The Royal Air Force has suspended flights between the UK and Afghanistan as a result of the restrictions imposed while a cloud of volcanic ash remains over much of Europe. The action has temporarily halted its ability to fly in essential supplies, evacuate injured personnel and repatriate those killed in action.

Dubbed the “airbridge”, the link with Afghanistan is normally maintained using the RAF’s Lockheed TriStar transports (below) and Boeing C-17 strategic transports, plus a variety of leased commercial passenger and freight aircraft. Around 230,000 passengers are currently processed at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire per year, the service says.

 RAF Tristar
© Crown Copyright

The Ministry of Defence says the suspension of flights immediately affected 550 personnel who had reached Cyprus on their way back to the UK. Around half of these have now returned home after the MoD provided alternative means of ferrying them between Bordeaux in south-west France and Portsmouth, England.

The personnel included some elements of the RAF’s Marham-based 9 Sqn, which has just completed a tour of duty operating Panavia Tornado GR4 strike aircraft from Kandahar airfield.

Prime minister Gordon Brown says the Royal Navy will also be used to bring home other military personnel and potentially also civilians stranded as a result of the flight restrictions.

The MoD says it is looking at how robust its interim transport system is, and planning how it will take essential supplies into Afghanistan should the airbridge option remain closed for an extended period. Contingency plans are also in place should any casualty evacuation activities be required, with other facilities in the Middle East and Europe available as options.

Other RAF flight activities in the UK have also been halted, but the service will continue to perform duties such as quick reaction alert sorties and search and rescue tasks if required.