On May 11 Cdr Tim Gedge AFC, RN (Rtd) gave a fascinating talk centred
around his wide experience with Sea Harrier. Tim's Fleet Air Arm career
started in 1963 and he retired in 1996. In between he flew Sea Vixens
and Phantoms off the big carriers Victorious and Ark Royal, was CO of
the first Sea Harrier squadron, 800 NAS, and of 809 NAS during the
Falklands campaign, had postings at the Dartmouth Staff College, with
the Directorate of Naval Air Warfare and the Directorate of Operational
Requirements as well as with the British Naval Staff in Washington DC.
He now runs a wooden boat building academy in Dorset ensuring that
those skills are kept alive. Clearly a total naval aviation person!
Tim started by briefly covering the background to the Sea Harrier -
P.1154 cancellation and navalisation of the Harrier GRMk1 - before
moving on to the introduction into service of the Sea Harrier FRSMk1.
In 1979 Tim was selected to form the Sea Harrier Intensive Flying
Trials Unit which in 1980 grew into the 800 NAS. There followed sea
trials in Invincible and Hermes and demonstration flying at the 1980
He remained CO until early 1982 when he handed over to Lt Cdr Andy
Auld. Tim then became heavily involved in devising a response to the
Argentine attacks on South Georgia and the Falkland Islands. The
solution was that the Royal Navy should send a task force and Tim now
had to solve the problems of getting the carriers, aircraft and other
ships to the South Atlantic. Two carriers were to go; Invincible with 8
Sea Harriers and Hermes with 12, which amounted to 2 squadrons with 20
pilots. Tim was then given the job of forming a third front line
squadron of 10 aircraft at Yeovilton, 809 NAS, necessary because
'expert opinion' was that the 20 Sea Harriers would all be lost in 2
1/2 days! However, Tim discounted this view and suppressed it as being
The FAA had the highest praise for the Sea Harrier and its simple, well
proven systems. There were shortcomings in the radar, the inertial
navigation system 'crashed' when operating south of the equator and the
radar warning system was a distraction, but these were worked round.
The AIM-9L had to be cleared and 6 were successfully fired in Yeovilton
trials, the only mod. being minor file and hacksaw work on the
launcher. The -9L was the advanced all-aspect Sidewinder and much has
been made by analysts of the importance of this feature to the success
of the Sea Harriers. However, all AIM-9L kills were from stern shots
for which the already cleared -9B would have been satisfactory. The
escape tactic adopted by the Argentine Air Force Mirages was to turn
away and light the afterburner, a fundamental mistake when opposed by
heat seeking missiles.
Tim had arrived at Yeovilton on April 6 and on the 30st he led 6 of his
809 Squadron's Sea Harriers, accompanied by 2 RAF tankers (which were
rotated), on the 3700 nm flight to Ascension Island, via Gambia as
nobody knew at that time if the Harrier could fly the full 8 hour trip.
They arrived on May 1 and on the 5th flew to the Atlantic Conveyer
'instant carrier' and VL'd on the pad at the forward end. The naval
architects at Bath had looked at the merchant fleet and found two
suitable ships. Conveyer was docked at Liverpool and a conversion team
set to work. Tim then did 6 successful VLs and the ship was cleared as
operationally capable in 24 hours. Once on board the Harriers were
sprayed with WD40 and wrapped up for the voyage south. One aircraft was
kept at readiness for self defence purposes. Once south 809's aircraft
transferred to Hermes and Invincible. Later the Conveyor would be
destroyed by two Exocets with the loss of Chinook helicopters and
HMS Sheffield was also destroyed by an Exocet missile which got through
when the ship's radar was temporarily blocked by a satellite radio
transmission. HMS Coventry too, was destroyed by mischance. Knowing she
was to be attacked by A-4s the command decided to respond with missiles
so the Sea Harriers were held off. Unfortunately an escort vessel
crossed in front and blanked the missile radar view, with disastrous
The Falklands look like the western Highlands of Scotland - lots of
islands and water with scattered settlements amongst the peat. A search
was made for an amphibious landing site and San Carlos, well protected
by hills, was selected. The landing would be opposed, not part of
current doctrine which assumed air superiority already established.
There were 174 Argentine fighters available versus 20 Sea Harriers, as
well as 10,000 Argentine troops. However, the landings went well.
The Sea Harriers were operating from 150 - 250 miles out from San
Carlos requiring careful fuel planning. Besides the primary combat air
patrol work the aircraft carried VT fused 1000 lb bombs which were
dropped on Stanley airport from altitudes up to 35,000 ft to remain out
of reach of the anti-aircraft guns. The aircraft were outstandingly
successful with only 1% of planned sorties missed. The great
operational flexibility of the Sea Harrier in appalling weather
conditions was invaluable and its ability to VL its greatest asset. In
extremis they would have been landed on frigates or destroyers so there
were lots of 'decks' available.
After the Falklands Tim visited North America to lecture about the war.
He was often asked if it would not have been better to have big
carriers with conventional aircraft. His answer was that the war would
have been lost (unless it had been politically acceptable to use a
strike carrier to 'nuke' the Argentine mainland). The ship pitch limits
would have made operations impossible for F-14/F-18 type aircraft
because the downhill slopes generated by South Atlantic swells would be
similar to the aircraft approach angle. The ski-jump and VL capability
allowed the Sea Harriers to operate on comparatively wildly pitching
decks. VL is the key capability.
Lessons learnt were applied to the FRSMk2 (now FA2, being withdrawn
from service): Blue Vixen radar with look-down capability, AMRAAM
missiles usable in cloud, ECM that worked and more fuel in larger drop
tanks. However, the FRSMk2 needed too much pilot involvement compared
with the FRSMk1. A replacement, to NST6464, was also studied (P.1216
etc) but not funded. Warton even proposed a tail sitting EFA (Typhoon
now). Imagine landing back at night on a pitching and rolling deck!
Looking to the future Tim noted that the new RN 60,000 ton (Invincible
is 20,000) carrier is planned for 2012. This will be a new environment
and RN deck personnel should be training now on US carriers. The
aircraft will be Joint Strike Fighters...and these MUST be the VL
variant. Meanwhile all Sea Harrier squadrons will have been disbanded
in 2006, with 800 reforming with the Harrier GR 9A. This is
considerably slower than the FA2 and has no air-air capability so the
fleet will, once again, be dependant on shore based fighters (or the
During question time Tim noted that prior to Falklands operations the
FAA had not been allowed to contact friends in France to arrange air
combat practice with Mirages. However, a Mirage did visit Cottesmore
for simulated air combat with a Harrier two-seater, flown by an RAF
(ground attack) pilot with an FAA (fighter) pilot aboard but not
permitted to fly. Unsurprisingly the Harrier lost. Tim also observed
that the Argentine A-4s scored many hits on ships but because they
released too low the bombs did not have time to fuse. Asked about the
RAF Vulcan attacks Tim replied that although only one bomb hit the
runway it did demonstrate to the Argentines that the RAF could easily
reach their homeland if necessary.
The vote of thanks was given by Duncan Simpson who quoted Sir Sydney
Camm on watching the P1127 at Farnborough "...and what the hell have we
given birth to now?" "A pilots' aeroplane, fun and a joy to fly!"
according to Cdr Tim Gedge.