NARRATIVE & IMAGES BY MARK ROURKE
A POSTCARD FROM THE PERSIAN GULF
This article is a personal perspective of time spent working aboard HMS Invincible back in 1999 by Mark Rourke, and thus is quite different from the many other articles on Pixelsnipers.com. In this piece, we are treated to a first hand exposure of life in the Royal Navy by Mark who was keen back then on aviation photography even whilst working! This is a brief snapshot of the various types of aircraft seen in the region at the time, so can be seen as a sort of log as well. Most of the images in this piece are exclusive and will not have been published anywhere before, so enjoy their uniqueness! Mark takes up the story below….
As an Aircraft Engineering Mechanic (AEM) assigned to 800 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) in January 1999, I found myself about to embark onboard HMS Invincible to help secure the Southern No-Fly Zone over Southern Iraq. Of course I cannot reveal everything that occurred on this eventful trip due to the nature of the official secrets act, but I can give a low down of life on board the Invincible and the various aircraft seen during the deployment.
In late November 1998, tensions with Saddam Hussein and Iraq had reached a crucial point and a mini ‘Gulf War’ with bombing raids from allied aircraft and cruise missiles again dominated the headlines. At this time, 800 NAS were due to embark on HMS Invincible after Christmas leave and head for a westerly cruise towards North America for various planned exercises. Rumours started to spread that we would be heading east to take part in the standoff with Iraq, and thus proved to be true in the end, so the voyage to the US was postponed, and we headed east.
This in fact caused a humorous moment on myself during my Christmas leave in Suffolk as the national news reported that HMS Invincible had left Portsmouth for the Persian Gulf. I heard this in a friend’s car on the radio, and thought I had literally ‘missed the boat’, but in fact the ship was just shaking up before the long cruise and returned the next day, phew!
The aircraft embarked on HMS Invincible and our escort ships as we left Portsmouth in January are as follows;
Sea Harrier FA.2 (800 NAS) – ZE176, 122 ZE693, 123 ZD615, 124 ZD607, 125 ZA175, 126 ZE697, 127 XZ494, 128 Sea Harrier FA.2 ZD615, 124 was replaced by ZD579, 124 during the trip
Sea King AEW.2a (849 NAS, ‘A’ Flight) – XV664, 186 XV697, 187 ZD636, 188
Sea King HAS.6 (814 NAS) – XV712, 66 XV701, 68 ZD636, 68 XV710, 69 ZE422, 70 ZA131, 71
RFA Fort Austin
Sea King HAS.6 (814 NAS) – XV696, 67 ZG810, 85
Lynx XZ721, CL-350
Lynx XZ272, SM-355
Lynx XZ339, NC-345
I was Plane Captain on Sea Harrier FA.2 ZA175, 126 , which for those who are interested is now preserved at the Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum at Flixton in Suffolk. I had been Plane Captain on this aircraft for some months so knew it very well in terms of it’s nuances, alongside WAEM Ness Byrne. I was on Port Watch and two Starboard Watch personnel were assigned to her as well. As Plane captain my duties were to take care of the aircraft and undertake all maintenance tasks on her, whether scheduled or otherwise. During the next six months the aircraft would need two maintenance heavy engine changes (500 man hours, 1 for pinkies!), but still came back with the most hours flown, which made me proud. It also performed at it’s best in the heat of the Persian Gulf, being the only aircraft on the squadron to be able to safely operate with a full weapons load of two AIM-9L Sidewinders and two AIM-120B AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Air to Air Missiles).
So on with what I found in my log, which starts not very accurately with just a mention of ‘Third Week’, but it gets better I promise!
Puma 1288, AB-88
HH-60H 165122, 6
As HMS Invincible was the Royal Navy flagship at that point, many high level meetings took place on board in order to coordinate the actions and undertakings of the combined armed forces in the region – I am guessing the helicopters from the French Army and United States Navy (USN) that frequently landed on the Invincible were for such meetings.
On January 29th came a bit of relief from living at sea, but only for one night! My aircraft had a problem whilst being flown by the squadron senior pilot and had to divert to Seeb Air Force Base near Muscat in Oman. Luckily he had his American Express card handy so by the time we had packed our things and flown by Sea King to the base, the hotel had already been booked for us by the pilot!. It was a great feeling laying in the massive bed that night thinking of my shipmates in their little bunks on board invincible! But the problem with the aircraft was a small one which we rectified the next day, but not before I logged some interesting aircraft. As we went through the main gate in the morning it was guarded by Hawker Hunter F.73A 831. Our position on base was alongside the Omani Air Force BAC.111 fleet, common visitors to International Air Tattoos at the time. Over 30 AB.205 helicopters were noted on the pan, alongside Short Skyvans and the various aircraft of the Royal Flight which included AS.332C Super Pumas, SA.330S Pumas and more AB.205’s. The larger aircraft of the Royal Flight were further away and included a Boeing 707, Boeing 747 and a CN.235 alongside Gulfstream IV A40-AC. Two Omani Air Force C-130H Hercules transport planes arrived, namely 502 and 503. We were next to the civilian side known as Muscat International Airport and the nearest aircraft to us was an Air France Concorde. After ZA175 departed we jumped back into the Sea King and flew over the other side of base used frequently by the Americans, but there were only two C-130’s there. Flying back to the ship I discovered a new respect for the Royal Navy pilots flying and navigation skills as HMS Invincible was really just a small postage stamp in miles of ocean – how they found it I will never know!
February 3rd has an interesting entry – an Iranian P-3! As I remember it, the Orion buzzed us at low level twice, but as it was not shot down I guess it had permission to do the flyby. The USN visited again this day with HH-60H 163792, NH from HS-6 based on the main carrier in the Gulf, USS Carl Vinson.
February 4th, 12th, 13th and 14th saw more Seahawks visiting including SH-60F 164079, 611 on the 12th. The 14th also saw us flown over at very low level by two S-3B Vikings and an E-2C Hawkeye.
As our jets would be doing a lot of In-Flight Refuelling (IFR) over the No-Fly Zone, we were buzzed by 101 Squadron on February 15th with VC-10 K.4 ZD241, N. The next day we came across USS Carl Vinson doing Vetreps (Vertical Replenishment), seeing many CH-46 Sea Knights and H-60 Seahawks shuttling between ships and land. There was a United States Marine Corps aircraft carrier also in the immediate area with its BAe/McD AV-8Bs lined up on deck, four of these would visit us later in the trip. This day was also memorable as a S-3 Viking decided to simulate an attack on us. Not something you saw every day!
Next was our first shore leave in Dubai, flying over the harbour was SA.365N dauphin DJ 111. Back to sea by March 2nd and we were instantly buzzed again by a USN S-3 Viking. The USN really had it in for us because on the 4th we were attacked by two Grumman F-14 Tomcats, one F/A-18 Hornet and a Grumman EA-6B Prowler. HH-60F 163792, 5 paid us a visit.
March 13th saw us back in Dubai, but I only noted a VIP configured AB-412. Once back at sea we escorted USS Carl Vinson again and amongst the Carrier Air Wing (CAG) aircraft flying around was a Grumman C-2A Greyhound.
March 25th saw us with a contingent of USMC on board, escorted by AH-1W Sea Cobra 165446, PF-34, CH-46E Sea Knight 157702, PF-112 landed with ground crews for four AV-8B’s paying us a visit. These aircraft arrived a short time later, the serials being 163870, PF-50 163879, PF-51 164153, PF-52 164546, PF-55
By this time the problems in Kosovo had really hit a bad point and we were repositioned to the Ionian Sea supporting the US Navy bombing campaign escorting the EA-6B Prowlers in their SEAD ( Suppression of Enemy Air Defence) roles advanced of the main attack. Though I cannot say too much on the incident the effectiveness of the Sea Harrier and its Blue Vixen radar really came to the fore with the rescue of a US Army AH-64 pilot . I will not mention names but if the pilot reads this I can tell him he is still the best guitar player I have ever sang with!
April 28th saw a high level meeting on Invincible, which meant more helicopters. visiting were SH-60F coded AJ-615 but the serial was unreadable but it belonged to HS-3. SH-60B 162128, HQ-477 was with Italian Navy Sea King MM81187, 6-36 and French Navy Panther 313 from 23S. Then it was time to head back home, the only plane action I have of note are a Canadian CP-140 and Sea Stallion coded HC-44 for the trip back.