To mark 40 years since the Boeing Chinook was delivered to the Royal Air Force, the first pilot to take to the cockpit, Wing Commander (Retired) Dick Forsyth, shared his memories of what is affectionately known as the ‘mighty Wokka’.
“It was fantastic, a great honour.”
In service since November 22, 1980, the Chinook has served everywhere from Bosnia and Iraq to Afghanistan and Nepal. The incredibly versatile helicopter, which can operate from land and sea, has been involved in every major conflict since the Falklands War in 1982. Wg Cdr (Retired) Forsyth last year fondly recalled how impressed he was with the aircraft during his career while speaking with BFBS Radio broadcaster Richard Wyeth. He said:
“I took it on a detachment out to Northern Iraq in 1991, the end of The Gulf War, to help the Kurds, and its performance at different flight levels and altitudes were just extraordinary.
“We were doing an awful lot of the work of many other helicopters out there because the aircraft was just so capable.
“With three hooks underneath you could hook things, you could have nine nets and you could distribute them to different locations without having to get out and reload or unload.”
VIDEO: Wg Cdr (Retired) Forsyth speaks to Richard Wyeth on BFBS Radio
One of its most famous roles was during Operation Herrick in assisting The Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT) operate in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. The Chinook became a flying emergency room and was able to save the lives of many injured soldiers and Afghan civilians across Helmand by swiftly flying them back to the hospital in Camp Bastion.
The first RAF Chinook flight took place several decades before it played that crucial role in Afghanistan, on a cold and drizzly day in 1980, the year Wg Cdr (Retired) Forsyth started his career in the Royal Air Force. He said:
“I spent an interesting year in the states and in Canada learning how other people did it and making recommendations as to how we should set this training school up.
“You have to remember that at that time it was a huge leap in capability.
“Weighed 10 tonnes, carried 10 tonnes.
“Weighed far more than the previous aircraft, Puma or Wessex as double the crew, so there’s a whole raft of things that we had to learn or go and work out what the best way to do was from other air forces.”
Wg Cdr (Retired) Forsyth credits the first time flying a Chinook as one of his many career highlights. He said:
“Bringing the first one in was quite a big event.
“We took off from Southampton docks … and flew up to Odiham and it was cold and wet, south westerly wind and the visibility wasn’t particularly good but there was a large welcoming party when we got to Odiham so that will be one.
“Just amazing demonstrations of its versatility.”
The helicopter is known as a beast in the sky with a distinctive sound but what was it like to fly in the early years? He said:
“It’s actually relatively easy to fly.
“It’s configured electronically to fly like a single rotor helicopter. Once you get to grips with it, it’s got fantastic capability.
“All of a sudden, the only answer to any question about helicopters was Chinook.”
The "easy to fly" helicopter was crucial in August 2014, when the Chinooks distributed relief aid to thousands of Iraqi refugees trapped on a mountain in northern Iraq. The RAF dropped aid packages to stricken members of the Yazidi community hiding from the so-called Islamic State.
Three Chinooks were also sent to Nepal in 2015 to help with the aid operation in the aftermath of the earthquake which killed 9,000 people and left millions, including hundreds of Gurkha veterans, homeless.
The Future Of Chinooks
Richard Wyeth also spoke to the newest pilot in the Chinook Force, Flight Lieutenant Ewan Lister of 18 ‘B’ Squadron at RAF Odiham, and asked him whether flying the Chinook was an ambition of his when he joined the RAF. He said:
“It absolutely was. I stepped foot into RAF Cranwell back in 2009 wanting to join the Air Force to fly the Chinook and here I find myself, almost a decade later, following university and over six years' worth of training, so to finally be here is very much a dream realised.”
The modern-day Chinook has developed over the 40 years with many technological advances inside. The new pilot said:
“The biggest things are the leaps forward in the avionic suites so the things that we use now predominantly for navigation … really bring the capability on leaps and bounds from the days of paper maps.
“The skills to use those still remain within the crews. We have to train to use the aircraft, regardless of the prevailing conditions. The avionics are probably the biggest developments.”
Chinooks are now able to carry up to 24.5 tonnes, which is a phenomenal lift capability offering so much flexibility to commanders. He said:
“It has proven why the Chinook is in such demand both in the UK for tasking and on operations all over the world.”
VIDEO: Flight Lieutenant Ewan Lister speaks to Richard Wyeth on BFBS Radio
This increase in capability has helped the RAF helicopters be used to great effect at home in the UK.
Chinooks were crucial in stopping the collapse of a storm-damaged dam and the potential destruction of a village in Derbyshire by dropping hundreds of tonnes of sandbags onto the damaged section. This gave engineers time to assess the damage and plan repairs.
An RAF Chinook also delivered a new fire truck to a remote island in Wales, which is home to just 40 residents. Dangling 70ft underneath the RAF helicopter, the red four-by-four engine was airlifted for three miles across Cadley Island. Nearly half of the Pembrokeshire island's inhabitants are monks who were themselves once in charge of running the fire service.
The Chinook is currently serving in Mali supporting the French in Op Barkhane, provide logistical and troop movement support, and is due to stay in service beyond 2040.
The home of the UK Chinook Force is RAF Odiham where they operate three Chinook squadrons. There are also Chinooks based at RAF Benson in South Oxfordshire.