On December the 10th 1996 the Royal Navy aircraft carrier H.M.S. Invincible was on her way home to Portsmouth (her home port) through the blue Mediterranean, after completing a six month tour of the Middle East. Her crew of a thousand men were looking forward to Christmas with their family and friends, whom they hadn’t seen for so long. Like any other battle ready warship Invincible was bustling with activity, with Sea Harrier jump jets taking off and landing at regular intervals, and her deck crew re-fueling and arming them with clock work precision.
Sea Harrier No127 (a veteran of the 1982 Falklands conflict) was returning after one of these training sorties, with her young pilot, (the day after his 26th birthday) at the controls. When he approached the deck 127 developed catastrophic engine failure, but fortunately missed the carrier and crashed into the sea with a huge roar, but her young quick witted pilot had successfully ejected, and was picked up in no time at all by one of Invincible’s Sea King rescue helicopters, which brought him back safely to his ship.
I had been working on the Bergen Viking for nearly three years, first as the Veslik Viking, owned by Viking supply ships Christiansand, Norway, but now owned by Mohn drilling, Haugesund, but registered in Nassau in the Bahamas, because of a nice tax dodge that many shipping companies enjoyed!!! Mohn had big plans for the Bergen Viking, having paid nine million pounds for her in April 1996. And although she was their only ship, the Norwegian owners marketed their little boat (only 2300 tons) like a full blown diving support vessel, and in true Viking spirit the work started flowing in.
I first heard about the "Harrier Job" in mid December, while we were just finishing off a six month air diving job in the Dutch sector, and based at Den Helder that beautiful little port close to the German border in the north of Holland. And by the time I rejoined her in Aberdeen on the 10th of January 97, the contract to raise the Harrier was in the bag!!!
We sailed for the "Med" on the 12th after a short mob up, where we had to replace our 400 meter 50 ton Hydralift crane wire, with a longer but much smaller 10 ton, (the Sea Harrier weighs approx 6 tons) and the Mediterranean can be very deep, so a thousand meters of wire was a safe option. Our trip down to Cagliari, Sardinia to pick Royal Navy personnel was pretty uneventful, apart from stopping to test the R.O.V. off the Portuguese coast, and enjoying a couple of good bbq’s, we arrived on schedule.
The Admiralty back home had allowed 12 days for us to find the wreckage, after that it would be deemed too expensive to carry on, and given that the Harrier did not have a Transponder fitted, and we were looking in water up to 700 meters deep, with only a very rough position to go by, it was going to be a very hit and miss adventure!!! (If an aircraft lands on water, and is not severely damaged, it can actually fly (glide) under water, and if the water is very deep, as in this case, it can travel quite a long way from the point of impact before settling on the bottom.) The weather wasn’t helping either, the first week turned out to be very bad, with strong to gale force wind. But with only two days to go we finally ran out of bad luck, and a tiny fly like target appeared on our side scan screen, we’d found her. She was two miles away from the Navy’s last known position, and half way down a very deep ravine (450 meters) and after an R.O.V. survey, was found to be pretty well intact. It took another three days for our R.O.V to attach lifting strops to it, and on the thirteenth day I was sitting in the crane slowly winching her clear of the seabed for the long journey to the surface and on to our deck. Within two weeks we were back in Plymouth, where her wings were unceremoniously cut off, loaded on to a truck, and the seventeen million pound aircraft had been reduced to just £500 worth of scrap.
My discharge for that trip.
(Footnote) In February 2002 I flew to Mexico to join the "D.S.V. Mystic Viking" as a crane/op, she was owned by Cal Dive International, an American company based at Houston Texas. As I stepped out of the taxi on the quayside in Carmen, Yes you’ve guessed it, there before me was the Veslik / Bergen / Mystic Viking, but now in a smart dark blue and white livery, and sporting a new Helideck. (It is a small World!!!)
Thanks to Bob Harrison for the "Up from the deep" photo.
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