The Harrier

DEC 17 2010
The Harrier: Joint Force Harrier's Final Chapter

Where to begin? Wednesday was a rather bizarre experience if I'm completely honest. Definitely one of mixed emotions - sadness that we had seen the final flights of the Harrier in UK military service, excitement and even enjoyment as we were able to see the 16, well 17, jets taxi out and depart from close proximity and disappointment that the Great British weather did its best to spoil the send off planned for a Great British icon.

We arrived at RAF Cottesmore, as requested, at 9am and the weather was predictably grim! Drizzle, low cloud and a bitingly cold wind meant that the coach that would transport us to our base in the 1(F) Sqn hangar made for a relatively warm safe haven as we awaited the final members of the press to arrive, with roughly 30 odd representatives attending in total. This included national and local media as well as photographers and the aviation press.

Having pulled up outside the hangar we entered to find that was also the main base for the entire day's proceedings with a large screen erected and showing Harrier footage from across its long career, four Harriers on display, a GR.1, FA.2 and two GR.9s, sponsors' stands, course photos, memorabilia and models. It was also packed to the rafters with members of Joint Force Harrier, their families and guests. Having dropped our gear in the small area roped off for the Press we took the opportunity to take a walk around, although it was difficult to go very far without bumping in to a familiar face. Best of the early news though came from Sqn Ldr Steve Kenworthy who would be flying a slot in the planned 16-ship formation and, despite the weather conditions, Steve assured us that they would be going flying.

I confess that it was hard to find exactly the right words for Steve and his colleagues. It's wasn't really an "I'm sorry it's going" moment and nor did "good luck" seem especially appropriate. Many people seemed to be walking around in something of a daze and I certainly got the impression that, despite the short timescale within which JFH was being wound-up, that a sense of disbelief at the day actually arriving was one of the prevailing emotions. I felt at times as if anyone not directly involved, us included, was intruding; like we'd gate-crashed a wake.

The big screen showed first one, then a second pilots' briefing, with live footage being broadcast to the packed hangar. Despite slipping by 60 minutes, the met forecast did suggest that the aircraft would be able to get airborne although at this stage no one really knew whether they would actually be able to conduct the tour of RAF stations and towns such as Oakham as per the practice the day before or indeed even get down to low level as a single formation.

It was eventually time for our media handlers, fortunately including one familiar face in the shape of Jim Robinson from RAF Coningsby, to accompany us outside to take a look at the vantage points available to us and decide where to position ourselves for the departures for, once in place, we would be unable to move until all the aircraft had departed. We chose, along with most of our aviation media colleagues, the mound by the taxiway off to the side of the ramp which led down to runway 04 - that which would be in use for take-offs. All of the departing aircraft would be taxiing directly past us and this would also give us the opportunity to photograph them from a head-on perspective as they ventured out.

With two pilots walking out to the T.12 which would be used as a weather check aircraft ahead of the main formation it was time for us to get walking as well and we made our way past the old 4(R) Sqn hangar and up on to the mound which would be our base until the last ever Harrier take-off from RAF Cottesmore. It was beginning to sink in that the end was nigh at this point and what followed was almost a guilty pleasure. From a personal point of view this was the biggest mass launch of a single type that I had witnessed in the flesh and, despite the circumstances, it was thrilling to see each aircraft break out from the line (there were more than 25 Harriers on the ramp in total) and begin its journey to runway 04 and, finally, inevitably, into retirement.

Gp Capt Gary Waterfall, Force Commander Joint Force Harrier, led the way in the beautifully painted GR.1 camo schemed ZG506 and was followed, one by one, by the 15 other aircraft, including of course, the 1(F) Sqn special, the 800 NAS special and one of the two 4(R) Sqn specials. Many of the pilots waved as they taxied past and, while there were plenty of smiles, the rather glum expressions worn by one or two belied what most of them must have been feeling. The Harrier procession seemed almost endless and soon there were pairs departing in clouds of spray while others taxied past, some of these negotiating a conveniently placed puddle at the edge of the ramp with an impressive spray display of their own.

All too soon and it was over. The final pairs take off meant that RAF Cottesmore would never see the iconic Harrier depart under its own power again - allowing for potential museum / sales deliveries of course. We all stood around looking at one another, resigned to the fact that the final chapter was nearing its conclusion and trudged back across to the hangar, perhaps feeling a little guilty that the experience had actually been such an enjoyable one. Soon though came the news that due to inclement weather most of the planned flypasts of other sites had unfortunately been cancelled and that the first aircraft were due back at 14.13. We joined a number of others in securing what seemed like as good a vantage point as any directly adjacent to the ramp and waited.

The weather check 'T-bird' was the first to return, breaking in to the circuit at high speed before flying a short landing and rolling out to the 22 end where it would be greeted by the mass of enthusiasts who travelled lord knows how many miles to say farewell to the Harrier. Eventually they would get a total of 13 out of the 17 aircraft which flew taxiing round for them, with the four specials taxiing to a standstill from the 04 end and parking up opposite one another for the benefit of JFH and the many guests in attendance.

The four formations then returned at roughly five minute intervals which naturally meant that, due to the weather, we never did get to see the 16-ship overflying RAF Cottesmore; a huge shame for all concerned but at least, from the pilots' perspective, it did actually happen and was captured for posterity by Jamie Hunter who took both stills and video footage from a T.12 the day before.

Each formation broke to land and then the aircraft carried out vertical landings at various points along the length of the runway, the distinctive wind down from each Pegasus engine signalling the end for one more Harrier and its pilot. One by one each taxied round the 22 end, with the specials holding on the ground to allow Gp Capt Waterfall to perform the Harrier's last bow. Positioning his aircraft directly in front of the ramp he bowed to the crowds one last time before rotating through 180 degrees and performing the famous Farley Climb, taking him away from the assembled onlookers and into a tight circuit. A vertical landing and, with perfect timing, he taxied in to join the three squadron commanders as they simultaneously shut down their four Pegasus engines. It was over.

Handshakes followed as they waited for the remaining pilots and all the groundcrew to join them before walking in as a group, accompanied by a band of pipers which, along with friends and family, formed a guard of honour. Wives, girlfriends and children broke cover to greet their loved ones in what was clearly an emotional moment for all concerned as three Red Arrows Hawks flew directly overhead, low and fast, in their own tribute to JFH and the aircraft in which so many of its own pilots have plied their trade.

After giving a speech to the packed hangar Gp Capt Waterfall headed outside to complete his media duties and we hurried across to catch what we could of the interviews he was giving as well as grabbing the opportunity to capture a brief word with him ourselves.

"My immediate concentration now is the closing down of the airbase here and in the New Year we turn our attention to the ceremonial closing of the squadrons. The disposal decision regarding the aircraft has not been made so what we'll be doing is putting the aircraft in to a storage type condition so that when that decision is made they will be in an ideal state to allow them to move on.

"Joint Force Harrier has achieved an awful lot. It proved that you can operate together jointly, the Royal Air Force and the Navy, from the (carrier) deck, or from the land, globally. As we now look forward to the Joint Strike Fighter and what it can deliver and what we want it to be for us, there is no doubt that working jointly will be absolutely imperative.

"I'm sorry that we couldn't get the 16 aircraft down on the deck because of the weather, we had to go upstairs above the clouds and it was marvellous but sadly we were forced to split into our groups and make visual recoveries.

"I'm sad obviously, but you know what, I'm happy too because we did what we wanted to do which was to retire the aircraft in front of as many people who have been part of the Harrier's rich story as we could. I personally will walk away feeling proud and knowing that we did all we could."

And what of that final bow and landing?

"I think we all have experiences in our lives that you'll look back on when you've got your grandchildren on your knee and that will certainly be one of mine.

"I've flown the Harrier since I was 21, it's all I've ever known really and I haven't flown anything else. I grew to love it and I'll continue to love it until my dying day."

And that folks was that, the absolute end of the Harrier in UK service. To put on such a hugely successful event under such circumstances was to the great credit of everyone involved with Joint Force Harrier and yet, as we see so often in the UK, the weather nearly put a dampener on the whole thing. Fortunately I think it would have taken a weather event of epic proportions to stop those 16 aircraft getting airborne and, although they didn't make it through in formation, it was an impressive and fitting sight.

It still seems a little surreal that the aircraft has to all intents and purposes gone. Whatever you think of the politics or military thinking behind the decision the Harrier will be sadly missed on many levels. The aircraft achieved a status matched by few others and to have covered its untimely retirement so closely as we have done over the past few weeks has been both a huge honour and a huge disappointment.

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