When the telephone rang with news a critically wounded battlefield casualty needed evacuating, Flt Lt Laura Nicholson and her British medical emergency response team had already been on call for nearly 24 hours.
As they leapt up and sprinted to their waiting Chinook helicopter at Camp Bastion, details came through that a United States Marine had been shot and badly wounded.
Coaxing the engines into life and going through last minute checks, Flt Lt Nicholson had little idea that in the coming minutes she would have to repeatedly brave heavy fire and see one of her crew shot as she battled to save the marine’s life and others.
Months later her coolness under fire would be praised in her citation for only the second ever Distinguished Flying Cross to be awarded to a female pilot.
The 39-year-old from Salisbury, who is now a Major in the Army Air Corps, received the award at a ceremony in London’s Lancaster House with other servicemen and women decorated for bravery all over the world
As she approached the location of the stricken marine on December 4, 2013, an American Cobra helicopter gunship was already buzzing over what was clearly a very hostile landing zone.
While she swooped down, taking evasive action to avoid gunfire and searching for the coloured smoke that marked the marines’ exact location, one of her crew spotted a rocket-propelled grenade fly behind the helicopter.
As soon as the helicopter landed, it came under small arms fire from more than one direction, prompting the protection team on board to open fire trying to secure the landing site.
Major Nicholson said: “In the front of the cockpit, it’s a strange feeling because you are powerless to do anything. We carry our personal weapons, but we don’t actually return fire. You are concentrating on making sure that the aircraft is still performing correctly and working out how you are going to get out safely and just waiting for the casualty and the rest of the team to get back on board.
The medal citation reads: “Not fazed by the prospect of an immediate return into a situation she knew to be highly dangerous, Nicholson rallied her crew and made her way quickly to the area, successfully evading more incoming tracer fire.”
With the critically ill woman and her hysterical children on board, the Chinook again took off.
Major Nicholson said: “It was when we departed that we came under contact again, which was when three of the rounds hit the aircraft. You hear a really distinctive, loud crack. There’s no mistaking what’s actually happened. The aircraft was still flying OK, we were doing quick check over, but as I was doing that the crewman shouted out that he’d been hit.”
A bullet had found a gap in the armoured plates along the Chinook’s floor and struck a crewman in the leg. The medics who were supposed to be treating patients now found themselves treating a colleague. Fortunately it was a minor wound and the crewman was soon delivered, with the Afghan woman, to the hospital at Camp Bastion.
Major Nicholson said she had not been frightened during the incident.
She said: “It’s only afterwards, when you shut down that you get a chance to reflect, that then you think ‘Yeah, that was quite close’”.
“But often, because you have still got duties to do, you just park it. For me, it’s only when I get back at the end of the tour that you really just look at the accumulation of events that have happened to you and that’s your time to ponder.”