RAF Chinook pilot tells how his helmet saved his life

Ian Fortune escaped death by 3cm.

Piloting his Chinook helicopter into an Afghan battlefield to rescue casualties this January, the 28-year-old RAF flight lieutenant has become something of a military legend by surviving a Taliban bullet that hit his helmet just above his eyes.

Now that the Ministry of Defence has lifted its embargo, the helmet has been returned to him and he has given the BBC his first broadcast interview.

"I'm very attached to this particular helmet," he says. "You can actually see, at the top here is the night vision goggle rail, where we normally hang our night vision goggles. And you can see the gouge where the bullet actually struck.

"It then grooved up and tore through the skin of the helmet at the top and all these holes in the visors are where fragments of that bullet actually came through so had it not been for this chunk of metal here I may not have been sitting here today."

Fierce gun battle

Flt Lt Fortune, from Kingston in Surrey, was on standby duty at the sprawling British base of Camp Bastion in Helmand province on 29 January when the call for help came through.

A unit of US marines and Afghan National Army soldiers was engaged in a fierce gun battle with insurgents and they were taking casualties. Six men had been hit and needed urgent medical evacuation.

It took only minutes for the Chinook to reach the battlefield but the firing was so intense the crew had to circle for nearly an hour before they could land.

When they did, the wounded were hastily loaded onboard, but Flt Lt Fortune and his co-pilot Fl Lt Doug Gardner watched nervously as the incoming fire from the Taliban swept ever closer to their aircraft.

Image caption Flt Lt Fortune was flying a Chinook when he was hit

Taking off as quickly as possible, they flew right over a hidden machine gun nest and bullets suddenly raked the helicopter, knocking out its stabiliser. The last one hit Flt Lt Fortune.

"Well, for a split second my head was forced back and when my eyes opened again confusion reigned," he recalls. "Because I thought, well, I can see cracks, I can see splattered blood, I can smell burning, you know, what's happened?

"And then I saw the hole in the windscreen and I thought, uh huh, I think I've just been hit in the head! And then came a feeling of elation, of I think I've just been shot in the head and I've survived - well, good stuff!"

Face 'ripped'

Flying so low to the ground, with medics in the back struggling to sedate the wounded, there was no time to hand over to the co-pilot.

Stunned but still conscious, Flt Lt Fortune had just seconds to keep control of the aircraft.

Fragments of metal and Perspex had ripped into his face, cutting a groove in his cheek, but somehow he managed to get back to base and land with blood streaming down his cheeks.

An ambulance was scrambled to meet him but to everyone's amazement he walked off the helicopter to go and receive his stitches.

His boss that day was Sqn Ldr Richard Harris.

"This is probably one of the most outstanding acts of bravery and valour that I've seen in an aircraft and a helicopter outside Special Forces, that's for sure," he says.

Flt Lt Fortune laughs it off with a modesty that does indeed seem genuine. He puts his survival down to the rest of his crew and some well-placed metalwork.

Cradling the helmet that saved his life, he says it will now be kept as a trophy in the RAF mess.

I remind him that he has been put forward for one of the highest awards for bravery.

"I was lucky," he grins, "I may continue to be lucky."

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