Gary Parsons looks at the RAF's most famous aircraft still serving on the front line. Pictures Crown Copyright and by Guy Harvey
Tuesday 18 March 2008, and Chinook HC2 ZA718/BN touches down on the grass outside the RAF museum at Hendon in North London - is this a practice for her eventual resting place, for 'Bravo November' is arguably the most significant airframe still serving in the Royal Air Force outside of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.
With three Distinguished Flying Crosses to her career, ZA718 has seen action all around the globe and has a service record second to none. In the past twenty-six years she has served in the Falkland Islands, Lebanon, Germany, Northern Ireland, Kurdistan, Iraq and Afghanistan, with more years yet to come. Of course, the legend of 'Bravo November' was born in her first theatre, when in 1982 she was the only Chinook to survive the destruction of the merchant ship 'Atlantic Conveyor' and provided vital heavy-lift support to the troops liberating the Islands, despite no spares or support equipment, very much in the 'can do' spirit of the modern air force. One of the last examples of the initial batch of thirty-three HC1s delivered to the RAF in early 1982, ZA718 (Boeing construction number B-849) arrived at Odiham in the February and was allocated to 18 Squadron.
In April 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 21 May. They were subject to daily bombing raids by Argentine jets; "I did not like running commentaries of bombing raids by the Navy" said Wing Commander Lawless, then a Flight Lieutenant serving with 18 Squadron. "On a ship you are not the master of your own destiny. You were powerless."
On 25 May, 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 twelve 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 the late Sqn Ldr 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' flew for several weeks before additional Chinooks arrived on the battlefield.
On 26 May 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 MV Atlantic Conveyor. ZA718 was by far the largest helicopter available to the British forces in the Falklands, capable of carrying about twelve tons.
'Bravo November' was immediately put to use moving ammunition from the British bridgehead to frontline artillery batteries. She ran into trouble on 30 May 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 Lawless. "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."
Lawless and his pilot, Sqn Ldr Dick Langworthy, soon found themselves flying into a snowstorm and then their 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 2 June, two companies of paratroops were flown from Goose Green to Fitzroy to seize the settlement - eighty-one 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' seventy-five 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 10 June.
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 at the controls of ZA718 during the campaign - 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.
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.
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 the liberation of Iraq, '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 in Iraq. 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 hundred feet or lower and then we went down to fifty feet when we entered Iraq. Each aircraft had forty-two Marines on board plus their rucksacks, each weighing around sixty kilograms! 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 twelve 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 nineteen 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.
On the night of 11 June 2006 Flight Lieutenant Craig Wilson, Captain of ZA718/BN from 1310 Flt in Helmand Province, was tasked to recover a casualty from a landing site in Afghanistan. In difficult and dangerous conditions, despite having done little night flying in Afghanistan, he flew at 150 ft 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 twenty-two 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 Distinguished Flying Cross for 'exceptional courage and outstanding airmanship' while operating in Helmand Province. 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."
On 9 December 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.
Boeing also signed a $6 million contract in December 2004 to complete studies for the United Kingdom's future heavy-lift, multi-purpose helicopter. The RAF, the largest operator of Boeing-built Chinooks outside the United States, currently operates a fleet of forty HC2/A Chinooks. A further eight HC3s are to be converted to HC2 standard over the next two years to bolster the hard-pressed fleet into the next decade. As for ZA718, she will continue to serve until retirement, hopefully to a permanent position within the walls of Hendon.