Northern Ireland

Former RAF pilot talks of 'respect' for beliefs of IRA attackers

Helicopter in south Armagh Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption Military bases were resupplied by helicopter during the Troubles

A former RAF pilot shot down by the IRA in south Armagh in the 1970s has returned to try to find the person who fired the rocket.

Mike Johnston escaped injury in the rocket and gun attack, but said the trauma of being hit by an RPG missile stayed with him for many years.

He said he had "the greatest respect" for the professionalism and belief of the IRA members who tried to kill him.

He made the comments on the Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster.

No-one was killed in the initial attack, but Mr Johnston said there was a "minor gun battle that ensued, which lasted for 10 to 15 minutes".

The helicopter pilot said that when the rocket struck, as he landed in Crossmaglen, he initially thought it was an engine fault.

Bullets

"It was when the bullets started hitting the tail of the helicopter and making their way down towards the main cabin that we realised that we were under attack," he explained.

Mr Johnston talked down the notion of post-traumatic stress disorder in his case, adding: "I certainly know that if someone slams a door behind me I'm probably more reactionary to it than the majority of people".

Image caption Martin McGuinness: 'honest and sincere'

As time passed, he decided to try to find the person who launched the missile and wrote to Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness for help.

"Along with my wife, I visited Stormont, we had a very interesting and long conversation with Martin McGuinness, whom I found to be very honest and sincere".

Mr Johnston says the deputy first minister told him he did not have "the connections to find the individuals were involved in the attack".

Ex-IRA man

The former pilot did meet an ex-IRA man in south Armagh, a man he calls "Mr Moran".

Mr Johnston says this was a "very rewarding experience".

"I think my conversation with him was very honest and very understanding from both points of view," he said.

The former pilot says he would still like to meet the IRA members who took part in the attack, but "they have never been prosecuted and exposing them to that risk really would be unfair".

"For the individuals that honestly believed that what they were doing was right I have the greatest respect for them," he says.

Looking to the future, Mr Johnston expresses his support for the peace process and the need for honesty.

"The problem is that if you give people guns they try to kill each other," he says.

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