TWO RAF Odiham personnel who helped land a helicopter under fire from Afghan insurgents have been recognised for their bravery in the latest round of military honours.
Flight Lieutenant Charles Lockyear, 34, and Master Aircrew Bob Sunderland, 44, were awarded for their courage in the Operational Honours list.
The extraordinary efforts of the pair, who are both based with 18(B) Squadron at RAF Odiham, were revealed during a ceremony in London last night.
Flt Lt Lockyear, the Chinook’s captain, was given the Distinguished Flying Cross, while MACR Sunderland was awarded a Mention in Despatches.
The crew was inserting British forces into a high-threat area of Afghanistan on May 5 last year when they came under fire from nearby insurgents.
Flying shrapnel wounded MACR Sunderland, leaving him bleeding from the groin, while further rounds disabled the aircraft’s radio and intercom systems.
With a hail of bullets hitting the Chinook, Flt Lt Lockyear was forced to abort the landing and move the helicopter away from the enemy fire.
But with no working radio, he was unaware that some British troops had already left the aircraft and were on the ground returning fire.
Advised on the extent of the damage by MACR Sunderland, Flt Lt Lockyear carefully re-landed the Chinook and evacuated the remaining troops on the ground, while MACR Sunderland returned suppressed fire from the helicopter’s gun.
Despite structural and electrical damage to the helicopter, including bullet damage to the rotor blades, Flt Lt Lockyear guided the aircraft back to Camp Bastion’s hospital, where the injured were treated and the aircraft shut down.
Flt Lt Lockyear said: “When the bullets started hitting the helicopter I was focused on landing because we were only 10 feet off the ground. We’ve been shot at before, but I knew this was different because more and more were hitting us.
“We lost our GPS, our autopilot, our radio and intercom systems – which meant we couldn’t speak to each other – and we also feared we’d lost an engine, which fortunately we hadn’t. The helicopter’s warning light panel was lit up like a Christmas tree!”
He praised he colleague’s bravery, adding: “Throughout the incident MACR Sunderland was exemplary. As we returned to recover the troops, he defended us with some very accurate firing, despite being badly wounded, which was enough to deter the insurgents from having another go at us.
“It’s a real privilege to receive this award because it symbolises the significance of what we did that day as a crew. I’m very proud of what my team did, there’s absolutely no way I could have done it alone.”
MACR Sunderland added: “I’m absolutely speechless about getting this award, it’s such an honour and it’s great that our work has been recognised.
“We were about to touch down when two bullets hit the side of the aircraft, about three feet from my head, and a second later I was knocked over by what felt like a cricket ball in my groin. It was only a short while later that I realised it was shrapnel from an enemy bullet - we’d landed in a real hornet’s nest.
“I was injured but I still felt responsible for what was happening at the back of the aircraft. We had 20-odd people on board and I needed to get back to the gun and stop people shooting at our helicopter.
“I wouldn’t say I was brave - my actions were instinctive and down to years of training. A lot was going through my mind, but the guys in the back of the aircraft were relying on me and I felt huge responsibility towards them.”
Air Vice-Marshal Edward Stringer, assistant chief of the air staff, who attended the event, said: "Our airmen and women make a vital contribution to operations across the globe and some of that very important work has been publicly recognised in this ceremony today.
"I am immensely proud that these personnel have been commended for their actions, which were first class and in the finest traditions of the Royal Air Force.
"Through supporting the vital mission in Afghanistan, they have displayed professionalism, commitment and dedication of the highest order."
Also recognised in the list was Sergeant Gregory Mugridge, from RAF Odiham, who received a Joint Commander’s Commendation.
Armed Forces minister Mark Francois praised all those recognised for their courage.
He said: “Those featured in this operations honours list have displayed exceptional dedication and commitment to their country, their comrades and the mission. For this, they deserve our recognition and gratitude.”