Thursday, 5 July 2012

a helicopter ride with paddy ashdown

The year is 1992. Paddy Ashdown is sitting on the floor in an ancient Russian helicopter with his Liberal Democrat colleague, the late Russell Johnston at his side. The machine is bucketing along at full speed just feet from the ground. Paddy is wearing a flak jacket and motions, as the craft lurches sickeningly past a clump of trees, for Russell to put his on, too. 'Why?' mouths Russell. Paddy's eyes narrow. 'Those pings you hear above the sound of the engines,' he screams in Russell's ear - 'that, my friend, is gunfire hitting the fuselage!'
I know this happened because I was there. Ashdown and Johnston had been invited to see the Bosnian Serbs and I went with them (I was a young TV reporter) for the ride.
It was some ride. The helicopters that ferried people from the comfort and safety of Belgrade, the capital of what was then still Yugoslavia, to the Bosnian Serb stronghold of Pale, were driven by wild-eyed Russians. They kept low so that folk on the ground with rocket launchers would not have time to use them. All the judgements the pilots made were fine and involved life and death. When I spoke to Lord Ashdown last week, I reminded him that our trip had begun with a false start; the chopper could't get above the trees so we landed again and two people were chucked off. I also reminded him that when we arrived he stood outside the craft and had a cigarette.
It was, the great Yeovil warrior freely admits, 'a frightening ride'.
- Justin Webb, Radio Times, 30 June