RAF Harrier pilots yesterday described their bombing missions over Yugoslavia. One pilot at their Italian base, which is also home to Tornado pilots, said: "In peacetime if you get it wrong you get a hard time from the rest of the formation. The difference here is that if you get it wrong, you die.
"You see something happening, you take appropriate action. It is only when you are back in your bedroom that you think about it and then there is the fear."
The pilots were speaking during a visit to the base by George Robertson, the Defence Secretary, who said: "The sheer professionalism, skill and commitment of these people is awe-inspiring. They are out there every night risking their lives but they are doing it for a cause."
The identities of the pilots were not released by the Ministry of Defence, but they talked graphically of what it felt to be under threat from Yugoslavia's formidable air defence system.
One of the eight pilots flying on Sunday night found he had been "locked on" by a Sam 3 missile and had to take evasive action. He had been worried, when he was back at the base, that he had acted correctly. One of the pilots who flew on the same mission said: "I talked to the guy about it, and he was concerned that he did the right thing. He did absolutely the right thing; he can take comfort from that."
Another pilot, a tall, taciturn Englishman, said other pilots had supported the airman when he got back to base. "We talked about it very openly over a beer afterwards. We support each other and we talk about our feelings in the de-brief. We are a very close community."
One pilot said that looking back on a mission "you can remember every single minute. What felt like an hour is all condensed in a minute. The adrenalin is definitely flowing".
That same pilot talked about the rescue of the US Stealth pilot. "It concentrates the mind and focuses the attention. His being rescued was very encouraging indeed."
Mr Robertson flew into the base with John Maples, the shadow defence minister, and and Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrats' foreign affairs and defence spokesman.
Mr Robertson later said: "It certainly would be frightening to most of us who do not have to experience it on a day-to-day basis. You can't help but be impressed."Reuse content