The herocopter: Chinook notches up fourth Distinguished Flying Cross in its proud 28-year history

When Flight Lieutenant Ian Fortune was awarded the Distinguished ­Flying Cross last week, he was rightly honoured for his courage in evacuating six wounded soldiers after a Taliban ambush in Afghanistan.

But if a machine could ever win a medal for bravery, the Chinook helicopter he was flying, Bravo November, would surely qualify.

Ft Lt Fortune is the fourth pilot in the aircraft’s 28-year history to receive the DFC. During the attack, a Taliban bullet smashed the visor of his helmet, knocking him sideways.

Top gun: The lucky aircraft Bravo November

Top gun: The lucky aircraft Bravo November

And Bravo November did not escape unscathed – but despite ­sustaining damage it still made it back to Camp Bastion in ­Helmand.

RAF chiefs are reluctant to draw attention to the helicopter’s extraordinary record, fearing that praising it publicly might jinx its ‘luck’.

Yet the list of DFCs awarded to its pilots is testimony to its outstanding service.

The first recipient was Squadron Leader Dick Langworthy during the Falklands War in 1982.

Flight Lieutenant Ian Fortune was honoured for his courage last week
The shattered helmet which Flt Lt Fortune's continued to wear while flying his passengers to safety

Flt Lt Fortune was honoured last week and the shattered helmet which the Lieutenant continued to wear while flying his passengers to safety

Under his command, the then brand new Bravo November landed soldiers on the islands to support SAS troops under heavy fire from Argentine artillery.

On another mission it ran into a snowstorm. Sqn Ldr Langworthy’s night vision goggles failed and the chopper hit the surface of the sea before somehow managing to lift itself back into the air.

Damaged and without spares, Bravo November remained in service for another two weeks, even playing a crucial role in cutting off Argentine troops attempting to evade capture towards the end of the conflict.

By the time the Argentines surrendered, Bravo November had flown for 109 hours, carried some 1,500 troops, 95 casualties, 550 prisoners of war and 550 tons of cargo.

In March 2003 the Chinook was again in the thick of the action, this time during the invasion of Iraq.

Taking off from the carrier Ark Royal, it took the first Royal Marines on to the Al-Faw peninsula to seize vital oil-pumping facilities before Iraqi troops could destroy them.

On this occasion Sqn Ldr Steve Carr found himself at the controls of Bravo November.

Flying at less than 100 ft and with night vision restricted by dust thrown up by advancing American tanks and artillery fire, Bravo November delivered the Marines to the landing sites marked by US special forces before returning for more troops, guns and freight. Sqn Ldr Carr received the DFC for his role in the mission.

Three years later, on the night of June 11, 2006, Flt Lt Craig Wilson was leading a four-man crew aboard Bravo November in Afghanistan when he was asked to pick up a casualty.

Despite difficult and dangerous conditions, he flew at the perilous altitude of 150ft to complete the Helmand mission successfully.

A few hours later he was back on another operation, making a difficult landing while low on fuel.

Despite having been on duty for 22 hours, Flt Lt Wilson volunteered to take reinforcements to the front. He brought back two wounded soldiers, winning a DFC for his bravery.

Andy Lawless, the helicopter’s co-pilot in the Falklands, said of its latest exploit: ‘All credit to the pilot, but Bravo November’s a lucky aircraft, no doubt about that.’

In 2007, retired Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Johns opened an an exhibition honouring the copter at the RAF Museum in Hendon on the 25th anniversary of the Falklands War and said: ‘Bravo November is a hugely significant aircraft. The RAF almost never singles out individual aircraft for tribute. But Bravo November is, well, exceptional.’

Some military personnel say the helicopter should now be retired.

Certainly the RAF Museum would like to have the real thing rather than the copy that was displayed to dignitaries, including Baroness Thatcher.

But RAF officials will not hear of it.  ‘It’s in the front line, it leads the way,’ said one senior officer. ‘You don’t pull out your best warriors to protect them in the heat of battle.’

This view appears to have prevailed – Bravo November returns to active service in Afghanistan next month after maintenance work in the UK.