‘Although it all turned out OK in the end, Henry Mitchell’s crash of a Sea Harrier in Monmouthshire in May 1991 wasn’t quite as cut and dried as reported in the press. What transpired was a particular conspiration of events that led to much confusion around who had crashed that day and how. Until now, this story has only been told in bars around the bazaars whenever old Sea Harrier mates get together…let me explain.
On that fateful day in May, five Sea Harriers of 801 squadron were planned to take part in a low-level Simulated Attack Profile (SAP) on targets in Wales and Herefordshire. The attack element was led by Clive Baylis with Henry as his #2 and Paul Simmonds Short (or SS for short) as his #3. I was to lead a pair of Sea Harriers designated as the ‘bounce’ which meant we would act as enemy air defence and try to shoot down the 3 Sea Harriers conducting the attack.
SAPs are a tricky proposition…flying at 250 feet above the ground at 420 knots is hard work at the best of times but if throw into the mix another aircraft trying to shoot you down whilst you’re at it, the pressure quickly mounts to make this one of the hardest evolutions a fast jet multi-role pilot can undertake.
On the day of the sortie, I took off 10 minutes before the attack element so they could preposition. My #2 went unserviceable before the start so I was left as a singleton. The attack element took off and adopted their pre-briefed formation called Escort, a triangular formation with the leader at the apex and #2 and #3 at each corner spaced at 2000 yards separation between each.
All was well until the home leg coming back through Monmouthshire. Henry and SS had lost communications with Clive (the leader, who unbeknownst to them had suffered a total radio failure) and to add to their problems, they couldn’t see him anymore as the formation had become stretched. It was at this exact moment that Henry had his difficulties and had to vacate his office in a hurry.
The trouble was, SS hadn’t seen Henry eject from his position 2000 yards abeam as all the action had happened with a hill in the way.