Interview with Commander ‘Sharkey’ Ward, Part 1: Sea Harrier FRS Mk 1 & Air combat

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“One of the most staggering facts about Sea Harrier and the Falklands was that we went to war less than three years after receiving the first aircraft in service and were fully prepared for combat. This in itself was an extraordinary achievement by the engineers and aircrew of the Sea Harrier world and the strong support of our aircraft carrier ships’ companies. Incidentally, we also had the best flight safety record of any jet aircraft entering UK military service.”

What were your first impressions of the Sea Harrier?

“My first impressions of this wonderful aircraft were formed when I was the MoD Naval Staff desk officer for the Development and Production of the Sea Harrier from 1976 to 1979. The principal Contractors for the aircraft were a closely knit team consisting of: John Fozard, British Aerospace; Greg Stewart, Ferranti; Andy Cameron, Smiths Industries; Dowty and others. All were pulling strongly in the same direction.

The modification from the already well-proven ground attack Harrier was a design masterpiece. It included a raised cockpit, a superb albeit physically tiny mono-pulse radar, the Blue Fox, a very reliable inertial standard navigation system (NAVHARS) and a very user-friendly Head-Up Display weapons aiming system including a hotline gunsight.

I was given immense latitude and governance over all project matters, whether associated weapons and missiles, costings or equipment selection. The only guidance I received from my Director was that if I wished to spend more than £5 million over and above agreed project costs, then I should clear it with him. But there was no need. It was the first UK fighter jet program in history to be on cost and on time! (A far cry from collaborative Tornado and Typhoon programmes.)

Having said that, it was not always easy working with the MoD Procurement Executive desk officers based in St Giles Court. The Director Harrier and Commander Richard Burn AFC, Sea Harrier Project officer, were excellent fellows and very supportive but some of their subordinates could be very difficult and stubborn. One of my main concerns with moving on from Harrier to Sea Harrier was the dreadfully unreliable radio, PTR 377. It consisted of five or more modules, each of which was packed with a tight bundle of wires: none of which were identified, coded or marked. Repairing the radio modules was therefore a nightmare for the RAE Farnborough boffins and there was a backlog of 3000 awaiting repair at a cost per module of several thousand pounds sterling. I was adamant that this radio should not be fitted to my new Sea Harrier, the pilots of which would rely heavily for their safety and mission success on good radio communication when flying alone over vast expanses of ocean by day and by night. It proved to be a long battle with the Procurement Executive but eventually, I prevailed. The radio that I chose was the one in use with U.S. Navy fighter aircraft. However, although the direct procurement cost of each radio was just US$8,000, Procurement Executive bureaucrats managed to put the cost to the Service up to £15,000!

After I was appointed to command the Intensive Flying Trials Unit, I visited BAe Dunsfold with my family on the invitation of their Senior Test Pilot, John Farley, to view the first aircraft being prepared for delivery. It was an exciting visit. John was just brilliant! He treated my lads like royalty and then climbed into the new jet and proceeded to give us a private flying display; including his famous vertical take-off transitioning into a near vertical climb away. Despite having already flown 30 hours in the ground attack Harrier, I was more than impressed, I was awestruck.

Flying the new aircraft in the Flight Trials Unit, 700A Squadron, proved to be extremely rewarding. Our Blue Fox radar had not yet been fitted but there was much to do before it arrived in service. We were blessed with extraordinarily dedicated and enthusiastic engineers and aircrew who, through their diligence, provided the strong foundation for eventual deployment to and victory in the Falklands air war.

The key to this victory lay in our development of the aircraft into a superb within-visual-range air combat or dogfighting vehicle. We proved this in the early days with dominant performances against the USAF Aggressor Squadron F-5E’s and the Bitburg frontline Squadron F-15 Eagles. This set alarm bells ringing around the fighter world. We were on a roll that continued with increasing momentum.

However and although fighter combat was the love of my life, the standout early memory of our little jump jet must be a public relations affair, that is to say my landing at ‘Pebble Mill at One’ BBC studios in the centre of Birmingham. It was transmitted live to the British public.

 

We had only recently received our first aircraft and I had completed just a handful of flights in it. Neil Rankin, my Air boss and Ted Anson, my Admiral got in touch saying, “Sharkey, the Royal Air Force has been asked to land a Harrier at Pebble Mill at One studios in the centre of Birmingham. They have declined, saying that it is too dangerous and risky. Would you like to give it a go?” I said that I would have a chat about it with John Farley and then give an answer. John’s advice was excellent. He covered all the pros and cons and safety measures required and told me it should be no problem. And so it worked out. A host of Navy VIPs, families and friends and the press gathered on the roof of the studios as I landed the aircraft safely in the small field by the building. I missed the champagne and small eats party because I had to be ready to take off under live broadcast at the end of the programme. But I did get a big kiss on the cheek from Elaine Chase, London’s Cockney superstar.

What was your most memorable Sea Harrier mission…what happened?

OPERATION CORPORATE proved to be a relatively short but very intense conflict both for our land forces, our warships, submarines and for the fixed and rotary wing aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm. There was no land-based air defence support. We were isolated 8,000 miles from home in the turbulent South Atlantic seas with temperatures near zero. The world at large openly discussed the chances of our success. Unanimously, the pundits declared that a small band of 20 Sea Harrier jump jets could not defend the task force from up to 200 Argentine fighter and ground attack aircraft. Indeed and as Rear-Admiral ‘Sandy’ Woodward, Commander Carrier Battle Group stated after our victory, “it was a very close call”. How right he was.

My United States Marine Corps aviator friends have described it to me as the last of the conventional wars. They are probably right – two sides battling it out in total isolation from the rest of the world and with winner takes all. Putting it all in context, it was the boots on the ground of our Amphibious Brigade led by Julian Thompson and Jeremy Moore that secured the hard-fought victory. In conventional military wisdom, an invasion force needs to be three or four times the size of the established force holding the contested territory. This was turned on its head for Operation Corporate. Our land forces numbered about 4,000 whereas the Argentine incumbents numbered 8,000. So on land and in the air we were heavily outnumbered. But on the surface of the sea and beneath the waves we had a trump card. That was our surface warships and submarines who were there in strength and lived up to the best traditions and historical achievements of the Royal Navy. They provided critical medium and short-range air defence and vital antisubmarine operations in protection of the Carrier Battle Group and the Amphibious Task Group ably led by Commodore Michael Clapp.

It was a very professional team effort – but that is what Royal Navy Expeditionary Task Force operations have always been about.

Returning to the air war, the limited number of fighter aircraft and aircrew demanded 24/7 intense combat effort from the ship’s crews of both carriers, HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes. And for my pilots, this meant almost continuous heavy fatigue: not just flying airborne missions but also sitting in the cockpit at alert on deck regularly with outside air temperatures of 2°C and no heating in the aircraft (other than occasional mugs of hot chocolate provided by our wonderful ground crew).

I trust that the above sets the scene for the manner in which our little jump jets contributed to eventual victory. The air war was won by the combined efforts of our surface warships and our Sea Harrier combat air patrols. The number of kills achieved by both parties against the sustained attacks of Mirage V, Skyhawk and Étendard was about equal. The significance of Sea Harrier was however twofold.

First, and in air-to-air engagements, our jump jet achieved 25 kills without losing an aircraft. But that is not the complete story.

Our reputation had preceded us and the Argentine fighters and ground attack aircraft had been told to avoid contact with Sea Harriers at all costs – even when it meant aborting attack missions. My Squadron, 801, conducted all its combat air patrol missions at low level or very low level, especially in defence of the San Carlos beachhead. (800 Squadron from Hermes held their patrols at 20,000 feet above the amphibious landing force.) The low-level 801 CAP stations up threat of the beachhead resulted in more than 450 Argentine aircraft attack missions being aborted. I learnt this directly from the Defence Attaché of the Argentinian Embassy in London just after the war.

One of these CAP Missions is a definite candidate for “my most memorable mission”.
Allow me to quote from my book, “Sea Harrier over the Falklands”, Chapter 23.
“Steve and I flew the next mission as a pair. There was no trade for us under the now clear blue skies but we could see that to the south of the Sound HMS Ardent had seen more than enough action for the day. She was limping northwards and smoke was definitely coming from more places than her funnel. We were to see more of her on our third and final sortie of the day.

For this final `hop’ we were given the station to the west of San Carlos over the land. We descended from the north east and set up a low level race track patrol in a wide shallow valley. As always, we flew in battle formation side by side and about half a mile apart. When we turned at the end of the race track pattern, we always turned towards each other in order to ensure that no enemy fighter could approach our partner’s 6 o’clock undetected. I had just flown through Steve in the middle of a turn at the southerly end of the race track when I spotted two triangular shapes approaching down the far side of the valley under the hills from the west. They were moving fast and were definitely Mirages, probably Daggers. I levelled out of the turn and pointed directly at them, increasing power to full throttle as I did so.

`Two Mirages! Head on to me now, Steve. 1 mile.’ My voice was so excited and garbled that Steve couldn’t understand a word.

`Passing between them now!’
I was lower than the leader and higher than the Number Two as they flashed past each side of my cockpit. They were only about 50 yards apart and at about 100 feet above the deck. As I passed them I pulled hard to the right, slightly nose high, expecting them still to try to make it through to their target by going left and resuming their track. I craned my neck over my right shoulder but they didn’t appear. Instead I could see Steve chasing across the skyline towards the west. My heart suddenly leapt. They are going to stay and fight! Must have turned the other way.

They had turned the other way but not to fight! They were running for home and hadn’t seen Steve at all because their turn placed him squarely in their 6 o’clock. Steve’s first missile streaked from under the Sea Harrier’s wing. It curved over the tail of the Mirage leaving its characteristic white smoke trail and impacted the spine of the jet behind the cockpit. The pilot must have seen it coming because he had already jettisoned the canopy before the missile arrived; when it did, he ejected. The back half of the delta winged fighter bomber disappeared in a great gout of flame before the jet exploded.

I checked Steve’s tail was clear but he was far too busy to think of checking my own 6 o’clock. Otherwise he would have seen the third Mirage closing fast on my tail.

Steve was concentrating on tracking the second jet in his sights and he released his second Sidewinder. The missile had a long chase after its target which was accelerating hard in full burner towards the sanctuary of the west. At missile burn out the Mirage started to pull up for some clouds. The lethal dot of white continued to track the fighter bomber and as the jet entered cloud, I clearly saw the missile proximity fuse under the wing. It was an amazing spectacle.

Adrenaline running high, I glanced round to check the sky about me. Flashing underneath me and just to my right was the beautiful green and brown camouflage of the third Dagger. I broke right and down towards the aircraft’s tail, acquired the jet exhaust with my Sidewinder and released the missile.

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My missile chases the fleeing Dagger.

It reached its target in very quick time and the Dagger disappeared in a ball of flame. Out of the flame ball exploded the broken pieces of the jet, some of which cartwheeled along the ground before coming to rest, no longer recognisable as parts of an aircraft. The air combat engagement had lasted for roughly a minute and although it all happened incredibly fast, in my mind it registered as spectacular slow motion.

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Later I was to discover that the third Mirage Dagger had entered the fight from the north and found me in his sights. As he turned towards the west and home he had been firing his guns at me in the turn but had missed. It was the closest shave that I was to experience.

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Steve & Sharkey’s Dagger kills.

 

We were euphorically excited as we found each other visually and joined up as a pair to continue our Combat Air Patrol duties. We had moved a few miles west during the short engagement and now steadied on east for some seconds to regain the correct patrol position. As I was looking towards San Carlos, about 10 miles distant behind the hills, I noticed three seagulls in the sunlight ahead. Were they seagulls?

I called Brilliant, `Do you have any friendlies close to you?’

 

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HMS Brilliant.

`Wait!’ It was a sharper than usual reply.

A second or two later, Brilliant was back on the air. `Sorry, we’ve just been strafed by a Mirage! Hit in the Ops Room! Man opposite me is hurt and I think I’m hit in the arm. No, no friendlies close to us.’ The cool-headed Direction Officer was Laon Hulme who was later decorated for his extraordinary performance under fire. (There must have been a fourth Mirage! The one that got away!)

Full power again. `Steve, those aren’t seagulls ahead, they’re Sky Hawks!’ What had looked like white birds were actually attack aircraft that had paused to choose a target. As I spoke, the three `seagulls’ stopped orbiting, headed towards the south and descended behind the line of hills. And from my morning flight I knew where they were going.

`They’re going for Ardent!’ I headed flat out to the south east, passing over the settlement of Port Howard at over 600 knots and 100 feet.

In quick time I cleared the line of hills to my left and was suddenly over the water of the Sound. Ahead and to the left were the Sky Hawks. To the right was the stricken Ardent, billowing smoke like a beacon as she attempted to make her way to San Carlos. I wasn’t going to get there in time but I knew that Red Section from Hermes should be on CAP on the other side of the water.

`Red Section! Three Sky Hawks, north to south towards Ardent! I’m out of range to the west!’

Red Section got the message and appeared as if by magic, hurtling down from high-level above the other bank of the Sound. I saw the smoke of a Sidewinder and the trailing A 4 exploded. The middle aircraft then blew up (a guns kill, so I heard later) and the third jet delivered its bombs into Ardent before seeming to clip the mast with its fuselage.

 

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The gallant Ardent.

I looked around to see where my Number Two had got to.

`Steve, where are you?’ He should have been in battle formation on the beam. No reply. My heart missed several beats. There was only one answer, he must have gone down!

I called Brilliant. `Believe I’ve lost my Number Two to ground fire. Retracing my track back to the CAP position to make a visual search.’ I didn’t feel good. My visual search resulted in nothing. But I did hear the tell tale sound of a pilot’s SARBE rescue beacon. Maybe that was Steve? `Brilliant, I can’t locate my Number Two but have picked up a SARBE signal. Could be him or one of the Mirage pilots. Can you send a helicopter to have a look, please? I’m very short of fuel and must recover to Mother immediately.’

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I felt infinitely depressed as I climbed to high level. Losing Steve was a real shock to my system. At 80 miles to run, I called the ship.

`Be advised I am very short of fuel. I believe my Number Two has been lost over West Falkland. Commencing cruise descent.’

`Roger, Leader. Copy you are short of fuel. Your Number Two is about to land on. He’s been hit but he’s OK. Over.’

`Roger, Mother. That is good news. Out’.

Invincible could be clearly seen at 60 miles. She was arrowing her way through the water towards me like a speedboat, leaving a great foaming wake. Good for JJ! He doesn’t want to lose a Sea Jet just for a few pounds of fuel. My spirits had suddenly soared and it felt great to be alive.”

Special thanks To Rowland White

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