Charles "Champagne Charlie" Cantan QCVS
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Posted 05 September 2016 - 01:47 AM
"Charles “Champagne Charlie” Cantan, who has died of cancer aged 60, flew Sea Harriers in the Falklands War and later Airbuses for Virgin Atlantic.
In April 1982 Lieutenant Cantan was a newly qualified Sea Harrier pilot and had recently joined 801 Naval Air Squadron under Lt Cdr “Sharkey” Ward. Unlike many senior officers in the MoD and in the world of intelligence, who were startled by the Argentine invasion of the Falklands, Ward had a presentiment about events in the South Atlantic and had warned his people to be ready for war.
Cantan therefore was not surprised to receive a message on Good Friday to return to his squadron and prepare to embark in the aircraft carrier Invincible.
Invincible sailed from Portsmouth three days later and over the next two-and-a-half months Cantan flew 77 sorties – all but 20 on operations – making his first night deck-landing on April 12.
The squadron deterred some 450 air attacks on the beachhead at San Carlos, and shot down eight enemy aircraft for the loss of two pilots and four aircraft to the enemy – one to enemy ground fire and three to air accidents brought about by fatigue.
An official report noted: “Cantan is an aggressive and most capable fighter pilot who has done very well indeed on active service in the Battle for the Falklands.” Later in the war Cantan also flew bombing sorties.
However, his greatest test came after a distant mission at extreme range west of the Falklands when Invincible ran into thick fog.
Ordered to hold off while the carrier searched for clear space, Cantan ran low on fuel. Guided by radar he flew past the carrier without seeing her, though on the flightdeck the roar of his engine could be heard.
On a second attempt to land-on, Cantan saw the diffused glimmer of the ship’s searchlights above the bank of fog, and, relying on his previous experience of flying helicopters, climbed to Invincible’s masthead height and steadied his Harrier in a hover next to the glow.
With less than a minute’s fuel, he lowered his aircraft into the fog bank, and only at 50ft did the ship’s shape appear out of the mist. The first sight of Cantan from the carrier was the rear nozzles of his jet glowing red-hot in the dark.
Asked if he was scared, Cantan replied that he was so busy, mentally and physically, that he didn’t have the spare capacity to be frightened, but as soon as he landed he started to shake – a condition which continued until Invincible’s captain, JJ Black, met him in the crewroom with a whisky.
Much later Cantan was awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air.
Charles Harry Cantan was a great-grandson of the Dame of Sark, Sibyl Hathaway, although he was born in Jamaica, where his father was serving with the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. He attended Blundell’s, where he represented the school at shooting, swimming and rugby, but did not excel in the classroom.
Life changed for Cantan, aged 16, when he was awarded a Royal Naval Flying Scholarship – the trigger for a flying career spanning 40 years. He joined the Navy in 1975, determined to fly the Phantom fighter-bomber, proving an outstanding student."
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