathon runner and reminded me of the bad ass female safety instructors I’d had in the police.
As we needed to pick the boat up by 6.30am we had to get up at half past cunt every morning.
The skipper had a self catering flat in a beach hotel which meant I got the spare room to myself. 5am and we gulped down about 3 mugs of filter coffee each before heading out in pitch darkness to the test firing centre.
The place has security due to the nature of the work and after being waved in by a guard holding a growling Rottweiler by the collar we pulled into the hangar to hook up the boat trailer to the rear of the vehicle. The technicians took me to one side for instructions on how to correctly hook up the rope to the drones and pointed out that there were two types, big and small and the small ones needed to be flipped on their backs before being winched or the antenna would snap off (if it had survived the explosion).
They also showed me the panels on either side of the nose cone that slid back once released with a screwdriver. One contained the on/ off button for the engine and the other had a sliding switch which, when released would disconnect the parachute. He told me to always puncture the nose cone balloon before the helicopter lifted off or it would cause problems once the chopper lowered the drone back down at base.
The best advice he gave me though was “if you think it’s too dangerous, back off. We can replace these things, but life we cannot give back”.
We then made our way to the dock and inflated the boat with a motorised pump and released the safety straps before “splashing” it off the dock (reversing it off the trailer into the sea) and waiting for The Call.
Morning passed and nothing.
We broke for lunch about 12pm and after opting for the Roquefort salad I was confronted by a pile of lettuce drizzled with what looked like a blended frog mixed with cat vomit. Oh well, physical labour so I ain’t proud and hungrily wolfed down what tasted like prison rations.
At 3pm we got a call. GPS co-ordinates 10 miles off shore.
Certain this would be another false alarm we headed out there and it was at this point that I realised why people get seasick.
We found the drone near a cliff face at the co-ordinates an alerted the chopper. I then had to change into my wetsuit which is kind of hard on dry land let alone in a boat that tossing in the waves of mild bad weather.
After about 10 minutes of struggling and realising that being unable to see the horizon was making me feel more than a little queasy, I finally got suited up and the skipper told me to get in the water. This was the true test of faith as, 800 metres from the sea bottom you can see only a deep infinity of blue beneath you and I had to have my face in the water in order to hack at the parachute chord trailing 10 metres behind the drone. After finally cutting it free with my diving knife I got the chopper pilot to lower the hook so I could attach it to my tapestry of ropework wrapped around the rocket engines and this is when it got even scarier as the boat fucked off well out of vision to give the chopper room to manouvere and I was left with no reference points bar the chopper and the drone itself. Being miles off shore with only a broken drone and a helicopter above you can test the faith of Aquaman but I gritted my teeth and Jorge's words rang true that "after the first one you feel like a hero" as the rocket was lifted clear of the sea, spouting water from every nook and cranny, like a Michaelangelo fountain sculpture and headed back to base.
I then had to clamber back on to the boat which entailed putting one foot on the propeller (after the skipper had reassured me the engine was off) and heaved myself up, dripping wet onto the back of the RIB. The elation, adrenalin and fear proved to be a fairly volatile mix and once I felt safe as we headed back to base I chundered the rocquefort salad all over the side of the inflatable, somewhat deflating my macho feelings over doing and seeing something that hardly anyone ever gets to see or do.
Over the next 9 weeks we did this many times and only had one major row (involving me wearing two knives, one on my upper left arm and one on my right leg plus knee and elbow pads and a reinforced jock strap) where my skipper told me I looked like a goof ball and a roller blader and a rock star and just what the FUCK was I playing at. I pointed out that the pads meant that as he was blatting across the choppy ocean at 110 knots I would be able to brace against the cockpit without getting my bones smacked about and the groin guard meant that I wasn't going to bang my nuts, which if it DID happen would mean I wasn't going anywhere near the water while blue in the face and gasping for breath. He then queried why I had two blades and asked me if I thought I was a rollerblading ninja. I pointed out that if the parchute chord got wrapped around my legs I would be unable to reach the knife on my right calf and the back up blade was to prevent me getting drowned while attached to a piece of NATO equipment. He snorted derisively but to be fair, he then recanted his disdain when, on the next trip, my leg got wrapped up in the chords dangling like some vicious jellyfish tendrils but luckily didn't tighten so I was able to simply unravel myself.
All jolly good fun and the funniest thing was meeting the missile crew from the German army on week 9 who introduced a smug looking 21 year old as the bloke that launched the million dollar Patriots who proudly showed me a video on his I-phone of one of his efforts screeching from the launch pad with flames going to all four winds.