On May 12th Rowland White, who was introduced by Chris Roberts, gave
Zoom talk to the Association marking this anniversary. The speaker
works in publishing and is a commissioning editor with Penguin Books
and has himself written a number of successful books including ‘Vulcan
607’ (the Black Buck raids on the Falklands), ‘Phoenix Squadron’ (Ark
Royal and Buccaneers in defence of Honduras), ‘Storm Front’ (the SAS
and Strikemaster operations in Oman) and ‘Into the Black’ (the Space
Shuttle Columbia story). Interested in aviation since a schoolboy,
Rowland was captivated by the Falklands campaign reports when he was
eleven years old and this inspired his latest book, ‘Harrier 809’, and
this Zoom talk.
It has been said about the Falklands war that “never has so much been written about so little” making Rowland wonder if another book was really needed. However, Sharkey Ward, Dave Morgan and Jerry Pook had written about 801 and 800 Naval Air Squadrons (NAS) and RAF 1F squadrons but the story of attrition squadron 809 NAS had not been told. Also, under the 30 year rule much new information had been declassified and made available. The clincher was that 809 NAS was to be the second F-35B squadron. So Rowland embarked upon two to three years of research which revealed that the ‘809’ story opened a window on a broader canvas including activities by the RAF, Chile, Special Forces, MI6, obscure defence establishments and, of course, industry.
‘809’ was a most unusual squadron whose rebirth was
prompted by a Royal Navy study which indicated that after one week of
fighting in the South Atlantic the Sea Harrier force of 20 aircraft
could well be halved by combat losses, accidents and unserviceability;
and 10 jets would not be enough. Clearly there was an urgent need for
The job of forming this attrition squadron was given by Flag Officer Naval Air Command (FONAC), Ted Anson, to Lt Cdr Tim Gedge, a Sea Vixen, Phantom and Sea Harrier pilot, and senior pilot of NAS 764 at Lossiemouth, the Royal Navy’s fighter school. He had also recently relinquished the post of commander of the first front line Sea Harrier squadron, 800 NAS, for which the new task somewhat compensated him after he had watched his previous colleagues embark for the Falklands.
On the day that 809 NAS was re-commissioned there was one Sea Harrier (from the reserve at St Athan) on the books and Tim Gedge had been given just three weeks to have his squadron ready to go south. More aircraft were retrieved from Boscombe Down, Farnborough and Dunsfold. An accelerated build programme got ZA194, still under construction at the end of March, flying at Dunsfold on April 23rd, at Yeovilton five days later and off to war two days after that.
Pilots also had to be found. Exchange pilots were recalled from the USA, from Australia, and from the RAF, as was the pilot operating the Sea Harrier simulator at Yeovilton. RN reserve pilot, Taylor Scott, a Sea Harrier test pilot (TP) at Dunsfold, although ideal, was not eligible as the Falklands was classified a ‘conflict’ and not a ‘war‘ so he stayed in the UK test flying in support of the effort. Also not permitted to join ‘809’ were UK, US and Australian Sea Harrier TPs at Boscombe Down. So Tim Gedge approached the RAF Harrier community looking for air defence experienced pilots. A number were recruited and with only a couple hours of conversion to the Sea Harrier and its radar system were off to war. The ‘809’ Sea Harriers would fly from Yeovilton to Ascension, with Victor tanker support, via Banjul in The Gambia and then VTOL onto the Cunard container ship, Atlantic Conveyor, for the journey south. The final step was to VTOL on to HMS Hermes and join the war.
The Sea Harrier had initially faced strong opposition from the traditional big carrier-Phantom and Buccaneer aviators who saw the Harrier as an air show novelty that could just about “carry a matchbox across a football field“. This was in spite of the fact that the Sea harrier would offer the potential for limited organic air power aboard the new generation of anti-submarine cruisers without needing steam catapults and arrester gear. John Farley was sent to convince these officers. He was given a rough ride so told them bluntly that they were not going to get what they wanted but if they listened they might find that the Sea Harrier would be a lot more useful than they gave it credit for - and it was the only show in town. The case was made for embarking small numbers in the new ships primarily to shoot down Soviet long range patrol aircraft, not fleet protection interception which was already an RAF role within NATO. Goading the RAF would only strengthen their opposition.
The Harrier continued to be undervalued even within the Navy and it was not until 1982 with the Sea Harriers operational that the benefits began to be appreciated. Rowland explained some of the advantages that STOVL endowed. On the container ship Atlantic Conveyor taking 809’s Harriers south one Sea Harrier was kept at readiness on a small deck platform able to take off, intercept Argentine reconnaissance Boeing 707s up to 180 miles away and return to the ship. Only with Harriers was it possible to send a pilot with no carrier experience to land on a ship thousands of miles away. Only Harriers could keep operating in sea states that would ground conventional aircraft on big carriers. Only with Harriers could you designate an oil platform as a diversionary landing place on a long over sea flight. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wrote in her memoirs, “Without the Harriers we could not have retaken the Falklands”.
After the war ’809’ returned to the Falklands aboard the second Invincible class ship, HMS Illustrious, to defend the islands pending the repair and extension of Port Stanley’s runway. The Sea Harriers now had improvements that had been rapidly developed during the war: bigger, 190 gal, drop tanks to increase endurance by forty minutes, twin Sidewinder launchers doubling the missile load and fuselage mounted chaff and flare dispensers for defence against missile attack.
In December 1982, after nine months and its second tour of duty in the Falklands, ‘809’ was decommissioned once again. Today, forty years later, we are looking forward to seeing ‘809’ flying F-35B Lightning IIs from HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales. This new aircraft owes a debt to Hawker and its Harrier predecessor. Also, the ’unified’ single lever flight control system was conceived and developed by RAE Bedford in the second Harrier T2, XW175, the VAAC (Vectored thrust Aircraft Advanced Control) Harrier.
There was a questions-and-answers session after Rowland’s very interesting talk and then the vote of thanks from Speaker Secretary Frank Rainsborough.
A review of “Harrier 809” can be found in Newsletter 59.