The Sea Harrier was dubbed by Argentine pilots “La Muerta Negra” (The Black Death) because of its Extra Dark Sea Grey colour scheme which made it very difficult to spot over land or sea
The story of a tense combat air patrol sortie flown by two Royal Navy Sea Harrier fighters during Operation Sutton.
Royal Navy Sea Harriers proved their worth in air-to-air combat during the 1982 Falklands War, when they destroyed 23 Argentine aircraft for no losses in that area of operation.
On May 21, 1982 Operation Sutton (the British landings on the Falklands) began, and numerous attack missions were launched by the Fuerza Aérea Argentina (FAA, Argentine Air Force) against the Royal Navy fleet. The Sea Harriers from 801 Naval Air Squadron, embarked on HMS Invincible (R05) confronted Argentine aircraft in the afternoon, first shooting down a Pucara and then facing several Daggers that they were trying to attack the British fleet.
Later in the afternoon in fact two Daggers strafed HMS Brilliant that was in the neck of the San Carlos settlement anchorage. The cannon shells caused damage and casualties in the operations room and a Fighter Direction Officer (FDO) was injured. According to R. Burden, M Draper, D. Rough, C. Smith, D. Wilton book Falklands The Air War, the same FDO saw three other Daggers on his radar screen and vectored towards them two Sea Harriers that were performing a Combat Air Patrol (CAP) in the nearby.
The two British fighters were flown by Lt. Steve Thomas and by Lt. Cdr. Nigel Ward. Once they arrived above the enemy aircraft, Thomas identified the Daggers as part of the Grupo 6 De Caza (6th Air Brigade) because of their yellow wings and fin identification bands. The pilots of the enemy fighters were Capt. Guillermo Donadille, Maj. Gustavo Justo Piuma and Flt. Lt. Jorge Senn.
The Argentines saw the Sea Harriers and immediately jettisoned their underwing stores and began to climb trying to intercept them, but Thomas dived in behind Piuma’s Dagger and fired an AIM-9L that disintegrated the fighter while it was trying to evade the Sidewinder performing a tight turn to the right. Incredibly Piuma was able to bail out safely from his aircraft. Then Thomas fired a second missile, this time against Donadille’s aircraft which exploded when the Sidewinder hit his Dagger’s port wing. The fighter did not disintegrate, but went into an uncontrollable spin and Donadille too had ejected safely before his aircraft crashed. The last Dagger flown by Senn was destroyed by Ward, who fired an AIM-9L at the aircraft while the Dagger was trying to escape from the furball. Senn bailed out safely from his fighter before it completely broke up around him.
After the engagement, Ward and Thomas were vectored by Brilliant against three A-4Qs, but they realized that they were too far from the Argentine Skyhawks to attack them, so they kept the A-4s in sight until two Sea Harriers from 800 Naval Air Squadron successfully intercepted the enemy attackers. Ward and Thomas continued their CAP, when as they were crossing the East coast of West Falkland near Port Howard, Ward became aware that he had lost sight of and radio contact with his wingman, and called the Invincible to inform that he believed that Thomas had been shot down by the Argentine anti-aircraft-artillery (AAA).
Since it was very low on gas Ward returned to the carrier and when he landed on the Invincible in the early evening, he met Thomas who was arrived shortly before him: actually his aircraft has been only slightly damaged by the AAA over Port Howard and the Sea Harrier was repaired in less than 24 hours.
After that the Argentine air attacks ended at twilight, the day’s events were assessed by the personnel of the squadron and Ward and Thomas along with other 801 Naval Air Squadron pilots, were very satisfied that the Sea Harrier was nicknamed “La Muerte Negra” by the Argentines (the aircraft was dubbed by the enemy pilots The Black Death because of its Extra Dark Sea Grey colour scheme which made it very difficult to spot over land or sea).
Update: world famous modern military aviation author Santiago Rivas contacted us and pointed out that the Sea Harriers were never called “La muerte negra” by the Argentine pilots. According to Rivas in fact it’s not clear why such nickname was given to the Sea harrier. Rivas, who has with more than 100 Argentine pilots, explains that the nickname could have been either invented by Sea Harrier pilots or by British pilots who were confused by Argentine radar operators that referred to the Sea Harriers as “moscardones” (botfly) which on the radio could sound alike “muerte negra.”
Photo credit: Jorge Alberto Leonardi via Wikipedia, U.S. Navy, Royal Navy