He inadvertently flew his Chinook over a hidden Taliban machine gun nest, and suddenly the chopper was peppered with machine gun fire.
Whether in a time of peace or a time of war, being shot is never a pleasant experience. Being hit once in your body is often enough to maim or kill you, but taking a bullet to the head is almost always fatal – and usually instantly so.
However, when British Royal Air Force Flight Lieutenant Ian Fortune, piloting a Chinook helicopter, took Taliban gunfire to his face and head in 2010, he not only kept flying but he also successfully evacuated wounded US Marines and Afghan National Army soldiers from the battlefield in Afghanistan.
The incident in which Fortune received his almost-fatal wound occurred in January 2010. Fortune and a couple of other RAF pilots were on standby duty at the British military base Camp Bastion on January 29, 2010, while a battle against Taliban insurgents was raging out in the field.
This action occurred as part of the Helmand Campaign, conducted by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) against the Taliban.
The Helmand province in Afghanistan has long been a hotbed of Taliban activity and a center for opium production. It is known for being one of the most dangerous areas of the country. So, it hardly came as a surprise when Fortune and his crew were called in to evacuate ISAF casualties from the battle zone that day – but that didn’t mean Fortune and the others weren’t nervous.
Flight Lieutenant Fortune was piloting a Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter, a large twin-engine, tandem rotor chopper often used for battlefield casualty evacuation. On the 29th, the battle between the ISAF troops and the Taliban was particularly fierce. By the time Fortune was called in to evacuate the wounded, six troopers had already been hit.
While the battlefield wasn’t too far away – only a short ride in the Chinook – Fortune and his crew couldn’t land the chopper immediately due to intense ground-to-air fire directed at them from the Taliban insurgents.
Despite becoming increasingly worried about the wounded troops on the ground, Fortune could do little but circle the battlefield in the air while waiting for the troops on the ground and an Apache helicopter to provide enough suppressing fire against the Taliban insurgents to allow the Chinook to safely land.
Eventually, after almost an hour in the air, Fortune managed to get the Chinook onto the ground. The wounded were hastily loaded onto the chopper, and medics in the back immediately began tending to them.
With fire from the Taliban insurgents only temporarily suppressed and the Chinook being a large and extremely vulnerable target on the ground, Fortune took off again as soon as the last of the casualties were loaded into the chopper.
While a rush of elation shot through him as he thought he had made it out of the battle zone intact, this feeling of relief was to be short-lived. He inadvertently flew his Chinook over a hidden Taliban machine gun nest, and suddenly the chopper was peppered with machine gun fire.
Bullets tore through the chopper and caused a number of system failures, with the worst damage being done to the forward transmission and flight stabilization system, which was completely disabled. However, the final bullet to hit the Chinook almost did the worst damage as it hit Fortune himself.
The powerful impact on the left side of his face knocked his head back. A few seconds later, all he could see was shattered Perspex and blood. That was when he realized he’d been shot in the head.
Adrenalin kept him going though, and despite bleeding profusely from the left side of his face, he was determined to get the wounded men to safety. In spite of the damage both he and the Chinook had taken from the machine gun, he managed to get the helicopter successfully out of the battle zone and back to the medical facility at Camp Bastion.
Thankfully, Fortune’s helmet had taken most of the force of the bullet and had saved his life. An inch or two to the right or left, though, and it would have been the end of the line for the brave flight lieutenant. To the amazement of the other servicemen, after landing the Chinook, Fortune got out and walked over to the medical facility to have his wounds stitched up.
Flight Lieutenant Fortune was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for the courage and valor he displayed in the action in Helmand province on January 29, 2010. He accepted the award with humility and praised the many uncredited acts of bravery and sacrifice that occur on a daily basis by servicemen and servicewomen in Afghanistan.
Fortune went on to serve a number of additional tours of duty in Afghanistan.