The Harrier

DEC 14 2010
The Harrier >> David Morgan Part Three: Sea Harrier Over The Falklands - The Final Engagement

The morning of 8th June 1982 started much the same as any other during the conflict. The ritual of a shower, putting on clean underwear and 'lucky' flying suit (which was, by now rather high!) and a good breakfast before checking the briefing room for the day's commitments as dawn was breaking. It transpired that I was unlikely to be needed before midday, as I was due to carry out the final part of my night qualification that evening. I therefore volunteered to fly in the left hand seat of one of the Wessex helicopters, which had been saved after the ATLANTIC CONVEYOR was hit by an Exocet missile. It had been nearly ten years since I had flown the Wessex full time but I found it soon came back and I spent a happy couple of hours delivering mail and supplies around the fleet.

After lunch, I flew a mission patrolling to the north of Falkland Sound. The weather had cleared beautifully by then, with very little cloud over the islands and just the odd thunderstorm over the sea. At this stage of the conflict we were normally using the metal landing strip at Port San Carlos to refuel between sorties. Unfortunately, Wg Cdr Peter Squire, the Commanding Officer of No 1(F) squadron, had experienced an engine problem whilst landing there that morning and spread his aircraft all over the strip, coming to rest on top of a slit trench. My sortie was completely uneventful but very soon after we set off back to HERMES, HMS PLYMOUTH was attacked by a formation of Daggers, a frustrating but not unusual occurrence and we were glad to hear that her damage had not been serious.

That evening, Dave Smith and I strapped ourselves into our aircraft to come to five minute alert, with our minds fairly full of the night landing to come. Shortly before we were planned to launch, we were jolted back to reality by the broadcast 'Stand clear of intakes and jet pipes, scramble the alert 5 Sea Harriers!' We had a job to do.

We were airborne within three minutes and streaking towards the sun that was now low on the western horizon. For the next quarter of an hour we flew in silence, both wondering what we would find when we got to the islands. Finally, approaching the CAP station, I radioed the pair of Sea Harriers that we were relieving, to get an update and was told that they were 'over the action' to the north of our briefed station. As we got closer, I saw a huge vertical column of oily black smoke rising from a bay to the southwest of Stanley. When we arrived overhead, the grim reality unfolded. Two landing craft were at anchor in the bay, wreathed in a nightmare of smoke and explosions. From our perch, high in the halls of the sky, we could only watch with increasing concern and frustration as the living beetles of lifeboats crawled back and forth between ship and shore, with their desperate human cargoes. There was little we could do but search the lengthening shadows for further attackers, as we ploughed our parallel furrows back and forth, a couple of miles above their heads. To fly lower would have denied us radio contact with our controller in San Carlos and risked spooking the troops on the ground into thinking we were the enemy, returning to cause further chaos.

Some five miles to the south of our racetrack in the sky, I noticed a small landing craft, leaving Choiseul Sound and heading up the coast towards us. On checking, this was identified as friendly and became a particular point to check each time I turned back onto a westerly heading. I felt great empathy with them, as I imagined the crew, cold and tired in their tiny boat and I wondered if they had any idea that we were watching over them.

The next forty minutes crept by as we circled, using the minimum possible amount of fuel, neither of us talking and both of us very much aware of the tragedy being enacted below us. Finally, I made a routine check of the fuel gauges as I rolled into another turn to reverse track, and realised that I now had only four minutes flying before I had to turn east, into the rapidly darkening evening sky for HERMES. I flicked my eyes out of the cockpit and searched the gathering dusk below me for the small landing craft and soon picked it out, butting its way through the South Atlantic rollers towards Port Pleasant, with white water breaking over its bows.

It was in that instant that I spotted something which triggered the explosive action which lies, like a tightly coiled spring, beneath the outwardly calm carapace of the fighter pilot. My worst fears and fondest dreams had, in a single instant, been realised. A mere mile to the east of the vessel was the camouflaged outline of a Skyhawk fighter, hugging the sea and heading directly for the landing craft which had become a very personal part of my existence for the last forty minutes. This was the very thing that we had been anticipating and dreading so much.

I jammed the throttle fully open, shouted over the radio 'A-4s attacking the boat, follow me down!' and peeled off into a sixty degree dive towards the attackers. Dave Smith wrenched his Sea Harrier around after me but lost sight of my machine as we plunged downwards with the airspeed rocketing from the economic 240 knots on CAP, to over 600 knots, as we strained to catch the enemy before he could reach his target.

I watched impotently, urging my aircraft onwards and downwards, as the first A-4 opened fire with his 20-millimeter cannon, bracketing the tiny matchbox of a craft. My heart soared as his bomb exploded a good 100 feet beyond them but then sank as I realised that a further A-4 was running in behind him. The second pilot did not miss and I bore mute and frustrated witness to the violent fire-bright petals of the explosion which obliterated the stern, killing the crew and mortally wounding the landing craft. All consuming anger welled in my throat and I determined, in that instant, that this pilot was going to die!

As I closed rapidly on his tail, I noticed, in my peripheral vision, a further A-4 paralleling his track to my left. I hauled my aircraft to the left and rolled out less than half a mile behind the third fighter, closing like a runaway train. I had both missiles and guns selected and within seconds I heard the growl in my earphones telling me that my missile could see the heat from his engine. My right thumb pressed the lock button on the stick and instantly the small green missile cross in the head-up display transformed itself into a diamond, sitting squarely over the back end of the Skyhawk. At the same time, the growl of the missile became an urgent, high-pitched chirp, telling me that the infrared homing head of the weapon was locked on and ready to fire.

I raised the safety catch and mashed the red, recessed firing button with all the strength I could muster. There was a short delay as the missile's thermal battery ignited and its voltage increased to that required to launch the weapon. In less than half a second, the Sidewinder was transformed from an inert, eleven-foot long tube, into a living, fire breathing monster as it accelerated to nearly three times the speed of sound and streaked towards the nearest enemy aircraft. As it left the rails, the rocket efflux and supersonic shock wave over the left wing rolled my charging Sea Harrier rapidly to the right, throwing me onto my right wing tip at less than 100 ft above the sea. As I rolled erect, the missile started to guide towards the Skyhawk's jet pipe, leaving a white corkscrew of smoke against the slate-grey sea. Within two seconds, the missile disappeared directly up his jet pipe and what had been a living, vibrant, flying machine was completely obliterated in an instant as the missile tore into its vitals and ripped it apart. The pilot had no chance of survival and within a further two seconds the ocean had swallowed all trace him and his aeroplane, as if they had never been.

There was no time for elation. As I was righting my machine after the first missile launch, I realised that I was pointing directly at another Argentine aircraft at a range of about one mile; the one I had seen hit the landing craft. I mashed the lock button again, with strength born of righteous anger and my second missile immediately locked onto his jet efflux, as he started a panic break towards me. As I was about to fire, the homing head lost lock and the missile cross wandered drunkenly onto the sea, some 50 feet below him. Cursing, I rejected the false lock, mashed the lock button again and fired, the missile whipping across my nose and taking a handful of lead to the left, to head him off.

He obviously saw the Sidewinder launch, because he immediately reversed his break and pulled his aircraft into a screaming turn away from it. His best efforts were to no avail, however, and the thin grey missile flashed back across my nose and impacted his machine directly behind the cockpit. The complete rear half of the airframe simply disintegrated, as if a shotgun had been fired at a plastic model from close range. As the aluminium confetti of destruction fluttered seawards, I watched, fascinated, as the disembodied cockpit yawed rapidly through ninety degrees and splashed violently into the freezing water.

I felt a terrific surge of elation at the demise of the second A-4 and started to scan ahead, in the murk, for the others. I had just picked out the next one, fleeing west, his belly only feet from the water, when a parachute snapped open right in front of my face. The pilot had somehow managed to eject from the gyrating cockpit in the second before it hit the water and flashed over my right wing so close that I saw every detail of the rag-doll figure with its arms and legs thrown out in a grotesque star shape by the deceleration of the canopy. My feelings of anger and elation instantly changed to relief, as I realised that a fellow pilot had survived. An instant later, immense anger returned as I started to run down the next victim before he could make good his escape in the gloom.

Now that I had launched both missiles, I had only guns with which to despatch the remaining Skyhawks and as I lifted the safety slide on the trigger, I realised that my head-up display had disappeared and I had no gunsight. This was a well-known 'glitch' in the HUD software and could be cured easily by selecting the HUD off and then on again. This I duly did, but in the ten seconds it took for the sight to reappear, it was all over. The A-4 broke rapidly towards me as I screamed up behind him with a good 150 knots overtake. I pulled his blurred outline to the bottom of the windscreen and opened fire. The roar of the 30-millimeter rounds leaving the guns at the rate of forty per second filled the cockpit. I kept my finger on the trigger and relaxed and then re-applied the G, in order to walk the rounds through him as best I could.

Suddenly, over the radio came an urgent shout from Dave Smith, 'Pull up, pull up, you're being fired at!' All he had seen of the fight up until now, because of the failing light, was two missile launches followed by two explosions. He then saw an aircraft only feet above the water, flying through a hail of explosions and assumed it to be me. By now I had run out of ammunition and at Dave's cry, pulled up into the vertical, through the setting sun and in a big lazy looping manoeuvre, rolled out at 12,000 feet heading northeast for HERMES. In the vertical climb, I looked back down over Choiseul Sound and saw a white trail appear, accelerating towards the fleeing A-4. The trail was so low to the water that my first crazy thought was that it was a torpedo! I soon realised, however, that it was a missile and watched mesmerised as it headed for the enemy fighter. About halfway to the target, the rocket motor burnt out and for a few maddening seconds, I thought it had been fired out of range and would drop into the water. Dave had not misjudged it though and after some seven seconds of flight, there was a brilliant white flash as the zirconium disc in the warhead ignited. The Skyhawk was so low that the flash of the warhead merged with its reflection in the water of the Sound. A fraction of a second later, the aircraft disappeared in a huge yellow-orange fireball, as it spread its burning remains over the sand dunes on the north coast of Lafonia.

Climbing rapidly through 20,000 feet, I checked my engine and fuel gauges and realised that we were going to be very tight for gas. We used a figure of 2,000 lbs of fuel overhead Port Stanley as a good rule of thumb for returning to the ship and my gauges were reading less than 1,400 lbs. As I overflew the battered runway, climbing through 25,000 feet between the odd burst of anti-aircraft fire, my low-level fuel lights came on, indicating 1,300 lbs remaining. At 40,000 feet, I called the carrier and told them that I was returning short of fuel and they obliged by heading towards us to close the distance. Even so, when I closed the throttle to start a cruise descent from ninety miles out, I was still uncertain that I was going to make it before I flamed out and took an unwanted bath.

At 40,000 feet the sun was still a blaze of orange on the western horizon but as I descended, the light became a progressively worse. By the time I had descended to 10,000 feet, my world had become an extremely dark and lonely place. The adrenalin levels, which had been recovering to normal during the twenty minutes after the engagement, now started to increase again in anticipation of my first night deck landing. To compound the problem and to give final proof of 'Sod's law', HERMES had managed to find one of the massive thunderstorms and was in heavy rain. I realised that I did not have sufficient fuel to carry out a proper radar approach and asked the controller to just talk me onto the centreline, whilst I adjusted my glide so that I would not have to touch the throttle until the last minute.

With three miles to run, descending through 1500 feet, I was still in thick, turbulent cloud when my fuel warning lights began to flash urgently, telling me that I had 500 lbs of fuel remaining. At two miles, I saw a glimmer of light emerging through the rain and at 800 feet the lights fused into the recognisable outline of the carrier. I slammed the nozzle lever into the hover stop, selected full flap and punched the undercarriage button to lower the wheels. I picked up the mirror sight, which confirmed that I was well above the ideal glide path but dropping rapidly towards the invisible sea. With about half a mile to run, I added a handful of power and felt the Pegasus engine's instant response, stopping my descent at about 300 feet. The wheels locked down as I applied full braking stop to position myself off the port side of the deck and seconds later, I was transitioning sideways to hover over the centreline of the deck, level with the aft end of the superstructure. I knew that I had very little fuel remaining, so finesse went out of the window as I closed the throttle and banged the machine down on the rain-streaked deck. Once safely taxied forward into the aptly named 'Graveyard' and lashed in place, I shut down the engine and heard Dave's jet landing on behind me. My fuel gauges were showing 300 lbs, sufficient for a further two minutes flying!

Our debrief took place in the Wardroom bar, which John Locke, the ship's universally loved and respected Commander, had kept open for us. Here we discovered that a pilot from our sister squadron in INVINCIBLE had reported seeing four aircraft destroyed during our engagement. Neither of us could give a satisfactory explanation of the fourth kill but this version was sent back to UK, describing the mission as a night training sortie. This elicited the following amusing response from C in C Fleet:


I discovered some years later, that the fourth pilot, Hector Sanchez had in fact, escaped after jettisoning his fuel tanks. He made it to the C130 tanker with a teaspoon full of fuel, having received some small arms damage to his aircraft. Hector survived the war and recently retired from the Argentine Air Force. In the summer of 1993, through the good auspices of Maxi Gainza, a mutual friend, we met in London and spent the afternoon flying Maxi's Zlin at White Waltham. A few days later Hector and his wife stayed with us in our Somerset cottage and after several pints of scrumpy we discovered what had really happened that evening more than eleven years earlier.

To my dismay, I found out that I had ended up in front of Hector, in the heat of the engagement and had it not been for the fact that his gun had jammed, he might have been the only Argentine pilot to shoot down a Sea Harrier!

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