Chinook Crew Chick - Breaking barriers and inspiring others

3D render of the book Chinook Crew Chick, placed on a bookshelf.

Chinook Crew Chick is not your average memoir. Liz McConaghy chronicles her time in the Royal Air Force, starting with seeing a Chinook crew member at a young age and instantly knowing that was what she wanted to do with her life. McConaghy then talks about being the youngest aircrew member to be deployed to Iraq, what it's like serving in a male dominated industry, and her feelings behind being the longest serving female Chinook crew member. She also shares how difficult life was after her RAF service was over, including serious mental health struggles and dealing with PTSD.

Despite some occasionally heavy topics, the book is easy-going and chatty, written in a comfortable and familiar style that makes it a quick but fascinating read. There is plenty of nostalgia and recollection about what life was like before, during and after serving in the RAF, but it's the details surrounding the Chinook itself that take the book to a new level.

Airborne particles

McConaghy talks of the Mighty Wokka machine as if it were another member of the family, getting to know every inch of the aircraft inside and out as part of her job, but also out of pure love.

I still think I could go back now and carry out an aircraft start with no hiccups. It was like following a little song or dance and became engrained in you, where to stand and what to do for each check, without even thinking.

Also covered is the use of all the senses during a start: watching the rotor blades, listening to the engines spinning up, feeling vibrations once the noises were too loud, smelling and almost tasting the aromas in the air and knowing instinctively whether there was a leak or something out of balance.

There is a full chapter dedicated to the helicopter itself, discussing how the craft wants to be used in action, it gets cranky being flown empty and for no reason. It can be deployed for all kinds of purposes: delivering personnel where they need to go, picking up casualties from the front line, moving equipment from base to base, and even doing the Christmas mail run.

A Chinook kicks up a dust cloud.

McConaghy's Chinook was shot at on a pretty regular basis, as the team dashed back and forth to the front line, and the fact that it's such a big beast with all crucial elements spread out is considered a benefit – the chances of a stray bullet hitting something are not as high as in a smaller craft where everything is concentrated in a specific area.

As a team, the Chinook crew had to participate in 'dust training', because the different geographical regions they travelled too had different types of dust and the helicopter reacted differently to each of them. You wouldn't necessarily think of this as an obvious problem, but Iraq's coarse dust was easier to deal with than Afghanistan's fine talcum powder type landing areas. McConaghy says she now considers herself a "connoisseur of dust."

Despite her love for the machinery, and the incredible work it can do, McConaghy does concede that it's the people inside the craft that are the ones to really admire.

Above and beyond

One of the key takeaways from this book is the lack of support out there for veterans, particularly when they first leave service and return to civilian life. It is a huge adjustment for someone who has spent all their time in the institution, living that specific life, where the challenges are things like 'how do we carry this Sea Hawk long-distance under our Chinook and still manage to refuel?' or 'which moves shall we practice while we wait 20 minutes until picking someone up in Afghanistan?'.

RAF Chinook during exercises on Salisbury Plain.

Even the more mundane elements of a life within the RAF can be triggering – an example shared is the system of telephone rings used to signal whether the helicopter crew were needed to jump into action and recover injured forces, which has now left a residual adrenaline jump any time the phone rings. Things like that are so obvious with hindsight but while you're in the moment, probably wouldn't even be thought of as an issue.

McConaghy tried to take her own life in 2020, with the added pressures that lockdown brought, but having survived and turned things around, she now focuses on motivational speaking and working for charities that support wounded soldiers.

One of the observations I have made since my downfall is that mental health is very much taking centre stage and we, as a nation, are very aware how little men talk about their issues. It is widely thought that women are much better at discussing their problems openly... But what about a woman surrounded by men?

As a society, we're making a lot of progress around mental health but, as always, there's still so much more to learn and to be done.

Read Chinook Crew Chick on Apple Books