By Richard Edwards in Al-Zubayr, Southern Iraq
Soaring through the skies at 120mph, two explosions suddenly sounded and a ray of orange sparks lit up the inside of our helicopter.
The troops, startled from their seats, jumped up and scanned for enemy positions below.
For a second there was eye-popping panic, then calm. After a pause for breath, they explained two flares had been set off – it was a false alarm.
On a five-hour jaunt through the hazy blue skies of southern Iraq, this was the one moment of fear.
I looked at our leader, Major John Bailey, standing behind the pilot with two radio headsets strapped around his face. He had not even blinked.
Hours earlier, he had been lounging around in flip-flops, enjoying a cigarette and a mug of tea as he recovered from a 12-hour night-time hovercraft operation.
Then the commander approached. There were some suspected Iraqi missile launch sites to the north of Umm Qasr – the helicopters took off in two hours.
‘Lucky I’m good at writing plans on the back of fag packets,’ the Major said.
Soon we were boarding the helicopter with him, feeling the clammy blast of hot air hit our face as we leapt aboard a dark green SeaKing.
At the same time three other choppers lifted off carrying the ground troops, ready to descend on pinpointed sites.
It was the beginning of an exhilarating journey, a tour of the extraordinary industrial lands between Umm Qasr and Al-Zubayr.
Gas Plants, oil pipelines, chimneys, cranes, waste piles and pump stations littered a bland terrain coloured a dozen different shades of brown.
Thousands of pylons peppered the land, our helicopter swooping, swerving and tottering feet above the cables running like roads through the desert.
On the horizon, the city of Basra was visible through four enveloping plumes of smoke, smouldering high into the atmosphere and discolouring the sky.
Most striking of all were the vast seas of waste, whole towns of junk and piles of rotting, rusty debris.
Amongst the chunks of reddy brown stained metal, one could just make out a tank, barrels, buses, boats, and pipes.
The surrounding ground was burnt black.
Elsewhere there were smatterings of colour – strips of green crops and trees, herds of wild grazing goats, coaches parked in dust streets and people waving as the helos buzzed past.
Some were guarding cartons of bright red tomatoes next to their precious crops, others standing beside trucks as they looted wooden boards and barrels for their home.
Then, as we approached a small village, a significant sign: a mural of Saddam with a brown sheet plastered over it, wrapped with red tape.
The south is beginning to feel separated from the man who has controlled their world for the past 23 years.
Meanwhile, the stomach-revolving whir of the blades continued overhead, the vibrations resonating through my teeth and jaw as we sat peering through scratched windows.
Lurching left, right and then rotating through 360 degrees, the power of the machines are incredible, as is the skill of their Royal Navy pilots.
‘There’s no need to worry,’ said one Marine. ‘They are used to landing these things on a ship in the middle of the ocean – in the dark and in a force six gale.’ Ten men sat patiently, the muzzles of their weapons resting on the base of the floor.
If a shot is accidentally fired, they said, it is better it blasts through the base than upwards towards the engine and rotar blades. Roger that.
Four hours after take-off, and without as much as a cursory word, Major Bailey turned round and said the operation was complete. Broad-shouldered, dark haired, he is a no-nonsense man, a Major who strikes the classic balance between the rugged, fearless soldier and the dashing, well-spoken officer.
No Scud missile launchers had been found, he said, but a stash of weapons and mines was uncovered and we passed three artillery positions hidden in the ground.
Fortunately for us, they were unmanned – now they are marked on a map, new targets for demolition.
We touched down, disembarked and crouched in the sand as the helo took off, the overwhelming backdraft leaving a layer of dirt caked to my clothes and scalp.
After a swift pause, we took off again in another craft, before landing for refuelling.
The high-pitched screams of the engine died to a dull groan and hot, breathless air poured into the cabin, filling our noses, mouths and lungs.
As darkness fell and we waited for our lift home on a Saturday evening, the conversation turned to Britain, beer and nights on the town.
We imagined our friends jumping into cars and buses to go to pub. Then the helo engines started and we set off back across southern Iraq.
The Major smiled. ‘I think I”l stay in and do my hair tonight,’ he said.