Transit to Ascension Island

Harrier Diary 2

The No 1 (Fighter) Squadron Operation Corporate Diary

Reproduced by kind permission of Air Chief Marshal Sir Peter Squire, Chief of the Air Staff

Monday 26 April

Approval is given after a long and involved "battle" to obtain clearance from Command to carry out operational low flying. Considering that the Squadron had only recently worked up in preparation for Maple Flag, this seemed to be a particularly petty problem requiring in the end the AOC's personal intervention to overrule SASO at Strike Command.

Squadron flying programme also includes firing rockets from very shallow angle with level breakouts to avoid debris hemisphere. We also receive clearance to carry and fire the Naval 2-inch rocket (36 per pod) and Tony Harper goes off to Yeovilton to carry out a trial sortie. We will not be cleared to use SNEB while embarked.

The prospect of firing AIM-9Gs at Aberporth prompts an intensive ground school programme on the weapon and its capability. Squadron Leader Russ Peart comes up from Boscombe Down to brief on the installation, particular to the Harrier, while Skip Beasley comes into his own in tutoring on the system as a whole. Skip is to use his detailed knowledge and experience to brief and train the whole of the Harrier Force.

Tuesday 27 April

We carry out a Fire Power Demonstration for 5 Brigade which is training at Senneybridge. 5 Bde are to be the follow on forces for the land battle in Falkland Islands.

More aircraft are required from Germany to sustain the flying programme while more aircraft commence modifications. The latter now includes a jettison facility for the AAMs and for FINRAE, which Ferranti hope to have working prior to our deployment. (FINRAE is the internal equipment which will allow the GR3 INAS to align on a moving platform).

Friday 30 April

Six aircraft deploy to Valley in order to carry out live AIM-9G firings on Aberporth range. It takes me 3 sorties to obtain "growl" on the flare but at the third attempt we achieve a successful firing. Of the 6 firings only one missile fails and, as a result, we create something of a record on STCAAME where the pace of life is normally somewhat slower.

We receive the 1 Group tanker plan for the deployment to Ascension Island. I am concerned that the tankers intend to leave us 1,000nm north of Ascension Island with no SAR cover for the final leg. Our request is considered again and Nimrod cover out of Ascension Island is provided.

It has been a busy 4 weeks.

Sunday 2 May

The first five aircraft deploy to St Mawgan. This will allow four to launch on Monday in order to get three to Ascension Island. The same pattern will be repeated on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The departure from Wittering is somewhat emotional for the future is uncertain. David Newbury (OC Admin) is particularly moved as we say farewell on the ladder. Carolyn and Edward are invited to the tower to watch the formation fly-past - Box 4 - by self, Harper, Hare and Rochfort (Pook does an air test en-route).

Ground crew have been despatched to St Mawgan to cater for last minute unserviceabilities. The cross-wind on landing is outside limits for the 330 gallon tanks and the Station Commander (on Pat King's advice) - Tony Woodford - tries to divert us; however we all land safely.

John Knott, the Secretary of State, passes through that evening and asks to see us in the bar. He has returned from discussions with the Prime Minister at Chequers. He suggests that there will be an escalation shortly and wishes us luck.

Monday 3 May

The launch of the first wave is preceded by lengthy briefings which cover all the Rules of Engagement for maritime forces. I for one found them quite confusing. Four aircraft launch at 0930 (Rochfort is the airborne spare) to RV with 3 Victor tankers in the overhead at about 25,000ft.

One of the tankers has difficulty taking on fuel and in the end the Victors renumber. However, the end result is that they have insufficient fuel to get all 3 GR3s to Ascension Island; one must return to Banjul with the last tanker. The tanker is then ordered to proceed on to Ascension Island that night. I therefore decide to send Harper and Hare on while I divert. This sortie lasts 9 hours 15 mins which must be the longest Harrier sortie ever.

At Banjul we are met by many eager and interested people. After refuelling the aircraft, there is a chance to have a welcome drink. I know the captain of the Victor (Dave Foulger) and we plan the leg to Ascension Island, much of which will be in darkness. In the event, there is also lots of medium/high level cloud to contend with and frequent electrical storms to add to the disorientation. However, the 3 refuelling brackets are successful and with just under 100nm to go I depart the tanker for a straight in approach and the humped runway at Wideawake. I eventually land at 2215 after eleven hours flying; the first beer tastes very good. Once again there are ground crew already in position including Squadron Leader Bruce Sobey (SENGO) and Chief Tech Frank Ridge (later Flt Sgt).

Ascension Island is a mass of activity with accommodation at a premium. In fact, I am given a very adequate room in a bungalow complex but the other pilots are sharing an open dormitory with Vulcan, Victor and Nimrod crews.

Transit to Ascension Island

Tuesday 4 May

The day is spent looking around the airfield and to an extent the Island. While the officers are accommodated at "Two Boats", the ground crew are living at "English Bay" quite some distance from the airfield.

At the airhead there is activity everywhere with helicopters rushing in all directions. Everything has a very makeshift appearance and the operations room run by Group Captain Jeremy Price (Tankers) and Wg Cdr David Baugh (Nimrods) is located in the top of the fire section, a two storey wooden building.

Iveson and Pook arrive that evening - Rochfort has diverted to Porto Santo!! - and we are invited to the Exiles club for a party. The news that Sheffield has been sunk and Nick Taylor killed dampen the atmosphere but not out of all proportion.

Wednesday 5 May

The day starts with an enormous thunderstorm, which lasts for 3 hours. Following this I visit the ACO where I meet its master Captain North (later killed when ACO sunk). There will only be accommodation for myself and Iveson; the remaining pilots will be housed in Norland, although this has yet to be confirmed. Brian Mason (JENGO) and the 18 NCOs have travelled down in ACO. They are sleeping in portakabins bolted to the deck.

Harris, Smith and Glover arrive - Russ Boyens diverts to Banjul (Gambia). We brief with 809Sqn regarding the landing on procedures for the following day. Tim Gredge really makes the briefing very long winded. We are only likely to have 7 aircraft serviceable in the morning and we need 6.

Thursday 6 May

We plan to embark the aircraft early when the temperature is low and, starting with the worst engines, Iveson and I launch as the first pair and land-on after some formation aerobatics over the Island. Iveson has landed on ships before withUSMC (also Harris and Smith) but I found the shortage of space somewhat alarming, especially as the ship is rolling in the swell. Mark Hare has a particularly tricky time.

Ross Boyens arrives from Banjul with his aircraft and John Rochfort making it from Porto Santo in a Hercules. Jerry Pook tells me that Peter Harris has told him that Boyens is not too keen to come and persuades me that Harris should come instead. I mistakenly agree to the exchange.

Captain Woodard (ex CO Arragon) comes on board with COMAW (Commodore Clapp) for discussions with Captain Layand. Loading of stores continues through the day. The troops have to manhandle everything below deck.

I am sharing one of the ship's engineering officers day cabin with Bob Iveson and Squadron Leader Kevin Smith (Chinook Pilot). We are comfortable but I now feel very split from the remainder of my Squadron.

Embarking on Atlantic Conveyor

Friday 7 May

Loading of squadron stores continues. I visit Fearless in the morning for intelligence update where I meet Captain Jeremy Larkin. The briefing is followed by a very pleasant lunch hosted by COMAW.

That afternoon I am sent ashore to obtain Sidewinder missiles, in order to give a SHAR an air defence capability against the Boeing 707 shadower. After a great deal of negotiation with Captain McQueen I manage to get 6 missiles and again after much rushing about, a helicopter lift out to Atlantic Conveyor. In all the confusion, however, the missile fins go astray and these are eventually found on Intrepid.

In the process I bump into Ross Boyens who is furious about the exchange with Peter Harris. Regrettably, I cannot change it now. Also hear that 6 more GR3s may come south in Atlantic Causeway and that SENGO is returning to the UK the following day.

In the darkness that night the amphibious group leave ASI in radio silence and without lights.

Saturday 8 May

Bagging of the aircraft to give extra protection from the salt water begins today. The bags have not been made to allow for external fuel tanks and so all of these must be removed. Chief Tech Fred Welsh is in his element using his weight to good effect. Brian Mason, the JENGO (later awarded the MBE) starts to show the outstanding leadership which will pay such dividends later on. FS Ray Cockburn is very quiet at this stage but in due course will establish himself as an excellent NCO. Other troops include Sgts Frost, Jordan, Roberts, Conlon, Swanson and Mawson.

Heading South

The FINRAE equipment is not working properly as Colin West and his 2 SNCOs attempt to resolve the problem which is notified to MOD. Colin and his team move across from Norland so that they can spend more time with their kit and also closer to good comms with the UK. The FINRAE will not transfer alignment data to the aircraft.

Emergency liferaft stations are practised, as from tomorrow it is assessed that there will be a potential submarine threat.

Jerry Pook and the other pilots come across from Norland to join with 809 Squadron for operational briefings. Sqn Ldr Sid Morris, who is earmarked to be GR3 advisor to Adm Woodward/FOB Site Cdr, also on Norland, arranges to buy me a camera - available on sale in Norland (a North Sea Ferry).

The RAF put on a Happy Hour in the evening.

Heading South

ASI : Ascension Island.
COMAW : Commander Amphibious Warfare.
FOB : Forward Operating Base.
RV : Rendezvous.
SASO : Senior Air Staff Officer.
SHAR : Sea Harrier.
SNEB : 68mm unguided pod-launched rockets. SNEB is actually the initials of the weapon's manufacturer.
STCAAME : Strike Command Air-to-Air Missile Establishment (based at RAF Valley).
FINRAE : Ferranti Inertial Navigation Reference and Attitude Equipment.
USMC : United States Marine Corps.

Text size: