In 1982, the British Royal Air Force saw its fair share of action when the unprecedented Falklands War broke out with the South American country of Argentina. The war that lasted for over ten weeks saw many casualties, but one war hero, an RAF Chinook, survived and flew until April 2022.
The Falklands War was fought for two British-dependent territories in the South Atlantic: the Falkland Islands and its dependent territories, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. It started with Argentina invading and conquering the Falkland Islands on April 2, and South Georgia was invaded the next day.
The Argentines entered a territory that they believed truly belonged to them but was not just being used but also exploited by the British. However, despite having the first movers’ advantage, the Argentines could not stand up to the Royal military, and the war ended with their surrender.
Among the aircraft dispatched by the Royal military to take control of the two island states was an iconic Chinook rotorcraft named “Bravo November.” Legend has it that the helicopter narrowly escaped enemy missiles on more occasions than one.
This legendary helicopter, the first among those delivered to the United Kingdom by US-based Aerospace giant Boeing, served in the Royal Air Force until last year.
According to the RAF Museum, “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 arrived in the museum in the summer of 2022, which coincided with the Falklands Conflict’s 40th anniversary. The conflict saw the RAF deploy its freshly acquired Boeing Chinooks for the first time in combat.
The UK acquired the Chinooks in the early 1980s, so they saw combat almost instantly. In 2020, Boeing celebrated the 40th anniversary of the induction of Chinook into RAF service. Bravo November was among the initial batch of 30 Chinook HC1s ordered by the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1978. The first batch arrived in November of 1980.
The Chinook was first used by the US Army in 1962, and it immediately saw action in Vietnam, where its outstanding load-carrying capabilities were identified almost instantly. The Chinook quickly replaced the troublesome Bristol Belvedere for the RAF, and in 1967, an order for 15 aircraft was placed.
However, because of budget cuts for defense, the order was canceled. The RAF wasn’t able to purchase the Chinook for another 11 years. The procurement of 33 Chinooks was announced by the Ministry of Defense in 1978.
How Did Bravo November Become A War Hero?
The moniker Bravo November was formed from the helicopter’s two-letter code, “BN,” even though, by the British military serial number system, it was identified as ZA718.
Assigned to No. 18 Squadron, the RAF’s sole Chinook operator at the time, headquartered at RAF Odiham, Hampshire, in southwest England, Bravo November was called for duty on April 2, 1982, when Argentina captured the Falklands Islands, a British overseas territory in the South Atlantic.
As per the official RAF account, “Against the background of diplomatic efforts to resolve the situation, the British Government swiftly sent an all-arms force to attempt the recapture of the Falkland Islands over 8,000 miles away.”
The United Kingdom responded by sending a naval task force to engage the Argentine navy and its air force. A large-scale amphibious invasion followed this. The Chinooks, along with British fighter jets and its naval force, were used to perform a variety of missions that eventually led to a British victory.
“No. 18 Squadron was soon involved, flying stores and supplies to ships of the task force being assembled at Devonport. This included flying a five-ton propeller bearing to HMS Invincible at sea in the English Channel, having publicly departed Portsmouth the day before, thus avoiding an embarrassing return to port for repair.”
As soon as the war broke out, it was known that the use of helicopters for “ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore, lift of goods and personnel, for direct support of troops ashore, and anti-submarine warfare” was going to be crucial in any effort to retake the Falklands which was a do or die situation for the UK military.
Since the Royal Navy lacked a heavy-lift helicopter, the RAF’s Chinooks were the only aircraft that could fill this capability gap. These rotorcrafts were already combat-tested to a high degree of efficiency by the American forces. Still, they were yet to see action in British service, participating in a completely different mission than it had been a part of in the Vietnam War.
Four days later, the No. 18 Squadron was activated to support Operation Corporate, the British military operation to reclaim the Falkland Islands.
Options for how many Chinooks to send and how to transport them to the South Atlantic were investigated. One option was that the plane would use ‘ship hopping’ to fly down to avoid dangerous regions and nations. This was ultimately rejected since it would have consumed excessive resources. Due to space limitations, it was decided that just five aircraft would be transported onboard the container ship MV Atlantic Conveyor.
Eventually, the container ship Atlantic Conveyor, which the United Kingdom Ministry of Defense had requisitioned at the start of the conflict, was loaded with five of the unit’s Chinook helicopters after being flown to the port of Plymouth.
The British task force’s staging area in the South Atlantic Ocean, Ascension Island, welcomed the Atlantic Conveyor on May 5. One of the Chinooks stayed on Ascension Island and was used to transport supplies between the island and the other campaign ships.
The Atlantic Conveyor kept sailing towards the conflict zone as the other four heavy-lift helicopters remained on the ship’s deck. Eight Sea Harrier fighter jets, six Harrier GR3 ground-attack jets, and another seven helicopters, a mix of Lynx and Wessex models, were the ship’s additional aircraft cargo.
The container ship and the British task force were reunited on May 18, when the Sea Harriers and Harriers joined the aircraft carriers engaged in Operation Corporate. The helicopters were supposed to be delivered directly to the Falklands in the interim.
Get, Set, Go, And Duck!
Soon after Bravo November had taken off from the Atlantic Conveyor on its test flight, two Exocet anti-ship missiles fired by Super Etendard fighter planes of the Argentine Navy slammed into the ship’s port side at wave-top height. The ship was quickly set on fire, killing 12 crew members. The ammunition supplies kept below decks helped the ship burn out. The process destroyed six Wessex, three Chinooks, and a Lynx.
Bravo November flew to East Falkland the following day after recovering on the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes. With its solitary helicopter, two four-person crews, nine technicians, and ten support personnel, the greatly diminished No. 18 Squadron detachment established a base here.
With a lifting capacity of 12 tons, the Chinook was the most competent helicopter available to the British task force. Maintaining the rotorcraft would be extremely difficult because all the replacement parts, tools, lubricants, and manuals had been destroyed on the Atlantic Conveyor. The crew first estimated they could only continue flying for a few days, but things turned out very differently.
Squadron Leader Dick Langworthy, who oversaw No. 18 Squadron then, remembered that the rotorcraft went on daily with bits going out of service. However, the rotorcraft continued to perform its duties as the engines and rotors ran.
The next close shave for the Bravo November came soon after, on May 30 in the morning, during a midnight Royal Marine attack against an Argentine position on Mount Kent, East Falkland. During this time, the Marines were being transported to their destination by three Sea Kings, and the Chinook followed with three 105-mm weapons (two in the fuselage and one underslung) and 22 more soldiers.
Bravo November was flying over snow at a low altitude while wearing primitive night-vision goggles (NVGs), but the accompanying whiteout rendered the goggles useless.
While the underslung cannon was delivered without too much difficulty, it would be risky to land and drop off the other two guns and the men. Instead of the crew’s anticipated flat terrain, they discovered a sloping swamp with rivers and stones on either side.
As the situation got tricky with every passing second, the Chinook’s cabin illumination failed at this moment, leaving it in the dark as a gunfight broke out between British and Argentine troops. Handheld flashlights were used to finish the rest of the unloading process before the Chinook took off again into the darkness.
The return leg was far more dangerous, with frequent snowstorms and thick snowfall.
At one point, Bravo November dipped so low that it collided with a creek, skidding through the river while water was forced into the engines, robbing them of power. The pilot battled the cumbersome controls as the hydraulic system was now severely underpowered. Meanwhile, the co-pilot jettisoned his door on the flight deck in preparation for an emergency exit.
Flight Lieutenant Andy Lawless, the co-pilot, said after the flight that the crew was lucky because they would have died if the helicopter had hit solid ground. “We hit at 100 knots. As we settled, the bow wave came over the cockpit window, and the engines partially flamed out. I knew we had ditched, but I was unsure if we had been hit.”
The pilot and co-pilot had to exert their combined strength at the controls to lift the Chinook out of the water. One of the two crew members in the back of the Chinook, Flight Lieutenant Tom Jones, had his flying helmet ripped off during the collision with the sea.
He was going to jump from the Chinook because he thought the chopper was about to crash when a fellow crew member gave him a backup helmet, and Jones heard over the intercom that the helicopter was rising successfully at 1,500 feet.
The Bravo November, a little more damaged, safely landed at its Port San Carlos base. Squadron Leader Langworthy, the pilot, was subsequently given the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his actions.
This is how the Bravo November escaped unhurt after accidents that could have torn it apart. It also emerged as a war hero by performing missions that eventually added up to ensure a clear British victory.