South Atlantic Star
The weather had cleared beautifully with very little cloud over the islands and just the odd thunderstorm over the sea. The coast of West Falkland, to the south of us, looked like Scotland, its purple-clad mountains rolling down in easy terraces to the ocean. It was difficult to imagine that it was less than three months since I had been at home and that our families were now enjoying the beginning of summer some 6000 miles to the north.
Hostile Skies by David Morgan, 2006
Reviewed by Everard Cunion in December 2016 to December 2017
If you watched British television news in May 1982, you likely saw David Morgan, an RAF pilot having just climbed out of his navy Sea Harrier, provide a brief account of his recent mission, during which a shell from an enemy gun tore a hole in his aircraft’s tail. If, during that brief interview on the deck of an aircraft carrier, you obtained the impression – as I did – that there was something different about this guy, that is, over and above the usual differences between aircrew and those with more sedate lifestyles, this written account of his part in that war will confirm that impression and expand on it.
The war in which he flew was started by Argentine forces invading the British Falkland Islands. (For those as geographically challenged as I am, the Falklands are a whole lot nearer to Argentina than to Scotland.) When Morgan in his Sea Harrier witnessed a Douglas A-4 Skyhawk single-seat attack jet bombing a British landing craft, killing its crew, he went after it:
He obviously saw the Sidewinder launch because he immediately reversed his break and pulled his aircraft into a screaming turn away from it. This was without doubt the best possible evasive action he could have tried as it made the missile expend a huge amount of energy and control power to reverse its course. His best efforts were to no avail, however, and the thin grey missile flashed back across my nose and, seemingly in slow motion, pulled to the right and impacted his machine directly behind the cockpit.
The A-4 pilot ejected just before the aircraft hit the sea, but he did not survive.
There are plenty more hair-raising incidents, including that of the shell ripping through the tailfin of Morgan’s Sea Harrier. And here’s another when he lined up to launch from the carrier deck:
I had just started to taxi onto the centreline for my second launch when the ship suddenly rolled violently to port. I jammed on my brakes but the wheels just skidded on the slick deck and I continued to slide majestically towards the port catwalk. I realised that if I didn’t do something drastic I would be over the side of the ship in a matter of a couple of seconds…
Every story needs some ‘love interest’ to compliment the action. And the affairs he tells of in this story are, unsurprisingly, different from the norm (or what I imagine the norm is). He mentions that his German girlfriend was ten years younger than he. (Surely not unusual among pilots and adventurers.) Morgan’s letters to his wife and children – and to his girlfriend – are included in the book.
The apparent glorious adventure of air war as depicted in paintings such as that on the Airfix kit box, while doubtless partly true, needs a book like Hostile Skies to balance that impression by describing the horror of war, which it does in several places. The following snippet could even be the outcome of the action in the Airfix kit box painting, which shows an Argentinian pilot ejecting from his Skyhawk after having been hit by the Sidewinder from the port rail of the Sea Harrier in the foreground:
…one of the Argentine pilots had managed to escape from his doomed aircraft and was found dead months later, wrapped in his parachute with two broken legs and a last letter home in his lap.
Spring loaded to the launch position
The Sea Harrier was undoubtedly a sleeker aircraft that the RAF ground attack Harrier. Even so, there is no getting away from its tubby Jack-of-all-trades appearance. Indeed, I always wondered how the small and slow Sea Harrier, weighed down (literally and figuratively) by its mechanisms for vertical take-off and landing, fought so well not only against the similarly small yet more agile A-4 Skyhawk, but also against Mach-2 fighters such as the Dassault Mirage 3 and its Israel-built copy, the Dagger. One of the shortcomings of this book – likely a necessary shortcoming to retain comprehension by the casual reader – is that this mystery is not explained. (I asked Morgan about it at his presentation to my hang gliding club in 2016, described under Road show.)
Morgan and his comrades decided that the Sea Harriers’ white undersides would be too visible to the enemy in the grey South Atlantic, so the ship’s deck crews repainted them in overall dark sea grey. They even painted out the white of the roundels with dark blue.
We also painted out the pilots’ names on the sides of the cockpits, with one exception, that of Major Willard T. McAtee USMC. Willy was the archetypal US Marine, ready for anything, but much to his disgust he had been forbidden from taking part.
The Americans, while officially neutral, nevertheless helped the Brits, according to this anecdote. When the Sea Harriers aboard HMS Hermes were running out of the newer versions of the AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles they used in air-to-air combat, a C-130 (large transport aircraft) dropped off several boxes of them, addressed to United States Air Force – Europe.
Morgan takes you through the cockpit checks and start up for a mission. He strikes the right balance between detail and brevity to allow the reader to build an imagined movie of the action. “As my engine stabilised at ground idle, I began my post-start checks and after a few minutes the flashing anti-collision lights showed that all twelve fighters were ready to go.” Have you ever wondered how air crews cope with the mass of dials and controls of 1960s jet aircraft? Morgan relates how, on his first mission flying against the enemy, his guns failed to fire because he forgot to set the master arm selector. Later, when tiredness from too much flying set in, he launched with the jet exhaust nozzles in the wrong position, but he got away with it. And:
They were nuisance bombing from high level on their way to their CAP station and as they flew in formation over [Port] Stanley, Sharkey had called for the bomb release. A few seconds later Steve had called, ‘Ah, boss, you just fired a Sidewinder.’
‘I can fucking see that, thanks, Steve!’ Came the terse reply. Sharkey had made a major switch pigs and wasted an irreplaceable missile on some sheep on a far hillside.
Sharkey Ward subsequently gained the dubious distinction of shooting down an unarmed and lumbering C-130 Hercules transport aircraft flying supplies to Argentine forces on the islands. That action is also described in this book, which consists of far more than Morgan’s experiences. He has researched thoroughly, including visiting with aircrews on the Argentinian side.
Fog of war
The book includes plenty of anecdotes describing the dangers of flying over the sea. Miscommunication also played its inevitable part in the war. One helicopter ran critically low on fuel when the ship to which it belonged changed course and nobody thought to inform the helicopter crew. They were saved by an ingenious technique and the help of another ship.
Morgan provides insight into several disasters, including the sinking of the warship HMS Sheffield. It was hit by an Exocet missile air-launched from 25 miles away, which distance apparently should have provided enough time for the ship to take evasive action, as another nearby warship did. The reasons why the Sheffield did not evade the missile, according to Morgan, are a combination of a technical shortcoming and, when the incoming missile was spotted by one of the crew, incorrect reaction.
Flying, whether in war or peace, is dangerous. Morgan lost friends, not just colleagues:
The helicopter hit the sea hard, rolled over and floated inverted for a short period before slipping beneath the surface. Of the thirty men on board only nine survived. Garth, the gentle giant, was not one of them.
The wind, fog, rain and cloud of May in the south Atlantic was as much an adversary as the Argentinians, bad luck, and electro-mechanical failure. However, when a cold front passed:
The sky had cleared and the visibility was absolutely sparkling. There was of course no pollution over the islands and once a weather system passed through it left behind the most stunning conditions.
The action is not all from the aircrew point of view. The aircraft carrier Hermes, on which Morgan was based, detected radar directing an Exocet anti-ship missile that had been fired at them. During the several minutes warning that early detection afforded, the ship’s loudspeaker system was used to update the ship’s crew every minute, until:
‘Estimated impact in one minute. Brace! Brace! Brace!’
Feet spread, knees slightly bent, leaning towards the bulkhead, anti-flash pulled tight down over the eyes so that only the minutest part of my face is exposed. Waiting, waiting…
He then describes the sound of the Hermes’ own missiles firing on the deck somewhere above. The Hermes was not hit, but the cargo ship Atlantic Conveyor, loaded with supplies including aviation fuel, along with Harriers and helicopters, was struck amidships, starting a fire that could not be extinguished.
Twelve people died on the Conveyer including the master, Captain Ian North, a seventeen-year-old Royal Naval Writer and two Chinese laundrymen.
Morgan succeeds in using words to project a colour movie in one’s imagination. This colour movie is set in 1970s Germany. Although it was during the cold war, this is about as different from the cold grimness of the Falkland Islands one can get. Above sunlit hay fields between forested uplands, a tubby yet pointed jet fighter with stubby wings, all in the RAF dull green and grey camouflage that had not changed since World War 2, dives at low level:
There was a sudden realisation that I was going to die… I noticed that the field in front of me had been recently ploughed and as I got closer I could see short pieces of stubble sticking out of the furrows. Looking ahead, I saw a fence with several hawthorn bushes dotted along it…
He describes the sensations of that experience and he concludes it with this:
A few days later I developed a crawling sensation all over my body. It felt like small caterpillars creeping over my skin and was obviously a psychosomatic reaction to the incident.
There seem to be a helluvalot of Argentinian pilots with Prima Teniente and similar as first names. Not being gifted at language, it took me a while to realize that they are military ranks (first lieutenant in that case, I assume). It would be easier to read if he used English.
Nearly every explosion is ‘huge’ or, occasionally, ‘massive.’
Very occasionally, Morgan uses the kind of phrasing reminiscent possibly of those strip cartoon war story books that were popular years ago: “It was in that instant that I spotted something which triggered the explosive action lying like a tightly coiled spring beneath the outwardly calm carapace of the fighter pilot.” However, his description of the action that follows that statement is gripping. (It is the Sea Harrier intercept of Argentine jets attacking a British landing craft at dusk. Morgan also describes it in the video clip linked at the bottom of this page.)
The photos in the paperback edition are all printed in black and white, even when the original was in colour, and the quality is not great. However, that is not as much of a drawback as it used to be because many of those photos are findable on the web as clearer images and, where applicable, in colour.
Most military pilots I have encountered, as well as having a scientific outlook (in a broad sense) are conformist rather than radical. Morgan, like his pilot-author mentor Richard Bach, is refreshingly open minded – undoubtedly too open minded for many. Morgan is certainly not ‘of his time’. (For example, the British effort to counter the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands was named Operation Corporate either by or on behalf of the far-right conservative UK government of the time, which promoted the little grey man in a suit positioning himself in the market place as the ideal male.) Indeed, as one who subscribes to the materialist view of the universe (that consciousness arises solely – albeit somewhat mysteriously – from our physical forms) I am surprised at some of his supernatural beliefs. Even so, because Morgan is who he is and writes so logically, I found myself unable to dismiss his ideas in the way I would if a random person in the street related similar experiences.
The book is full of anecdotes including the British helicopter pilot who landed near an Argentine submarine that he had damaged with missiles and was beached on British held territory. As he passed the sailors (prisoners of war) one of them jumped up and said “Tony! What are you doing here?” Some months previously, the two had hunted (with rifles) together during a British ship’s visit to an Argentine port. Other snippets include chasing a fox with a pistol fired from a helicopter over mountains in Northern Ireland (Morgan was a navy helicopter pilot before he joined the RAF). He even provides an example of how one pilot avoided a court martial for damaging an aircraft by reckless flying.
The book is an extraordinary account written by an extraordinary individual. I gained the impression that, whatever path Morgan chose in life, he would have excelled, carried it to extremes, damaged himself, and written an illuminating book about it. That he was the last (at the time of this writing) British pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft (not one, but four) might seem a relatively trivial statistic, but I feel that it provides an indication of the journey you embark on when you start to read this book. As an RAF pilot on loan to the Royal Navy, his training was incomplete when the war started and he was not qualified to fly the Sea Harrier in combat!
While this is a book review, I feel it worth mentioning that Morgan’s in-person presentation is worth attending if you are offered the opportunity. His straight-forward manner belies the edge-of-your seat adventures he describes.
The slide show that accompanies his talk is somewhat clunky. I suspect that is deliberate, as if the media is part of the message, a blank screen being a 1970s or ‘80s prompt to listen and to think.
He brought with him various easily transportable artefacts including the piece of his Harrier tailfin with the ragged hole where an Argentine shell passed through it. I grew up (allegedly) during the American war in Vietnam, so I examined his several pieces of Argentine Navy A-4 Skyhawks with interest. Those pieces of metal I held had likely flown over Hanoi and elsewhere in north and south Vietnam in the hands of US Navy or Marine Corps pilots before the aircraft to which they belonged were sold on to Argentina.
The last slide in Morgan’s presentation is by US Air Force fighter pilot turned powered ultralight evangelist Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, recommending Morgan’s book. In Hostile Skies, Morgan makes several references to Bach, who in turn was clearly impressed by Hostile Skies and by Morgan as an individual. It seems to me that they are very alike in their rejection of uncritical conformity and their willingness to take on board innovative ideas, some of which undoubtedly appear strange to the more earth-bound of our species.
I asked Morgan how British pilots, equipped with tubby and slow Harriers, shot down so many sleek Mach-2 Dassault Mirages and the similar Israel-built Daggers – a question unanswered to my satisfaction for a third of a century. (In the book he explains that Harriers can launch in sea conditions that prevent conventional ship-board aircraft from operating, but that is only a part answer, at best.) Superior tactics and training gave the British pilots the edge, apparently.
Incidentally, if you arrange for Morgan to give his presentation to your club or society, find a knowledgeable person to put a question or two. (Fewer than a handful of former Sea Harrier pilots also fly hang gliders. Unsurprisingly, our members’ knowledge is mostly limited to the art of low speed gliding flight.) For example, when his aircraft was damaged by Argentine gunfire, why did he make an old fashioned straight-in approach to the ship from astern instead of the usual Harrier method of hovering in sideways and then vertically down? Morgan clearly appreciates the presence of at least some in the audience who understand his subject at more than a superficial level.
Falklands War in Other plastic model aircraft
Fly Navy in Hang gliding 1980s, describing my day at the Royal Navy School of Aviation Medicine just days before Morgan passed it in a Sea Harrier on his way to HMS Hermes, which was about to set sail for the Falkland Islands to fight the Argentinians…
Gulf war section of Other plastic model aircraft. It includes photos of my 1/48th scale AV-8B Harrier 2, the American development of the British Harrier/Sea Harrier. (The AV-8B is said to be a lot less bovver in the hover…)
Phantom of the operator—my review of Phantom over Vietnam by John Trotti, 1984 — another first-hand account of jet fighter action
Spring loaded to the freedom position—my review of Hammer from Above, Marine Air Combat over Iraq, by Jay Stout, 2007, which includes AV-8B Harrier 2 action
David Morgan describes his shooting down two A-4s in this clip from the Smithsonian Channel series Air Warriors.