The Harrier

NOV 30 2010
The Harrier >> David Morgan: The Sea Harrier's Baptism of Fire

Grey fingers of dawn tentatively probed the eastern sky as the twelve of us made our way across the gently pitching deck towards the silent bulk of our fully armed Sea Harriers. We moved with the slightly shambling gait associated with the modern fighter pilot. All of us were weighed down with helmet, oxygen mask, anti-G suit, maps, immersion suit and layers of thick pile clothing to enable us to survive in the near-freezing water around the Falkland Islands. HMS Hermes, the old lady of the Royal Navy, who had sailed millions of miles since her commissioning in 1959 and launched hundreds of thousands of aircraft sorties, was, in her twilight years, about to launch her first ever air strike against the enemy.

In the four weeks that it had taken us to sail the 8,000 miles from Portsmouth, the mood aboard the flagship had changed dramatically. When we first set sail, a large percentage of the ship's company had thought that we were purely the big stick, which would frighten the Argentines into giving up their illegal occupation of these far-flung islands. As we pressed south, however, the mood gradually changed. The Sea Harrier force had always assumed that we would be called upon to show our mettle, an occasion that all fighter pilots anticipate with a peculiar mixture of eagerness and foreboding throughout their careers. We had, therefore, set about a daily round of planning and practice that would hone our already considerable skills to a razor's edge before closing the enemy. We practiced ship attacks and air combat, dropped an example of every live weapon in the ship's magazines and planned assiduously for every conceivable contingency.

By the third week in April, when it became obvious that a political solution was impossible, we were confident that we would give a good account of ourselves despite our ten to one disadvantage in the air. It was now the 1st of May 1982. In England children were celebrating the coming of spring with traditional dance and jollification. In the South Atlantic, the autumnal storms were gathering and the Sea Harrier force was preparing for its baptism of fire. The weeks of meticulous planning and practice were now coming to a head. We had completed our final mission briefings and received our escape and evasion instructions. Each pilot carried a Browning 9-millimeter automatic pistol together with two loaded magazines, probably more of a psychological prop than any practical use, even for a passably good shot like myself. After a few half-hearted jokes, we had taken refuge in our private thoughts; some had deposited last letters to wives or girlfriends (or in my case both!) in case they did not return and most of us were happy to immerse ourselves in the well practiced and comforting routine of preparing to fly.

I mentally ran through my part in the plan as I checked the weapons on my aircraft. It was essential that everyone carried out his individual role as perfectly as possible to preserve the integrity of the attack. I was largely responsible for planning the first assault on Stanley airfield and was aware that the odds were very much against us all returning safely. I double-checked all the weapons and head-up display aiming data, adding two marks on the sight glass in case I suffered a display failure. These marks both coincided with the weapon aiming point; one seen from my normal sitting position and a further one seen from a position crouching down behind gunsight camera, where I suspected I might be during the final stages of the attack!

At 1040GMT (0640 local time) the order came booming over the flight deck broadcast system: 'Stand clear of jet pipes and intakes: start the Sea Harriers'. I held up five fingers to my plane captain, to show that my ejection seat was now live, and he replied with the signal to start as I heard the other eleven Pegasus engines winding up around me. As my engine stabilised at ground idle, I began my post-start checks and after a few minutes the flashing anti-collision lights showed that all twelve fighters were ready to go. There was time for a quick glance at the en-route map before Hermes turned into the prevailing westerly wind and the chocks and chain lashings were removed leaving the aircraft ready for take-off.

As the hands on my watch moved, oh so sluggishly, to 1050, I inserted the ship's heading into my inertial navigation kit, re-checked: flaps down, armament master switch live, nozzle stop set at 35 degrees, trim three degrees nose down and ejection seat live. Exactly on time, the red traffic light below the window of Flying Control turned green, and Tony Hodgson, the Flight Deck Officer dropped his green flag to launch Lt Cdr Andy Auld, ahead of me. My machine was buffeted violently by Andy's jet efflux and as the grey bulk of his aeroplane threw itself off the end of the ski-jump. I taxied forward to the take-off point. Tony, braced against the jet wash, gave me the green flag and with a final nod, I slammed the throttle open. Within one second, the power of the engine started to drag the locked wheels across the deck and in two seconds the jet was accelerating at a terrific rate towards the ramp, driven by the ten tons of engine thrust. As the end of the deck disappeared below me, I rotated the nozzles and leapt into the air some 70 knots below conventional stalling speed, accelerating rapidly to forward flight. Within ten seconds of launch, the wheels were up and I was in a tight left hand turn to join up with the leader, as the other aircraft got airborne at five-second intervals behind us.

The initial transit towards the islands went without incident and we soon settled down into a flexible transit formation, with everyone scouring the rapidly lightening sky for enemy aircraft. After ten minutes on a westerly heading, we turned south towards our planned landfall at Macbride Head, the most northeasterly point of East Falkland. Almost immediately I saw a couple of dark shapes, hugging the water and closing rapidly from the east. I shouted 'Break port! Bogies left 10 o'clock low' and as we all pulled our jets into a screaming left turn, I realised that the sinister shapes were, in fact, our three spare aircraft, now on their way to attack the grass airfield at Goose Green. As Lt "Fred" Frederiksen hopped his formation over ours, we regained our heading and with pulses racing, caught our first sight of the islands.

The coastline crystallised slowly into a dark scar separating the restless sea from the layers of cloud stacked over the high ground to the south. My first impression was of its similarity to the Scottish coast, which made it quite difficult to believe that we were not on one of our more familiar exercises, rather than bent on an errand of destruction. There was little time to dwell on this, however, as we made our way down the coast towards our initial point near Volunteer Beach. I can remember being struck by the complete absence of trees, the beauty of the white sand beaches and the sight of a lone cow pausing in mid chew to watch, with a detached interest, as we swept past on our deadly mission.

By the time we reached Berkeley Sound, with only 90 seconds to run to the airfield, we had split into three sections. Four aircraft were pulling up off Volunteer Point to toss 1000lb bombs onto the anti-aircraft defences, and three others setting themselves up to approach from the northwest whilst Andy Auld and myself headed for the east side of the pair of 900-foot high mountains to the north of Stanley. I was aware of the increase in tension as I urged my machine as low as I possibly could, towards the craggy outline of Mount Low. I was aware of intense concentration as my eyes flicked between engine instruments, head-up display, and the inhospitable rock-strewn tussock grass that whipped past at over 500 mph, a scant 50 feet below my aircraft.

As I rounded the east face of the mountain, tucked behind and slightly to the left of my leader, the target came into view. At first, I couldn't take in the sight that greeted me in the thin grey dawn light. The airfield and the entire peninsular on which it was built seemed to be alive with explosions. Anti-aircraft shells carpeted the sky over the runway up to a height of 1000 feet, so thick that it seemed impossible for anything to fly through unscathed. Missiles fired from the airfield and outside the town, streaked across my path, long wavering white fingers chasing the previous attackers out to the southeast. Tracer fire criss-crossed the sky and as I watched, a number of guns turned in my direction sending feelers of scarlet probing towards me. The tracer curved lazily down, rather like a firework display and not initially conveying much feeling of imminent danger. As it got closer, however, it suddenly seemed to accelerate and began whipping past my ears, bouncing off the grey sea all around me. My brain froze in horror for a fraction of a second, as I realised that this wasn't a game any more and someone was actually trying to kill me! The years of training then took over and as I took evasive action, I realised that I was automatically flying even lower.

I hauled the aeroplane hard left and then right, to pass between the Tussock Islands and Kelly Rocks, themselves only 30 feet high and pressed on towards the airfield below the level of the sand dunes, accelerating to nearly 600 mph. Inspection of the gunsight film later in the day, showed that we were flying at a height of between five and 15 feet as we approached the target! I became aware that a number of Argentine soldiers were firing down at me from the sand dunes on the northern edge of the airfield, their bullets kicking up the water all around me. I dropped the trigger on the front of the stick and squeezed it hard, expecting to hear the roar of the 30-millimeter cannon and see the eruptions of smoke and flame amongst the enemy on the near horizon. But the guns would not fire. I thought that they must have jammed but realised later that in the heat of the moment I had failed to select the gun master switches on!

As I crossed over the beach, I yanked back on the stick, flattening the defenders on the dunes with my jet wash, and levelled at 150 feet, the minimum height required for my cluster bombs to fuse properly. I instantly took in the damage caused by the rest of the formation, the airport buildings were billowing smoke and a number of aircraft were lolling at drunken angles, obviously badly damaged. The fuel dump to my right was a storm of orange flame, under a gathering pall of oily black smoke and huge lumps of debris were still falling from the sky from the explosions of the 1000lb bombs. One aircraft, which seemed undamaged, was a small civilian Islander transport. I quickly lined up my bombsight raised the safety catch and mashed the release button, despatching my three cluster bombs. The first bomb separated from the wing pylon and after a short safety delay, blew off two sections of skin to expose the 147 bomblets. These were, in turn, ejected to form a cloud of death covering the size of a football pitch. Each bomblet contained a charge capable of penetrating the armoured hull of a tank and designed so that the case fragmented to provide a vicious anti-personnel weapon. One third of a second after the first weapon dropped, I felt the thump as the second bomb left the centerline pylon, mounted under the fuselage and fell away towards the target.

Suddenly there was a huge explosion and the aircraft started vibrating like a road drill. It was impossible to read any of the cockpit instruments to check for engine damage but the aircraft still seemed to be flying, so as soon as the last bomb had cleared the wing pylon, I dived my machine for the smoke beside the control tower. I still have a very clear recollection of passing below the level of the tower windows as I entered the cloud of thick black smoke. When I returned to the airfield after the war was over, I discovered that the tower windows were only about 20 feet above the ground! I waited a short pause inside the smoke, then pulled the aircraft into a hard turn to the east, to clear high ground and run down the beach to safety.

As I punched out of the smoke, my radar-warning receiver emitted a strident, high-pitched warbling note: I had been locked onto by a radar laid anti-aircraft gun! This was no time for gentle flying; I racked the aircraft into a bone-crushing 6-G break to the left through 90 degrees, to put the radar at right angles to my flight path and flicked out the airbrake to release a bundle of chaff into the airflow. I had thought up the idea of jamming packets of these aluminium covered fibreglass needles underneath the airbrake and one of the squadron air engineering officers had designed a system of wire and string to effect their release when required. Despite the Heath Robinson design, they did their job; the radar lost its lock and I was able to haul the vibrating aircraft back onto an easterly heading and run out to sea and safety.

As we cleared the target area, we changed radio frequency and checked in. I believed that we would probably lose two or three aircraft on this raid because of the intensity of the ground defences. There was a huge surge of elation, therefore, when everyone checked in. Once safely clear of land, I slowed down and climbed gently up to 10,000 feet. As I reduced speed, the vibration that had been shaking me so violently, began to reduce to acceptable levels and I was able to check out the aircraft systems. I was amazed to find that everything appeared to be working correctly except a tiny gauge, which showed the position of the rudder trim. This, in itself was of no consequence to the operation of the aeroplane but gave me the first indication that damage had been done to the tail of the 'plane.

Once back in the overhead of Hermes, I circled at a height of 5,000 feet whilst Flt Lt Ted Ball came up to inspect the damage. After a fruitless inspection of the left side of the aircraft, he swapped over to the right side and after a few seconds said 'Ah yes... you have got a bloody great hole in the tail'. I moved the control surfaces to and fro and was told that they appeared to be working correctly but there was a distinct possibility that the reaction controls, critical for vertical landing, might have taken some damage. I therefore let everyone else land before setting myself up to carry out a rolling landing. This entails running the aircraft onto the deck with a certain amount of forward speed and is not an approved manoeuvre as there is a distinct danger of running over the side into the sea. It does, however, reduce the reliance on the reaction controls and might give me the option to overshoot and try again if the controls jammed.

I selected my undercarriage and flaps to the landing position, tightened my lap straps and set myself up for a straight-in approach to the back end of the ship, from about one mile out. As I got closer, everyone on the flight deck started to creep forwards to get a better view of the impending arrival. This worried me somewhat as, if I had lost control, I might have taken a lot of people with me. I transmitted a short call to that effect to the ship and the flight deck crews soon got the message and headed rapidly for the comparative safety of the catwalks on either deck edge!

I stabilised the speed at 50 knots and adjusted the power and nozzle angle to give me a gentle rate of descent towards the stern of the carrier. Slight adjustments were required to compensate for the rise and fall of the deck but I managed to achieve a good firm touchdown about 50 feet in and braked cautiously to a halt before following the marshaller's signals to park at the base of the ski-jump. As the chain lashings were attached and I started my shutdown checks, I became aware that I was sweating profusely, despite the biting 30 knot wind whipping in through the open cockpit canopy. The adrenalin flow also made it difficult to unstrap and undo the various connections to the ejection seat, before standing up to leave the cockpit. Outside, on the windswept and slippery deck stood a crowd of people staring at my tail. Having given a thumbs-up to Bernard Hesketh, the BBC cameraman, I walked a little unsteadily round the tail of the aircraft to inspect the damage. The hole was about six inches across and had obviously been caused by a 20-millimeter shell, which had entered the left side of the fin at a grazing angle of about ten degrees and exploded, causing considerable damage to the right hand side of the fin and tailplane. After a little consideration, I realised that the shell had probably passed very close to my head and was actually only one of about 40 per second coming from this particular gun.

Thus ended the first sortie. We had flown a total of 12 Sea Harriers against two heavily defended airfields, delivered a total of 36 bombs, destroyed a large number of enemy aircraft, set light to a number of fuel storage sites and buildings and escaped almost unscathed. Euphoria now took over from the concern of the pre-dawn briefing. The first operational sortie, the most important in any pilot's life, was over. The rest would now be easier for everyone.

That evening Brian Hanrahan, the BBC's reporter on the spot, sent his report of the raid with the phrase which became famous: 'I cannot say how many aircraft took part in the raid, but I counted them all out and I counted them all back'.

Post Script: In 2007, I returned to the Islands and was concerned to find a row of high tension cables across the route I had used to escape, in thick smoke, after flying past the control tower in 1982. I was relieved to be informed that they had only been there for a few years but horrified when I received an e-mail after my return to UK from Stanley ATC. They had been visited by some Argentine journalists who were trying to re-create photos taken in 1982. One of these photos showed an HF aerial array slung between 50 ft poles behind the tower, at exactly the point that I had entered the cloud of smoke. I must have flown beneath them, blissfully unaware of their existence!

Lt Cdr David HS Morgan DSC

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