Tributes for Ballymena raised Air Vice-Marshal William 'Paddy' Harbison

Jane Witherspoon


Jane Witherspoon

TRIBUTES have been paid to former Academy pupil,Air Vice-Marshal Paddy Harbison, CB, CBE, AFC, FBIM, who grew up in Ballymena. He passed away recently at the age of 96.

Mr William Harbison (known as Paddy) was a British fighter pilot who saw combat flying Spitfires in the Second World War and, unusually, American jets in the Korean War.

He was born in Govan, Scotland, in 1922, to the former Isobel Strachan and William, a police officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

However, he grew up in Northern Ireland, where he was educated at Ballymena Academy, and was the oldest of five siblings.

He met his future wife, Helen (née Geneva), a flight attendant from Illinois and they married in 1950 and ultimately settled in Falls Church, Virginia. She survives him along with their two sons, Eric and Michael.

He joined the RAF in 1941 shortly after the Battle of Britain and was trained in Canada before flying missions with 118 Squadron.

One of the most hazardous came in March 1945, only six weeks before VE Day, when he led an escort party for more than a hundred Lancaster bombers heading for Bremen. They were attacked by Messerschmitt Me 262 fighters and an intense dogfight ensued, with the British struggling to hold off their quicker adversaries, although Harbison managed to damage an enemy plane.

He had another close shave when his Spitfire suffered engine failure over Germany, but as the ground loomed large he was able to restart the engine by furiously working a hand pump in the cockpit.

The end of the war brought its own challenges. Asked to round up men to fly to the Channel Islands, where the German surrender had been delayed by a day, Harbison had trouble finding sober pilots, and a mess hall somehow caught fire amid the celebrations.

After the war, he served with No. 64 Squadron RAF flying the twin-engine de Havilland Hornet, the fastest piston-engine fighter ever to enter service.

He also served with No. 263 and No. 257 Squadrons flying the Gloster Meteor.

In 1948, Harbison participated in an exchange program with the United States Air Force's 1st Fighter Group.

He was stationed at March Air Force Base in California where he flew the Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star and became the first serving RAF pilot to fly the North American F-86 Sabre.

Harbison returned to England in 1950 where he was assigned to the All-Weather Development Squadron at the Central Fighter Establishment (CFE).

Afterwards he then found himself involved in the Korean War.

He arrived at Kimpo Air Base as an RAF observer and soon realised that aircraft manoeuvres would be a delicate and dangerous dance, because only half the runway was in use, the rest being under repair.

The near-constant take-offs, landings, crash landings and emergency landings by aircraft that had run out of fuel created a risky environment, even before taking into account the threat posed by the enemy’s advanced Soviet-made MiG-15 jet fighters.

Not yet 30, Harbison was, like many pilots in the Korean War, a veteran of the Second World War, where he flew Spitfires and P-51 Mustangs in the RAF. The 1950s heralded a new era: the widespread deployment of jet fighters with swept wings that were far faster than the old propeller-driven machines.

Above northwestern North Korea, where the Yalu River meets the Yellow Sea, United Nations forces fought North Koreans who were supported by the Soviets and Chinese. The area became known as “MiG Alley” and was the scene of many skirmishes between MiG-15s and their American analogue, the F-86 Sabre.

The RAF was keen to learn more about jet-versus-jet combat, which is where Harbison came in. He had been posted to California in 1948 on a pilot exchange scheme with the United States Air Force where he became one of the first to fly the F-86. The RAF had limited involvement in the Korean War, but persuaded the Americans to allow a four-man team of observers.

After a training programme at Kimpo (today, Gimpo international airport, in Seoul) with the merciless-sounding nickname “Clobber College”, Harbison started to follow operations from the cockpit of an F-86.

He was far from a passive onlooker and at one point damaged a MiG, as well as finding himself under fire. He recalled after: “I was very nearly shot down once, but I got away with it,” he recalled. “I was pursued from some 35,000ft down to the deck level with a MiG on my tail firing all the way, and the only time he left was when he had run out of ammunition.”

After his service in Korea, Harbison was sent to West Germany to command 67 Fighter Squadron.

n 1953, Harbison was awarded the United States' Air Medal for service as a fighter pilot in Korea.

In 1969 he became director of operations of National Air Traffic Services; three years later he was air attaché for the British embassy in Washington.

Rising to the rank of air vice-marshal in 1975, he became commander of No 11 Group, tasked with defending UK airspace.

After retiring from the RAF in 1977 he joined British Aerospace as a vice- president in its Washington office.

One of his prized possessions was a leather-bound logbook in which he meticulously recorded his sorties.

He passed away on December 25, 2018 aged 96.

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