Falklands’ conflict gunner meets Skyhawk pilot he shot down, at his home in Argentina
A Royal Navy veteran from the Falklands War has completed an extraordinary journey to meet the Argentine pilot he thought he had shot down and killed during the 1982 conflict.
Neil Wilkinson met his former enemy Mariano Velasco at his home in Argentina - and was welcomed inside with open arms.
The emotional meeting - just weeks before the 30th anniversary of the moment they clashed in battle - was filmed for a BBC Inside Out Yorkshire and Lincolnshire documentary to be screened this week.
Mr Wilkinson, from Leeds, told the program: It's too massive to put into words. Part of it is closure really, but meeting him in the flesh I now know he is alive and we are friends.
Mr Wilkinson was a 22-year-old anti-aircraft gunner serving on HMS Intrepid when he opened fire and hit an enemy Skyhawk fighter jet during the conflict in 1982.
The image of the stricken plane disappearing from view trailing a plume of black smoke - along with the assumption that the pilot had lost his life - haunted Mr Wilkinson for years after the conflict. He went on to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as he struggled to adapt to life outside the Services:
Your job is to deter them to protect your ship, he said. I thought about it many, many times. It's not something I gloat over. I just see the aircraft every day in my brain.
I thought he's dead, there's no way anyone could get out of that aircraft.
But a chance viewing of a TV documentary to mark the 25th anniversary of the conflict in 2007 raised the possibility that he had not killed the Argentine pilot after all.
Mr Wilkinson heard the story of the Argentine serviceman Mariano Velasco, describing his part in the Falklands War as a 33-year-old Flight Lieutenant. Velasco told how he took part in the attack on HMS Coventry on 25 May 1982, which resulted in the loss of 19 British servicemen.
The pilot also relived the moment his aircraft was hit during an attack two days later, forcing him to eject and trek for ten miles over the Falklands with a badly injured ankle to reach a deserted farmhouse where he eventually got help and returned to an Argentine base on West Island.
The dates tallied and Mr Velasco's description of the incident also matched Mr Wilkinson's recollections:
I knew it was him, said Mr Wilkinson. I was the only weapon that fired that day.
Further checks with military records also confirmed that Mr Velasco's plane was the one hit by Mr Wilkinson's anti-aircraft gun and he decided to make contact by e-mail.
The two veterans, while agreeing to disagree about the reasons and justifications for the war, went on to become good friends.
Now Mr Wilkinson has completed an emotional journey back to the Falklands, visiting the crash site of the aircraft he shot down on 27 May 1982, with the crater and wreckage still visible today.
As he approached the crash site Mr Wilkinson said: It's a very strange feeling to look at this. There's bits strewn all over the place and it's still here and I just don't know how really he got out of it. I know he did eject and luckily for him he did. It's just unbelievable.
It's a brilliant feeling. Not to look and gloat over a crash site and think 'this is what I did'. The feeling inside is that he got out and he did survive it and I'm really, really pleased.
Mr Wilkinson also went on to Argentina to the remote rural village where Mr Velasco lives with his family after retiring as a Commodore in the Argentine Air Force.
Mr Velasco embraced Mr Wilkinson with a hug and said:
Hello Neil, welcome to my house.
It's an honour, replied Mr Wilkinson.
After the emotional meeting, Mr Wilkinson said: For all this time I've had the build-up… not knowing he was alive for 25 years then finding out he was alive then eventually got here after five long years of trying to get here and I'm so ecstatic. He welcomed me with open arms and that's all I wanted.
Mr Velasco added: Good soldiers should be able to forgive each other and afterwards why can't they be friends… be good friends.
Over 900 people died during the 74-day war, including 255 British servicemen, 655 Argentines and three islanders.
The documentary produced and presented by Nicola Rees is a special Inside Out to mark the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War. This article has been supplied to the UK Ministry of Defence by BBC Lincolnshire.