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Remembrance 90

You are in: Somerset > History > Remembrance 90 > Former Yeovilton pilot talks about 'Operation Certain Death'

Richard Hutchings flying the Sea King

Richard Hutchings flying the Sea King

Former Yeovilton pilot talks about 'Operation Certain Death'

For the first time, a firsthand account of Operation Mikado during the Falklands War has been published by the only helicopter pilot who was part of the Special Forces mission.

Richard Hutchings was one of a handful of flight commanders who flew patrols of SAS and SBS patrols into the Falklands.

In his book he describes how Night Vision Goggles were used for the first time in combat and of his role in the failed mission Operation Mikado to mainland Argentina.

The conflict began in April 1982 over the ownership of the Falkland Islands between the UK and Argentina.

It lasted 74 days and resulted in the deaths of 255 British and 655 Argentine servicemen and three Falklanders.

Operation Certain Death

Helicopter pilot Richard Hutchings spent 25 years serving in the Royal Marines where he spent ten years of his military career as a pilot, to include seven years based at RNAS Yeovilton, four of them as a member of 846 Naval Air Squadron.

RNAS Yeovilton pilot, Richard Hutchings

He was decorated for gallantry (DSC)

One of his deployments was in the Falklands War, as a pilot which involved taking SAS and SBS patrols to the Falkland Islands and Argentine mainland.

One mission was the famous Operation Mikado - or Operation Certain Death as it was nicknamed.

In early May 1982, HMS Sheffield was hit by an Exocet missile and military commanders decided that this weapon could threaten the success of UK forces.

It was decided that the best way to proceed was to mount an operation to destroy the Super Etendards, which carried the Exocet missiles at the Argentinian base on Rio Grande, 400 miles west of the Falkland Islands.

Since the Sea King can only fly for six hours on a full tank of fuel, and a roundtrip from Argentina and back was nine, it had to be one way - hence the name.

This idea caused a lot of controversy and there was a certain degree of scepticism and resistance.

Richard felt it was his duty to volunteer to be a member of this mission.

"The night vision goggles enabled us to fly right down to ground level at high speed and enabled us to navigate very accurately."

Richard Hutchings, former RNAS helicopter pilot

His role was to drop off the Special Forces in Argentina, go over the border to Chile, destroy the helicopter and leave with the help of British embassy based there.

In an excerpt in his book he writes:

'The planning for the task was complete, final admin matters had been attended to. All that was required now was to cross-deck to HMS Invincible and kill yet more time waiting for darkness and the moment of launch.

'I felt something of how a condemned man must feel in the hours before his execution; the minutes seemed like hours.

'With little to do, my thoughts turned increasingly to family, how would Lorraine (his wife) cope if I were never to see her again?

'Was I being selfish in volunteering for this mission, or was it more selfish not to? I had to clear these doubts from my mind, so I left 03 deck and made my way to the briefing room.'

Hostile forces

Although Richard's part of the mission was successful, overall it failed because the Special Forces team encountered a difficulty on the ground that prevented them from completing their task.

He said:

RNAS Yeovilton pilot, Richard Hutchings

Richard now lives in Cumbria

"I had to then fly them into Chile and drop them off just across the border, I then went on into Chile to destroy the aircraft, that had already been planned as part of the mission. It had to be destroyed because it was a one way flight."

Once the helicopter was destroyed, Richard and two of his crew had to remain uncaptured for eight days.

Although they only had to travel eleven miles towards Punta Arenas this had to be done under cover of darkness, while keeping an eye out for hostile forces.

On the fifth night they arrived at the top of hill overlooking the town and stayed there for three days keeping it under surveillance, while deciding how to make contact with the British embassy without attracting attention from the Chilean authorities.

All of this was made the more difficult because of a large military base.

"On the final day, we walked down from the hill and split into two groups and we walked along the road past the main gate of this base. There was an armed soldier standing outside and he watched us walking up the road and he watched us walk by and he didn't bat an eyelid - I couldn't believe the complacency and lack of awareness," said Richard.

"I knew the Chilean authorities were looking for us.

"The three of us managed to get past this base and we were about to walk around the corner of this quiet side street when a car pulled up alongside us," said Richard.

"Out of the car stepped a captain of the Chilean carabineros - who came up to us in spanish and said, 'Are you the three British airmen?' It was just like the moment of out of the TV programme, 'Allo 'Allo.

"I couldn't believe it, I said to him 'No, we're from the British ship in the port,'  and he said, 'There is no British ship in the port, please get into my car,' and he drove us into base."

MI6 safe-house

From there word went up the chain of command right up to General Pinochet.

"You're so focussed on what you had to do, you didn't have much time to think about the other aspects of war."

Richard Hutchings, former RNAS Yeovilton pilot

That night they were flown to Santiago and even invited to spend the night at the General's palace.

Although that offer was politely declined on behalf of the aircrew by the British Embassy, they did face the world's media.

Once this was done, they were flown back the UK, and spent time in a safe-house under the care of MI6.

In an excerpt:

'Over the coming days and weeks, there was plenty of time to reflect on events of recent weeks and months.

'It seemed almost incomprehensible that the Squadron had embarked in HMS Hermes as recently as just over 100 days earlier.

'During that short time, a war had been fought and won over 8,000 miles from home.'

State of the art technology

The Falklands War was also the first time Night Vision Goggles (NGV's) were used by the Royal Navy, something that was untested state of the art technology at the time.

The day before 846 squadron left the UK, they took delivery of seven sets of NGV's which worked with a system called ANVIS.

The goggles worked by effectively turning night into day.

"Prior to the Falklands War, all flying at night had to be done at a height that was safe above the highest piece of ground on a particular route, so typically it was 1,000 feet above the ground.

"Flying like that was not conducive with the sort of missions we had to do inserting special forces patrols into the Falkland Islands but the night vision goggles enabled us to fly right down to ground level at high speed and enabled us to navigate very accurately to the required drop off point."

Nocturnal creature

For three weeks, night after night, the helicopters would fly in troops to the west of Mount Kent and near Bluff Cove and other locations to re-supply patrols.

"I was so busy doing the job, most of the time your mind was focussed on planning the next flight, flying it, debriefing from that flight, and sleeping. I became pretty much a nocturnal creature.

"You're so focussed on what you had to do, you didn't have much time to think about the other aspects of war."

In his book he also recalls the first of many missions dropping off patrols into the Falkland Islands from HMS Hermes.

'With our passengers firmly ensconced in the aircraft, the engines were started, rotors engaged and the systems switched on-line in plenty of time for our 2130hrs launch.

'On cue 'Flyco' delivered the navigation data as practised many times during our training sorties, but this time it was for real. I fixed our position in TANS and all three aircraft launched into the darkness. Operation Sutton was underway.'

'As we approached landfall I could feel the tension within the aircraft.'

'It's now or never,' exclaimed Pete, a poignant remark which was met with a muted response. In a way, Pete had hit the nail on the head. We had only four Sea Kings with which to insert the Special Forces patrols, if we lost any of them and/or the air, on day one of the operation, it would have had a devastating impact on the conduct of future operations."

But there were lighter moments during his deployment.

In an excerpt:

'I had a rather rude awakening late in the morning of Sunday, 2 May. I was deep in sleep when at midday I awoke with a jolt as a result of a naval officer accidentally kicking the end of my camp-bed as he rather clumsily made his way to the bar.

'As I struggled my way to the top of the sleeping bag and managed  to extricate myself and sit up, I was greeted by the sight of a very sheepish looking Lieutenant Commander who said, 'terribly sorry 'Royal', can I buy you a beer?' 

'Not wishing to appear in anyway ungracious or churlish, and recognising that I would not be flying for another 12 hours, I duly accepted his kind offer and sat in bed enjoying a pint of lager. This gave cause for much merriment amongst the officers who were in the wardroom at the time, with several of them offering to change places with me.'

His book is called "Special Forces Pilot: A Flying Memoir of the Falklands War" and is published by Pen and Sword Books.

last updated: 05/11/2008 at 04:28
created: 28/10/2008

You are in: Somerset > History > Remembrance 90 > Former Yeovilton pilot talks about 'Operation Certain Death'

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