The Harrier

NOV 09 2010
The Harrier: 41(R) Squadron’s Harrier Flight Disbands

Three weeks ago 41(R) Squadron’s XO (Executive Officer) Sqn Ldr Steve Berry was driving to Boscombe Down with a fellow squadron Harrier pilot to conduct a crosswind expansion trial when the dreaded phone call came through.

“It was the Boss and he basically told us what had been announced as part of the SDSR and that we should turn round and go back to Coningsby,” says Steve. “There was a huge sense of disappointment in all honesty; it was a real jaw dropping moment and totally unexpected.”

“It was probably the worst day of my career, both on a personal level and as a squadron commander too,” adds Wg Cdr Rich Davies, the Boss in question and the man who will continue to lead 41(R) Squadron through this latest chapter in its illustrious history.

“I’m a Tornado man but had a huge affinity with the Harrier as a platform, having operated as part of a joint organisation twice now, and I realise the potential of that platform.

“Looking ahead, in terms of the number of aircraft we operate, we’ll only be down by one as we’re set to gain another two Tornado GR.4s, giving us five, as opposed to the six fast jets we had in the mixed fleet. There have always been aspirations to amalgamate 41(R) Sqn with 17(R) Sqn (the Eurofighter Typhoon OEU) incidentally, but a timeline for that has not been set.”

41(R) Squadron is of course the Royal Air Force's Fast Jet Test and Evaluation Squadron and is based at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire. Formed in 1916 and with a proud Battle of Britain heritage (see GAR's Battle of Britain microsite piece on the Squadron for further info), the post war years saw the unit equipped with the Meteor, Javelin, the Bloodhound surface to air missile and then F-4 Phantom before operating the Jaguar GR.1 from 1976, a relationship which would last until 2006.

On 1st April 2006, the Squadron was given Reserve status, with the standard being handed to what was then titled the Fast Jet & Weapons Operational Evaluation Unit (FJWOEU) and already based at RAF Coningsby. The Squadron was equipped with a mixture of Tornado GR.4 and Harrier GR.9 aircraft and was, and indeed still is, tasked with a full spectrum of test and evaluation activities.

Last week though, on Thursday 4th November to be precise, everything changed as 41(R) closed down its Harrier Flight. Three aircraft departed for their last trip on the Squadron, with a Tornado GR.4 and Hawk camera ship for company on some of the journey, onwards to RAF Cottesmore via flypasts at Waddington, Cranwell, Wyton, Farnborough and lunch at Boscombe Down. Unfortunately a planned flypast at Warton was scrubbed due to inclement weather and sadly this couldn't be completed en route to Cottesmore. Here the jets will join the remaining operational Harrier squadrons and will continue to operate during the aircraft's remaining weeks in RAF service but, with the fleet’s retirement edging ever closer, the need for specialist testing and evaluation was quite simply no longer required, giving 41(R) the unfortunate honour of being the first unit, post SDSR, to relinquish its aircraft.

“While I wouldn’t really want to comment about why the decision was made, I don’t think you can get a more capable air-to-ground platform in the role that it was currently operating in for the Royal Air Force,” says Rich Davies.

“There had been a bit of pre-SDSR banter between the two Forces (Harrier and Tornado) and the plan had been that we were all going to sit in a room with a crate of beer, but having not been given a heads-up I didn’t even have time to order one! I think the timeline is the thing that’s really taken us by surprise.”

Recent years for 41(R), and the FJWOEU prior to it's rebadging at RAF Coningsby, have coincided with an intense and hugely successful period of high tempo operational flying for Joint Force Harrier. Just last year JFH returned to the UK having completed five years continuous service in Afghanistan as a vital component of Op HERRICK and prior to that was also deployed in support of Op TELIC in Iraq.

Operational deployments mean a busy time for those units conducting testing and October 2006 saw the definitive UK version of the Harrier, the GR.9A / T.12 (two seat trainer) entering service while January 2009 saw the Paveway IV precision guided munition cleared for operational use on the Harrier which, rather ironically in a numerical sense anyway, was first deployed with IV(AC) Squadron in Afghanistan. 41(R) Squadron and those involved with the FJWOEU before it, are understandably proud of the part they played in both such important milestones for the Harrier, and undoubtedly many others which probably won’t be revealed publicly for some time to come, especially as some may yet be incorporated into the Tornado GR.4. To carry out important evaluation and testing which is then applied almost immediately to frontline operations is pressurised but hugely fulfilling work.

“The early retirement is probably all the more disappointing because as a Squadron we’ve seen the future,” says Steve Berry.

“We were literally just days away from commencing trials with the latest upgrade for the aircraft and the things the Harrier can do and the way in which it does it were going to improve even more. We felt that development work was moving forward at a great pace and then suddenly it all just stopped; everyone is still shell-shocked really.”

Steve has been involved with testing the Harrier since before 41(R) was granted Reserve status and made its move to Coningsby, which means he saw the introduction to service of the GR.9 through from start to finish and was involved in many of the trials which led to upgrades either on a UOR (Urgent Operational Requirement) basis or for core capability.

“We’ve seen upgrades that we have worked on introduced to the frontline in as little as two months,” he explains, “and we have always tried as a Squadron to make that introduction easier.

“That means that we have endeavoured to send our pilots to frontline squadrons to work with them and ensure that the new capabilities or tactics are handed over properly, we always preferred to do that rather than simply send them a piece of paper telling them what we’ve done and how they should do it! We accompanied 1(F) Sqn on its heavy weapons deployment for example and even joined up with squadrons in theatre when Sniper was introduced, all to make sure we had someone on hand who knew the new kit backwards.”

The most recent upgrades formed the basis of CAP-C which essentially put the Harrier on its most up to date operational footing and included the introduction of a helmet mounted sight and the aforementioned addition of Sniper. A UOR for a third-generation targeting pod for the GR.9 was raised by the Royal Air Force and MoD invitations to tender were issued in late 2006. Lockheed Martin UK was awarded the contract in February 2007 to supply the Sniper advanced targeting pod which is equipped with a full motion video downlink enabling ground forces to see exactly the same Sniper display as that being viewed in the Harrier’s cockpit.

“We were just one cog in a very large team,” says Steve, “and when I think about the amount of people who have worked so hard over the past few years it really brings home how many will be directly affected by the decision that has been made. We’ve been walking around in a bit of a daze ever since and I’m quite sure the same will go for the engineers, frontline squadrons and the BAE Project Team. Everyone involved with the aircraft really.”

While test pilot Steve readily admits that he has pulled off a “lucky dodge” and will shortly commence a cross-over to the Tornado GR.4 before returning to 41(R) to finish his tour, the other two pilots who ferried jets alongside him on Thursday 4th were marking their final ever Harrier flights, and arrangements had been made to ensure this would be suitably commemorated with family members in situ at Cottesmore for their arrival. Steve’s final Harrier trip will come sometime next month when the Harrier’s retirement from the frontline squadrons will be upon them. He already knows that it will be a sad day for him, as it was last week for his colleagues and indeed will be for all the other men and women whose Harrier careers are drawing to a close.

“From a personal point of view I would say that there are two things about the Harrier that I will always remember. Firstly was the remarkable feeling you got when operating the jet; the way in which the mission systems always kept you in the loop and how easy it was to communicate with the aircraft to get the information you required.

"Secondly is something that I think every Harrier pilot will be able to relate to! There was a moment, almost every time you decelerated towards the hover when, as the airspeed decreased and the power came up, you wondered if everything was going to work – it always seemed to occur at about 50 knots for me! But your mind would immediately switch to the fifty years of development and operational flying the Harrier had undertaken and the moment would quickly pass. That always felt very poignant.

“Most of all though, the Harrier cockpit really was a beautiful place to be.”

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