The last decade of conflict in the Global War on Terror (GWOT) has produced a significant number of combat veterans across the globe and some have been willing to share their experiences with us. Even so, there is another group of battle-hardened warriors we haven’t really taken into account: the vehicles and support equipment which, deployment after deployment, reliably carry professional soldiers to the front line. Vehicles whose story is seldom told.
One such vehicle is ZA718, a Boeing Chinook HC4 of the UK’s Royal Air Force–more informally known by its original call sign Bravo November. But why is this particular aircraft so special? In over 30 years of service, this remarkable helicopter has participated in combat operations in the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan both, and has seen four of its pilots earn the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).
Delivered to the RAF as an HC1 (Helicopter-Cargo Mark 1) variant in February 1982, ZA718 soon found itself loaded onto the cargo ship MV Atlantic Conveyor along with three other Chinook airframes destined for the Falkland Islands.
On May 25th 1982 the Atlantic Conveyor was preparing to sail into Port San Carlos when it came under attack and was sunk. Fortunately ZA718 was airborne at the time conducting a flight test and was able to recover to the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes. With all the other Chinook airframes destroyed, Bravo November operated for several weeks as the only heavy lift helicopter in the conflict–all without spare parts, tools or lubricants which had also been lost on the Atlantic Conveyor.
On the night of May 30th, ZA718 was tasked to deliver weapons to Special Air Service (SAS) troops who were under sustained artillery fire. Carrying three 105mm Howitzer guns in its cargo space and crates of ammunition slung underneath, the Chinook took off under the command of Squadron Leader Dick Langworthy and his co-pilot Flight Lieutenant Andy Lawless.
Flying with the aid of night vision goggles, they struggled to find a place suitable to place the cargo so that it would be in the right place for the gun crews to retrieve and set up on the uneven ground. The crew had flown straight into a boggy active fire zone and could see troops firing their weapons right beneath them as they tried not to sink into the soft ground.
Eventually, and with a cabin lighting failure, they delivered the guns and set off to pick up more–only to run into a snow storm. At this point, the crew’s night vision equipment began to fail and, unbeknownst to them, the aircraft had developed an altimeter fault. Suddenly, the aircraft impacted the water and, despite the engines actually ingesting water, the helicopter was able to lift its way out!
With the radio antenna ripped off, autopilot inoperative, holes in the fuselage and a missing cockpit door, ZA718 limped back to Port Stanley with all lights on in the hope that the anti-aircraft missile defense crews would realize that they were friendly! By the end of the conflict, Bravo November had carried around 1500 troops, 95 casualties, 650 POWs, and 550 tons of cargo. As a result, Squadron Leader Langworthy earned a DFC.
In 2003 Bravo November–now upgraded to HC2 standard and equipped with improved engines, upgraded avionics, and composite rotor blades–set off for the Middle East. Supporting the invasion of Iraq, it was one of the lead helicopters in the initial assault on the Al-Faw Peninsula. The task was to land Royal Marine Commandos at the oil refineries before Iraqi troops had a chance to sabotage them.
Flown by Squadron Leader Nick Carr, ZA718 approached Iraq leading a five-ship formation of Chinooks, with each one carrying 42 Royal Marines and their heavy packs. In order to accommodate the weight, all the seats in the cabin had to be removed, leaving the troops with standing room only as the helicopters raced to the target area only 50 feet off the deck.
With the first 200 Marines on the ground, the formation returned to pick up more. On their second approach, it was obvious that the battle was well established with tracer fire everywhere. As Carr commented: “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!”
Over the next three days, the Chinooks averaged an amazing 19 flying hours per day in support of troops on the ground. For his leadership in the Al-Faw operation, Squadron Leader Carr was awarded the DFC – the second for Bravo November.
By June 2006, ZA718 was now operating in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. On the night of 11 June 2006, Flight Lieutenant Craig Wilson set off in command of the now-legendary Chinook to recover a battle casualty. Due to difficult conditions, he had to fly the approach at just 150 feet above ground level and managed a precision approach and landing for a successful pick up. Several hours later Craig and his crew received a tasking for another CASEVAC in the badlands of Helmand.
On arrival, they found the LZ too hot to land, and they had to enter a holding pattern whilst an Apache dealt with enemy threats. This left them dangerously low on fuel; however, they successfully landed and completed the mission with just enough fuel to return to base. Even though he had been on duty for over 20 hours, Flight Lieutenant Wilson volunteered to deliver reinforcements to the front line and ven returned with two casualties. For his actions, he was awarded the DFC.
On 29 January 2010 at Camp Bastion in Helmand, Afghanistan, Flight Lieutenant Ian Fortune and his crew were pulling standby duty. Soon, they were scrambled to the aid of a unit of US Marines and Afghan National Army who were in a heavy gun battle with the Taliban. They had taken six casualties, all of whom needed extraction. They were soon on scene in ZA718, but intense gunfire prevented them from setting down.
Eventually they managed it, but it was a nerve-wracking time for Flight Lieutenant Fortune and his co-pilot, Flight Lieutenant Doug Gardner as they sat and watched Taliban fire creeping ever closer to the Chinook. As they took off, they inadvertently flew over a hidden machine gun position, which peppered Bravo November with bullets. Most rounds hit the fuselage, but some hit and damaged the aircraft’s stabilization system.
One bullet hit the windshield on Fortunes side, went straight through and hit his helmet at the night vision goggle attachment rail. Fragments from the bullet smashed the helmets visor which then cut into his face. With blood running down the side of his face Flight Lieutenant Fortune maintained control over the unstable RAF Chinook and flew it back to Camp Bastion for a successful, if not bumpy, landing.
For this mission, Flight Lieutenant Fortune was awarded Bravo November’s fourth DFC. On hearing he was to receive this award, he said the following:
“I feel truly honored to have been awarded a DFC and am filled with a sense of immense pride. 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.’
After 30 years of outstanding and distinguished service, ZA718 remains in airworthy condition and an active part of the RAF’s Chinook fleet. Not too shabby…
(Photos courtesy of the U.K. Ministry of Defence)