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News > OD Union Info > ODU Office News > Myth or Legend? The Mystery of 'Maverick' aka Commodore Nick Harris

Myth or Legend? The Mystery of 'Maverick' aka Commodore Nick Harris

Are the claims true? Detective work done by our Archivist reveals ...
Was he a Bishops Boy?
Was he a Bishops Boy?

Top Gun, Maverick the movie is a huge success and it has excited the imagination of many a young man and old.  Shortly after its release we received news from Simon Peile (1979F) about the passing of someone described as the original 'Maverick' who had been to Bishops.  What a remarkable story it was.  The Telegraph published his obituary with the following headline:

Commodore Nick Harris, British naval officer who became a fighter-jet instructor at the US Navy’s elite TOPGUN school.  Praised as a 'superb aviator whose flying abilities are limitless', he joked that Tom Cruise's character in Top Gun was based on him

(Article posted by The Telegraph)

Of course, as the ODU we are always in the business of celebrating the life and times of all of our ODs and so we began our investigations.  Much as we enjoy a great story, it is very important that we check and verify any articles we are sent.  So began the detective work to find out if Nick Harris truly was a Bishops boy.  We did a database search and had no record of Commodore Nick Harris.  We then looked at paper records both at the high school and prep school, still no evidence or leads.  Dr. Murray, our resident archivist, continued to dig and swept the internet for additional details.  After a thorough search online and off, this was what he had to say:

So far I have been unable to find any related information in our records on him.  For example, in all the school magazines there is a section that records a leaver irrespective of his age including the Prep School; I have looked up from the time his family came to SA (1949) until when he allegedly left school (at age 16).  We also checked with his contemporaries who do not remember him.  The article also says that he went to Krugersdorp High School and then onto the Naval Academy.  So, it seems if he was at Bishops, it would have been of short duration.  As the article suggests he seems to have left before matriculating so that may be another reason why his name does appear on our cards. 

Jonathan Carter (1991F) also sent  us a link to the article in The Telegraph and in fact it seems that Nick time-wise would have overlapped with his father David Carter (1958G) the President of the ODU.  David has no recollection of Nick Harris.

We are eager to embrace this story as one of our own and are now looking for help from anyone who may have information that we have missed.  Perhaps you or a parent knew Nick Harris when he may have attended the prep school.  We would love to hear from you. 

In the meantime here is the incredible story of Commodore Nick Harris (taken from a the Naval Related Obituaries on the Naval Community Network in the UK).  Maybe it jolts someone's memory and helps us uncover the mystery of our 'Maverick'? 

Commodore Nick Harris, who has died aged 80, was a revered British instructor at the US Navy’s Fighter Weapons School, popularly known as TOPGUN. The school famously featured in Top Gun, the 1986 film that propelled Tom Cruise to superstardom, and Harris liked to joke that Cruise’s character had been based on him. In 1970 Harris was an instructor on the Royal Navy’s air warfare course, flying Sea Vixen II fighters at Lossiemouth, Scotland. There, after the tragic death of a colleague, he became the obvious choice to fill at short notice the appointment of exchange officer in the USN’s VF-121 squadron in Miramar, southern California.

Since 1966, the Fleet Air Arm had established a liaison with VF-121, the American squadron that became famous for its TOPGUN school, established in 1969.The school had been founded in response to the unsustainable losses, both of aircraft and crew, that the USN had been suffering in the Vietnam War, despite the technological superiority of its jets. Its aim was to drill pilots in air-to-air missile dogfights. As an instructor Harris, flying Phantom and Skyhawk jets, earned a phenomenal reputation, which his American commanding officer expressed in grateful hyperbole: “Lt Harris is a superb aviator whose flying abilities are limitless, his knowledge level and expertise are incomparable and his ability to impart this knowledge to others is exemplary.”

 


Harris in 1977 and his Phantom, specially painted for the Queen's Silver jubilee


Nicholas Richard Harris was born on September 24 1941 in Peacehaven, Sussex, but in 1949 his family emigrated to South Africa. He was educated at Bishops College, Cape Town, Krugersdorp high school and General Botha nautical college. At 16 he ran away to see the world in tramp steamers, and earned his second mate’s ticket, before joining the Royal Navy aged 22, determined to be a fighter pilot.



Harris receiving his wings

Harris first flew solo in a Tiger Moth over Roborough airfield, Plymouth in 1963, soon progressed to Provost and Hunter jet trainers and by 1965 to the de Havilland Sea Vixen, the Navy’s twin-engine, boom-tailed, two-seat fighter.

From 1965 to 1967 he flew the Sea Vixen FAW2 in 899 Naval Air Squadron from the fleet carrier Eagle, seeing service on the Beira Patrol – an operation intended to prevent oil reaching landlocked Rhodesia – and during the withdrawal from Aden. Harris’s talent as a pilot, and a safe pilot too, saw him serve with 766 NAS, the Navy’s all weather fighter school, as an instructor from 1967 to 1970, before his exchange service with the US school.

On his return to the UK, he took the staff course, on which he was top student, followed by a series of demanding appointments, obtaining his sea watch-keeping certificate – essential for any aviator wishing to progress on the general list – on the destroyer Devonshire in 1973, then working on the Sea Harrier desk in the MoD from 1974 to 1976.



Harris's 1977 Jubilee flypast over London


Promoted to commander in 1977, Harris was given command of 892 Naval Air Squadron, destined to fly Phantoms from the fleet carrier Ark Royal. On July 10 Harris celebrated the Queen’s jubilee with a flypast over London. The exaggerated perspective of a picture appeared to show him flying below the Post Office Tower; he accepted all blame, but the picture made good publicity for the Navy.

He was looking forward to leading his squadron on board Ark Royal when, in late July 1977, he had unexplained symptoms of hyperventilation and dizziness: no cause was found, but he was grounded. He had flown 1,970 hours in fixed wing aircraft and made 144 deck landings and 164 catapult launches by day and by night.

Subsequent service included second-in-command of the destroyer Bristol, which led a convoy of reinforcements to the Falklands in May 1982; naval attaché in Rome from 1987 to 1990, and head of Defence Medical Services Reorganisation from 1994 to 1997.

Harris was “mad about cars”. In his early 20s he wooed his wife, when she was still a sixth-former, in a French-built Facel Vega; his next car was an Aston Martin DB2, and his idea of a family car, after the birth of his first child, was a DB4. During the course of 19 domestic moves, the Harrises bought and renovated a number of derelict houses. In retirement he bought Anore, a 72ft sailing boat based in Florida, and then Moonbeam, based in the South of France.
He learned to ski late in life, and was a member of the MCC. As a child in Africa, he had loved sports, riding in the bush and keeping unusual pets (particularly snakes), and in old age in Gloucestershire, he enjoyed walking the countryside.  Harris was a showman: precise, self-disciplined, well-spoken and always immaculate in dress and demeanour.

He married Philippa Easten in 1966: they divorced in 2005, and his partner from 2006 was Juliet Carron. Two daughters and two sons survive him.

Commodore N R Harris, born September 24 1941, died April 18 2022

(Navy Net - Royal Navy Community (navy-net.co.uk)

Please contact Dr. Paul Murray at [email protected] or Lynn at [email protected] should you have any information that will help us find out more.

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