A secret SAS patrol in Afghanistan came close to disaster when their RAF Chinook helicopter was shot down by a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade.
The aircraft came under fire as it touched down under cover of darkness in Helmand Province late on Wednesday night.
As the elite troops disembarked the enemy rocket slammed into the side of the helicopter. Nobody was injured.
Astonishingly, the pilot of the crippled Chinook managed to lift off and fly a few hundred yards away from the ambush site before making a forced landing.
The crew of four, including the pilot, were immediately picked up by a second RAF helicopter taking part in the same mission.
The damaged aircraft was destroyed in an airstrike to prevent it falling into enemy hands.
An MoD spokesman said a ‘risk-based assessment on individual circumstances’ is taken before any decision is made to destroy equipment.
He added that if it was safe and feasible to do so, every effort would be made to retrieve military equipment.
The spokesman said: ‘The cause of the incident is still under investigation, however enemy action has not been ruled out.’
It is the first time the Taliban has shot down a British aircraft or helicopter over Afghanistan, and highlights the vulnerability of the huge twin-rotor Chinooks as they land or take off in hostile territory.
Last night, MoD officials praised the crew of the stricken machine for managing to keep control and fly to safety with one engine badly damaged.
Lt Col Nick Richardson said: ‘It is a measure of the bravery and skill of the pilots that, operating under enemy fire, they were able to complete their task and calmly move to safety.
‘Their cool under pressure has ensured that their lives were saved and minimal damage was caused.
‘Despite the loss of one aircraft, the brave crew have thwarted insurgents attempts to destabilise the elections with a shocking spectacular loss of British life.’
Chinooks can carry up to 40 fully-equipped soldiers and the loss of a loaded helicopter remains a nightmare scenario for coalition commanders.
Military insiders said the SAS team was dropped off in two RAF Chinooks to carry out a covert mission, a few miles north of the hotbed town of Sangin – the scene of many roadside bomb attacks against UK forces in recent weeks.
The landing site was not secured by troops on the ground in advance, and it appears the patrol was unlucky enough to land near a Taliban unit.
Other UK aircraft in Regional Command and those operated by Nato will cover the work carried out by the destroyed Chinook.