The Harrier

DEC 07 2010
The Harrier >> David Morgan Part Two: Sea Harrier Engagement at Shag Cove

The morning of 23rd May 1982 dawned grey and overcast with regular heavy showers sweeping across the bleak landscape of the Falkland Islands and making the flight deck of HMS Hermes a cold and even more inhospitable place than normal. I had been airborne before dawn to fly a combat air patrol at low level over the slate grey waters of Falkland Sound in an effort to stop Argentine attacks on the armada of ships supporting the landings in San Carlos Water. Over the previous 48 hours, since the landings had taken place, the Navy had suffered a number of spirited attacks by Argentine Skyhawk and Dagger fighters. These attacks had been pressed home with vigour, sinking HMS Ardent during the previous evening, and damaging a number of other warships. No troop transports had yet been hit, however, and some 3,500 troops had been successfully landed and were now consolidating the beachhead. May 21st, D-Day, had been a very busy day with the Sea Harriers accounting for ten of the 12 enemy aircraft destroyed. Unfortunately a No 1(F) Squadron Harrier had been shot down near Port Howard but we believed that Flt Lt Jeff Glover, the pilot, had ejected.

The first sortie had been uneventful, although it was very unnerving, as we had been forced to fly our CAP below the 500-foot cloud base in poor visibility and at low speed to economise on fuel because of our range from the carrier. This made us very vulnerable to any enemy aircraft that might come across us in the mist and it was re-assuring to know that my number two was as keyed up as I was, with his eyes constantly straining and his senses ready for instant explosive action, should we see a 'bogey'. We were both relieved when the time came to climb above the murk and head home into the early morning sun, to return to Hermes and a hearty breakfast.

By the time the sun was approaching its zenith, the weather had changed dramatically, leaving the islands bathed in bright sunshine with only small amounts of cumulus cloud scattered here and there in east-west lines. My wingman for this sortie was Flt Lt John Leeming, an old buddy of mine from the RAF Germany Harrier force. He had volunteered for exchange service when the conflict had started and had arrived on the ill-fated Atlantic Conveyor five days earlier. John had only managed to get a handful of hours in the Sea Harrier before heading for the South Atlantic and still had to get to grips with the weapons systems. Two days earlier he had been unable to fire a Sidewinder missile at a Skyhawk and eventually shot it down with guns, at very close range, nearly blowing himself to pieces in the process. We subsequently discovered that the reason for the missile not firing was that no one had shown him how to switch it on properly!

As we flew overhead Port Stanley on the way to our CAP station, we were greeted by a barrage of anti-aircraft fire, despite the fact that we were above 30,000 feet. The 35-millimeter guns were not very accurate at this height and although the black mushrooms of their explosions looked rather frightening as they burst all around us, a gentle weave was all that was required to render them ineffective. In the distance we could see the silver specks of the ships in San Carlos Water and the toy-like outlines of Pucara attack aircraft on the grass strip at Goose Green. Once past Goose Green we let down to 8,000 feet and set up our patrol on a north-south axis over the 2,000-foot mountains of West Falkland, in an attempt to intercept any aircraft flying through the valleys to attack the landings. The Blue Fox radar was of very little use over land, so we had to try to guess where the enemy would come from and put ourselves in a position to acquire them visually and engage them, before they reached their targets.

Flying a medium level patrol is rather more relaxing than being at low level because it is easier to be sure that you and your wingman are not being threatened by a 'bogey'. It also gives you the opportunity to accelerate rapidly as you dive onto the tail of a low level raider and get a missile in the air before you are seen. What we did not realise, as we cruised back and forth, searching the rolling scree and peat bog for tell-tale flashes of movement, was that the enemy was not aware of the change in the weather and would not be airborne for another couple of hours. The director who was controlling us, asked us to confirm our position from time to time and it was obvious that he, like us, was feeling that things were rather too quiet to last. He could not use his radar because of the surrounding hills and was relying on us to pick up and report any raids as they crossed the mountains. This would give them a maximum of three minutes warning of an inbound raid. Sooner him than us! There was a great feeling of empathy between us and we were very conscious of being the only ones standing between him and an enemy air attack.

Unbeknownst to us, although the Argentine fighters were not airborne, there was, indeed, some air activity and it was heading in our direction. A formation of three Argentine Puma helicopters had set off the previous evening, to transport a vital cargo of Blowpipe anti-aircraft missiles and mortar ammunition from Stanley to Port Howard. They had turned back in Falkland Sound when they stumbled across an unidentified ship in poor weather and had spent the night with the Pucara unit at Goose Green.

The following day, after the weather improved, they set off once more for Port Howard. Because of the importance of their cargo, the lead Puma had the company commander on board and they were escorted by an Agusta 109A gunship, flown by the deputy commander. The A109A was a fast and very manoeuvrable helicopter which carried two pods of 2.75-inch rockets and a couple of forward firing machine guns. This could have made life quite embarrassing for us in the right hands. Any fighter pilot who was shot down by a helicopter would never be able to hold his head up in a bar again! This formation crossed the Sound from Goose Green to Shag Cove and had just turned onto a northerly heading, with only about four minutes to go to their destination when their luck changed abruptly.

John and I had just completed a turn at the southern end of the CAP and were cruising slowly towards Port Howard when suddenly a movement caught my eye; a mechanical movement quite alien to the snipe-rich bogs and barren escarpments - the flash of sun on a helicopter rotor disc. There, a couple of miles south of me was a helicopter skimming over a small inlet a few feet above the glassy water. I yelled to John and asked the controlling ship to confirm that there were no friendlies in the area. At the same time I dived rapidly down to about 50 feet above the valley and accelerated to about 500 mph, running head-on towards the helicopter in an attempt to identify it. Adrenalin pumped as the distance between us closed rapidly until, at about 500 yards I realised that it was a Puma and, therefore, had to be Argentine.

I yelled 'Hostile, hostile!' over the radio, and John replied that he had a further three in a line behind the leader and was engaging the gunship escort. I was too close to bring my weapons to bear on the Puma, so flew straight at it, passing as low as I dared over its rotor head. As I passed about ten feet above the enemy, I pulled the Harrier into a 5-G break to the left in order to fly a dumbbell back towards it for a guns attack. I strained my head back and to the left under the crushing pressure of the G forces and I saw the Puma emerge from behind me. It was flying in an extremely unstable fashion and after a couple of seconds, crashed heavily into the side of the hill, shedding rotor blades and debris before rolling over and exploding in a huge pall of black smoke. I was absolutely amazed! We had previously discussed using wing-tip vortices as a method of downing helicopters and it was obviously efficacious, although I had not particularly been aiming to try the method out at the time.

As I reversed my turn to the west, I saw John diving down towards a deep stream bed running up into the mountains. As he recovered from the dive, the bottom of the ravine erupted in a storm of explosions from his 30-millimeter cannon but I could not see the target. As I began my attack, John told me that it was a helicopter gunship in the stream bed 100 yards east of his fall of shot. As I was squinting through the head-up display to find the target I wondered how he could have missed by such a massive distance. This was soon made clear by his next transmission: 'What the hell is the sight setting for guns Moggie?' We had discovered another hole in his briefing on the differences between the Harrier and Sea Harrier weapons system!

My first attack missed, as the pilot manoeuvred his helicopter towards the relative safety of the mountains. I had also fired at rather excessive range in my excitement, which had degraded the accuracy of the guns. My second pass put explosions all around the Agusta 109A but didn't hit it. I pressed my third attack until the helicopter was filling the sight and I could clearly see the rocket pods attached to either side of the fuselage. As I pulled into a 5-G recovery, I saw the target disappear under a hail of sparkling explosions from my cannon, followed shortly afterwards by the massive orange bloom of a secondary explosion from the fuel tanks at the rear of the aircraft. The pilot had failed in his task of defending the formation and had paid the price for running away, rather than trying to engage us with his rockets.

As I turned away from the burning wreckage, John located a further helicopter near the smoke of the first one and dived down towards it. He had emptied his cannon in his previous attacks but flew very low over the new target to show me its position. I followed him down towards the area of scrubby grass and diddle-dee that he had indicated but could see nothing. As I was about to recover, I realised that my gunsight was sitting directly over a Puma, which had shut down on the rough ground and was being rapidly evacuated by a number of highly excited Argentine soldiers. I pulled the trigger to fire my cannon but only two rounds remained. By a combination of good luck and good shooting, one of these rounds impacted the tail of the Puma, rendering it unflyable. We rejoined over Falkland Sound in the climb to 36,000 feet for our return to Hermes. As we settled down, checked our fuel and began to think about our recovery, our replacement CAP from HMS Invincible called us on the radio. We passed them the location of the helicopters and they set off to complete the destruction of the second Puma.

We had managed to destroy twenty percent of the enemy helicopter force at a time when they were desperately in need of such transport but I was not particularly happy at the destruction of the first Puma, as I believed that the crew had perished in the crash. Ironically, I had not meant to attack them on the initial pass and as a former helicopter pilot I had a great deal of empathy. After landing back on Hermes, I reported to the bridge to brief the captain on our achievements and was given some information that made me even more concerned: The ship had intercepted a message saying that Jeff Glover was being transferred from Port Howard to Stanley by Puma at about the time of our engagement. For a couple of days I thought that we might have killed one of our own pilots but eventually, to my great relief, we received intelligence that he had been transferred to the mainland by Hercules.

A visit to the site of the action, after the conflict was over, showed the importance of the cargo and the subsequent information that the crew had survived also made me feel considerably better. It was also ironic that the aircraft I was flying on this sortie was the same one that I had been flying on the first raid of the war. Then, the Argentines had put a hole through the tail with a 20-millimeter anti-aircraft gun: This time, the boot had been well and truly on the other foot!

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