A fighter pilot who was previously deployed in Ukraine said being featured in Channel 4’s new documentary made him realise warzones are “not normal”.
Ben ‘Chergs’ Chergui, a 32-year-old Royal Air Force (RAF) typhoon pilot, appears in episode two of Channel 4’s Top Guns: Inside the RAF, where he must make a life-or-death decision about whether to use deadly force against a possible militant from the so-called Islamic State in Syria.
The documentary is the first time cameras have been allowed unprecedented access inside the RAF, and filming primarily took place at RAF base Lossiemouth in Scotland.
In the episode, Mr Chergui inspected if an unidentified individual in Syria was a so-called Islamic State militant or a civilian by checking his fighter jet’s targeting camera, after analysing the person he was identified as a farmer.
“The way UK policy works you know we just don’t drop bombs willy nilly, we need to be aware of what’s going on and have the full picture,” the pilot from Eastbourne, East Sussex, told the PA news agency.
“See what his intentions are, and what’s going on around that area as well.”
He said life-or-death decision-making “can be stressful,” but his training and the RAF’s rules of engagement keep him “on the straight and narrow”.
Mr Chergui said: “You need to be aware of the fact that you’re flying a 70 million pound fighter jet which is fully armed, and there’s a lot of people below that probably want to kill you.
“That certainly focuses the mind.
“There are times it can be stressful, but luckily with the training that we’ve had and the very strict rules of engagement that we have, it kind of keeps you on the straight and narrow.”
Zane Sennett, 47, RAF Squadron Leader, from Stamford, Lincolnshire, who trained Mr Chergui to become a fighter pilot, said pilots have to “remove” themselves and just ensure their “process to deliver that weapon is flawless”.
He told PA: “Your sole task for that weapon is to deliver it in the right place, at the right time, where it’s meant to go.
“We rely and have faith that all the fidelity that has gone into selecting that target has been carried out before, that it’s a legitimate target, and all rules of engagement have allowed you to engage that.
“You remove yourself from what it’s actually doing, your job is just to make sure that your process to deliver that weapon is flawless.
“So that makes the decision process easier for the operator.”
The 32-year-old Typhoon pilot was continually deployed to Ukraine shortly after the start of Russia’s invasion, up until Christmas 2022, he flew “eight-hour missions” from RAF Lossiemouth to the Polish border in Nato airspace.
After finishing his fighter pilot training, he found it “quite bizarre” to be deployed to the frontline in Ukraine.
“It’s quite bizarre really, you’ve come from flying training to all of a sudden being on the frontline of operations,” he said.
“You see events unfolding on the news and then days later, you’re flying right next to these war zones.
“It’s bizarre at first, you certainly feel a bit of anxiety the first time it happens so early on in your career.
“But only after doing it for a couple of weeks it just becomes normal, and you just normalise these significant events, then it becomes plain day-to-day work for you.
“It’s not until you have a documentary crew following you around, or you’re talking to your friends and family about it, that you think well actually this isn’t normal – I’ve just normalised something that’s completely abnormal.”
The fighter pilot training, according to the 32-year-old, can be both “competitive” and “savage”, and may cause pilots to feel “imposter syndrome”.
“The training process lasts about seven years.
“The flying training pipeline can be quite savage, you’re assessed on every single flight that you do.
“After your first 40 flights, they decide if you’re going to fly helicopters, big transport aircraft or fighter jets.
“It’s really quite competitive, it’s about a 50% success rate, so half of the people end up getting chopped we call it – which is when they fail fast pilot flying training.
“That’s where the imposter syndrome comes in for a lot of people because they’re seeing their friends not make it.”
Episode two of Channel 4’s Top Guns: Inside the RAF airs on August 28 at 9pm.