Rowland White


On the 7th of May 1909, during the brief reign of Queen Victoria’s eldest son, King Edward VII, the British Admiralty placed an order for their first aircraft, His Majesty’s Airship Number One.  I’ll be watching with particular interest as the Royal Navy celebrates the Centenary of that event, and with it the birth of naval aviation, throughout 2009.  For the last two years I’ve been working on a new book, Phoenix Squadron, about, perhaps, the most famous name ever associated with the British naval air power, HMS Ark Royal, and her role in confronting the threat of a Guatemalan invasion of British Honduras – now Belize – in 1972.  While this little known crisis provided the focus for my efforts, the book also explores a much bigger story: that of the Fleet Air Arm itself.

In the summer of 1971, the fourth ship to bear the name Ark Royal was destined soon to become the Navy’s last conventional aircraft carrier.  Her sister ship, HMS Eagle was to be paid of in January of the following year.  Ark Royal, given a reprieve after a change of government in 1970, was to soldier on until 1978, but it felt like a last throw of the dice.  Her fighter squadron, 892 Naval Air Squadron, wore the Omega symbol on the red-painted tails of their McDonnell Douglas Phantom FG1s.

But while Britain’s aircraft carriers may have been unloved by her politicians and all but Navy personnel within the MoD, Ark Royal, at least, enjoyed the support, fascination and affection of the public.  And, at the beginning of August 1971, before once more steaming north to guard NATO’s Northern flank, she had the opportunity to give her admirers a glimpse of what she was capable of.  As the 50,000 ton carrier steamed off the Devon and Dorset coast, the BBC was coming aboard for Exercise LYMELIGHT.  Over an afternoon, for the benefit of the Corporation’s cameras, Ark’s ‘heavies’ would attack a wooden ‘splash target’ towed behind the ship with bombs and 2” rockets.  The Buccaneers would toss Lepus flares into the air for the Phantoms to use as targets for AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles while BBC cameramen captured the drama on film from the flight deck.  The choice of who should present this landmark outside broadcast, ‘At Sea with the Navy’, was always an obvious one.

Raymond Baxter was a distinguished wartime Spitfire pilot who had subsequently carved out a name for himself as the face of the BBC’s coverage of the Farnborough Air Show and presenter of Tomorrow’s World.  The night before the LYMELIGHT began he visited Lieutenant Commander Carl Davis, the CO of 809 NAS, Ark’s Buccaneer squadron, in his cabin, intrigued by how Fleet Air Arm aircrew endured the physical stresses of catapult launches.  Davis played it down.

‘It’s fine,’ he told Baxter, ‘Surely the most efficient way of getting airborne – you don’t need a long runway, no burst tyres …’ A gentle dig at his land-based RAF contemporaries.

‘But how do you cope?’

‘You get used to it’

‘But 16 g …’ Baxter countered.  Davis’s eyes widened.  He couldn’t let that go.

‘I beg your pardon?’  Davis asked.  Baxter, the old Spitfire pilot, was sure that the catapult subjected the crews to 16 g – that during launch they’d weigh 16 times their normal body weight.

‘No it’s about 3 or 4, maybe 5g depending on the wind.’

‘It can’t be, you’d never fly!’  Baxter wasn’t having any of it.  Davis could only hope someone would put him straight before he began his commentary.  The truth is that Baxter wasn’t entirely wide of the mark, but any really high g loads were momentary, experienced for a split-second as the catapult fired, before the acceleration down the track became smoother.

Lieutenant Commander Nick Kerr, Davis’s counterpart on the Phantom squadron didn’t really have any time for the idea of showboating for the BBC.  When Kerr was barely six or seven, his Grandmother maintained that ‘Little Nicky will be an Admiral.’  Kerr was too ready to speak his mind for that to be likely, but the same fierce independence that made him a handful for his superiors was also one of his great strengths as a fighter pilot and squadron boss.

Kerr’s predecessor, 892’s first CO as a Phantom squadron, had had to spend much of his time ironing out the inevitable snags that accompanied any new aircraft’s introduction into service.  Perhaps the worst distraction had been trying to bring the troublesome and unreliable Rolls-Royce Spey engines up to scratch.  892 had even become the proud possessors of a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow as a thank you from the grateful engine manufacturer for the squadron’s help and patience.  Kerr couldn’t help feeling a tinge of relief when the bloody thing had been written-off by one of his Observers after a tyre blew out on a fast corner.

With most serious of the mechanical hurdles behind them, Kerr was determined to focus on making sure that big Phantom was as effective and powerful a weapon as it had the potential to be.  Ark’s Air Group of multi-role F-4s, Buccaneers, Gannet AEW3s and state-of-the-art Westland Sea King anti-submarine helicopters was, relative to its size, probably the most capable and modern air force in Europe.  For the first time in its existence, the Fleet Air Arm was flying a collection of aircraft that were genuinely a match for anything else in the sky.  And they knew it.

After their squadrons had delivered an impressive display of airpower on the afternoon of August 4th – marred only by a Sidewinder missile that hit the sea before it had properly locked on to the target flare – neither Kerr nor Davis was in the mood to be too taken with LYMELIGHT’s finale: the little Royal Air Force Hawker Siddeley Harrier GR1 jump-jet that visited Ark as the exercise drew to a close.

With every spare vantage point on Ark’s island stuffed with ‘Goofers’ watching the spectacle, the 1(Fighter) Squadron Harrier, approached slowly from behind the ship, its weight carried by the roaring Rolls-Royce Pegasus inside her.  Safely above the deck, the pilot cut the power to bring her in to land vertically.  With a heavy bounce, the camouflaged jet skitted on the deck before her pilot increased power again, swivelled the four engine nozzles backwards and jumped forward, rolling a short distance across the deck before leaping into air.  This flourish was as unexpected as it was entertaining.  And, watching it all from the Flyco bridge extension overhead, Raymond Baxter was beside himself with glee.

‘Saucy!’ he exclaimed ‘Saucy indeed!’

Davis and Kerr were rather less enamoured with the RAF’s star performer.  Next to the capability offered by the Phantoms and Buccaneers, it just felt to them like second best.  Too small, they believed, to carry a useful load, and too short-legged to carry it any distance.  But with the end of the Navy’s big conventional carriers now a certainty with Ark’s eventual retirement, in the Harrier, the Admiralty saw a lifeline; the only fast jet capable of surviving the slow death of their conventional carriers.  As the decision not to replace the carriers had been made in the late ’sixties, a model of a Harrier had appeared on the desk of the First Sea Lord.  And, in 1971, at the British Aircraft Corporation facility at Dunsfold in Surrey, studies for a naval version of the Harrier were already underway.

As he watched from the Bridge, Ark’s Captain, John Roberts, was also less dismissive of the little vertical take off jet than his two Squadron bosses.  There was something there, he realised.  The Harrier was robust, well suited to operations at sea and, crucially, offered the possibility of recovering aboard without the need for the ship to turn into wind.  It would be real bonus for flying operations in rough sea.  And this could, he noted presciently, be very significant.  The Fleet Air Arm, he thought, could do a lot worse than taking the Harrier.

John Roberts was proved right.  Ten years later, with Ark long gone, when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, the new-into-service Sea Harrier FRS1s (and later RAF Harrier GR3s) were all we had.   While the contribution that might have been made by Ark Royal and her squadrons of Phantoms and Buccaneers has been a subject of endless debate, the job done by the V/STOL jets is unarguable, and came as a surprise to many observers.  Reliable, tough and capable of operating from the light carriers HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible in weather that Commander ‘Sharkey’ Ward, then boss of 801 NAS, has maintained would have kept the Phantoms and Buccaneers lashed to the deck, the Sea Harriers proved crucial to victory.  Despite a lack of airborne early warning and fighter control, supersonic speed, pulse-doppler radar or medium-range missiles, the little V/STOL fighters shot down twenty-three enemy aircraft without suffering a single air combat loss in return.  There’s no question that, without the Harriers, the British simply could not have retaken the Islands.

The Harrier has since gone on to be one of the Fleet Air Arm’s most enduring and successful frontline aircraft.  And, in its GR7/GR9 form, remains in service with the Naval Strike Wing, alongside the RAF, within Joint Force Harrier today.

As plans stand, the Harrier, dismissed so early in its development as being barely capable of carrying ‘a matchbox across a football field’ will remain in service until middle of the decade until finally replaced by the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.  And when those new fifth-generation jets enter service alongside two new 65,000 ton carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales the Royal Navy can finally, after a gap of nearly thirty years, claim to have found the true heirs to the fourth Ark Royal.  For now though, she, with her Air Group, continues to be the most powerful surface warship this country has ever put to sea.

Written March 2009

Phoenix Squadron: HMS Ark Royal, Britain’s Last Top Guns and the Untold Story of their most Dramatic Mission by Rowland White is published by Bantam Press, in hardback, priced at £18.99

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