In 1994 the author was a Sea Harrier pilot in 801 Squadron aboard HMS Ark Royal in the Aegean. Responding to a request for support from the ground, he was shot down over Bosnia on 16[SUP]th[/SUP] April. This is the gripping story of the events leading up to that, and of his subsequent escape from a country hostile on every side, told by a man with his neck on the line both in the air and on the ground. It is a brilliant example of the can-do spirit of the Fleet Air Arm. It is also a salutary reminder of the usefulness of fixed-wing maritime air power.
Richardson rightly points out that in 1994 the Sea Harrier was the only British fast jet capable of air defence, ground attack and reconnaissance, and that unlike RAF fast jet pilots those of the Fleet Air Arm were trained in all three roles so could be called upon for any task, indeed could swing roles in flight is appropriately armed. The FAA has its full share of the Royal Navy’s long tradition of willingness to go anywhere and do anything, and it’s people’s readiness to hop in and make one at the drop of a hat.
At the time of the events described the Sea Harrier FRS1 was awaiting replacement by the FA2 mark, and was in many ways obsolescent. This showed in many ways, from the extraordinary multi-tasking required of the pilot of a single-seat aircraft with no auto-pilot - there is Richardson trying to fold his map with one hand and fly through turbulence with the other - and in its radar and weapons system, massively inferior in range and capability to its potential opponent over Bosnia, the MiG-29 Fulcrum with its Doppler radar. On the way to war 801 were able to sidestep to Decimomannu in Sardinia for much needed steep dive training, where there was also an opportunity to practice against German MiG-29s inherited from the DDR. The Sea Harrier FRS1’s deficiencies became blindingly obvious.
Richardson does nearly get to down two aircraft over Bosnia, but fortunately in the very last few seconds recognises them as RAF Jaguars whose want of professionalism and poor drills have nearly found them out. An instructive episode for him, the reader, and (we hope) for the Jaguars.
Devotees of Pierre Clostermann’s ‘The Big Show’ (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004 reprints) will have hoist in the unwisdom of coming back for a second nibble at a ground target. Richardson as a naval officer was however bound in honour to do his utmost for the SAS on the ground, and it took until his third pass for the Serb missile people to hit his aircraft. His lack of a precision ground attack weapon - the Paveways which the Harrier could use were reserved for ’priority’ targets, so for a general sortie Richardson was carrying WW2-style dumb bombs - was a prime cause of the loss of Richardson’s aircraft (and nearly of Richardson himself), because he had to use a particular procedure to minimise bombing error. He was ‘lucky’ that the hit in the engine was not further forward and ‘lucky’ that he came to in time to get out, and ‘lucky’ that he was still high enough for his parachute to open.
We then find Richardson on the ground, in shock, traumatised, confused, disoriented, suddenly thrust into a totally unfamiliar transition from jet pilot to forest fugitive. Just as the reader was with him in the cockpit so we are with him on the ground, sharing his efforts to try and understand the situation on the ground.
Richardson’s rescue, the mysterious situation of his eventual SAS hosts, and their and his ultimate extraction via a superb piece of airmanship by a French Puma pilot under small arms fire come over well, the last fully appreciated by Richardson as an ex-helicopter pilot.
The history of the Sea Harrier is well described, as also its future as seen in Millennium Year. That our Labour government would scrap the air defence of the Fleet in 2006, nullifying the utility of the amphibious lift so expensively developed post-Falklands, is understandably not foreseen.
Richardson does not appear to bond much with Ark Royal and seems to see the ship as a horse box for his hunter; it’s the difference between the Supplementary List and the General List, the latter understand that the ship’s Air Group is her fundamental weapons system. In my day the SLs came in as Aviation Cadets; we called them AVCADs. There are some other giveaways in nautical terminology. That is not to belittle Richardson’s professionalism as an aviator which shines brightly throughout the narrative.
Squadron life and personalities come through well including 801’s officers’ Divisional responsibilities (Richardson curiously manages his Division hands-on without, apparently, a senior rating in the loop). There is a delightful vignette of the Unofficial Chinese traders on board Ark Royal.
Also well described and explained, amongst much fascinating detail of Harrier operation including the need to avoid compressor stall during combat manoeuvre, are the complexities of managing both airframe attitude and engine when landing on a carrier within the ninety-second water injection window, down to the need to move off before the roasted deck bursts the tyres; and the additional and disorienting difficulties of doing the same at night. The example given of the loss of a USMC AV-8 pilot will have concentrated the mind.
The background to our Bosnian involvement is well sketched in, including the loathesomeness of the Serbs, unfortunately not matched by any objectivity nor much gratitude from their Muslim victims - paying for their long-distant forebears’ behaviour - who were understandably not impressed by the UN’s pusillanimous management of the situation. Ultimately Richardson and his SAS hosts were within a hair’s breadth of being mobbed and lynched by the Muslims - as vividly described.
This is a deservedly popular book, now in its sixth edition since its original publication by Little, Brown in 2000. With pacy accounts like this of real events I am puzzled as to why anyone bothers with adventure fiction. ‘No Escape Zone’ is up there with Norman Hanson’s iconic account of the Fleet Air Arm at war in his ‘Carrier Pilot’ ( pub. Patrick Stephens, 1979). Chronologically Richardson could be Hanson’s grandson, but Hanson in his Corsair and Richardson in his Sea Harrier are in another sense brothers; Richardson and his like are Hanson’s heirs.
The narrative is complemented by some good photographs, but they suffer from being printed on ordinary paper.
‘No Escape Zone’ by Nick Richardson (Sphere ppbk)
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