Karl Drage's 2010 blogGAR Entries

NOV 18 2010
Catch Them While You Can

OK, so we all knew that Cottesmore was going to get quiet from next April, but, as everyone's now acutely aware, following the recent SDSR decision to cut all Harrier flying, the timeframe left to see this truly iconic aircraft strutting its extraordinary stuff - in British military service, at least - has been well and truly compressed.

Of course, I say that with my enthusiast's head on, and it's easy to forget that this is a decision that will have had a truly massive impact on everyone currently involved with the Harrier programme, not just in their current lives but also with the great uncertainty that now hangs over their futures too.

The rights and wrongs of the decision are obviously being played out in the media on an almost daily basis. What is clear is that this was never going to be an easy decision to make and, irrespective of the outcome, a lot of people were always going to be made unhappy.

The simple fact of the matter is that in an ideal world, it would have never have come down to this: Harrier OR Tornado. Given that it did, we at GAR are determined to see the Harrier out in style, and already Gareth, in particular, has lined up some fantastic coverage for the coming weeks on the site.

And so, with a superb forecast and having seen some pictures of the brand new 1(F) Sqn special jet sitting on the ramp on Monday morning, it seemed rude not to take advantage of the conditions and head up to Cottesmore for the last few hours of daylight. Damien Burke, author of the recently released book 'TSR2 - Britain's Lost Bomber', and who lives a handful of miles away had similar thoughts and kindly offered to drive.

We arrived around 1400, with a pair lining up just as we parked up. I've certainly never seen so many people watching proceeding on a 'normal' day as they were then. Proof, if any were needed, of the regard the Harrier's held in by the public - a true icon of British engineering brilliance.

Having made the trek up to the runway 22 end we were informed that there were "7 or 8" jets out, and it wasn't long before another example was heard producing the unmistakable sound of a Pegasus engine start. It was a 1(F) Sqn marked T.12, and I later found out that it was the 2010 and, as it's transpired, the last RAF Harrier Display Pilot who has also recently been promoted, Sqn Ldr Steve Kenworthy.

Of the first five recoveries, only two aircraft played ball, and I don't think a single one flew more than one approach - the other three either used the mexi-pads or 'the strip', meaning their approach path was much further away from us than normal.

That meant there were now only "3 or 4" still out but with so few clouds in the sky, it really did look like we'd have a decent chance of getting some nice Harrier sunset shots. That was until the entry into the visual circuit of a French Navy Xingu! Now, this really was not an aircraft that I had expected to see at Cottesmore that day, let alone bash the circuit until after dark! A first taste of the new Anglo-French military co-operation, perhaps?

Either way, as nice as it was to add some sunset Xingu shots to the collection, it ultimately led to the remaining Harriers that were out flying either high, vectored thrust approaches to the main, or off-set to the pads on their return. Not one single Harrier ventured through the corridor of sunset certainty….

Everyone was gutted and, while I'm lucky enough to live close enough to try again should conditions look favourable, some of the lads present were seeing the Harrier for the last time. You had to feel a bit for them. The number of times I've stood there waiting for the last dregs of light, only to be let down by the appearance of cloud or the lack of appearance of aircraft…. Rarely do the stars all align at once, so to have an external force scupper it when they do, hurts all the more.

I've been fortunate to spend a lot of time around the perimeter at Cottesmore in the last five or so years, and there aren't many angles I've not got covered, and as such it's quite easy to get a bit blase about the photographic opportunities that the airfield affords. This, however, was the first time that I'd ventured over since early 2009, and it really made me realise just how badly I'm going to miss not only the Harrier but also RAF Cottesmore itself.

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