A FALKLANDS hero who thought he had shot down and killed an Argentine fighter pilot has shaken his hand – after spotting the pilot on a TV programme.
Royal Navy anti-aircraft gunner Neil Wilkinson – who was just 22 and serving on HMS Intrepid – hit an Argentine A-4 Skyhawk jet in May 1982 and saw it disappear in a cloud of black smoke.
For 30 years that image haunted the married father-of-two from Leeds, and he suffered post-traumatic stress because of it.
But by chance in 2007, while watching a TV documentary to mark the 25th anniversary of the conflict, Mr Wilkinson, now 53, realised the pilot being interviewed was the man he shot down.
It turned out that Flight Lieutenant Mariano Velasco, 62, had ejected safely. Only two days earlier he had bombed the destroyer HMS Coventry, which sunk with the loss of 19 men.
Now after five years of tracking Mr Velasco down and chatting on email, the pair met in Argentina and Neil finally put his night-mare past behind him.
Mr Velasco embraced Mr Wilkinson and said: ‘Hello Neil, welcome to my house.’ Mr Wilkinson replied: ‘It’s an honour.’
Mr Velasco added: ‘Good soldiers should be able to forgive each other and afterwards why can’t they be friends, be good friends.’
Mr Wilkinson said: ‘I was seeing this aircraft every day in my brain with the black smoke trailing behind. I thought he’s dead, there’s no way anyone could get out of that aircraft.
‘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 I eventually got here after five long years of trying. He welcomed me with open arms and that’s all I wanted. 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.’