Commander Nigel “Sharkey” Ward DSC, AFC, RN commanded 801 Naval Air Squadron from HMS Invincible during the Falklands War, of April to June 1982, and was the senior Sea Harrier adviser to the Command on the tactics, direction and progress of the air war.
Sharkey Ward commanded 801 Naval Air Squadron during the Falklands War of 1982. The squadron flew Sea Harriers which, despite being outnumbered 3-to-1 by Argentine fighters and much slower than the enemy’s Mirages and Daggers, had the superior air-to-air weapon in the AIM-91 Sidewinder. The Sea Harrier’s famous VSTOL capability, which enabled it to “viff” (vector thrust in forward flight), also produced turns that the anyway lesser-trained Argentine pilots had little hope of matching. Below Lieutenant-Commander Ward relates two missions from 21 May, the day of the British landings on the Falklands.
There were two ways to approach the CAP stations, transiting north or south of the missile zone, and on this first mission we had been given the southerly CAP station. The early morning clag had abated a little but there were still extensive layers of medium to low cloud partially covering the islands, especially to the north of Falkland Sound. We descended in battle formation past Darwin and took up the CAP station, with Alasdair sticking to Steve’s wing. In the morning sun the Sound was a beautiful sight with an amazing mixture of startlingly clear blues, greens and shades of turquoise. Banks of yellowish kelp seaweed took their form from the currents and the colour of the water, in sharp contrast to the muddy browns and greens of the surrounding landscape.
It was initially a quiet mission with no trade until we had commenced our climb-out after 45 minutes at low level. As we were passing about 10,000 feet the Antrim controller came up on the air. “I have two slow-moving contacts over the land to the south of you. Possibly helicopters or ground-attack aircraft. Do you wish to investigate?”
As soon as the controller had said the word “south”, I had rolled hard to starboard and down. Steve Thomas and Alasdair followed suit.
“Affirmative. Now in descent heading 160°. Do you still hold the contacts?”
“Affirmative. 10 miles, very low.”
Steve spotted them first. It was a good sighting against the indistinct colours of the gently undulating terrain. “Got them, Sharkey! Looks like two Pucaras on the deck. About 15° right of the nose.”
“Not visual. You attack first.” Then, as I spoke, I saw one of the Pucaras. Steve was closing in on the aircraft from its high right, 4 o’clock. I decided to attack the same aircraft from astern as I couldn’t see the second target. “Got one visual now. Same one you are going for. I’ll attack from his 6.”
My Numbers Two and Three opened fire in unison against the target, their cannon shells ripping up the ground beyond the Pucara. I had a little more time for tracking and closed in astern of the enemy aircraft, which was hugging the ground and weaving gently – with any more bank its wing tip would have been in the dirt. I had a lot of overtake, centered the Pucara at the end of my hotline gunsight in the HUD, and squeezed the trigger. The aircraft gave its familiar shudder as the 30-mm cannon shells left the two barrels. They were on target.
The Pucara’s right engine burst into flames and then the shells impacted the left aileron, nearly sawing off the wing tip as they did so. I was very close, and pulled off my target.
Meanwhile, Steve had reversed to the left of the Pucara and was turning in for a second shot from a beam position. I had throttled back, jinked hard right and left, and prepared for a second stern shot. As the ground to the right of the enemy took the full weight of Steve and Alasdair’s cannon fire, I dropped half flap. I wanted to get as low as possible behind the Pucara and dropping the flap brought my nose and gun axis down relative to the wing-line. Aiming . . . hotline on . . . firing! The left engine of the Pucara now erupted into flame and part of the rear cockpit canopy shattered. My radio altimeter readout in the HUD told me I was firing from as low as 10 and not higher than 60 feet above the ground.
I pulled off a second time, fully expecting the pilot to have ejected. Must be a very brave bloke in there because he was still trying to evade the fighters. Steve’s section attacked again from the right, but it just wasn’t his day – the ground erupted in pain once more. I was amazed that the Pucara was still flying as I started my third and final run. Sight on – and this time you’re going down. Pieces of fuselage, wing and canopy were torn from the doomed aircraft. The fuselage caught fire. I ceased firing at the last minute and as I raised my nose off the target, the pilot ejected. The aircraft had ploughed into the soft earth in a gentle skid by the time the pilot’s feet hit the ground. He only had one swing in his parachute.
Later, I was to find out that the pilot’s name was Major Tomba. He managed to hoof it back to his base at Goose Green after his ejection; before the war was over the man’s bravery was to prove useful to both sides.
Our division of three SHARs then resumed the climb and returned to the ship. Needless to say, we were pretty short of fuel.
Everyone was keen to hear the gory details when I got to the crewroom.
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.”
“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.
Adrenalin 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 the Sidewinder, and released the missile. 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.
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.
We were euphorically excited as we found each other visually and joined up as a pair to continue our CAP 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?”
“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.”
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 from 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.
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.”
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 – 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.
I throttled back and didn’t need to touch the power again until I was approaching the decel to the hover. On landing with 200 pounds of fuel remaining, I couldn’t help thinking what a remarkable little jet the Sea Harrier was. The fuel was right on the button. I had calculated 200 pounds at land-on before leaving San Carlos.
On board, I heard from Steve that he had been hit in the avionics bay by 20 mm machine-gun fire from Port Howard. He had lost his radio, couldn’t communicate with me, and thought he might just as well go home. I was too pleased to see him to be angry.
“What was I supposed to think, then?”
“Oh, you were hightailing it after those Sky Hawks, Boss. You can look after yourself and as I didn’t have any missiles left I thought the best thing was to get the aircraft back and get it fixed.”
“Steve, that is definitely worth a beer!”
It struck me later that if Red Section from Hermes had been capping at low level over the sound (where any 801 CAP would have been) instead of at altitude, the Sky Hawks would have had to get through them to get at Ardent. The A-4s would not have tangled with the SHARs so Ardent would not have been hit again and mortally wounded.