The Harrier

NOV 23 2010
The Harrier: The History of an Icon

It seems bizarre to think that the Harrier will soon be gone forever from the UK's shores. It was one of those announcements that was so unexpected that you almost can't believe that it is actually going to happen. The aircraft has been such an important fixture for the past four decades and formed such a crucial part of our military capability that filling the Harrier's shoes as a ground attack platform will not be easy; not bad for an aircraft which began its life way back in 1957.

The origins of VTOL and V/STOL (Vertical Take Off and Landing or Vertical / Short Take Off and Landing) can however be traced back much further. Nikola Tesla - a Serbian physicist and electrical engineer - patented a method (utilising a tilting rotor) of achieving vertical take-off and transition to and from horizontal flight - with a vertical landing no less - as far back as January 1928, believe it or not.

Numerous attempts to develop practical aircraft with vertical take-off and landing capabilities were tried in the years that followed. A notable contribution to V/STOL was made by Rolls-Royce's 1953 Thrust Measuring Rig, better known to most people as "The Flying Bedstead". This platform led to the first dedicated VTOL powerplants, those used in the British research aircraft, the Short SC.1 which used no fewer than five engines in total - four vertical lift engines and one for forward thrust.

The gyrodyne was another British VTOL invention and used a rotor which was powered during take-off and landing but which then free-wheeled during flight, again with separate engines providing forward thrust. Starting with the Fairey Gyrodyne, this later evolved into the much larger twin-engined Fairey Rotodyne; which used tip-jets to power the rotor on take-off and landing but which then utilised two Napier Eland turboprops to drive conventional propellers for propulsion.

And so to 1957 when Sir Sydney Camm and Ralph Hooper of Hawker Aviation and Sir Stanley Hooker of the Bristol Engine Company started design work on what eventually became the household name it is today. It was actually Hooker's BEC which sat down with Camm to brief him on a project to combine their existing Olympus and Orpheus engines to produce a fan jet with directable thrust. But Hawker's own vision led them to the idea of using the engine, to be known as the Pegasus, as the basis for a design to meet a NATO specification for a Light Tactical Support Fighter.

It seems horribly ironic now in light of the SDSR but this was an era of significant defence cuts in the UK, as proposed by the 1957 Defence White Paper and, as a result, Hawker was forced to secure significant development funding for the project from the USA. Much of the early model testing was actually conducted by NASA at Langley Field and company test pilots Bill Bedford and Hugh Merewether even travelled to the USA to fly the Bell X-14 as part of this process. In March 1959, the company's board of directors (by now Hawker Siddeley) decided to fund production of two P.1127 prototypes and later, in 1959, the British Ministry of Supply agreed to sign a contract for them both.

The first prototype P.1127, XP831, was completed in July 1960 and commenced static testing, while in October the Pegasus flight engine was made available for the first time. The first tethered flight took place later that month and, having been shown the aircraft for the first time, was the subject of a memorable quote from Hawker's then Chief Test Pilot Bill Bedford:

"I suppose I was impressed by seeing a rather ugly looking aeroplane situated on a gridded platform. With my ankle in plaster, because someone had driven me into a tree in a motor car, I finished up with the extraordinary medical category of 'fit, civil test pilot, tethered hovering only!'"

The second prototype made its first conventional take-off on 7th July 1961 and the two aircraft proceeded to explore the all important envelope between vertical take off and wing borne flight which was finally achieved on 8th September; a truly groundbreaking moment for all concerned and the first time that a transonic aircraft had transitioned successfully to and from VTOL flight.

With four more prototypes ordered, this period saw the Pegasus engines subject to significant development but, other than this, the first four P.1127s were broadly similar, while the fifth, XP980, saw the introduction of a taller fin and also an anhedral tailplane; more familiar with the Harrier as we know it now. The first vertical carrier landing was performed on HMS Ark Royal in 1963 with Bill Bedford at the controls, and the final P.1127, XP984, introduced the swept wing and was eventually fitted with the Pegasus 5 powerplant and functioned as the prototype Kestrel - the name given to the next generation of development aircraft.

The first three P.1127s were all involved in accidents; the second and third were lost during development, while the first prototype (the aforementioned XP831) famously crashed at the Paris Air Show in 1963 but was fully repaired and resumed development flying. All the pilots involved in these incidents survived.

The Kestrel FGA.1 which first flew on 7th March 1964 was strictly a development aircraft with only nine examples built. These equipped the Tripartite Evaluation Squadron which was formed at RAF West Raynham in Norfolk and consisted of ten pilots from the RAF, USA and West Germany. While one aircraft was lost, six of the remaining airframes were transferred to the USA for evaluation by its Army, Air Force and Navy, these being designated XV-6A Kestrel.

At the same time as the P.1127 was being developed, Hawker had also started on a design for a supersonic vertical lander - the Hawker Siddeley P.1154. Although this project was cancelled in 1965, the RAF did begin looking at a simple upgrade of the Kestrel for service usage - namely the P.1127 (RAF) as it would be designated. Sixty production aircraft were ordered by the Royal Air Force in 1966 and the first pre-production aircraft were actually flying by mid-1967, known by then as the Harrier GR.1.

The first production model Harrier GR.1 flew on 28 December 1967 and entered service with the RAF on 1 April 1969, with construction taking place at factories in Kingston upon Thames in southwest London and at Dunsfold in Surrey.

Harrier GR.1 was soon followed by the improved GR.1A (which featured the Pegasus 102 engine) and then the GR.3 (with Pegasus 103 and additional avionics giving it a totally new nose). A total of 114 GR.1s were delivered with the T.2, T.2A and T.4 the two-seat trainer variants, also fully combat capable. Existing GR.1s were actually rebuilt to GR.3 standard, while further examples were built from scratch with production of this version completed by the early 1980s, save for the construction of a final batch to replace combat losses in the Falklands War.

The Royal Air Force didn't monopolise UK Harrier usage in the earliest years of the aircraft's life, just as it hasn't at the end, and we must also tell the tale of the Sea Harrier - the version of the jet perhaps most famous for its exploits in the Falklands campaign of 1982. The Royal Navy was transitioning through its own period of austerity when a planned CVA-01 class of large aircraft carriers was cancelled in the 1960s, apparently ending the Navy's involvement in fixed-wing carrier aviation as its World War II era carriers were gradually retired. During this time the Royal Navy had began to consider a requirement for a V/STOL carrier-based interceptor to replace the mighty de Havilland Sea Vixen and, as mentioned previously, the P.1127 made the first vertical landing on HMS Ark Royal as part of this process.

So it was, in the early 1970s, that a new concept emerged - that of "through deck cruisers". Having very deliberately avoided the term "aircraft carrier", largely for political reasons in order to increase the chances of funding (the irony surrounding the UK's current purchase of two new future carriers is increasingly obvious!), these would be considerably smaller than the previously sought CVA-01 class of ship. Eventually ordered as the Invincible class in 1973 they were, and indeed are, immediately recognisable as being aircraft carriers of course! A ski-jump was added to the end of the 170-metre deck which enabled them to operate a small number of V/STOL jets, so a navalised variant of the Harrier was developed by Hawker Siddeley to serve on the new ships; this becoming the Sea Harrier.

The Royal Navy ordered 24 Sea Harrier FRS.1 (Fighter, Reconnaissance, Strike) aircraft in 1975 and by the time test pilot John Farley had taken the prototype Sea Harrier aloft for the first time at Dunsfold on 20th August 1978 the order had been already increased to 34 aircraft. Two seat training versions of the FRS.1 were designated T.4N and the Sea Harrier was officially declared operational in 1981 onboard the first Invincible class ship, appropriately HMS Invincible. Additional aircraft joined HMS Hermes later that year. During this time incidentally, Hawker Siddeley had become part of British Aerospace following their 1977 merger.

Both carriers, with their Sea Harriers and supporting RAF GR.3s, took part in the Falklands War of 1982, with the Sea Harriers performing the primary air defence role and a secondary ground attack role. The RAF Harrier GR.3 provided the main ground attack force with a total of 28 Sea Harriers and 14 Harrier GR.3s deployed in theatre. The Sea Harrier squadrons shot down 27 Argentine aircraft in air-to-air combat with no air-to-air losses, although two Sea Harriers were lost to ground fire and a further four to accidents. Out of the total Argentine air losses, no less than 28% were shot down by Harriers. There can be little doubt that without the Sea Harrier and the Harrier the Falklands could not have been reclaimed.

GAR spoke to Cdr Tim Gedge AFC, a former Sea Harrier squadron Commanding Officer:

"The Royal Navy procured the Sea Harrier on a shoestring but what a capability we bought. Just two years after commissioning we were operating in conditions in the South Atlantic that frankly would have been out of the question for conventional aircraft. Immense seas causing deck movement way out of all normal limits for much of the time and yet the Harriers were still able to operate. We took some pilots with minimal at sea training and in several cases they flew to the deck for their first ever deck landing in a war zone and without any diversion airfield within four thousand miles. No other aircraft or system can claim this and on top of that also claim the incredible 27 to zero air-to-air kills that were achieved in the Falklands conflict."

Lessons learned from the Sea Harrier's performance during the conflict led to approval for an upgrade of the fleet to FRS.2 (actually later known as FA.2) standard and this was granted in 1984. The prototype took to the air in September 1988 and a contract was signed for 29 upgraded aircraft in December that same year, while in 1990 the Royal Navy ordered 18 new-build FA.2s at a cost of around 12 million per aircraft. The first of these was delivered on 2nd April 1993 and an additional four upgraded aircraft were ordered in 1994 while seven T.4N trainers were upgraded with FA.2 instrumentation and designated T.8.

To follow the GR.3's genesis to Advanced Harrier - GR.5, GR.7 and ultimately GR.9 - we must actually go back as far as 1973 and return to Bristol which was testing a new version of the Pegasus engine - one which would not actually fit in the existing Harrier's airframe!

The Pegasus 15 was more powerful and had a larger diameter so a joint USA/UK team completed a document refining plans for an Advanced Harrier which was seen as a replacement for both the original UK and USA Harriers and the USA's McDonnell Douglas A-4 Skyhawks. Unofficially named "AV-16", the aim was to double both the AV-8's (the USA Harrier designation) payload and range. However, with defence spending taking a further hit, in 1975 the UK was forced to withdraw from the project and, unwilling to go it alone, the USA dropped the idea shortly afterwards.

But, some interest remained on that side of the Atlantic so McDonnell Douglas, completely on its own, decided to continue work on a slightly less ambitious plan, albeit catering solely to US military needs. They used data collected from during the AV-16's development, although they dropped some items, (notably the larger Pegasus engine!) and worked on an improved Harrier to be made specifically for the U.S. Marine Corps and centred entirely on its specific need for a light ground attack aircraft with increased payload and range. Harrier II development was officially sanctioned by the Defense Department in 1976 and to test a new design, two AV-8As were modified with the new composite wing, lift improvement devices, modified intakes and redesigned exhaust nozzles. These modified AV-8s received the designation YAV-8B and were flight tested from 1978 until a further development contract was awarded in 1979.

Then, in the early 1980s, the British commenced a new phase of development work of its own, this to examine replacing the Harrier's wing. Having taken a closer look at the work being carried out by McDonnell Douglas it was decided that, in part, it required further modification and agreement was reached between the two parties to incorporate the British designed leading edge root extensions; this leading to development contracts being signed and aircraft being ordered.

McDonnell Douglas and British Aerospace produced the Harrier II as a joint venture with all noses and wings being produced at McDonnell Douglas' facilities in St Louis, Missouri and the rest of the aircraft by British Aerospace (then BAE Systems) at Kingston and Dunsfold. Final assembly was carried out in both countries but neither ever manufactured the whole Harrier II.

The first Royal Air Force Harrier II aircraft entered service as the Harrier GR.5, with the first taking to the air in April 1985. The original aluminium alloy fuselage was modified and the new build made extensive use of composites, this providing a significant weight reduction and increased payload / range. An all-new one-piece wing provided around 14% more area and increased thickness along with the strengthened leading edges which met the UK's higher bird strike requirements. Everything changed inside the cockpit too and the GR.5 featured full night operability with Head-up display (HUD), head-down display, digital moving map, Inertial Navigation System (INS) and a hands-on throttle and stick (HOTAS) system.

Forty one GR.5s were produced for the RAF and, over the passage of time and ongoing avionics / powerplant upgrades, became the GR.5A, GR.7, GR.7A, T.10, GR.9, T.12 and finally, the definitive UK Harrier - the GR.9A. The Harrier GR.7 to GR.9 upgrade was known as the Integrated Weapons Programme (IWP) and allowed the carriage of the latest smart weapons and the introduction of a new Inertial Navigation and Global Positioning System (INS/GPS). Brimstone, Maverick, Paveway III and Paveway IV missiles were all integrated and, more recently, the UK's Harriers were cleared to use the Lockheed Martin Sniper targeting pod. In July 2007, BAE Systems completed the last of seven Harrier GR.9 replacement rear fuselages for the UK MoD with these components designed and built as part of a three year 20 million programme.

The Harrier has been flown very much as a joint operation between the RAF and RN in recent years, largely in part due to the Sea Harrier's withdrawal from service in 2006 with the final aircraft, from 801 Naval Air Squadron, decommissioned on 29th March. The plans for the Sea Harrier's retirement were announced in 2002 with the MoD arguing that, with the aircraft's replacement, the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35 Lightning II), due to enter service in 2012 (another fact which seems remarkable now), that an unrealistic amount of expenditure would be required to upgrade the fleet for only six years of service. So, after seeing service in the Falklands, the 1991 Gulf War, in the Bosnian conflict and the 1999 NATO campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the UK Sea Harrier force was no more. It was a decision which is still lamented by many to this day, not just due to the incredible capability of the FA.2's Blue Vixen radar but as another huge blow to UK carrier aviation. However the Indian Navy operates Sea Harriers to this day and has continued to update their equipment fit.

The Harrier GR.5 did not see operational usage but the GR.7 was at the cutting edge of the RAF's contribution to Operation Allied Force, the NATO mission in Kosovo, and also played a prominent role in Op TELIC, the UK contribution to the US-led war against Iraq in 2003, with GR.7s participating in strike and close air support missions throughout the conflict. More recent times of course have seen the GR.7 and then GR.9 deployed operationally as part of Op HERRICK in Afghanistan. Joint Force Harrier, made up of both RAF and RN personnel and units, flew from Afghan for nigh on five years straight as part of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) before being replaced in theatre by the Tornado GR.4 in 2009.

And so we arrive at October 19th 2010 - the day on which Prime Minister David Cameron announced, as part of the UK's SDSR, that the Harrier Force faced the axe and would be gone by March 2011. Politics aside it was a decision which shocked the Harrier community and bemused strategists. It has also naturally resulted in the Harrier being directly compared with the Tornado GR.4, as many perceive the decision made as one which forced us to choose between the aircraft - you can have one or the other, but not both. That may or may not be the way in which the process actually worked but, as one Harrier pilot subsequently said to me, "It's not right that we should have found ourselves in that position anyway - the two aircraft have different capabilities."

Others are more forthcoming, including Tim Gedge:

"Scrapping the Harrier must rank as one of the greatest aviation follies of all time, probably ranking ahead of grounding the TSR2. Here we are taking arguably the world's best and most cost effective attack aircraft and ditching it in favour of the Tornado, a significantly less capable air support aircraft that costs far more to operate. Who, I seriously wonder, advised the Prime Minister on this?

"But looking back a mere thirty years to 1980 when I had the undoubted privilege of commanding the Royal Navy's first front-line Sea Harrier squadron I am, of course, looking at this from a very particular viewpoint. One from which I can see the huge impact that the Harrier family has made operationally during the last forty odd years and which has led to the latest GR.9 version continuing to wield such a devastating punch when required.

"But it would be wrong to dwell overly long on past history. The Harrier family of aircraft has developed from the very simple but rugged attack aircraft of the '60s into the hugely capable GR.9 version of today. Along the way the Sea Harrier FA.2 broke entirely new ground and was one of the world's most capable air-to-air fighters of all times with a weapon system the envy of everyone. Operations in former Yugoslavia and Iraq more than proved this capability. The combination of the Blue Vixen radar and the Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air missile (AMRAAM) gave this diminutive but highly effective aircraft a real edge in air warfare. And yet strangely the Royal Navy gave this up to concentrate of developing the attack capability together with the Royal Air Force in what was to become Joint Force Harrier.

"This joint force more than proved its worth in Afghanistan over more than four continuous years: the folly of giving this up in favour of the Tornado now defies belief at a time when we really need the precision and quick reaction capability that the Harrier possesses. Here we are now about to spend yet more of our scarce defence funds on the more expensive and less effective aircraft but are also denying ourselves as a nation any capability at all to operate and project force from the sea for the foreseeable future. At any time this would surely be a very strange decision. Now, when we are all striving to make every last penny count, it must surely rank as folly in the extreme!"

Strong words indeed and we're publishing them not with any disrespect meant to our many friends on the Tornado GR.4 force which we know is performing superbly in Afghanistan but to highlight the strength of feeling the decision to axe the Harrier has generated, not just from former Royal Navy Sea Harrier pilots like Tim, but from many other walks of life too.

As enthusiasts we'll miss it terribly. Not as much as the many men and women on Joint Force Harrier who find themselves facing uncertain futures however, and we can certainly only hope that we don't find ourselves missing the aircraft in capability terms. Time will tell on that front.

Despite its premature retirement from active service the Harrier / Sea Harrier has had a long and hugely successful career in both the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. As a piece of British design ingenuity it will probably forever remain unrivalled and will go down in the aviation annals as a true icon. Fortunately the aircraft remains in service with the USMC, the Spanish Navy, the Indian Navy, the Italian Navy and the Thai Navy so chances to see the Harrier are not lost completely but, from a UK perspective, it is almost time to say thank you and goodbye to one of the most incredible aircraft of the past fifty years.

Global Aviation Resource's photographic and written work is subject to copyright and may not be reproduced or distributed in any form without express written permission.

If you would like to discuss using any of our imagery or feature content please contact us.