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1991: Tornado down

Flight Lieutenant John Nichol was shot down on 17 January 1991 on the first low-level daylight raid of Operation Desert Storm.

He was captured, tortured and paraded on television by the Iraqis.

Twelve years later - and with war in Iraq yet again threatening - the former Tornado navigator told On This Day about his experience.

We took the last few drops of fuel from the tanker and then dropped down over the Saudi-Iraq border and we headed straight in towards the target.

It was about a 20-minute run-in at low-level high-speed. In the final stages of the attack we were probably flying in at 600 mph [965 kmh] and were maybe 25 or 30 ft [7.6 - 9.1 m] above the desert.

No aircraft has any real defence against visually-aimed anti-aircraft fire - apart from trying to dodge it or put your head down in the cockpit and try and make yourself as small as possible.

It's not that effective as a weapon, but it's terrifying when you see it.

At the time we didn't know we were being hit because we were concentrating on the task of trying to get the weapons on the target.

Knocked sideways

After our attack failed we were running back home when suddenly we were hit by a heat-seeking missile - a SAM 7 or a SAM 14.

You certainly know you've been hit by that - it's a supersonic telegraph pole.

It knocked the aircraft sideways and almost out of the sky - we were within a few feet of hitting the ground.

I can still visualise the missile hitting home and the aircraft tumbling around the sky with absolute clarity.

Panic

John, my pilot, managed to get back in control and righted the aircraft so we could begin to limp home.

But all the computer systems and fly-by-wire computer technology had been knocked out and the aircraft was on fire.

The first stages of that were absolute chaos and panic. But you've practised for the situation, and the training brought itself to the fore.

We were desperately trying to go through the drills that might get us back into a controlled situation and give us enough systems and power to get back to the Saudi border.


"Ejecting from a military combat aircraft is a phenomenal experience"

But it wasn't to be - the aircraft was on fire and the flames were marching steadily to where I was sitting in the rear cockpit.

There was no choice but to eject - and ejecting from a military combat aircraft is a phenomenal experience.

Technology does all of the work - you pull the black and yellow handle that's on the seat and the straps tighten to hold you in - your arms are dragged in, your legs are dragged in.

The Perspex cockpit explodes and the rocket motors in the ejection seat fire - it's like sitting on a large rocket-propelled grenade.

Enemy lines

You're shot out of the aircraft at something like 0 - 200 mph in just under a second and at 18 times the force of gravity.

From pulling the handle to the parachute opening is about one and a half seconds - it's over in the snap of a finger.

You've gone from a burning aircraft to silence and floating down in a parachute and finding yourself sitting deep behind enemy lines.

I think we were on the ground for about three hours. We were trying to make our way to one of the search and rescue points where perhaps some Special Forces would be waiting or a helicopter could come in and rescue us.

But this was the first day of the war and it was unlikely that was going to happen immediately.

The Iraqis saw us and fired their AK-47 assault rifles at us.

It was a surreal situation. Five or six hours before I'd been having breakfast on my military base in Bahrain, and here I was being shot at by Iraqi troops in the middle of the desert.


"Some of my friends didn't make it through the Gulf War - so I guess I'm very lucky"

We were captured pretty quickly and dragged off to Baghdad - there was no point in trying to have a gun battle.

I suppose even 12 years after the event I still wish the attack had gone well and we had got back to base.

But it's because of my blackest cloud that everything I now do has come about. Some of my friends didn't make it through the Gulf War - so I guess I'm very lucky.

In Context
John Nichol was released by the Iraqis at the end of the Gulf War.

He remained in the RAF until 1996 and has since forged a career as a writer, broadcaster and military commentator.

He lives in Hertfordshire and recently published his eighth book - an account of the experiences of Allied prisoners of war at the end of World War II.


Web Links
John Nichol.com |  Gulf Veterans Association
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