AFM's boys shine in Canale exercise

At 6am, the roads are quiet and the sun was still trying to burn off the morning haze over the sea. But at Haywharf, hectic preparation was underway for the first day of the Canale military exercises. A brief check of my identity, I was joined by Major Ivan Consiglio – the AFM’s PRO – who was to accompany us throughout our embedment with the Maltese contingent of the Canale military exercise.
After being given our flotation devices, we were ushered towards the Melita I to be transported out to sea to the P-24. 
After a safety drill, the master switched to full power and we were racing out of Marsamxett Harbour. The sea spray was a good tonic, and before we knew it, we were pulling alongside the patrol boat for boarding – it all went well. The patrol boat was about to be boarded by a joint force of Italian and Algerian special forces who were to investigate reports of a bomb on board (IED or improvised explosive device in army speak).
The crew was immediately gathered and ‘arrested’ at the back of the boat – held under armed guard by the soldiers as others searched the vessel for the device. An Italian solider radioed the mother ship and confirmed that a bomb was on board and a rib (dinghy) sent in a full-kit Armed Forces of Malta bomb disposal team. Because the device was on a ship, robots could not be used and a solider had to physically operate water gun machinery to destroy the battery of the device. It was explained that normally, the AFM will try and solution possible before sending a man in to do the job, but because the device was on a ship, all other procedures were rendered redundant. And forget Hollywood. There are no debates on cutting the red, blue or yellow wire, the bomb squad uses a water gun to destroy the battery – the so called ‘heart’ of the device.
Job done. With all the excitement over for a few minutes, those who are not accustomed to being at sea soon realised that being on a bobbing and rolling ship in Force 4 sea is not the ideal thing and some decided to head back to base rather than continue the adventure. We were to transfered to the P-51, under the command of the very able Captain Russell Caruana of P-51's Protector class, Maritime Squadron. 
Camera gear, video equipment and a crew of slightly green looking journalists were lowered into a rib – an inflatable dinghy from the Italian’s Foscari. Water sloshed in, a few curses were heard and the rib bounced all the way to the P-51. Seasickness was suddenly forgotten once more and we held on and hoped to get there without ending up in the water.
Before we knew it, we were hoisted aboard the P-51 and given a drink and a welcome by the very affable crew. Sgt. Alex Borg gave us a short brief about what we were going to do – and politely, what we should do if we were going to be sick. A quick word of appreciation to the Cook – the mushroom, bacon and white sauce pasta he knocked up for us was unanimously voted by the media contingent to be ta’ veru! 
The P-51 and the Italian Commandante Foscari headed towards a firing range, some 25 nautical miles off the South West of Malta. The P-51 showed her speed, hitting 22 knots on the journey out, keeping pace with the larger Foscari and making a rendevous with the P-22 and P-23 Austal boats at the firing range.
From there, the Maltese crew showed their professionalism once more, putting together and mounting a 50 calibre machine gun (more like a cannon for the uninitiated) in a matter of minutes. 
One of the other boats then dropped a floating target into the water and the P-51 approached it from one mile away. Being a live fire exercise – all went by the book, with constant radio communication between the bridge and the gunnery team attempting to spot the bright red target.
Within a few minutes, we had visual and the crew proceeded to take turns at firing at the target. As one of the crew explained – to be able to hit a larger target in operational conditions, you must be able to hit a small target in simulated conditions. Ear protectors were essential – but being a journalist, I had to hear the din for myself. I wish I hadn’t – the noise that the 50 cal creates is something akin to thunder going off in your ear. One of the crew actually managed to hit the target (no mean feat from the distance we were at, coupled with the rolling of the ship).
To round off the day, the AFM’s Alouette helicopter joined the party and proceeded to make six passes at the target. By the fifth, the door gunner had blown it out of the water and sent it to a watery grave. 
One flypast and some nifty maneuvers later, the helicopter made its way back to base. Following the end of the live fire exercise, we were again loaded onto a rib and launched from the back of the P-51 to join an Austal boat. The rib carried orders to the rest of the fleet, and it really was a pertinent reminder that these guys plan for every eventuality. They think on their feet and a day out at sea with them allows you to appreciate just what skills they have- from cooking, to organisation, seamanship, navigation and gunnery. 
Once aboard the Austal boat, we were given dispensation by the flotilla to make our own way back to base at speed, as I heard over the radio “because you have the media”. Rest assured, it was not ‘special’ treatment. We are landlubbers, we were shattered, sunburnt and drained from the adrenalin rush of the day – and boy did the crew know it. A 90 minute ride later (throughout which most of us fell asleep in the sun) and we were back on dry land. It was only after a good night’s sleep that I could find my legs again. These boys do a tough job – we really should appreciate them.


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