Legendary Harrier pilot and champion of naval aviation Sharkey Ward dies

Inspiring. Dynamic. Outstanding. Determined. Brave. Passionate. Combative.

All could be ascribed to arguably the Navy’s most famous aviator of the post-war era, Commander Nigel ‘Sharkey’ Ward who has died aged 80.

His name is inseparable both with the Sea Harrier and the battle for the skies of the Falklands 42 years ago, when the men he led – a latter-day ‘few’ – became the scourge of Argentine aviators.

Ward was the senior Harrier pilot deployed to the South Atlantic where the jet carved its name in aviation history in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds.

Convinced of the abilities of both his machine and the men who flew and maintained them, he fought two battles: one against naysayers in Whitehall and senior military figures, the other against Argentine aviators.

On the long journey to the Falklands he impressed upon the media that in the hands of his pilots, the Sea Harrier had a distinct edge over its foe – countering a narrative that, outnumbered ten to one by their opponent, three out of four jump jet pilots would not return home.

His confidence was well placed. On its first day in combat, Ward’s squadron – which lived up to the motto it ‘borrowed’ from Marshal Petain at Verdun: On les aura, We’ll get ‘em – downed two Argentine Mirages and a Canberra.

Despite being widely hailed in the media and compared with legendary fighter pilots from the two World Wars, Sharkey Ward was not an ‘ace’ – the definition requires five air-to-air ‘kills’ – but he certainly possessed their traits.

The air war had been raging three weeks when Ward downed his first enemy, a Pucara twin-prop ground-attack aircraft, destroyed the ‘old-fashioned way’: by cannon.

That same day, May 21, while again providing cover for amphibious forces landing at San Carlos Bay, Ward (one) and his wingman Steve Thomas (two) downed three Argentine Daggers with Sidewinder missiles in an engagement lasting barely 60 seconds.

The squadron commander’s final victory of the conflict was a Hercules transporter brought down by a combination of Sidewinder and cannon on June 1.

He flew more than 60 sorties during Operation Corporate, by day and night, often in bad weather – winter had set in by the time the conflict ended.

Thanks to the skill of pilots and the unique abilities of the Sea Harrier, the jets downed 20 Argentine aircraft without loss in dogfights (two Harriers were lost to flak, four to accidents) earning them the nickname ‘La Muerta Negra’, the Black Death.

Ward clashed with task force commander Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward and his staff whose orders, in the Harrier pilot’s eyes, “were totally nonsensical”.

Sharkey Ward ignored them – the right thing to do, in hindsight, as Admiral Woodward conceded. Had he not “we might have lost the war”.

Instead, the Sea Harrier commander was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for both his leadership (“inspiring and dynamic”) and his deeds in Falklands skies as “an outstanding, successful Sea Harrier pilot” in the words of his citation.

The son of an RAF officer, Nigel Ward joined the Royal Navy in 1962 and spent the first four years of his career as a warfare officer, before undertaking fast jet pilot training.

Upon completion in 1969, he first flew Sea Vixen fighters, then the legendary F4 Phantom, rising to senior pilot of 892 Naval Air Squadron.

When his time on Phantoms ended, he was assigned to the MOD as a staff officer responsible for developing the naval variant of Britain’s famous ‘jump jet’.

It began a near decade-long association with the aircraft – earning a second nickname: Mr Sea Harrier - first as he helped to develop it as a naval fighter, then commanding the unit charged with introducing it into service and, once it was, eventually was named commanding officer of 801 Naval Air Squadron.

After the Falklands, Ward remained in the Service as an adviser on aerial warfare at the MOD before leaving the Royal Navy in 1985.

In civvy street he tried his hand at maritime security, tourism, wrote a best-selling memoir, Sea Harrier Over the Falklands, before eventually settling in Grenada from where he continued to argue the case for naval air power with vigour.

Today’s head of the Fleet Air Arm, Rear Admiral Anthony Rimington, said Commander Ward had left his mark on the history of naval aviation.

“As well as being an outstanding fighter pilot, Commander Nigel ‘Sharkey’ Ward was the strongest of advocates of carrier-based power ­– and took the opportunity to practise what he preached to demonstrative effect, both during his service in the Falklands war and afterwards,” he added.