'I went back to bandit country where IRA shot down my RAF helicopter, in a bid to heal the past'
A pilot whose RAF helicopter was shot down by the IRA in south Armagh in the 1970s has returned to meet former Provisionals in a bid to heal the past, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
Mike Johnston - who later flew nuclear bombers - said after the meeting that he bore no animosity to the IRA men who attacked him and backs the peace process.
The visit by Mr Johnston and his wife was arranged by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness - who admits to being in the IRA until 1974 - after Mike Johnston wrote to him.
Mr Johnston said he was grounded by an IRA RPG 7 rocket launcher attack in 1976 while transporting members of the Parachute Regiment at Crossmaglen military base.
It was situated beside a GAA pitch and was closed in 2006.
Mr Johnston, who was 25 at the time, said: "They fired three or four times, not more, and as we were running across the football pitch we were hit by an RPG 7 and automatic fire.
"We lost the starboard engine and there was a lot of bullet damage to the aeroplane but there were no real injuries."
It was a terrifying experience and one which stayed at the back of his mind until he was 60 and he decided to revisit the area to understand why local people had wanted to kill him.
"I had already been back actually, more or less as a tourist. Then I wrote to Martin [McGuinness] to say, 'Look I have no remaining animosity towards these guys. I was doing my job, they were obviously doing what they thought was right at the time. I'd like to have a chat and see what they thought of the whole thing'."
Mr McGuinness said it was something he had been glad to do and that he talked at length with the former serviceman.
Mr Johnston said: "I then spoke with Martin, we had a long chat in his office at Stormont, and I told him I believed it was time to build bridges. Martin's attitude seemed to be that we could have gone on killing each other ad infinitum but we were getting nowhere. I believe that too. I think we have to keep solidly working both sides to achieve the ends we want."
Asked if it was awkward meeting Mr McGuinness, he said it wasn't.
"We are where we are, we have got to proceed from here. I'm quite sure that Gerry Adams and Martin wholeheartedly believe in what they were doing. Once both sides realise that neither is going to win, we will both just go on killing each other at an attrition rate. Therefore it seemed to me that we had to move on to some new place and this was my way of doing it."
Mr McGuinness then arranged for him to meet a representative of an ex-prisoners group in south Armagh.
"Later I sat down and had a long conversation with a man called Thomas who is associated with rehabilitation of prisoners around Forkhill," said Mr Johnston.
"As far as I know he wasn't personally involved, it wasn't clear. I would really have liked to speak to the people involved but it was still a useful meeting."
Asked what he had learned from it, he said: "It brought into context the big difference between what was going on in the rest of the province and what was going on in south Armagh.
"Further north we were there in aid to the civil power but in south Armagh it was more the IRA against the military."
He added: "We were trying to stop smuggling and arms coming across the border. That effectively put that area of south Armagh into an open prison camp for local people."
Mr Johnston left the RAF in 1988 with the rank of Squadron Leader. He then went on to fly 747s for BA and Singapore Airlines. He teaches other commercial pilots using simulators.
The IRA killed at least 1,707 people, 277 of them in Co Armagh.
He commented: "I don't think any loss of life was worth it at all. I'm a military man and I did what my country asked me to do. That included sitting in Germany with nuclear weapons under my aircraft prepared to deliver it if necessary.
"I don't think that loss of life would be justified either."