A memorable moment in BBC television history
For an innocuous daytime chat show, it was an audacious bit of broadcasting. Mind you, Pebble Mill at One was always a quirky affair, and all the more memorable for it. It was 20 September 1979, and presenter Bob Hall declared, “Over the horizon we’re expecting the Royal Navy’s first Sea Harrier…”
Sure enough, as if on cue, it appeared above the Birmingham skyline. Sea Harrier FRS1 XZ451 hailed from 700A Naval Air Squadron, the Intensive Flying Trials Unit for the type, and at the controls was the commanding officer, Lt Cdr Nigel ‘Sharkey’ Ward. He’d taken off from Yeovilton just a quarter of an hour earlier. Approaching via a route carefully selected to cause minimum noise disturbance, as far as such things were possible in leafy Edgbaston — where the nearby nature centre had taken precautions to protect its more sensitive inhabitants — Ward slowed XZ451 into the hover. All the while he was in radio contact with 700A’s qualified flying instructor, RAF pilot Flt Lt ‘Bertie’ Penfold, positioned atop the Pebble Mill studios. Ward descended vertically to land on an aluminium pad, specially laid by a party of Royal Engineers on the BBC Social Club football pitch.
This brilliant publicity coup had been grasped by the Royal Navy after the RAF turned down the BBC’s request to bring a Harrier into Pebble Mill. What viewers didn’t know was that Ward’s landing had been pre-recorded, but his later take-off took place live on air. It was a potent demonstration of the unique capabilities afforded by the navy’s newest fighter, and in front of millions of viewers. You can’t buy PR like that. Not for the last time, it was an opportunity the air force missed.
‘The Mill’ welcomed quite a few flying visitors down the years — Sea King and Wessex helicopters, Ken Wallis in his Little Nellie autogyro, even parachutists and a hot-air balloon. But the first time it brought a Sea Harrier to a city centre surely outranks all of them.