The Harrier

DEC 21 2010
The Harrier: The Final Weeks Of An Icon With Joint Force Harrier

What an extraordinary few weeks it's been. We've covered retirements here on GAR before but none which have stirred as many emotions as that which the Harrier's untimely decommissioning has managed to. It's a reflection of the aircraft's status as a true aviation icon I suppose and also the disbelief voiced by many that we would be losing, in a matter of weeks, not just an aircraft type but an entire capability and all the years of expertise that go with it. Then of course there is the human cost and this should never be overlooked. This was a decision which will impact on a huge number of people and it goes without saying that we wish everyone involved with Joint Force Harrier, in whatever capacity, all the best for the future.

It all started for us almost as soon as the dust had begun to settle following the SDSR announcement. At this stage all we really knew was that we wanted to do what we could to give the aircraft and those who had been part of its long and distinguished career a good send-off. For a few days at least we, like everyone else, were looking towards to the aircraft's retirement in March, but it soon became apparent that the end would actually come much sooner, in December. Suddenly the timeframe to try and do the aircraft justice had got a whole lot shorter.

But what would we do? Our first thought and, hopefully one in line with what we always strive to achieve at GAR, was to make sure that there was a human element. Let's be honest, anyone can write and illustrate an aircraft feature with a little effort and some time spent conducting research, but we believe that you can only really bring them properly to life with the voices of those who have been there and experienced whatever the subject matter is for themselves. So, to that end we took it upon ourselves to contact as many Harrier people as we could - raiding our own address books and tracking people down via the web in the hope that we might be able to secure some notable contributions - fortunately we wouldn't be disappointed.

These contributions were, initially at least, ostensibly for a Harrier Memories piece that I stuck my hand up and volunteered to compile, and which runs alongside this piece, but we also planned to construct an in-depth history of the aircraft in UK service while Paul Dunn nominated himself for a detailed look at the Harrier's foreign career, one which would naturally cover those countries still operating the jet once the UK's airframes had been retired.

Our first actual retirement event was at RAF Coningsby on the 4th November, a day which saw 41(R) Squadron disband its Harrier Flight and signalled the end of V/STOL test flying in the UK. Karl attended the event as part of a small group of media while the night before I was able to interview Sqn Ldr Steve "Raz" Berry, the Squadron's XO and a hugely experienced Harrier pilot. I think Karl would agree that it brought it all home. What had, up until then at least, been just a few words within a defence review document, suddenly seemed very real.

For two of the three 41(R) pilots Karl met, that day saw them making their final Harrier flights, and some of Steve's comments really hit home, especially: "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."

It was around this time that I struck gold. A speculative message to legendary test pilot John Farley resulted in not just a speedy reply but confirmation that he would like to assist wherever he could, along with all his contact details, and then, totally out of the blue, a phone call to discuss. While John plays down the importance of his V/STOL test flying work to some extent I was, as you can imagine, honoured and overjoyed.

What began as a conversation to ask John for some of his Harrier memories rapidly became a feature from him discussing comparisons between the P.1127 and Short SC.1, invaluable input in to both the UK and foreign Harrier features and a number of superb archive images. It was our great pleasure to then meet John at Dunsfold (see below) and interview him again, not only for GAR but also for PlanesTV, and I am sure that you'll be hearing more from John here in the not too distant future.

In the meantime Karl had been busy harvesting as many images of Harriers from across the decades as he could. Emails were flying around, albums were dusted off, scanners were dug out and we ended up with a hugely comprehensive range of imagery with which to illustrate our features. Lindsay Peacock, Tom Gibbons, Chris Wood and Kevin Wills were hugely helpful in this regard, particularly with the older stuff (sorry chaps!) and Chris also put us in contact with David Morgan who flew the Sea Harrier in the Falklands War. Having initially exchanged emails with Karl I gave David a call and ten minutes later he had offered us not one but three features!

The Sea Harrier element was developed further when I contacted Captain Michael Clapp a former Buccaneer pilot who commanded the UK's amphibious forces in the Falklands and is now Chief Co-Coordinator of the Phoenix Thinktank. Michael kindly put us in touch with Cdr Tim Gedge, a former boss of both 800 and 809 NAS. I think at this stage we were all beginning to feel that we really had a shout of achieving our goal and that GAR would, from a media perspective, at least play some part in giving the aircraft a good last hurrah.

Our next event was at Dunsfold and was staged by airfield owner Jim McAllister and his team to mark the 50th anniversary of the Harrier's first flight from what for many will always be the true spiritual home of the aircraft - although a few people connected with RAF Wittering might argue against that one! While fog precluded the two Harrier GR.9s from landing, they did try (numerous times) and I'm delighted to say they made it in two days later; the event was still very special. As well as the aforementioned meeting and interviews with John Farley, former Hawker Chief Test Pilot Duncan Simpson was also in attendance as was Ambrose Barber, current Chairman of the Hawker Association.

Time to catch the jets in action was by now running out and, with the prospect of perfect weather conditions, Karl headed to the famous 22 end at RAF Cottesmore with around a month to go before the completion of flying. I think the photographic results of that afternoon impressed everyone who saw them but in reality it turned in to something of a frustrating afternoon for Karl and the many other enthusiasts who had turned out. Unfortunately a French Navy Xingu's relentless circuit bashing denied them those oh so elusive Harrier sunset shots and quite frankly everyone was aware that they simply might not get another opportunity.

Just a week later I made the same pilgrimage myself, in company with Gavin Weaver who had called the day before to ask if I wanted to accompany him the following morning. It didn't take me too long to decide in all honesty and despite the bitterly cold weather this was a morning I will never forget. Not only were we blessed with largely clear blue winter skies but we were also present for the return of the last four Harriers to fly off HMS Ark Royal, including both the 1(F) Sqn and 800 NAS special tails. Throw in some additional movements and impromptu hovering and it all came together to provide a magical few hours of entertainment.

The backdrop to all of this activity was of course the retirement activity itself. Rumour and conjecture barely even covers it with dates, plans, flypasts, special schemes and such like all being discussed on a daily basis. Barely 24 hours would go past without someone adding an alleged theory or piece of gossip to the mix but eventually it became clear that the plan was to fly a 16 aircraft formation on the 15th December with both the 14th and 16th earmarked as back ups should the weather intervene. Ah yes, the weather. It was incredibly frustrating for everyone on JFH, especially at Cottesmore, that the UK's worst early winter weather for many years should have played such a major part in its final few weeks. Frustrating too for those hoping to catch the aircraft in action in all honesty but imagine how it must have felt for those who might have even lost an opportunity to fly the aircraft one last time?

They say it's not what you know but who you know, and so it was, in the midst of our wintery weather, that we were extremely fortunate to be granted access to RAF Cottesmore during the drawdown courtesy of Gp Capt Gary Waterfall, Force Commander Joint Force Harrier and Cottesmore's Station Commander, and at a time where a carte blanche ban was supposed to have been in place blocking such visits. I won't name names, but you know who you are! Sincere thanks for your intervention!

The first attempt to visit was scuppered by, you guessed it, the weather, but on the morning of Thursday 9th December a small group of us found ourselves at RAF Cottesmore's main gate with high hopes for the day ahead. Initially those hopes were dashed as we discovered that the airfield remained 'Black' due to compacted ice but well, thanks to SATCO (Senior Air Traffic Control Officer) Sqn Ldr Ruth Davies, our host for the morning Flt Lt Kate Read, and Lt Jim Dale who looked after us for the afternoon, it turned in to a very special day.

The morning was spent in the 800 NAS and 1(F) Sqn hangars with an extended wander out on the very snowy Cottesmore ramp where a number of aircraft were sitting either for engine runs or prepared for a day of flying that wouldn't take place. Conditions were perfect and many of us took the opportunity to chat to engineers and pilots, we even bumped in to the UK's last ever Harrier display pilot, Sqn Ldr Steve Kenworthy, hopeful that conditions might improve enough for him to fly a scheduled air test that afternoon. Sadly they didn't, but thanks to SATCO we jumped back in to our cars for the short journey to RAF Wittering, surprisingly free of snow by comparison, despite the bases' relatively close proximity.

With eight aircraft due to depart and return during the afternoon we arrived just in time to see the second group of Harriers, a four-ship, departing, with one aircraft blazing away leaving an impressive display of snow and ice in its wake. We then made our way to a point adjacent with the airfield's ASP, empty of any aircraft at this point, also alongside the taxiway that the returning jets would use. We saw all eight Harriers return and perform the full range of short and vertical landings, hovering and even that old airshow favourite, a bow or two, before, one by one, they landed and taxied in.

It was clear from the handshakes and photographs being taken that for some of these 4(R) Sqn pilots we had witnessed their last Harrier flights and as one of the last jets shut down and its pilot removed his helmet I recognised him as Sqn Ldr Duncan Mason, also a pilot with the BBMF and the man who flew the Spitfire part of the synchro display with the Eurofighter Typhoon during the 2010 airshow season. He was followed in by Wg Cdr Simon Jessett, OC 4(R) Sqn, and Dunc waved, walking over to ask whether the snappers might be able to take some images to mark what was a very special occasion - an iPhone being the only device used to capture the moment up to that point! Naturally we were delighted and as the sun set on some of these pilots' Harrier careers so it did over Wittering, with an impromptu nightshoot ending what had been a quite incredible day and one which left us all feeling very privileged.

The following day saw the planned end to Harrier operations at Wittering full stop. The airfield had been home to the Harrier throughout its UK military career and the first seven jets left individually, each quickly rotating and climbing away in to the December murk for the short flight to Cottesmore. That was until the final jet taxied for departure - callsign Striker 10.

Upon calling for taxi he asked to do so via the southern taxiway, with departure from the mid-point. Tower asked him what his intentions were and he stated that there were photographers to the left of the control tower who'd not seen a Harrier up close all day and he was going to put that right. Karl was in attendance outside the wire with GAR staffer John Higgins and Mark Rouse for company and several pirouettes, various angles, some poses and waving with the canopy open later, Striker 10 taxied out onto the runway and waited for tower to give him his clearance for the very last time.

Lt Cdr Paul Francis then became the final pilot to depart RAF Wittering in a Harrier - or so we thought at the time! The last jet that had been tucked away in the hangar during the previous day's visit eventually made it out and landed at Cottesmore on the 14th December, leaving that honour to Major James "Judge" Dresner RM, using the callsign Cottesmore 06Y. A sad day nevertheless and when the lady in Air Traffic's 'Rover' vehicle came across to inform us that "was it", she was obviously very upset by the whole thing. With less than a week to go, the absolute end was by now very close and was starting to feel uncomfortably real.

Monday 13th December and RAF Cottesmore was shrouded in low cloud, mist and drizzle till about 13.30 when, finally, it started to break. Initially the plan had been to launch a practice for the final day's 16-ship flypasts, but after slipping to 12.45, then 13.20 and finally 14.00, it was canned, but Karl received a text message indicating that 'some flying' would still take place.

When things finally did get underway, the nature of it took those in attendance by surprise - well, Karl at least! While he could count 24 jets on the line from the field at the 22 end, he couldn't see either the 800 NAS or camo 'specials' (a GR.9 uniquely painted as a GR.1 to mark the end of Harrier ops), so when both taxied out together with the 1(F) special, the 4(R) special and a photo-ship T.12 with photographer Jamie Hunter (who's very kindly allowed us to share five of his fantastic captures here) in the back, it came as quite a shock. Especially as he'd been left on his own (literally!) on the northern side of the runway!

Eight departures and nine recoveries took place (no one seemed too sure where the extra jet came from but 'Satan 1' was evidently inbound from Boscombe Down) with most of the recoveries flown as very high, 'nozzley' approaches, that, in Karl's words, "didn't make for particularly nice looking pictures". Still, you've got to be in it to win it and the numerous photographers at the 22 end were at least enjoying some flying after the barren, weather-hit days of the previous couple of weeks.

The following day and the contacts that were made during our Cottesmore / Wittering visits the previous week bore fruit as Karl was invited inside the former to spend some time photographing from the tower. The weather still wasn't too clever but, thankfully, was good enough for the 16 ship flypast practice to take place - albeit not through the Cottesmore overhead, which remained firmly seated in cloud all afternoon, despite the fact that the edge of it hung just to the east of the airfield. Thankfully, it did mean that, with practice complete and a similar forecast looking likely for Wednesday 15th, the final day events looked as if they would take place as planned. Callsigns Cougar, Poison, Jedi and Ninja (all four ships making up Kestrel formation) got airborne while Psycho 1 (the single jet flying to check the weather for the practice flypast), Psycho 2 (a photoship), Satan and COT 06Y, the aforementioned jet from Wittering, were all active.

It had been a remarkable few weeks up to this point. Our desire to cover the Harrier's retirement adequately had taken us to places we would never have imagined, meeting people we never thought we'd meet and witnessing things we really hoped we wouldn't see. All that remained was Wednesday 15th December 2010, the final day for the UK's Harriers.

That story was rightly covered in its own feature: Joint Force Harrier - The Final Chapter

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