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Tuesday, June 22, 1999 Published at 21:04 GMT 22:04 UK


Kosovo Harriers welcomed home

Safe home: A warm family welcome for the squadron leader

The first British Harriers to return from the Balkans have arrived back at RAF Wittering in Cambridgeshire.

Brits in Balkans
Ten Harriers flying in formation and one VC10 tanker aircraft from RAF Number 1 Squadron returned home after flying hundreds of missions over Yugoslavia.

Delighted wives, children and girlfriends greeted the pilots, after a delay caused by headwinds of up to 90 knots as they flew back from their temporary base at Gioia del Colle in Italy.

The first jet, piloted by Squadron Leader Chris Huckstep, touched down at 1905 BST after a fly-past.

'It's great to be back'

As he stepped onto the tarmac he was greeted by his wife, Gill, and five children, aged between two and 10, who ran to his Harrier to meet him.

[ image: Squadron Leader Chris Huckstep:
Squadron Leader Chris Huckstep: "Moments of apprehension"
The 41-year-old flew 34 missions during the many weeks of conflict.

"It's great to be back," he said. "I think we showed we can do a good job and that we have what it takes in a combat situation.

"It is not just the time away from home - it's hard flying combat missions against people who are trying to shoot you down.

"Occasionally there were moments of apprehension - as we crossed the border towards Pristina there was a lot of anti-aircraft fire and I thought, 'This looks very unfriendly'.

[ image: Harriers have been in action during the entire conflict]
Harriers have been in action during the entire conflict
"You can see a fair bit from the air, but you can't see the people. There were fires everywhere - all around Pristina was burning and you knew that down there below you were people who were really hurting who you couldn't see. You were just doing a job.

"There was apprehension, often, but we were too busy to feel any emotion - you put that aside and got on with the job."

He had words of praise for his squadron. "They were courageous, resolute, determined and very professional," he said.

Hundreds of missions

Junior Defence Minister John Spellar was at the base to greet the returning crews.

They had been away for four months, since the start of the Nato campaign against Serbian forces in Kosovo.

[ image: GR1 Tornado: Returning to base in Germany]
GR1 Tornado: Returning to base in Germany
During that period, the British pilots flew more than 850 bombing missions, many at night, using laser-guided devices against Serbian military postitons, arms dumps, and vehicles.

Acting station commander Wing Commander Les Garside-Beattie said everybody was pleased to have the men back.

"There is a whole raft of emotions that we are feeling on base at the moment," he said.

David Shukman reports: "The RAF Harriers have landed in style"
"We feel great pride in the work that has been done, not only by the people in theatre, but also by people behind the scenes who have participated in this success.

"At the end of four months of being away, we will all be sharing in the joy that the families are feeling at getting their loved ones back home."

But he added that joy at the pilots' safe return was tempered by the death on Monday of two Gurkhas in Kosovo.

Also returning to RAF Wittering was one of the support craft, an RAF VC-10 tanker.

And more VC-10s landed at RAF Brize Norton from their base in Ancona in Italy at about the same time.

GR1 Tornados also returned on Tuesday evening to RAF Bruggen in Germany, where they were met by the Armed Forces Minister Doug Henderson.

American B-52 jets that took part in Nato's first air strikes are planning to leave their British base to go back to the US.

Currently stationed at RAF Fairford, Gloucestershire, the 11 bombers will fly back to America in "a matter of days", said Captain Angie Jaskiewicz.

But the 900 ground support staff who maintained, armed and refuelled the planes throughout Operation Allied Force will not return home for several weeks, she said.

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