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Harrier Heroes

On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the ending of the Falklands conflict, Gary Parsons spoke to two of the Harrier pilots involved, one giving the fighter's perspective from the Sea Harrier cockpit and the other that of the mud-mover in the Harrier GR3. Pictures by the author and courtesy RAF Cottesmore

Lieutenant Commander David Morgan DSC - fighter pilot

"The first thing was the surprise - I'd only been at Yeovilton for a few weeks and was going through training on the Sea Harrier, having been flying the Harrier GR3 in Germany before. The first I heard about it was on the news as I was making breakfast, so when I got to the squadron I asked if they'd heard the news - they said 'Where have you been for the last two hours!' I wasn't on the call-out list, so it was a big surprise for me."

"Initially I was told I'd stay behind to finish the course, but twelve hours later I was told I'd be going but not flying. The following day they said 'Get your flying kit, you're flying onto Hermes' - they just needed every single pilot they had. I would finish the training on the way down! My first carrier landing was onto Hermes in Portsmouth harbour!"

"There were two schools of thought - one that we were the 'big stick' and never get past the Scilly Isles, and the other, which I belonged to, was that this was going to be a war and we'd better get used to it. By the time we left Ascension Island it was made patently obvious there was going to be a war and people got extremely serious about the planning."

"We knew quite a lot about the Argentine Air Force and its capabilities. We had intelligence reports, documents such as Jane's, with details of their radar and missiles, that sort of thing. We knew pretty much what we were up against."

"The main concern was the Mirage III - it was considerably faster than us, could go higher and had a much longer head-on missile lock. But on the first day we acquitted ourselves very well against the Mirage and they didn't seem to want to come out to play much after that."

"We used our standard tactics actually, with one change - going in against low-level aircraft, the Sea Harrier FRS1 radar was no good, being a standard pulse-radar, so we were falling back on visual pick-ups. We only had a couple of minutes from picking up the target to hitting the landing areas, so we had to throw away our normal tactic of staying out of the fight until we knew where everyone was, then pick out the bad guys. On several occasions we dropped into the middle of a formation, and purely by chance they weren't carrying missiles - if they had, we would have lost aircraft. On 8 June I dropped in front of a Skyhawk, shot down two of the formation with Sidewinders without realising there was another guy behind me! I had nearly hit him on my way into the fight - he was so shocked that he broke away, and by the time he got back he had a few seconds of gun-tracking time but his gun had jammed…"

"No-one used viffing in combat - it's very much a last-ditch manoeuvre. It can be useful if the guy behind hasn't seen it before and doesn't know what you're going to do. You can decelerate from 450 knots down to 150 in about three or four seconds, and that is enough to fly people out in front - however, if he sees it coming, all he has to do is go vertical and just sit around on top of you. You end up with no energy at all and he's got all the time in the world to take you out."

"I also shot down an Agusta A109 gunship using the 30mm cannon and a Puma, which I knocked out of the sky with wingtip vortices! It was something we'd discussed in the bar, and I actually didn't mean to do it - I flew very, very low over his rotorhead, pulled a big handful of 'G' to come back in a dumb-bell and fire at him and by the time I was able to see him over the back of the tail he was flying erratically and hit the side of the hill. Quite a surprise and I felt bad about it."

"I saw my fair share of action - on 1 May I took part on the raid on Stanley Airport after the Vulcan bombers had just managed to get one bomb on the runway. We went in very shortly after that. Initially, we were told that we were going to do a post-strike recce for the Vulcan but we said no, not on your life; if we are going to expose our arses then we are going to drop some bombs on the way through, which is what we did. I ended up being the last one through the target area and got shot through the tail as I was releasing my weapons. I dived down into a big pall of smoke next to the control tower - I remember going past the control tower and the windows were just above my head, thinking that's comfortable, that's about fifty feet. I went into thick black smoke out the other side and ran off down the beach. I went back after the conflict and discovered that the control tower was a two-storey building and I was about ten feet off the ground, doing something like 500 knots!"

"All the pilots on board ship were just one big family, even though I was Air Force flying Navy aircraft. 1(F) Squadron was there, of course, with the Harrier GR3s and I knew quite a few of them from my time in Germany. I found for the first two weeks I just got more and more tired, and ended up hardly being able to put one foot in front of the other. Not just the physical tiredness, but mental tiredness as well. After a couple of weeks I reached a sort of plateau, when it didn't get any worse, and you started to get used to the routine of war. We were flying two or three sorties a day."

David & Tony were joined at Cottesmore by Sqn Ldr Jerry Pook (left), a Flight Commander with 1(F) Sqn during the conflict. Jerry was shot down, and had a recent reminder of that fateful day; “I have just had an e-mail from a lady in Argentina giving me the name of the man who shot me down. I will try and get in touch with him - I have no animosity towards him, I just want to ask him what happened and I will tell him what happened to me."

Combat flying is a world away from training in the UK - how did he replace that adrenalin rush on coming back? "I do low-level aerobatics for fun these days - that gets the adrenalin level up fairly high! But nothing will ever match being in combat. A lot of the time it was boredom - war is ninety-nine percent boredom, one percent stark terror, so a lot of the time you were just droning around looking for targets."

"I transferred back from the Air Force to the Navy and did another ten years at Yeovilton, including being display pilot for a while, then in '94 I started flying 747s, which I still do." David was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in the campaign, and has since written a best-selling book about his time in the conflict, 'Hostile Skies', which he described as "good therapy". Certainly being on the victorious side has its issues, as there are no real winners in war.

Sqn Ldr Tony Harper - a mud-mover's story

"I'm still wearing a uniform - I did leave and rejoin, but now I work on 1(F) Squadron here at Cottesmore and I'm known as 'Uncle', officially the Senior Operations Officer. The Uncle title is because I'm the oldest guy on the ship, and I look after the squadron when it's not here, if that makes sense - there's always a rear party, there's always people to be looked after, things to be organised, families to be given welfare, that sort of thing."

"I was with 1(F) Squadron during the campaign, flying the Harrier GR3s off the deck of Hermes. As we left Ascension, it wasn't obvious we were going into a shooting war. It was when we got halfway it was obvious we were going to do something. Initially we were toted to go down as attrition replacements for the Sea Harriers, the Navy expecting to lose a lot more than they did, so were expected to do air defence, a role for which we had no training, and no radar. On arrival the Sea Harrier losses were not significant so we were back into our normal role of ground attack."

"Normally we only did one sortie a day, sometimes two. Before the ground forces landed the targets were pre-designated, but after the landings there was a certain amount of on-call tasking - if you saw something on the ground and it was beyond the forward line of our own troops you were clear to go."

"SAMs were a serious challenge, particularly in the vicinity of Stanley Airfield and Goose Green, which were particularly exciting! I did sixteen operational sorties, of which I dropped weapons on at least fifteen. Very rarely did you bring the weapons back - if it was a heavy weapon, you had to ditch it to get back to hover weight to land back on the carrier as you couldn't do a moving landing back onto deck."

"The Sea Harrier had a bit more 'oomph' and refinements to the engine controls that we didn't have, but the performances were very similar. If we had been somewhere hot, it may have made a difference. At the time the RAF Harrier force was trained for operations in the field, we were used to landing on seventy-foot square steel pads - the deck was much bigger, so landing was fairly straightforward, although of course it would be moving, which is why you would plant it firmly!"

"The difficult bits I found are when you are stuck back on the ship, particularly when you are under an air raid warning and not knowing where the next Excocet is coming from. It would go on for a long period of time."

"We all had respect for each other, whether we were Air Force pilots or Navy Pilots. I have an equal respect for the opposition - the Argentine airmen were fine airmen who had a very difficult job to do, which they carried out with a lot of skill and daring."

"We went through a readjustment period on coming back - discover where the rule book is kept, re-educated ourselves on flying in Europe. It's a process the squadrons go through now when they come back from Afghanistan - there's a definite 'operational reset' period of about a month where all the guys do a supervised ride, do simulator trips and get back into the UK peacetime rules of flying."

"I flew Harriers until 1994, my last job being Boss of the Conversion Unit at Wittering, where we saw the GR7 into service." Tony took the current Joint Harrier Force Commander, Group Captain Sean Bell, through the OCU in the early nineties.

For Sean, the day was an opportunity to remember the men and women who are still undergoing the stresses and strains of operations today. "The boys and girls in Afghanistan feel a great responsibility today, and are serving their country and their service twenty-five years after these men served their country with great distinction and great courage. They won a battle which no one thought was possible at the time and I think that's a great part of our history and heritage."


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