David Morgan in the flight deck of HMS Hermes in June 1982.
The encounter lasted little more than three minutes. It took place in the violet-blue skies of a midwinter dusk, over the Falkland Islands, 8,000 miles from Britain. It happened more than thirty years ago and it is very unlikely that anything like it will happen again.
On 8 June 1982, at 3.50 p.m. local time, a Sea Harrier fighter jet piloted by Flight Lieutenant David Morgan took off from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes, on station about ninety miles north-east of Port Stanley, the capital of East Falkland. Another Sea Harrier, with Lieutenant Dave Smith at the controls, followed two minutes later. The pair set course for Choiseul Sound, the sea channel separating a stretch of wilderness called Lafonia from the rest of East Falkland, where they were to mount a CAP – a combat air patrol.
Earlier in the day two ships moving soldiers forward for the final assault on Port Stanley had been attacked by Argentine air force jets while the troops waited to disembark. There were no aeroplanes to protect them and no missile batteries in place. The bombs killed more than fifty men. CAPs had been flown over the areas since the catastrophe. While there was still light there was still time for another Argentinian attack.
As Morgan approached the scree-covered hillsides of the island, which were turning purple in the setting sun, he saw ‘a huge vertical column of oily black smoke’ rising from the bay at Fitzroy settlement, where the stricken ships lay. The rescue operation was still under way and landing craft crawled back and forth, loaded with wounded. Morgan wrote later that he was ‘gripped by an awful sense of foreboding’.
The two jets settled into a pattern, ploughing a parallel furrow a couple of miles above the scene, cruising at 240 knots (276 mph), flying for ten minutes into the sunset, then turning back again. Sea Harriers were equipped with Blue Fox radar for looking downwards. It was designed for use over the Arctic Ocean against the Soviet air force but over land it was ‘useless’. Instead the pair relied on their eyes. The dusk was in layers, shading from light to dark as it neared the earth’s surface. Staring into it was tiring. After a few minutes both pilots began to experience ‘empty field myopia’, losing their middle and long-range vision. Morgan and Smith fought it by focussing on each other, then on their forward radar screens, before resuming their visual search.
As they headed west along Choiseul Sound Morgan noticed a small landing craft making its way eastwards. He radioed the air controller aboard one of the ships in the area, who told him it was a ‘friendly’, transporting troops to the inlet at Bluff Cove, further up the coast. As he passed it on each leg of the patrol he looked down and ‘imagined the crew, cold and tired in their tiny boat and . . . wondered if they had any idea we were watching over them.’
For forty minutes they flew back and forth, nursing their fuel, not talking, ‘both feeling a burgeoning impotence’ at their detachment from the scene below. At about 4.40 p.m. Morgan made another turn to the west and checked his fuel gauge. He had four minutes flying time left before he would have to head back to the mother ship, Hermes. The landing craft was still butting eastwards, with white water breaking over its bow.
Then Morgan noticed a shape emerging out of the dying light of the western sky.
‘A mere mile to the east of the tiny vessel was the camouflaged outline of a . . . fighter, hugging the sea and heading directly for the landing craft, which had become a very personal part of my experience for the last forty minutes,’ he remembered later.
He jammed open the throttle lever, shouted to Smith to follow him down and pushed his Harrier into a sixty-degree dive as the air-speed indicator shot up from 240 to more than 600 knots. As they hurtled downwards the jet closed on the landing craft. It was a delta-winged A-4 Skyhawk, and he watched it open fire, ‘bracketing the tiny matchbox of a craft’ with 20 mm cannon fire. Then a dark shape detached from the wing. Morgan was relieved to see the bomb explode at least a hundred feet beyond the vessel. But then he saw another A-4 running in behind the first attacker. The second pilot did not miss and he watched ‘the violent, fire-bright petals of the explosion, which obliterated the stern’.
Morgan felt rage grip him. ‘All-consuming anger welled in my throat,’ he recalled, ‘and I determined, in that instant, that this pilot was going to die.’
It seemed to him that ‘the world suddenly became very quiet. I was completely focused and was acutely aware that this was the moment for which all my training had prepared me.’
He had flown many hours of mock-combat, but never encountered a real enemy. He hauled his Harrier down and behind the second Argentinian. Edging into his peripheral vision on the left, he suddenly picked up another Skyhawk skimming low over the wave-tops. He decided to go for this one first. He ‘rolled out less than half a mile behind the third fighter, closing like a runaway train’.
The radar that detected targets and relayed them to the ‘head-up display’ (HUD) beamed onto the cockpit windscreen. As it picked up the aircraft an electronic pulse sounded in Morgan’s earphones that became an ‘urgent, high-pitched chirp’ when it located the heat of the Skyhawk’s engine. This was the signal for the pilot to lock on the Sidewinder.
‘My right thumb pressed the lock button on the stick and instantly the small green missile cross in the HUD transformed itself into a diamond sitting squarely over the back end of the Skyhawk,’ Morgan remembered. The weapon was 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 fractional delay as the missile’s thermal battery ignited. Then ‘the Sidewinder was transformed from an inert, eleven-feet-long drainpipe into a living, fire-breathing monster as it accelerated to nearly three times the speed of sound and streaked towards the enemy aircraft.’
The shock of the departing missile flung Morgan’s aircraft onto his starboard wing-tip. As he righted the Harrier, he saw the missile racing for the Skyhawk’s flaming jet pipe, ‘leaving a white corkscrew of smoke against the slate grey sea’. After two seconds ‘what had been a living, vibrant flying machine was completely obliterated as the missile tore into its vitals and ripped it apart.’ The pilot, Ensign Alfredo Vazquez, ‘had no chance of survival and within a further two seconds the ocean had swallowed all trace of him and his aeroplane as if they had never been’.
There was no time for reflection. Another target was directly in front of him, only a mile away. It was the Skyhawk which had bombed the landing craft and it was turning to the left. Morgan locked on and fired. The jet was flown by Lieutenant Juan Arrarás. He seemed to realize the mortal danger behind him and swung hard to the right, forcing the missile to reverse its course. It made no difference. The Sidewinder closed on the Skyhawk, impacting behind the cockpit in a flash of white light.
‘The air was filled with the aluminium confetti of destruction, fluttering seawards,’ Morgan wrote. ‘I watched, fascinated, as the disembodied cockpit yawed rapidly starboard through ninety degrees and splashed violently into the freezing water.’ At that moment ‘a parachute snapped open, right in front of my face’.
Arrarás had managed to eject from the disembodied cockpit. He ‘flashed over my left wing, so close that I saw every detail of the rag-doll figure, its arms and legs thrown into a grotesque star shape by the deceleration of the silk canopy’. Morgan felt a flash of ‘relief and empathy’ for his enemy, then concentrated on his next target.
Both his missiles were gone. That left the Harrier’s two 30 mm guns. What he took to be the last remaining Skyhawk was ahead of him. He lifted the safety slide on the trigger. The head-up display had disappeared from the windscreen and he had only his own skill and eyesight to rely on when taking aim. As he closed on the Skyhawk it ‘broke rapidly towards me. I pulled the blurred outline to the bottom of the blank windscreen and opened fire.’ The cannon shells pumped out at a rate of forty per second. In the darkness he could not see whether or not they were hitting. Then, ‘suddenly over the radio came an urgent shout from Dave Smith: “Pull up! Pull up! You’re being fired at!”’
Morgan had seen only three Skyhawks. He had failed to spot a fourth, piloted by Lieutenant Hector Sanchez, which was now bearing down on him. He ‘pulled up into the vertical, through the setting sun, and in a big, lazy, looping manoeuvre, rolled out at 12,000 feet, heading north-east for Hermes with my heart racing.’
Smith, meanwhile, dived low and chased the third Skyhawk over the water. At a mile range he fired a Sidewinder. Seven seconds later it struck the aircraft of First Lieutenant Danilo Bolzan. There was a brilliant white flash as the missile exploded. Looking behind, Morgan saw it disappear ‘in a huge yellow-orange fireball as it spread its burning remains over the sand dunes on the north coast of Lafonia.’
Two Argentinian pilots, Bolzan and Vazquez, were now dead. Arrarás, whose rag-doll figure had flashed past Morgan’s cockpit, had also perished, killed by the impact of the low-level ejection. Though they had won the battle, the British pilots’ survival was uncertain. They were dangerously low on fuel and Hermes was ninety miles away. If they ran out of petrol they would have to eject into the freezing sea and pray that a helicopter would find them. They climbed high, gaining the maximum height to glide down into a landing.
‘At forty thousand feet the sun was still a blaze of orange,’ wrote Morgan, ‘but as I descended the light became progressively worse. By the time I had descended to ten thousand feet the world had become an extremely dark and lonely place.’
To add to the hazards a storm was brewing and Hermes was lying in heavy rain and gusting wind. There was no fuel to spare for a careful approach using his on-board radar to guide him. He called the carrier and asked the Controller to talk him down, onto the centre line of the flight deck. He was descending through thick turbulent cloud with three miles left to run when his fuel warning lights flashed. A few seconds later he ‘saw a glimmer of light emerging through the rain and at eight hundred feet the lights fused into the recognizable outline of the carrier’. He ‘slammed the nozzle lever into the hover stop, selected full flap and punched the undercarriage button to lower the wheels’. The Sea Harrier was a jump jet, capable of stopping dead in mid-air and hovering. Morgan’s aircraft came to an airborne halt on the port side of the deck. He manoeuvred it sideways onto the centre line, then ‘closed the throttle and banged the machine down on the rain-streaked deck’. As he taxied forward to park he heard Dave Smith landing behind him.
So ended the last air-to-air action engaged in by British pilots. It hardly merits the description ‘dogfight’, as the Argentinian pilots, despite their manifest courage, then as in previous encounters, never properly ‘came out to play’, to use the characteristic euphemism of the British jet jockeys. It came at the end of a brief air war that still carried a whiff of classic aerial combat of the First and Second World Wars.
Having downed a few pints of beer after his victory, David Morgan retreated through the eerie red glow of the night-lighting in the Hermes passageways to the deserted briefing room, where he sat for a while. His ‘feelings of satisfaction and pride were tempered by a melancholy that I could not identify’. He remembered a poem, ‘Combat Report’ by John Pudney, who had served as an RAF intelligence officer in the Second World War. Something compelled him to write it out in felt-tip pen on the briefing board. The last lines seemed right for what he had just seen and done.
‘I let him have a sharp four-second squirt,
Closing to fifty yards. He went on fire.’
Your deadly petals painted, you exert
A simple stature. Man-high, without pride,
You pick your way through heaven and the dirt.
‘He burned out in the air: that’s how the poor sod died.’
That done, he sat down on the bench at the front of the room. He became aware that ‘there was moisture running down both my cheeks’.
The air war ended two days later. British pilots would never again fight another like it. High technology was already in the process of edging human agency from the aerial battlefield. When Britain went to war with Iraq nine years later, British pilots rarely saw an enemy plane, and the seven fixed-wing aircraft brought down were the victims of missiles. In the Balkans conflict of 1992–1995, the Serbian air force posed little threat, nor did the Iraq air force during the 2003 invasion, or the Libyan air force during NATO operations in 2011. In the Afghan conflict there is no risk at all from enemy aircraft as the Taliban do not have an air force.
British and American pilots sit in the skies, launching incredibly expensive weapons, utilizing the most sophisticated technology against men with rifles who wear sandals to go to war.