Youngest pilot during the Falkland's conflict continues to serve in RN
The youngest pilot during the Falkland’s conflict continues to serve in the Royal Navy, 40 years since facing danger in the south Atlantic.
He said: “We were the most junior crew on the squadron and I subsequently found out that I was the youngest aircraft captain in the whole operation.
“We flew anti-submarine screen sorties, where we used our dipping sonar to search for Argentinian submarines. If we had a sonar contact that we were unsure of, we would direct another aircraft to drop a depth charge. If it disappeared from the trace, then it was probably sea life, if not, then we classified it as a submarine and attacked it with torpedoes.
“On arrival at the Falklands, the aircraft carriers and their escorts stayed about 200 miles to the east, far enough away to be at the limit of range of attack by Argentinian aircraft, but close enough to launch our Harriers to attack. We were also tasked with carrying out long-range surface search sorties, looking for enemy vessels.”
Lt Cdr Thornton faced the threat of being shot down by enemy aircraft or missiles. The Sea Kings would throw out chaff or carry large radar reflectors in an attempt to deflect incoming missiles from the taskforce.
He added: “It was back on the ship that you felt the danger. When not flying, we went to bed as you never knew when you would next be expected to fly. We’d be awoken by an alarm followed by the call ‘AIR RAID WARNING RED’, which meant we were under attack.”
On one occasion his crew nearly ditched into the sea after finding themselves miles off course without enough fuel to get back. They just managed to land back on HMS Hermes instead, with both fuel tanks showing zero.
During a search in darkness for a downed Sea Harrier pilot, Lt Cdr Thornton had to fly his helicopter off the coast off the Falklands, dropping flares, while a second aircraft attempted to trace the missing airman’s emergency beacon.
He said: “I climbed to 4,000 feet and started to release my eight flares in a line about three miles apart, all the time looking towards land for the tell-tale indications of a missile launch. It was very nerve-wracking.
“On reflection, after the war, I realised that we had been called forward early for this mission because we were all young, single men with little or no commitments.
“This sortie was so important, as it got a valuable Sea Harrier pilot back in the air, that if a Sea King aircraft and crew had to be sacrificed, then that was a risk worth taking. However, I was not told this at the time and in retrospect feel that it should not have gone unrecognised.”
Following the surrender on June 14, Lt Cdr Thornton flew missions over the islands. Eventually, HMS Invincible was relieved and made the journey home.
“On the trip back, we enjoyed the sunshine when we could, playing sports on the flight deck and having whole ship barbeques on the deck,” he said. “We anchored in Mount’s Bay on September 16 and flew stores and equipment ashore to RNAS Culdrose. This was quite frustrating for those that lived near Culdrose but was then trumped by what happened on the following day.
“The 17th of September was a lovely sunny day when HMS Invincible rounded Nab Tower and made her way towards Portsmouth. We were all amazed at the huge number of small vessels that had sailed out to meet the ship as well as the huge crowds lining Southsea, Gosport and Old Portsmouth, knowing that my mum and dad, and my future wife although I had not met her yet, were somewhere in that massive crowd.”
Last month, Lt Cdr Thornton was singled out for praise for his exceptional long service by the head of the Fleet Air Arm, Rear Admiral Steve Moorhouse, at a Falkland’s parade at RNAS Culdrose.
He added: “There are only a handful of people still serving today who served at the time of the Falklands. That makes these commemorations quite special to me.
“Like the vast majority of veterans, I consider it to have been a valid conflict. I don’t think anyone that sailed south thought we shouldn’t have been doing it.
None of us ever wanted it to escalate into the situation it became. We were all hoping and praying there would be a diplomatic solution.
“1982 did change me. I came out of it with a different outlook on life, because life is precious. I’d seen that down south.”
Lt Cdr Thornton continues to serve the Royal Navy, working in the Flight Safety Centre at RNAS Yeovilton.