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The legend of ‘Bravo November’

 

With the award of a Distinguished Flying Cross to Flt Lt Ian Fortune of the Royal Air Force, it also marks the fourth time a pilot of Chinook HC2 ZA718/BN, otherwise known as ‘Bravo November’, has received decoration for bravery while piloting this helicopter that still serves on the front line.

On March 18, 2008 Chinook HC2 ZA718/BN touched down on the grass outside the RAF museum at Hendon in North London – was this a practice for its eventual resting place? ‘Bravo November’ is arguably the most significant airframe still serving in the Royal Air Force outside of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.

Now with four Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFC) to its career, ZA718 has seen action all around the globe and has a service record second to none. In the past twenty-eight years it has served in the Falkland Islands, Lebanon, Germany, Northern Ireland, Kurdistan, Iraq and Afghanistan, with more years yet to come.

The legend that is ‘Bravo November’ was born in 1982 during the Falklands War when it was the only Chinook to survive the destruction of the merchant ship ‘Atlantic Conveyor’ and provide vital heavy-lift support to the troops liberating the Islands, despite no spares or support equipment. One of the last examples of the initial batch of 33 Chinook HC1s delivered to the RAF in early 1982, ZA718 (Boeing construction number B-849) had arrived at Odiham in the February and was allocated to 18 Squadron as BN.

[img src=1254 align=left]Falklands icon

In April 1982 ZA718 was cocooned in plastic and loaded aboard the container ship MV Atlantic Conveyor along with three other Chinooks and six Wessex helicopters of 848 Naval Air Squadron, D Flight, to commence the long journey to the South Atlantic.

Detachment commander Squadron Leader Dick Langworthy and a hundred of his 18 Squadron colleagues were embarked on the commando ship HMS Fearless that sailed into San Carlos Water with the main invasion force on May 21. They were subjected to daily bombing raids by Argentine jets – on May 25, the Atlantic Conveyor was due to sail into San Carlos to offload its cargo of helicopters and supplies, but an Argentine Navy assault Super Étendard destroyed the ship with an Exocet sea-skimming missile, with the loss of 12 British lives.

By sheer chance, ‘Bravo November’ was airborne on an engineering test flight at the time of the attack – the other helicopters aboard were all lost, along with the second-line repair and maintenance support equipment and stores. The crew of ‘Bravo November’, captained by Dick Langworthy, managed to make it to safety on the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes, ZA718 being nicknamed ‘The Survivor’. Operating without spares, tools or lubricants, ‘Bravo November’ would fly for several weeks before additional Chinooks arrived on the battlefield.

On May 26 a much-reduced 18 Squadron contingent prepared to operate ‘Bravo November’, but without tents, radios or any of the specialist equipment needed to keep a Chinook flying they ended up working alongside Navy helicopter units. On strength were one Chinook helicopter, two four-man crews, nine technicians and ten men – all the spares, tools and servicing manuals had been lost aboard the Atlantic Conveyor. ZA718 was by far the largest helicopter available to the British forces in the Falklands, capable of carrying about 12 tons.

[img src=1257 align=right]’Bravo November’ was immediately put to use moving ammunition from the British bridgehead to frontline artillery batteries. It ran into trouble on May 30 during a night mission transporting guns to troops – Special Air Service (SAS) patrols had occupied positions on Mount Kent, overlooking Port Stanley, but were coming under artillery fire and needed reinforcement quickly. Lieutenant Colonel Michael Rose, SAS commander, wanted to make maximum use of the Chinook’s lifting power. “He asked if we could drop bombs off the rear ramp of the Chinook,” recalled Flight Lieutenant Lawless, Langworthy’s co-pilot. “We knew the SAS were outgunned – our job was to land 105mm howitzers. Rose told me the landing site was flat and secure – the mission was to be flown at night with night vision goggles. We had three 105mm guns inside and ammunition pallets under-slung.

“Then the fog of war intervened – the ground was not flat and covered in boulders. We couldn’t find anywhere to land, and we spent time manoeuvring to drop off the underslung loads. We had to put them exactly where the gunners wanted because they could not roll the guns very far across the terrain. I can distinctly remember troops moving under the rotor disc firing their guns – this was not part of the plan. There were incoming artillery rounds.” When they tried to land to unload the guns carried in the fuselage the Chinook’s back end sank into the peat so that the ramp could not be lowered. Langworthy raised the helicopter a few feet, allowing the ramp to be lowered and landed again for a second attempt – just as the guns were about to be unloaded the SAS covering the landing area engaged a company of Argentine troops to the north-east. At this time, the lighting in the helicopter’s rear cabin fused, leaving the unloading operations in darkness, except for use of a few hand torches. “Once we dropped off the guns we went straight back to San Carlos to bring in more guns and ammo,” added Lawless.

ZA718 soon found itself flying into a snowstorm and then the crew’s night vision goggles began to fail. Due to a faulty altimeter they hit water – “We were lucky, because if we had hit solid ground we would have been dead,” said Lawless. “We hit at 100 knots – 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!”

In the back of the helicopter, one of the two other crew members, Tom Jones, lost his helmet and had been about to jump, believing the helicopter to be breaking up. Another crewman beckoned him to put on another helmet and by the time he was on the intercom learnt that the helicopter was climbing and passing 1,500 feet.

ZA718 had held together – its radio antenna had been ripped off, the autopilot had failed, there were holes in the fuselage and the cockpit door was missing. With the radio damaged and unable to navigate, they managed to return to Port San Carlos. Unable to contact the port, Langworthy approached with all lights on, hoping that the missile defence would realise that no Argentine aircraft would dare to fly so high and fully lit up. Fortunately, the people on the ground at San Carlos were hearing ZA718’s calls, although the Chinook could not receive their transmissions.

‘Bravo November’ held together for two more vital weeks as the British forces moved towards Stanley. With no roads into the mountains, the only way to the front was by foot or helicopter. While the Royal Marines and Paras marched through the South Atlantic winter, the guns of the Royal Artillery depended on ‘Bravo November’ and smaller Royal Navy helicopters to keep them moving and firing. Lawless recalled that the helicopter was gradually falling to bits and the lack of specialist lubricants meant its engine and gear box were always in danger of failing. “We used and abused it – peacetime constraints went out the window.”

On June 2, two companies of paratroops were flown from Goose Green to Fitzroy to seize the settlement – 81 Paratroopers were jammed into the back of ZA718, almost double the normal load. The paratroops were landed and ‘Bravo November’ returned to Goose Green to pick up a second load, this time ‘only’ 75 paratroops, which were landed near Fitzroy. On its return journeys from the front, ‘Bravo November’ brought scores of casualties back to the improvised field hospital at Ajax Bay. ‘Bravo November’ continued its sterling service until reinforcements arrived in the form of four more Chinooks aboard the Contender Bezant on June 10.

[img src=1256 align=left]By the time the Argentines surrendered, ‘Bravo November’ had notched up over a hundred flying hours, carried some 1,500 troops, 95 casualties, 650 PoWs and 550 tons of cargo. Sqn Ldr Langworthy was awarded a DFC for his bravery – sadly, almost a year later, he died of a heart attack after returning to the Falklands to lead the Chinook detachment. By chance this included ‘Bravo November’ and, in a unique honour, the Air Force Board approved the placing of a plaque commemorating his DFC in the helicopter’s cockpit.

In over ten years of service, the HC1 was subject to a myriad of minor modifications and refinements resulting in no two airframes being the same, something the HC2 programme rectified. ZA718 was delivered to A&AEE at Boscombe Down during May 1993, being the first RAF Chinook to be converted to Chinook HC2 standard in 1994.

Into Iraq

Twenty years after the Falklands campaign, ‘Bravo November’ was back with 18 Squadron as the unit was preparing to send a detachment to the Middle East on board HMS Ark Royal in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq. During Operation ‘Telic’, ‘Bravo November’ spearheaded the assault on the Al Faw peninsula, the site of a major oil refinery, being the first British helicopter to land Royal Marines ashore. The mission was to pre-empt any attempt by the Iraqis to sabotage the oil refineries and prevent crude oil being released into the northern Arabian Gulf in an act of environmental terrorism.

Squadron Leader Steve Carr was nominated to plan and lead the first wave of five Chinooks that were to land the commandos, and he chose ZA718 to lead the mission. They overcame adverse weather conditions with visibility reduced by dust and smoke, all while dodging relentless opposition fire. “I was flying ‘Bravo November’ on the first wave,” recalled Carr. “Visibility was down to 1,000 to 1,500 metres – it was very dark, there was low cloud and the air was full of dust thrown up by American tank columns and artillery fire. Our night vision goggles were not much use. We were flying at a hundred feet or lower and then we went down to 50 feet when we entered Iraq. Each aircraft had 42 Marines on board plus their rucksacks, each weighing around 60kg! We had removed all the seats, so the troops were all stood up, holding on to ropes that we had strung across the cabin roof. Once we’d been cleared in to the landing site, the aircraft went in three waves, two pairs and a singleton, each element about one minute apart. The Marines must have been pretty pumped up as they were out of my aircraft in 12 seconds. Within two minutes over two hundred Marines were on the ground.

“On the second run we were in a fire fight, with tracer all over the place. Fortunately, all of it seemed to be outgoing.” The Chinooks were not the only aircraft in the air over Al Faw and the 18 Squadron pilots had to carefully co-ordinate their missions to prevent accidents. “You know it’s for real when you are talking on the radio to two American AC-130 Spectre gunships in orbit above you, engaging some Iraqis who are firing at the Marines from entrenched positions,” said Carr. “It was quite exciting. It was a busy piece of air space.”

During a three-day period, the aircraft averaged 19 flight-hours per day, delivering combat vehicles, artillery and troops. The mission was the first opposed UK helicopter assault since the Suez Crisis in 1956 and the largest in UK military helicopter history. Over the next three weeks, 18 Squadron flew support missions for British troops operating around Basra, before returning home early in the summer. The squadron’s contribution to the success of the Al Faw operation was recognised with Carr being awarded the DFC for his role in the operation.

Afghanistan action

[img src=1255 align=right]On the night of June 11, 2006 Flight Lieutenant Craig Wilson, Captain of ZA718 with 1310 Flight in was tasked to recover a casualty from a landing site in Helmand Province. In difficult and dangerous conditions, despite having done little night flying in Afghanistan, he flew at 150ft and made a precision approach and landing to extract the casualty.

A few hours later he was tasked with a further casevac, but had to hold off while an Apache gunship suppressed enemy action – despite being low on fuel he made another difficult landing before returning to base with just enough fuel to remain airborne. Then despite having been on duty for over 22 hours he volunteered to deliver reinforcements to help a threatening ground situation. His gallantry and extreme and persistent courage ensured the recovery of two badly wounded soldiers and played a vital role in saving their lives.

Flight Lieutenant Wilson received the DFC for ‘exceptional courage and outstanding airmanship’. He said it was a team effort, adding “I suppose really it’s sort of bitter sweet, as it’s very nice to receive an award, but it’s for everybody. You can’t do it on your own, but it just happened to be my name that was put forward. It takes four people to fly a Chinook.”

Now Flt Lt Ian Fortune has added his name to a growing list of heroes to fly this iconic airframe. Fortune was in charge of an Immediate Response Team and scrambled to conduct an emergency medical evacuation of six casualties with gunshot wounds. Fortune manoeuvred his aircraft into an emergency landing site under insurgent fire while an Apache attempted to suppress the enemy fire. As the Chinook departed a round came through the windscreen, hit the front of Fortune’s helmet and shattered his visor, causing deep lacerations to his face. He retained control of the helicopter and continued to take evasive action. A further round hit and disabled the flight stabilisation system, making the aircraft much harder to control. The Chinook was eight times, resulting in a series of system failures, including damage to the forward transmission.

The Chinook made it back to the medical facility at Camp Bastion and all casualties survived. On hearing the news of his award, Fortune said “I feel truly honoured to have been awarded a DFC and am filled with a sense of immense pride. I am humbled by the thought that I join a remarkable band of men and women in the annals of history who, through exceptional feats in the air, have inspired me since I was a boy. However, similar deeds occur unnoticed on an almost daily basis in Afghanistan and it is my privilege to serve and operate with fellow military aircrew and ground troops to whom this award is also a tribute.”

The RAF is the largest operator of Boeing-built Chinooks outside the United States and currently operates a fleet of 47 HC2 Chinooks. ZA718 will continue to serve until retirement in around 20 years’ time, hopefully to a permanent position within the walls of Hendon.

‘Bravo November’ immortalised

[img src=1258 align=right]On December 9, 2004 Sir Michael Jenkins, president of Boeing UK, presented to the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon a painting depicting the two DFCs completed by ‘Bravo November’ at that time. Copies of the painting were signed by the late Sqn Ldr Langworthy’s widow, Jean, and his senior officer, retired Air Vice Marshal Tony Stables, as well as Sqn Ldr Carr and Boeing artist Joe Naujokas.

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