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The Harrier Jump Jet

The Harrier Jump Jet – a True Icon of the Skies

FOR those who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, there was one military jet that signified British technology at its finest.

Image by Capture a Second

(📸  by Capture a Second)

It was the Falklands War in 1982 that brought the Harrier Jump Jet to the attention of the public, with many books written about the importance of the Hawker Siddeley-developed aircraft to the British successfully retaking the islands in the South Atlantic.

The USP of the Harrier was the VSTOL (very short take-off and landing) technology – the jet had the ability to change its direction of thrust allowing it to take off and land much in the same way as a helicopter. Its ability to impress is still evident today, even in a promotional video dating back to 1968.

The Harrier served both the RAF and the Navy for more than 40 years before its sudden removal from operations in 2010 following the governmental strategic defence and security review (SDSR). The decision was contentious with inter-service politics sure to have played a role; many believing the RAF had out-manoeuvred the Royal Navy which was desperate to keep the Harriers and retain HMS Ark Royal until a replacement was built; the aircraft carrier’s decommissioning also being brought forward in the SDSR.

But politics aside, the Harrier’s demise in the British military was the end of an era for a jet that was a phenomenal design, and a tribute to both British engineering excellence and the expertise of those who piloted the iconic aircraft.   

It was the 1950s when designers and engineers started seriously experimenting with the concept of VSTOL technology, with both British and American aircraft innovators keen to develop a jet capable of limiting the requirement of a runway for take-off and landing. The Bristol Engine Company were developing a vectored-thrust engine that had the ability to manipulate the direction of thrust, and in 1957 they informed Sir Sydney Camm of Hawker Aircraft of their project.

Camm was labelled by The Times as “one of the most consistently successful designers the aircraft industry has ever had”, and he had helped put Hawker to the front line of aircraft manufacture – in the 1930s no fewer that 84 per cent of RAF aircraft were of Hawker/Camm design.  

Six Pre-production Hawker Siddeley Harrier GR1s pictured at the manufacturer's test facility at Dunsfold aerodrome, Surrey, in 1968.

(Six Pre-production Hawker Siddeley Harrier GR1s pictured at the manufacturer's test facility at Dunsfold aerodrome, Surrey, in 1968.)

In the late 1950s a design was developed for a light tactical support fighter, with a Pegasus Vectored-thrust Engine which enabled the thrust to be directed rearward for propulsion, downward for lift, and forward for braking; effectively the engines four nozzles could be rotated to allow the aircraft to switch its thrust to whatever action was required. 

The concept remained the same from when the first prototype P.1127 flew in 1960 to when the last Harrier left RAF Cottesmore in December 2010.

Image by Capture a Second

(📸 by Capture a Second)

The attraction of the Harrier was clear during the Cold War – an aircraft capable of landing literally anywhere would allow the RAF to forward deploy to locations less vulnerable to a Soviet attack. Added to that was the fact that the military were working on the assumption that most stations and airfields would have been destroyed in nuclear strikes; and keeping any aircraft operational would potentially give NATO forces an ‘edge’ in any conflict.

The first Harriers – GR1s – entered RAF service in April 1969 under No 1 (F) Squadron at RAF Wittering, and during their 40-plus years’ service they were also operated by No. 3 Squadron, No. 4 Squadron and No. 20 Squadron.

Two 1 Squadron Harrier GR1s during Exercise SNOWY OWL, a field deployment exercise held in March 1972

(Two 1 Squadron Harrier GR1s during Exercise SNOWY OWL, a field deployment exercise held in March 1972)

They came to public prominence in the Falklands War forty years ago, with the Harrier arguably the most important aircraft operated by the military. The advantages, however, were far from simply just logistical in that they could land on an aircraft carrier with minimum fuss; they were impressive in a combat role and were crucial in air-to-air combat against Argentinean aircraft – protecting both the Task Force and ground troops.

In principle the Argentineans had air superiority with only a limited number of British aircraft aboard HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible, with 20 Sea Harriers taken on the Task Force. These numbers were boosted by RAF Harrier GR3s operated from Hermes and additional Sea Harriers, but the RAF force required some serious work from ground crews to turn them into aircraft suitable to operate from sea vessels.

Work on the navalisation mods commenced at RAF Wittering including anti-corrosion treatments, – South Atlantic sea water is a different beast to a bit of European rain – shackles on the outrigger wheels, changes to the fuel control units, active nosewheel steering and, perhaps most importantly, the introduction of sidewinder missile capability. 

1 Squadron Harrier GR3 takes off from the airfield at Port Stanley during the Falkland War.

(1 Squadron Harrier GR3 takes off from the airfield at Port Stanley during the Falkland War.)

It was a round-the-clock, seven-day week operation with No.1 Squadron pilots practising deck landing and ski-jump take offs at RNAS Yeovilton before the GR3s departed St Mawgan in Cornwall on May 4 for Wideawake Airfield on Ascension Islands, with in-flight refuelling by Victor tankers.

Transported from Ascension aboard the Atlantic Conveyer – a vessel that was later sunk with the loss of 12 sailors – they were straight into action once transferred to Hermes, and what they lacked in numbers, they more than made up for in skill, with the vector-thrust engines allowing for supreme aerial agility. They could switch effortlessly from near Mach One Speed to stop and turn on the proverbial sixpence; up against Mirage pilots who had never encountered similar aircraft, they were just too agile.

The Harriers were adept in dogfights and despite being slower than some of the Argentinean fighters, the British pilots were more than a match, their skills honed in NATO exercises. They also had the advantage of the sidewinder missile in their armoury; the missiles could be fired from any position without the need to have an enemy aircraft effectively in your sights.

Their equipment and training allowed the Harriers and their pilots to dominate air-to-air battles, and of the ten aircraft lost in the campaign, none were brought down by enemy aircraft.

The most notable RAF loss was the Harrier that was hit by a blowpipe SAM, Flight Lieutenant Jeff Glover of No.1 Squadron ejecting into the water near Port Howard on the West Falklands. He was rescued at gunpoint by the invaders and became the only British POW of the war, spending around seven weeks as captive both on the Falklands and in Argentina before his release.

GR5 Harriers were deployed during operations in Iraq and Bosnia, with further improvements made seeing GR7s and GR9s serving over Kosovo and Afghanistan.

Former pilot Keith Campbell described the Harrier "Capable of launching vertically and accelerating to nearly supersonic, taking out the bad guys and slowing to zero knots airspeed and landing vertically in a forest clearing or on a carrier in a storm at night was all in a day’s work for the Harrier Force."

Image by Capture a Second

(📸 by Capture a Second)

With over 40 years' of service the Harrier retired on 15th December 2010 and will live long in the memory as a true icon of the skies.

Image by Capture a Second

(📸 by Capture a Second)

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