Chinook ZA718 ‘Bravo November’ is one of the most famous aircraft in the RAF and it is very exciting that this historic aircraft is now part of the RAF Museum’s collection. Bravo November’s arrival at the RAF Museum also coincides with the 40th anniversary of the Falklands conflict, which saw the first operational use by the RAF of its newly acquired Boeing Chinooks. Using material from the RAF Museum archive and interviews, I will explore the activities of Chinooks during the Falklands Conflict, focussing particularly on ZA718 ‘Bravo November’ and the notable events in which it was involved.
The US Army began operating the Chinook in 1962 and it soon saw active service in Vietnam where its exceptional load carrying qualities were quickly recognised. For the RAF the Chinook was the obvious replacement for the problematic Bristol Belvedere and in 1967 an order was placed for 15 aircraft. However, the order was cancelled due to cuts in defence expenditure. It would be another 11 years before the RAF were able to purchase the Chinook. In 1978 the Ministry of Defence announced the purchase of 33 Chinooks.
The first aircraft were received by the Chinook Flight of No. 240 Operational Conversion Unit at RAF Odiham in December 1980. The following August, No. 18 Squadron was reformed to become the first of three RAF squadrons to be equipped with the new helicopter.
No. 18 Squadron’s Chinooks were soon called into action, when in April 1982 the Falkland Islands were invaded and occupied by Argentinian forces. Against the background of diplomatic efforts to resolve the situation, the British Government swiftly decided to send an all-arms force to attempt the recapture of the Falkland Islands over 8,000 miles away. No. 18 Squadron were soon involved, flying stores and supplies to ships of the task force being assembled at Devonport, this included flying a 5-ton propeller bearing to HMS Invincible at sea in the English Channel, having very publicly departed Portsmouth the day before, thus avoiding an embarrassing return to port for repair.
It was evident that helicopters were to play an important part in any operation to recapture the Falklands, for ‘ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore, lift of freight and personnel, for direct support of troops ashore and for Anti-Submarine Warfare’. The Royal Navy were able to provide much of the helicopter resources to meet these needs but lacked a heavy lift helicopter and the RAF’s Chinooks were the only aircraft that could fulfil this capability gap.
Six aircraft were rapidly prepared to join the Task Force, receiving modifications which improved the aircrafts’ survivability and operational capabilities. This included the installation of chaff dispensers, infra-red flare decoy dispensers, radar warning receivers and fittings for a General-Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG). Options of how many and how to get the Chinooks to the South Atlantic were explored. One possibility was that the aircraft would fly down via ‘ship hopping’ to avoid difficult areas and countries. This was ultimately dismissed as it would have tied up too many resources. Eventually it was decided that due to space constraints only five aircraft would be despatched onboard the container ship MV Atlantic Conveyor. Atlantic Conveyor would disembark one Chinook at Ascension Island, an important staging post for operations in the South Atlantic, the remaining four aircraft would head south to participate in operations to recapture the Falklands.
The Atlantic Conveyor sailed from Portsmouth on 25 April arriving at Ascension on 5 May where, within 90 minutes of disembarkation, Chinook ZA707, was on task conducting vertical resupply sorties. ZA707 remained at Ascension for the remainder of the conflict mostly on vertical replenishment operations but also on other tasks, such as carrying early warning radar equipment to the top of Green Mountain, the highest point on the island, which ‘could only have been achieved with the Chinook’. ZA707 flew over 100 hours during the conflict and on one day alone transported over 350 tons of stores to ships of the Task Force.
Eight British Aerospace Sea Harriers and six Harrier GR3s were embarked on the Atlantic Conveyor at Ascension and she sailed on 7 May to join the ships of the Task Force in the South Atlantic. On 18 May, as Atlantic Conveyor closed with the Task Force, the Sea Harriers and Harriers were prepared for flight and over the next few days all had departed for HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes. With more space now available work began preparing the helicopters for flight. Removing them from their protective cocoons and refitting rotor blades, this proved to be a difficult task within the confines of the ship. No specialist lifting equipment was available and a forklift truck was impressed to assist.
As the Chinooks were being made ready, British forces landed ashore at San Carlos on the west coast of East Falkland on 21 May. With the beachhead established, the need for helicopter logistic support was great. Helicopters would be crucial to the success of the ground campaign. With no proper landing facilities available to the ships, all stores were either brought ashore by landing ships or helicopter. Once ashore the military plans were heavily reliant on helicopters in not only supplying troops in forward areas but also moving them across the island as no roads existed other than farm tracks. The Chinook’s lifting ability was almost five times that of the next biggest helicopter employed, the Sea King, and it had been envisaged that Chinooks would ferry troops across the difficult terrain, thereby keeping them fresh for battle and bring them into action quickly.
Work to fit the blades on BN was completed in the afternoon of 25 May, and after several ground runs of her engines she departed to conduct an air test. Shortly after taking off the carrier group which included the two aircraft carriers, HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible and the Atlantic Conveyor found themselves under air attack. Two Argentine Dassault Super Étendards carrying Exocet missiles approached the task force at low level with the carriers as their targets. The aircraft were picked up on the radars of the carrier group and the vessels conducted defensive manoeuvres and fired off chaff to confuse the missiles. However, Atlantic Conveyor had not been fitted with chaff dispensers and one of the missiles locked onto the Atlantic Conveyor, which was still in the process of turning to present a smaller radar profile when she was hit by the missile. A fire broke out inside the vessel that could not be contained and the ship had to be abandoned with the loss of 12 lives. The loss of the Atlantic Conveyor was a severe blow. Not only were tentage for 10,000 troops, a mile of steel runway, vehicles, aircraft and helicopter spares been lost but also six Royal Navy Wessex helicopters and perhaps most importantly three Chinooks. In his history of the Falklands Conflict, Martin Middlebrook wrote ‘the land campaign would be severely handicapped by the loss of their load carrying capacity’. The loss of the Chinooks meant that the planned swift movement of troops across the Falklands could no longer take place. The Royal Marines and Paratroopers would now have to largely march or yomp or tab their way across the Falklands.
Unable to return to Atlantic Conveyor, BN landed on the crowded deck of HMS Hermes, where her presence was not welcome. The ship’s captain threatening to have the aircraft pushed overboard if it was not removed because it would hamper the carrier’s ability to mount its own air operations. After an overnight stay the aircraft departed for the bridgehead at San Carlos.
With only one operational aircraft, No. 18 Squadron quickly had to reorganise itself. 77 members of the Squadron had arrived in the South Atlantic onboard the Atlantic Conveyor and the MV Norland. Those who had been onboard the Atlantic Conveyor were repatriated to the UK and a small detachment of two crews (two pilots and two crewmen per crew) along with 27 groundcrew who had sailed on the Norland were nominated to remain to fly and support the aircraft while four RAF Regiment personnel would guard the aircraft. However, all the spares, manuals, servicing tools and equipment had been lost, and without this equipment it was not known how long the aircraft would remain serviceable.
The detachment of groundcrew landed on East Falkland on 26 May and serviced BN after her arrival from HMS Hermes. They returned to HMS Fearless for the night to collect their kit and scrounge tools and consumables from the Royal Navy that could be used to support BN on operations. Early next morning they returned to Port San Carlos, to prepare the aircraft for flight. In between air raids a site was located from which to operate BN, Chief Technician (Chf Tech) Tom Kinsella, who commanded the ground crew detachment wrote that
‘Once a site had been decided upon it was then a question of having to hump all our personal belongings from one tuft to the next across the valley and part way uphill in order to avoid the boggy ground. ‘BN’ had only two 7×9 tents on it. A further 7×9 tent, 9×9 and 12×12 tent were borrowed from the navy. There were a number of bits missing from the two latter tents, which made it very awkward to tie them down. It didn’t take long before the 12×12 was blown uphill.’
With many air raids and then post flight servicing of BN to be done, it was night before Tom Kinsella could look to prepare his bivouac. Instead he slept in the open.
‘I assembled my camp bed, arctic roll inside my sleeping bag, waterproof cover and went to bed fully clothed and covering my boots with polyethene bags. I felt quite exhausted and even so I got little sleep because of a bombardment away on the other side of San Carlos Water…. Halfway through the night it rained and all I did was cover my head with the groundsheet sufficiently to prevent the rain from getting inside my bag.’
The groundcrews spent the first three days sleeping in the open in freezing conditions before they moved to Port San Carlos on 30 May and into the luxury of some farm outbuildings and navy tents. It was from here that the Squadron would operate for the remainder of the campaign. For the rest of the campaign the ground crew detachment continued to keep the aircraft airworthy despite the lack of equipment and tools. Chf Tech Kinsella having lost the servicing paperwork for the aircraft, used an exercise book that he managed to source as a temporary servicing Form 700. This document, now in the Museum’s collection, records how after every day flying, Tom logged the defects, that would likely have grounded the aircraft under normal operation circumstances, servicing conducted and repairs made, ending each day ‘aircraft ‘s’(afe) to fly until receipt of spares’.
BN was put to work immediately as Andy Lawless, one of BN’s four pilots recalled in a 2021 interview
‘… the first couple of days were taking stores from the ships to shore, literally underslung load after underslung load. Yes, there were a few landing craft doing this type of stuff, but we were taking the more high priority, weapons and what have you, the personal kit, not just straight onto the beachhead but to designated points where individual units were. So we could give them all the equipment, so they could be ready to breakout of the beachhead.’
This also included carrying Rapier surface-to-air missile batteries to positions around Falkland Sound to bolster the air defences of the fleet which were under continued Argentinian air attack, so much so, that the area became known as Bomb Alley.
Having been ashore for almost a week with no breakout from the beachhead, there was political pressure for action. An operation was devised to attack the Argentinian positions around the settlements of Darwin and Goose Green. BN along with Royal Navy Sea Kings began moving supplies for the assault by 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment (2 Para). BN carried 105mm guns, artillery shells, mortars and equipment forward in preparation for the attack. Despite stiff resistance, 2 Para were successful and in the aftermath of the battle BN was busy carrying the wounded to the field hospital which had been established in a disused refrigeration plant at Ajax Bay.
Two days after Goose Green, BN was involved in an audacious airlift to capture the prominent feature of Mount Kent which dominated the routes of advance from San Carlos but also overlooked the Argentinian defensive positions around Stanley, the capital of the Falklands. The SAS had reconnoitred the site and reported that it was thinly held. Brigadier Thompson, commander of 3 Commando Brigade decided an attempt should be made to capture the peak. On the night of 30/31 May, three Sea Kings carrying elements of 42 Command, and BN with three 105mm guns (two carried internally and one underslung) and 22 gunners, were to fly miles 40 miles to Mount Kent and capture the important feature.
Just prior to the operation Squadron Leader (Sqn Ldr) Langworthy had raised an issue with Tom Kinsella about an oil leak in the aft gear box, with no spares with which to repair it. Tom provided the crew with two gallons of oil with the instructions that if the situation became severe to put down and top up, with that he signed the aircraft as fit to fly as he said he was aware of the importance of the operation. Upon reflection he said ‘I should have never let it go, but, I am convinced I would have been overridden’.
BN took off into the night sky, the pilots Sqn Ldr Dick Langworthy and Flight Lieutenant (Flt Lt) Andy Lawless wearing passive night vision googles. The weather conditions were poor with frequent snow showers and intelligence vague. The crew had been informed that the landing area was flat and secure. As the aircraft approached the designated site, it was found that the site was not level but a rocky hillside. What was expected to be a 5-minute job turned out to be a 40-minute task where each gun had to be manoeuvred into position by BN. All the while the site was subject to incoming fire.
On the return flight in a severe snow shower, the aircraft suffered an altimeter failure and hit a body of water. Luckily BN was in a slightly flared attitude. The rotors wound down as the engines ingested water. Believing the aircraft had crashed, Andy Lawless prepared to evacuate by jettisoning his door. Miraculously the aircraft engines recovered, and the aircraft flew off the water. Crewman Tom Jones suffered concussion from the incident and tried to exit the aircraft at altitude and had to be restrained by his fellow crewman Gary Rogan.
The door which had been jettisoned contained maps and vital Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) codes to be used on the return to San Carlos water. Luckily Andy Lawless had memorised the route back. However, without the IFF codes the Rapier anti-aircraft missile batteries around San Carlos might have mistaken BN as an Argentinian Chinook. Andy Lawless later recalled ‘if you were not squawking the correct codes, you’ll get a Rapier up your jet pipe, which is not a good idea’. The crew needed to make the Rapier batteries aware of their approach without appearing hostile, what is termed lame duck procedures, which the pilots did by turning on and off their lights to show that they were friendly, a Sea King came and inspected BN and escorted it back to San Carlos without further mishap.
The following day a thorough inspection was made of the aircraft to look for damage. Apart from some slight damage to the ramp and aerials the aircraft was still deemed serviceable and was ready to return to operations. The cause of the oil leak was identified, and a temporary repair made which stopped the leak for the remainder of the campaign. The cockpit door, however, could not be replaced and for the rest of the campaign BN flew without the left-hand cockpit door which Andy Lawless described as ‘bloody cold’. Despite the discomfort to the aircrew, the missing door would two days later save the aircraft from near disaster.
On 2 May, BN was being used by the recently arrived 5 Brigade to help them move troops and supplies around San Carlos and Goose Green where one of their battalions was located. In a bold move Major Chris Keeble, the commanding officer of 2 Para, suggested to the Commanding Officer of 5 Brigade that a small group fly to Swan Inlet House and use the telephone to establish if the settlements of Fitzroy and Bluff Cover were occupied. If they were found unoccupied an ad-hoc operation was to be undertaken to fly in elements of 2 Para and seize the settlements.
Eager to get 5 Brigade into action, Wilson approved of the plan without consulting his superiors. The group arrived at a deserted Swan Inlet House and called Fitzroy and Bluff Cove and were told by the settlement’s manager that no Argentinians were present. Having confirmed the area was not occupied, there followed a mad dash to airlift 2 Para to the area, as recalled by Chris Keeble,
‘Brigadier Wilson wanted to capture two settlements, one was called Fitzroy and one was called Bluff Cove. So I said, “What we’ll do is a coup de main operation. We’ll fly two assault forces in, one to Bluff Cove, one to Fitzroy.” And we only had maybe 120 soldiers to secure these two settlements, so we had to do it fast, at night, and we needed to rely on the only platform that was available to do that. And that was the one surviving Chinook, Bravo November (BN) …and as we were climbing in, I needed 60 people on the Chinook and the air loadmaster said, “I’m sorry, but it’s only equipped,” I think he said “30”. So one of my Sergeant Major’s said, “Well, you can fucking get off for starters.” Of course, that was a bit rude, but he made the point that we needed 60 people on the Chinook. And we got 60 heavily loaded paratroopers on the Chinook with the ramp down and flew at low level towards Fitzroy. The coup de main was unopposed…The threat probably was the weather. The weather was appalling, and you had to be extremely skilful to fly in thick rain and to fly at night with night goggles. Requires an immense amount of skill. So, it was speed. It was the skill of the pilots to navigate at very low level across an unknown terrain, ’cause nobody, I don’t think, had flown that route before, and it enabled us to get in speedily and with surprise.’
In fact, as Tom Jones one of the crewman onboard BN remembered, BN flew two lifts one of 81 and one 71. ‘A remarkable achievement since the standard capacity was 33, exceptionally 44’. The official RAF narrative acknowledged. However, the inbound flight almost became a tragedy but for the missing cockpit door, as Jones recounted
‘…there were artillery guys attached to the marines, on the high ground to our left. They were about to open fire because they thought it (BN) was an Argentinian Chinook, and then one astute corporal said “Wait a minute, hang on, no, it’s ours, it hasn’t got a door in the left hand side of the cockpit.” So what happened disastrously nearly a day before, we suddenly found out saved our lives…’
The coup de main had rapidly progressed the southern advance, however, the move was not without risk and 2 Para were now isolated without any supporting arms, few stores and little equipment. The move had disrupted plans for the assault on Stanley and there was now an urgent need to bring the remainder of 5 Brigade to Fitzroy and Bluff Cove with all its equipment and stores to reinforce 2 Para. One officer describing the move in his diary as ‘grossly irresponsible’.
The question was how to move the rest of 5 Brigade quickly to the Fitzroy and Bluff Cove. The loss of helicopters on Atlantic Conveyor meant there were simply not enough helicopters available to support 3 Brigade and move 5 Brigade. The idea of marching the two 5 Brigade battalions from San Carlos was explored and discounted. The only other viable alternative was a risky move by sea at night. Plans were rapidly devised and the first elements of 5 Brigade sailed on the night of 6 June landing early the next day, the vessels returning to collect the remainder of the brigade. Delays in loading and poor communications meant that the ships departed late and Landing Ship Logistics RFA Sir Galahad arrived during the morning of the 8 June. The poor weather of the previous day which had helped protect Sir Galahad’s sister Ship RAF Sir Tristram had now cleared and the two ships were visible to the Argentinians, unloading continued slowly and Rapier air defence batteries had not been properly established ashore. When shortly after midday the ships came under air attack. Both ships were hit, Sir Tristram was largely empty by now but not so Sir Galahad where 48 soldiers and crew were killed, many injured and suffering burns from the fire that subsequently took hold. The casualties were brought ashore by lifeboat or winched to safety by Sea King helicopters of the Royal Navy. BN was tasked with ferrying some of the casualties to Ajax Bay as Tom Jones recalled.
‘We went in and picked up a lot of the casualties from there, amputees, badly burned and flew them to Ajax Bay. And then once they had done their initial first aid treatment with the fantastic medical team they had set up there, we then went in to pick them up and ferry them to Uganda…a hospital ship.’
BN continued to fly support helicopter operations for the remainder of the war, moving troops, supplies and ammunition in support of the ground forces as they battled toward Stanley, including carrying and replacing the Murrell Bridge near Mount Kent to enable vehicles to continue to Stanley. Tom Kinsella remembered that the morale was very high despite all the problems encountered in keeping BN operational, ‘We didn’t want to be reinforced, we wanted to see this thing through ourselves’. Which they just managed to do, two hours after the Argentinian surrender on 14 June a second Chinook arrived on the Falklands. Ironically following the surrender, No. 18 Squadron groundcrew removed the door from a captured Argentinian Chinook and fitted it to BN. BN would fly for many years with its Argentinian door.
During the 18 days ashore, BN had flown everyday bar one, carried 2,150 troops, 95 casualties, 550 prisoners of war and 550 tons of stores. In a footnote in the RAF’s official history, it was noted that the tonnage was more than the ‘total carried by an entire squadron of Sea Kings for the same period’. An amazing achievement considering the scarcity of supplies, equipment, and manuals available to the groundcrew. For his efforts on Mount Kent, Sqn Ldr Dick Langworthy was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).
An eventful opening chapter in the long career of BN which would see a further three pilots (Steve Carr, Ian Fortune and Craig Wilson) awarded the DFC while flying Bravo November and an important and most welcome addition to the Museum’s collection.