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The Harrier

DEC 21 2010
The Harrier: Memories

For me the Harrier development programme was special because the aircraft had three sides to it - VSTOL, conventional and military. As a young test pilot over forty years ago it was a tremendous privilege to be part of the development team. Technically, the VSTOL issues were utterly absorbing while the conventional side involved dealing with the several knock on effects of the Pegasus installation. Militarily the equipment fit was also ground breaking for the period and brought its own problems. Indeed I well remember giving a paper to AGARD (the NATO advisory group for aerospace research and development) with the title 'Modern flight instrument displays as a major military aviation flight safety weakness'. This rant being brought on by repeated instances where the HUD (designated in the military spec as the primary flight instrument display) showed pitch and roll attitudes that bore no relation to those of the aircraft - a good gotcha for a young lad in cloud. Happy days.

"Peacetime constraints prevented the Harrier Force in Germany from using minor roads as take off surfaces during field deployment exercises so to cater for soft grass field operations we flew the aircraft without external stores, with the usual peacetime fuel reserves for recovery to the site. This configuration simulated the duration of the Harrier GR.1A when carrying weapons on all the stores positions. Without the additional weight the little jet's acceleration was impressive whereas in a combat configuration the take off roll would have been more sluggish, even from a hard strip because of the increase in all up weight. We could sustain very high sortie rates performing reconnaissance and attack missions at low level with an average duration of about 30 minutes which exercised both the groundcrew's skills, during operational turnarounds, and pilots' stamina while remaining in the cockpit for up to three sorties without a break.

Field deployment operations were exhilarating and, assuming that the training weather minima of 5 km visibility and a cloud base of 1,000 feet could be maintained, we could operate from the field sites and in the 1970s there were few restrictions on low flying in Germany. When the weather was below our peacetime limits however we were unable to fly, morale sagged and time could be spent watching the rain soaking our living and working spaces although oddly enough the Harriers seemed to thrive in the field.

The only difficulties we faced under these conditions were due to the grass surfaces becoming saturated to the point that the turf would not support even a lightly loaded Harrier and the Sappers' resources were stretched by patching our worn operating surfaces. Such teamwork was crucial to the success of these exercise deployments and as a result the bond between the Army's Sappers and Signallers and the men of the RAF Harrier Force was strong.

However living in mud was not inspiring and that first field deployment was a steep learning curve! When given the tasking order at Wildenrath it was customary to fly a simulated operational sortie before positioning for a landing at the site and the first challenge was to find it!

It was axiomatic that the dispersed Harrier Force relied on camouflage and concealment to survive so map reading from a well defined initial point into the site was a demanding procedure while carrying out a decelerating transition at about 200 feet trying to find a 70 feet square metal pad. Fortunately for me that first site was at the edge of a small grass airfield at Buchenhof to the south of the town of Paderborn so finding it wasn't a problem, but the landing was my first into a field site so there was some mental pressure to ensure that I accomplished it safely to preserve personal credibility.

The technique involved a partial jet borne approach allowing the speed to decay until, with the nozzle lever in the hover stop position and the engine running at high power, the aircraft was supported entirely on deflected engine thrust as it was manoeuvred to a point immediately over the centre of the pad. Power was then reduced to allow the aircraft to descend vertically with reference to markers positioned ahead and to the side of the pad.

Having landed successfully I felt that I had arrived in more ways than one! The weather then deteriorated with snow and high winds and, huddled in a tent with the remainder of the squadron, I recall asking myself why had I volunteered for the Harrier when I would have been much more comfortable in a Phantom squadron crew room? The answer was easy when I flew from the site the next day and it became clear that the Harrier was in its element in the field."

Courtesy of the Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust - 'Schoolboy to Station Commander'

If you're a Harrier pilot - apologies for this impertinence from an 'almost' 40 Course Graduate, but I was asked to contribute! Any Harrier pilot can tell you of a number of special moments, me included, but I thought my recollections of my first solo were as exciting and character-building as any I remember.

Two T.4 trips (1:50) with Carvell and OC 233 OCU then you're on for a first GR.3 solo. Briefed to death on the stunning performance improvement of the GR.3 over the T.4 - 65kt STO (Short Take Off) - "watch out for the nod, keep the vane straight, gear up, you'll be fine".

I don't feel fine, but looking round the crewroom neither does anyone else. Step confidently, find jet, start it - "Christ, this buffets like an old tractor (unlike the T.4) - must be U/S". But if I get out now, I'll never get in again - so taxi.

Pre-take off checks, find runway, accel checks. It's now or never - SLAM. This IS quick, missed the 65 knots (by a lot), there's the nod, the vane's out to one side, just got the gear up in time, not dead, PHEW!

Nip up to 40,000ft for a loop, come back and land. Yep, probably the best fun I ever had - before the first VTOL solo anyway. Braking stop barrel roll or crosswind RVTO (Rolling Vertical Take-Off) on the double specs southbound - but that's another story!!

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 then 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.

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.

The Harrier is one of a handful of iconic airplanes that changed aviation forever. Most people can remember the exact time and moment they first saw a fighter jet, hovering motionless, balancing on a cloud of noise. It's an unforgettable sight, and never gets old hat. It's always spectacular.

Moreover, that capability gives this pocket fighter utility in a variety of battle scenarios. I, as have many other Harrier drivers, have operated from small ships, concrete pads, austere sites, grass fields and country roads. Imagine a fighter that can be located within walking distance of the Marines and soldiers who'll be carrying the battle to the enemy the next day? I've actually briefed in a turnip field on a soaking wet aluminium pad and, moments, later lifted into the air to support Marines only a few hundred yards away. With a capability like that, your tactics are only limited by one's imagination. And the enemy can be kept guessing where they are being hidden.

I am pleased to say that I have flown nine variants of Vertical/Short Takeoff and Landing aircraft, including the Russian YAK-38U. There are obviously advantages and disadvantages between the variants, but they all are amazing "pilot's aircraft." You have to actually fly the airplane, rather than turn control over to a bank of mission and flight computers. In the right, skilled hands, the airplane can do almost anything. It can fly backwards, sideways, climb straight up, accelerate like a bat out of hell, and turn on a dime.

I'm very fortunate to still operate a civilian version of one of the best of the best - the Sea Harrier. Each time I fly it I grin from ear to ear and have to pinch myself to see if I'm dreaming or awake. There can't be many people who own and operate an airplane they flew operationally, I'm sure the number is actually quite small. But I count my blessings each time I am able to strap in to the cockpit and hear that distinctive whine as the GTS and Pegasus wind up to idle and the entire airframe shakes, like a bucking bronco waiting to be let out of the gate.

No other airplane will ever do what the Harrier has done. It was the first and by all accounts the best, and as other VSTOL variants strive to replace it, the Harrier's intrinsic simplicity will become more and more obvious. It's a beautiful design and is still my favourite aircraft of all time.

I think one of the abiding memories of flying the Harrier for me will be the transitional period when I was posted from being a Flight Commander on 1(Fighter) Squadron to being a Flight Commander on 800 Naval Air Squadron. I was in Afghanistan at Kandahar Airfield when I heard I was to be posted to 800 and my final sortie was a close air support mission of a convoy from Lashkar Gah across the sandy deserts to the North and West of 'Lash'.

Myself and Lieutenant Commander Tobyn Everitt launched on a typically hot day with blue skies and very high cirrus clouds. We shepherded the convoy for around four hours before getting a call (I was low on fuel) that a dust storm had hit Kandahar and that we should hold fuel for Bagram, hundreds of miles to the North East. Unfortunately I didn't have this fuel and had no choice but to recover in the dust storm to the 4000' of runway that Kandahar had at that time. I configured the aircraft with Short Take Off or Landing Flap and as much nozzle as power would allow and came down the instrument approach at around 90 knots. As I approached the airfield in conditions of extremely low visibility in the dust, I saw the looming tail of a transport aircraft that I knew to be parked to the South of the runway and I aimed a bit to the North until I was able to make out the runway, which I was extremely pleased to see as I didn't have enough fuel for another approach!

A few weeks later, having returned to the UK and joined 800 Naval Air Squadron, I was on my way to Crete to join the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious. A day later I blasted off and recovered to the carrier in the Mediterranean for the first time. Launching from a carrier is one of the most exhilarating things you will ever do in an aeroplane and the fact the Harrier does it without a catapult is further testament to this incredible aircraft's flexibility. When stood alongside the 686 foot aircraft carrier it looks enormous. Not so when recovering to it in a Harrier. It looks like it is the size of a postage stamp, and finding yourself hovering alongside at 90 feet, looking into flyco on the front of the superstructure, you are again struck at this amazing aircraft's abilities.

For me this few weeks' activity, from an austere strip in the desert of Afghanistan to the deck of an aircraft carrier on the ocean, sums up how amazing this aircraft is. When you consider that it operated from grass or tin strips in woodland hides or from short stretches of autobahn, was the only aircraft that could be deployed effectively to help liberate the Falklands in 1982, and has played central roles in all of the Bosnia, Iraq, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan conflicts, it is easy to see why this aircraft is so iconic. Its conception and design is a thing of genius and it has been an honour and a privilege to serve on it.

The Harrier is a true icon and stands testament to the innovation and excellence of British design and engineering, and the skill and courage of our airmen.

It has had a truly distinguished service with both the RAF and the RN, from the South Atlantic to the skies over Afghanistan. It now takes its place in history as one of aviation's greats.

It seems most fitting to close with the words below. On the 14th December John Farley gave a lecture, booked months before, at RNAS Yeovilton. John decided to turn this event in to a wake for the Harrier and his proofreader, Val Bromley, wrote the poem below to mark the occasion and we reproduce it with their permission.

We must also mention the sad and untimely passing of BBC news correspondent Brian Hanrahan. Brian was clearly a hugely respected reporter and is probably best known for his coverage of the Falklands War where he famously counted the returning Sea Harriers to ensure he could report the story while circumnavigating MoD restrictions.

He said: "I'm not allowed to say how many planes joined the raid, but I counted them all out and I counted them all back. Their pilots were unhurt, cheerful and jubilant, giving thumbs-up signs."

Sadly Brian was not well enough to cover last week's commemorations at RAF Cottesmore, but he wasn't forgotten as Gp Cpt Gary Waterfall mentioned him both in the pre-flight briefing and on his aircraft's radio as the Harriers shut down for the last time, quoting Brian's famous words on both occasions.

Brian Hanrahan 22 March 1949 – 20 December 2010 Very freely adapted by Val Bramley from “The Victor Crew-Chief’s Lament”,
Author Anon
The Harrier stood at the Pearly Gates
So proud, erect and bold
But meekly asked St Peter
For admission to the Fold.
St Peter asked “What have you done
“That I should ring the bell?”
“I was a British Harrier
And served my country well”
The Gates swung quickly open
And there he saw inside
A hundred and more Harriers
With God standing by their side
God smiled widely at him
And clasped him to his breast
“Oh Welcome mighty Harrier
Come take your well-earned rest.”

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