On the morning of Thursday, April 10, 2003, a Britannia Boeing 757-200
under charter from the Ministry of Defence
was flown into Cardiff International Airport
from the Persian Gulf
, via a base on Cyprus
. It was carrying 29 British Troops back from Operation Iraqi Freedom
in Iraq which at that point had been raging for nearly three weeks.
The plane, carefully painted to disguise it as a regular charter flight, was parked far from the main terminal building on an empty stand next to the British Airways maintenance hangar, near the old disused runway. This served to help elude the press, eager for any scraps of information. The second floor observation area of the terminal was also closed to the public.
Only five of those aboard were determined to need further medical attention, although Cardiff was chosen thanks to its proximity to a good burns centre in Swansea, as well as RAF St. Athan. The rest were sent home for a variety of undisclosed reasons. Several medics had been aboard in addition to the cabin crew to attend to the wounded.
I was fortunate enough to go aboard the plane after the operation was complete, and found out the following facts: The plane was carrying ten stretchers, which took up the forward third of the cabin, five on each side. The rest of the plane had extended legroom and a large number of seats had been removed, not just from the area containing the stretchers. In order to avoid complications from high-altitude flying (normal airliners pressurize the cabins at about 9,000 feet) the plane had been flown low enough to enable pressurization equivalent to sea level, at the expense of fuel and a longer flight time.
As of today, the stretchers were immaculate and the plane was ready to return to Cyprus if more troops needed a ride home. The entire operation was finished by the afternoon and did not interfere with the regular operation of the airport, which is now just beginning to gear up for the summer season. Cardiff is the second choice for these flights, after Birmingham International.