After nearly six months of sea duty, having weathered the boredom of shipboard life and a nasty little war in the Falklands, the 1,200-man crew of the aircraft carrier H.M.S. Invincible was downright ecstatic to be home. For the most famous sailor arriving in England last week, however, the return meant giving up one sort of freedom in exchange for another. As co-pilot of a 13,000-pound Sea King helicopter, Prince Andrew, 22, could forget that he was third in line to the British throne, after his brother Prince Charles and infant nephew Prince William. In the closed society of a fighting ship, he was judged not on his pedigree but on his performance under fire. "It is never more lonely than during those moments when you are lying down on the deck with missiles flying around and you are on your own," the Prince told reporters. "During those moments, when there was fear, I overcame it."

Andrew's countrymen have long been amused by his romantic adventures (see following story), but during the Falklands crisis he was noted for dedication to duty. Along with his fellow pilots, he clocked long hours of flying in foul weather. Although the 19,810-ton aircraft carrier Invincible was too valuable a ship to send into the most hazardous waters (it stayed 100 to 150 miles east of the contested islands), two of the Harrier jet pilots aboard were killed when their planes went down—and Andrew and his four crewmen frequently joined the fray. One of his worries was being hit not by enemy fire, but by British Sea Wolf defense missiles, which home in on heat-producing devices like helicopter engines. "Sea Wolves locked on to our helicopter while we were hovering," he said. "It really makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck."

Once on a three-hour sea-search patrol his chopper engine malfunctioned and Andrew had to turn back to the carrier. Deck mechanics informed him later that the engine—one of two—had failed. "I'm glad I didn't know that 50 miles from the ship," he responded. Another pilot said, "But I'll bet you wouldn't have missed it for the world." "You're wrong," the Prince shot back. "I would have avoided it if I could. So would any sane man." Later he announced that he was going to write to the Queen and relate his close call. "You can't do that," a reporter told him. "You'll frighten the life out of her." Andrew apparently did not mention it in his letters home.

One of his most harrowing tasks was to fly close to his ship as Argentine jets fired Exocet missiles. Acting as a decoy, the choppers, which are capable of traveling at 150 knots, hovered over the ocean, appearing on the missiles' radar systems as ships. "The idea is that the Exocet comes in low over the waves and is not supposed to go above a height of 27 feet," Andrew explained. "When the missile is coming at you, you rise quickly above 27 feet, and it flies harmlessly underneath—in theory. But on the day the 4,100-ton Sheffield was hit, one Exocet was seen to fly over the mast of a ship, well over 27 feet." The most frightening moment of the war for Andrew was watching from the air as the British supply ship Atlantic Conveyor was sunk by Exocet missiles. "It was horrific," he said. "At the time I saw a 4.5 shell come quite close to us. I saw my ship, Invincible, firing her missiles. Normally I would say it was spectacular, but at the time it was very frightening."

As well as waylaying Argentine missiles, British chopper pilots rescued seamen from sinking ships. When the Atlantic Conveyor went down, one of the sailors stranded on a lifeboat was Michael Chapman, 20. He and 25 shipmates had been drifting for 90 minutes in a vicious storm when Prince Andrew spotted them. As Andrew's aircraft held its position, a lifeline was dropped to pluck three sailors from the lifeboat and three from the sea. "It was cold, and the waves were 20 feet high," Chapman recalled. "We were like sardines in the lifeboat. Prince Andrew was very cool. We tried to thank the crew afterward, but I never got to see the Prince again. He and the rest of the helicopter crew did a great job. It would be nice if I could buy them a pint to say thanks one day."

When he boarded the ship in April, many of the Prince's mates were not very impressed. "At first the Prince seemed more like a 14-year-old than a 22-year-old," one said, recalling the night Andrew walked into the snack bar and picked up an automatic pistol lying on the counter. As a joke, he pointed it at another crew member, who flinched. "It's not loaded," Andrew reassured him. The mate replied, "It's always the unloaded ones that go off and kill someone." Andrew laughed sheepishly, then put the gun away.

But before the war was over, Andrew allayed the sailors' doubts. His lack of pretension was winning: On the back of his regulation-issue red sweat shirt, which bore the label "Prince Andrew" on the front, he printed "A Real Prince." His courage also won him fans. He once landed a Sea King helicopter with 15 soldiers on board only feet from an Argentine minefield on the Falklands. Coolly ignoring the danger, he gave a thumbs-up sign as he touched the ground with painstaking precision. "He must have known the risks he was running," says Welsh Guardsman John Roberts, "but if he knew, he didn't let on."

Andrew comes by his naval ability naturally. His father, Prince Philip, served in the British Navy during World War II, and his grandfather, George VI, and great-grandfather, George V, were also navy men. It was no surprise that after a middling academic career at Gordonstoun in Scotland (which his brothers, Charles and Edward, also attended), Andrew took a 12-year commission in the navy in 1979. There he has excelled, winning a silver trophy for achieving the best marks in a special 18-week flying course.

His Falklands duty may hasten an even more glittering prize, the title of Duke of York. As the monarch's second son, he would by tradition receive the title of Duke of York later in life, but some palace observers speculate that Queen Elizabeth could bestow it on him soon in honor of his heroism. The title carries no income or estate, so Andrew will continue to draw and bank his £2,000 annual income as prince, plus navy and flying pay of about £9,000. On land, he will, of course, have the small apartment in Buckingham Palace.

When Invincible docked, two Scotland Yard bodyguards joined the Prince, and his personal valet came on board to collect his bags. Leaving the ship with genuine regret, Andrew told a press conference: "There were no favors for me on board because I was a prince. My life will change drastically now." Andrew has left no doubt of his desire to remain in the Royal Navy—he will spend at least another two years with the 820 Squadron flying Sea King helicopters. "I have learned things about myself that I never would have learned anywhere else," he said. As he put it during the thick of the Falklands crisis: "I think that when I first came out, people were asking, you know, would I actually stay here until the end. I'm jolly glad I stayed here. I'm jolly glad I came here."