The Harrier

NOV 23 2010
The Harrier: Dunsfold Celebrates The Aircraft

Isn’t it horribly typical that events like these are so frequently blighted by the vagaries of our weather in the UK? Having surfaced at 05.00 to make the journey to Karl’s and then onwards to Dunsfold, the most shocking fact was that the forecast, for once, sadly appeared to be accurate – there was fog, and lots of it.

The reason for our journey - an invite to Dunsfold to join in a small celebratory event marking the 50th anniversary of the Harrier's first flight from Dunsfold Aerodrome. It was an occasion that should have been commemorated with a flourish and a look towards the next chapter in the life of a flying machine that has become a true aviation icon. Instead, that life, in UK terms at least, has only weeks to run with the Harrier earmarked for early retirement, with the axe scheduled to fall clinically and swiftly in the middle of December. We certainly had no idea when we photographed the two GR.9s at Dunsfold's Wings and Wheels event in August (the other images you see here) that the end was just around the corner.

This then became a chance to say goodbye – and there were some notable attendees who came along to do just that. John Farley, the test pilot who flew the Short SC.1, the P.1127, the Kestrel, the Harrier and took the Sea Harrier to the air for the very first time. Duncan Simpson – another test pilot who, after a RAF career flying Vampires, Meteors, Venoms, Swifts, Sabres and Hunters left service in 1954 to join Hawkers as a test pilot and flew the Sea Fury, Hunter, P.1127, Kestrel, Harrier, Sea Harrier and Hawk. Ambrose Barber, current Chairman of the Hawker Association was also present; a line-up befitting not just the event and its location but the aircraft itself.

We were surprised to learn on our arrival that the aircraft had only been delayed by 50 minutes and, with Wittering apparently basking in sunshine, there seemed every chance that the fog would lift sufficiently to allow their safe arrival at Dunsfold. So, with some time to kill, I took the opportunity to introduce myself to John Farley, with whom I had already been communicating via phone and email for our planned Harrier content, and we found a quiet office for a sit down and a chat.

I genuinely can’t think of many more engaging, self effacing and fascinating people to talk to than John. Bearing in mind all that he has done and how much he achieved as part of the V/STOL team and of course the Harrier family, he tells it all in a brilliantly matter of fact and, frequently humorous fashion, shunning any suggestion that working on the technology was actually particularly special at all!

John was a test pilot with the RAE’s Aero Flight at Bedford and was sent to Dunsfold to collect the first prototype P.1127 which was being handed over to allow comparative work to take place alongside the Short SC.1 with the aircraft using very different means of achieving V/STOL flight.

“It seems silly now, but back in the mid 1960s no one had the slightest idea whether this was actually the right way to go or not! It’s funny but sometimes people ask me how it is that I can remember specific events from that time and I always say to them, ‘if you’d done what I did, would you forget it?!’

“The P.1127 was essentially a very simple aeroplane. If you were a current fast jet pilot, and I flew the Hunter and instructed on the Jet Provost before becoming a test pilot, you knew how these things worked. There was no operational kit in the thing and it was basically a Hunter with nozzles – the principle behind it was obvious.

“The aircraft I came here to collect was fitted with an engine which had a one hour life. That’s one hour with the nozzles down and 25 hours with the nozzles aft, but the boffins were most interested in hovering of course, so, after 60 minutes usages, the engine had to come out and go back to Bristol for a complete overhaul. Funnily enough they nearly always found that there was one blade missing so a life of one hour was about right!”

John explains that the reason for these problems was that they had to “thrash” the engine to get the aircraft to hover and there really was only just enough power to do that.

“This engine was really quite primitive compared with later versions of the Pegasus and there were a couple of hot-spots which damaged the blades. Development solved that problem and allowed more even heat distribution but, even in the mid-60s, a complete engine overhaul at Bristol’s cost £60,000.”

So, that’s £1000 per minute in direct engine depreciation, a huge cost back then and one which meant that every test flight had to achieve something meaningful.

“If you sat there in the hover for 30 seconds and didn’t have anything to say for yourself the boffins got quite bloody excited, I don’t mind telling you!

“There were other costs too of course so this was an era where time really mattered – everything was time, time, time, time! Nothing wrong with that of course, but it meant that you had to really think about getting the information that was required in the shortest time possible so you needed to work out very precisely what you wanted to achieve and how you were going to execute it – you couldn’t just walk out to the aircraft and take it from there.

“I actually think it made life easier in some regards as we planned the arse off everything and that’s a good discipline to have. We sent pilots off to fly their first vertical take off or vertical landing in a single seater and no simulator so we also had to make sure our briefings were spot on – they basically went and did it based on a description!”

To be at Dunsfold interviewing John Farley was clearly a huge honour for GAR and he admitted that returning to the scene of so much of his test flying is always something he relishes.

“Well, it’s nice isn’t it? Dunsfold is just Dunsfold to me and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know this place. The trees weren’t as big, the roof leaked and the walls weren’t painted back then but it’s still Dunsfold!”

The first flight of the Sea Harrier, from Dunsfold in 1978, is naturally one particularly noteworthy highlight of John’s career and it’s a day he remembers very well.

“I kept making the blokes go back to the hangar to check on things after I performed my walk round. There were quite a few differences to the aircraft externally which I wasn’t expecting, so I think it did take quite a long time before I agreed to fly the bloody thing!

“The thing that impressed me most when I flew it was that it seemed to have a much greater rate of roll and it was also much easier to hover than the GR-series. We had made a change to the reaction control system which worked out really well and you could never take your hand off the stick while hovering an early Harrier.

“I went in to the hover over there (points) and there was a farmer standing next to his Land Rover looking up at me and I thought ‘I must take his picture’ so I reached down for a small camera I had in my flying suit pocket and took a snap of him. I remember thinking ‘you couldn’t do that in a GR!'”

Less than four years later both the Sea Harrier FRS.1 and Harrier GR.3 were playing a key role in helping UK forces regain the Falkland Islands from Argentine occupation. It’s an area we’ll be covering in more depth on GAR in the coming weeks but, from the perspective of the test team who worked on the aircraft, its performance was pleasing, if not surprising.

“We were all delighted that the aircraft didn’t let the chaps down when they needed to use it. We weren’t surprised though because we knew it was a reliable piece of kit and thought it would do the job well. But only people with experience knew that – everyone else thought it was some sort of airshow toy but it wasn’t built to enhance the quality of airshows, it was built to do a military job.

“The World was surprised though and I think a lot of people sat up after the Falklands and realised that there really was something to it, so we were delighted with that.”

John does however express some surprise that all these years later the Harrier has developed in to such a fine and advanced combat aircraft, but mainly due to the fact that it was never really a consideration for the test team back in the 1960s.

“We were only really concerned with getting it to work as a flying machine back then and we weren’t working on the operational side of things at all. Once we did get that sorted however and the GR.1 entered RAF service in 1969, it was clear that it was an aircraft with some cutting edge kit – the first RAF aircraft with a HUD, the first aircraft ever with an Inertial Navigation System and the first aircraft with a moving map display.

“It was advanced then and has remained advanced with all the upgrades over the years and that’s what is sad about the fact that they have decided to retire the aircraft. Actually, I’m not sad – I’m cross. I’m cross that they are going to throw a very good thing away.

“When you get older though I think you get more philosophical and if they want to get rid of it then they’ll get rid of it. There’s no point worrying too much as you only end up in intensive care. It’s a great shame though.”

With the Harriers due overheard any moment we naturally ended the interview at this point and joined the other guests outside, overlooking what remained a very foggy runway, albeit with clear skies about a quarter of a mile adjacent to it. Could they get down? Would it clear?

Sadly the answer to both questions was no – but the two jets, callsign Poison from IV(AC) Squadron at RAF Wittering gave it a damned good go. They must have flown around half a dozen circuits and approaches and, towards the end, actually appeared in the murk with gear down as they attempted to find a gap through which they could safely land. But it wasn’t to be and the aircraft were forced to divert to Manston for fuel and, with the weather potentially deteriorating back at Wittering, they then headed for home, promising to try again two days later.

It was a huge disappointment for everyone in attendance, not least Jim McAllister, Dunsfold’s owner, and his team. IV(AC) Squadron had even sent a team of four engineers down by road and their disappointment was clear to see too, adding of course to that which they were already feeling as they face up to uncertain futures.

I’m delighted to say that two Harriers did make it in to Dunsfold on Thursday 18th and that John Farley was once again in attendance. It was a lower key, more informal event, but the important thing was that they made it and that Dunsfold was therefore able to play its part in marking an important historical event, whilst witnessing the Harrier land on at its birthplace one last time.

Afterwards, Jim McAllister said, “Dunsfold Aerodrome has a rich aviation history and the incredibly versatile Harrier is a significant part of that. This week, 50 years ago on this very aerodrome, aviation history was made with the first vertical take-off and it is with great sadness that today we are witnessing another historical moment as the aircraft performs one of its last flights. An iconic symbol of aviation, the Harrier will continue to be remembered and celebrated at Dunsfold and we would like to thank RAF Wittering and the Harrier team for joining us on this special day.”

Harriers or no Harriers, I wouldn’t have missed this event for the world. To see so many notable Harrier ‘names’ in attendance and to be afforded the chance of sitting down for an interview with John Farley, well, that was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I was extremely proud to have been given.

This piece, and the Harrier history which runs today alongside it, signals the start of GAR’s dedicated Harrier coverage as the aircraft’s retirement draws closer. I am delighted to say that next week we are running a feature courtesy of John Farley himself which looks at comparisons between the P.1127 and Short SC.1. We also have features lined up on flying the Sea Harrier in the Falklands war, the Harrier in foreign service and much more. Hopefully our tribute to the V/STOL icon will do it justice and we hope you enjoy it.

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