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AL GILKES: Nightmare over HARP proposal


AL GILKES: Nightmare over HARP proposal

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The recent news that the Barbados Tourism Product Authority (BTPA) wants to resurrect the dormant guns of the High Altitude Research Project (HARP) at Paragon, Christ Church, as a new tourist attraction, caused my hair to stand tall and cold chills to run up and down my spine like black ants on a soursop tree.

For back in the mid-1960s, I was a budding journalist when the then Barbados Government allowed the Canadian-based Space Research Corporation (SRC) to use the island as a base for its HARP project in exchange for installing and maintaining an advanced radar system at the then Seawell Airport. Officially, the scientists were said to be exploring the possibility of using large guns to inexpensively fire objects and eventually satellites into space.

It was the height of the multi-billion dollar space race between the United States and the then Soviet Union, which would lead to the first man on the moon in 1969, and the HARP project was headed by a young Canadian engineer, Dr Gerald Bull, with a proposed firing site at Foul Bay, St Philip.

I was there among the many curious journalists and hundreds of curious Philippines when the first of the big artillery guns arrived by ship but could not be put ashore at the intended site and had to be offloaded seven miles away and then hauled along a makeshift railway to the new site at Paragon.

I was again there in January 1962 among accredited journalists recording the first test shot. I was also there in November 1962 when a Martlet was fired from the gun at 6 818 m.p.h. to a height of 215 000 feet. At its peak in 1963, the gun was able to fire an object a staggering 112 miles into the sky, setting a world record for gun-launched altitude that has yet to be beaten.    

Dr Bull’s reported ultimate goal was to launch an advanced Martlet-4 rocket from a lengthened gun that would sail into orbit around the earth and turn Barbados into a 21×14 mile space race gold mine. To achieve this feat, the gun would be extended to become a new super gun more than 110 feet long.

And again I was there in 1965 when the first ear-shattering test was made. However, the word soon started leaking out that what Bull had been developing in Barbados before the project came to a halt in 1965 was really a long-range weapons system, the kind that would be used by the then apartheid South African Defence Force against the freedom fighters and supporting Cuban expeditionary forces in neighbouring Angola. And as we in the local media joined in the exposure, we found ourselves no longer welcomed guests within the bunkers at Paragon. I still have a photograph of Harold Hoyte and me being held at bay at the entrance to the facility by armed guards.

Fast forward to 2006 and I am attending a corporate function on board Barbados’ then floating entertainment centre, the MV Harbour Master, when a person, who was very much part of the HARP inner circle, calls me aside for a revelation. He tells me: “Al, do you remember back in the days of the HARP when journalists like you and Harold Hoyte started to expose the true story? Well, in an attempt to silence you guys, Dr. Bull ordered a hit on you.”

But that was the nice part of the story. He said it was another member of the same inner circle, one who called me friend, who offered to execute me but was subsequently talked out of doing so by the one telling me the story.

But as fate would have it, on the evening of March 22, 1990, Dr Gerald Bull, the man who reportedly ordered a hit on me, got out of a car in Brussels, Belgium and headed back to his apartment. From the shadows, another shadow stepped out holding a silenced pistol and fired three shots into the back of his head and, after he fell, two more for good measure. The Bull was dead.

The man, who allegedly offered to execute me, died in Barbados still holding out to be my friend but not knowing that I knew his secret.

Al Gilkes heads a public relations firm. Email [email protected]