Almost thirty years since it entered service, veteran of the Falklands campaign, the RAF's ZA718 Chinook helicopter, or 'Bravo November' as it is better known, has just returned from service in Afghanistan.
The original aircraft, a Mk1 (HC1), came into service in 1982 and was the sole survivor of Operation Corporate. Three other Chinooks were shipped down to the Falkland Islands but were lost when the MV Atlantic Conveyor was sunk by Argentine Exocet missiles on 25 May 1982.
Bravo November was airborne from the Atlantic Conveyor on an air test at the time and therefore diverted to land on HMS Hermes.
Bravo November has been subject to numerous upgrades during her service and with upgraded engines and avionics is now the impressive HC2 version.
Having been rebuilt several times during her service, few parts of the original aircraft survive today, but the main fuselage, the manufacturer’s data plate in the cockpit and the RAF’s serial number ZA718 clearly emblazoned on the rear of the aircraft remain ever present.
The Chinook fleet is a vital element of the lift capability being undertaken by the Joint Helicopter Force (Afghanistan) under the command of Wing Commander ‘Spats’ Paterson.
The tri-Service detachment comprises personnel from all three Services and operates Chinook, Sea King, Merlin, Lynx and Apache helicopters.
Bravo November has been supporting the coalition forces that comprise the International Security Assistance Force.
Flight Lieutenant Leon Fisher, a Chinook pilot in Afghanistan, described the types of missions that the Chinook fleet undertake:
The Chinook fleet generally support various types of tasking including delivering personnel, stores and equipment to the Forward Operating Bases and Patrol Bases or participating in ‘deliberate operations’ that insert and extract coalition forces into the area of operations.
It’s most notable missions have been supporting the Medical Emergency Response Team [MERT].
He added that the MERT missions are ‘immensely rewarding’:
The team of medics that extract the casualties are saving the lives of British and coalition personnel. We also extract Afghan security forces and local personnel, providing life-saving first aid or movement to hospital facilities.
Bravo November shows the scars of a hard tour in Helmand province but Chinook pilot Flight Lieutenant Rockingham-Smith continues to sing the praises of the veteran helicopter which he says is ‘rugged, resilient and the best aircraft for the job’.
Several months ago Flight Lieutenant Ian Fortune was hit by a ricochet on his flying helmet from a bullet fired at Bravo November by Taliban insurgents during an extraction of injured soldiers.
Other marks are noticeable along the fuselage and other Chinooks possess the scars of battle but Flight Lieutenant Fisher firmly states that ‘the Chinook is the Queen of the skies’.
Bravo November is also held in high regard by engineers that maintain the Chinooks in very difficult climatic conditions.
The Junior Engineering Officer of the Chinook fleet in theatre, Flight Lieutenant Nigel Murphy, said his team were ‘aware of the helicopter’s pedigree but Bravo November is not singled out for special treatment, airworthiness is the key to what we do’.
His team work hard to ensure that the fleet is available to support operations twenty-four-hours-a-day and he added that ‘it is nice to have Bravo November come through another campaign safely’.
It could have been all so different as, during the Falklands campaign, Squadron Leader Dick Langworthy and his co-pilot Flight Lieutenant Andy Lawless were flying the aircraft at night through a thick snow shower when the crew lost their horizon references which resulted in the aircraft hitting the sea.
After the event Flight Lieutenant Lawless said:
We were lucky, because if we had hit solid ground we would have been dead. We hit at 100 knots [185km/h]. The bow wave came over the cockpit window as we settled and the engines partially flamed out. I knew we had ditched, but I was not sure if we had been hit.
Dick said he thought we had been hit by ground fire. As the helicopter settled, the bow wave reduced. We had the collective still up and the engine wound up as we came out of the water like a cork out of a bottle. We were climbing!
During the incident, one of the other two crewmen, Flight Lieutenant Tom Jones, lost his flying helmet and fearing the helicopter was about to break up was considering jumping from the helicopter.
Another crewman indicated to him to put another helmet on and he then discovered the aircraft was successfully climbing and had just passed 1,500 feet (460m).
Remarkably, Bravo November suffered little damage although its radio antenna was ripped from the aircraft, there was damage to the fuselage, and the cockpit door was ripped off.
Without an antenna, radio communication with British forces could not be established, so when approaching San Carlos Squadron Leader Langworthy left all the lights on, hoping that the team operating the missile defences would realise that they were friendly.
No Argentine aircraft would fly so high or with the lights on, but, unbeknown to the crew, personnel at San Carlos could hear Bravo November’s calls, although the crew could not receive their replies.
On 2 June 1982 two companies of paratroopers were flown from Goose Green to seize the settlement of Fitzroy. Eighty-one paratroopers squeezed into Bravo November which is twice the normal capacity. Once landed, Bravo November returned to Goose Green to pick up a second load of seventy-five paratroopers.
By the time the Argentines surrendered, Bravo November had notched up over a hundred flying hours, and carried some 1,500 troops, 95 casualties, 650 prisoners of war and 550 tonnes of cargo.
Squadron Leader Langworthy was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his bravery at the controls of Bravo November during the Falklands conflict. Sadly though he died of a heart attack a year later after returning to the Falkland Islands to command the Chinook detachment.
Fittingly, Bravo November was on the strength of the unit at the time and the Air Force Board approved the placing of a plaque commemorating his DFC in the cockpit.
During the Iraq invasion of 2003, Bravo November was the first helicopter to land Royal Marines on the Al-Faw peninsula.
The Captain, Squadron Leader Steve Carr, flew several waves and during the second run a firefight developed around the aircraft. For his leadership and bravery, Squadron Leader Carr was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross - Bravo November’s second.
A veteran of other operational campaigns, Bravo November has also seen service in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, the Lebanon evacuation and earthquake relief in Kurdistan.
Now a veteran of several Afghanistan tours, Bravo November is still going strong. She is now benefiting from major servicing at her home station of RAF Odiham.
A key facet of the servicing will include the fitting of even more powerful engines that will make her even more capable in the ‘hot and high’ operating environment of Afghanistan.
However, before her next operational deployment she will soon be gracing the skies of the United Kingdom supporting the mission rehearsals and exercises of British troops preparing for Operation HERRICK - the United Kingdom’s support to the international coalition in Afghanistan.