Mick Britton mourns the passing of the Harrier from RAF service.
Although former Defence Secretary Dennis Healey is generally considered something of a bete noire by UK aviation historians because of his cancellation of TSR2, he showed commendable foresight in selecting the Harrier, in addition to the F-4 Phantom, to re-equip the Royal Air Force’s front line in the mid-1960s, by placing an order for 48 examples (to supplement an initial buy of 12) in 1966. Deliveries commenced to 1 Squadron on April 1, 1969, at RAF Wittering in Cambridgeshire, ever since known as the ‘Home of the Harrier’.
[img src=1395 align=left]The squadron officially stood up on October 1 and its initial operations are recounted by one of its ‘old boys’, Michael Shaw, in his book entitled ‘No 1 Squadron’ published by Ian Allan in 1986. He notes that prior to conversion the pilots went to RAF Tern Hill to gain hovering experience on helicopters as there was no trainer version of the Harrier then in service. To compensate for this, pilots under conversion made their first flights in company with a Hunter flown by one of the four qualified Harrier instructors (who had received instruction from Hawker test Pilot Duncan Simpson). With work-up behind schedule due to problems with the Pegasus engine having a tendency to shed blades, which led to the Harrier being grounded for two months while Rolls-Royce attempted to sort the problem, Wg Cdr Ken Hayr arrived to take command of 1 Squadron in January 1970 with a brief to “get the squadron into shape”. This was done on a detachment to Cyprus in the spring where the better weather allowed them to catch up on the lost flying hours and indulge in a bit of ‘showing off’ (the first ever Harrier diamond nine being flown at RAF Akrotiri). The squadron arrived back a much slicker team and launched into a summer of short field exercises designed with the emphasis on mobility. After a further visit to Akrotiri for an armament practice camp, the squadron was declared fully operational in September and celebrated with a four aircraft role display at the Farnborough Airshow.
[img src=1396 align=right]Meanwhile deliveries of aircraft to RAF Germany had commenced, where IV(AC) Squadron reformed on type at RAF Wildenrath in June with four pilots being posted in from 1 Squadron to provide a core of experience. This was the first of three squadrons planned for RAF Germany; the second (20 Squadron) re-formed in December, at about the same time as conversion became easier with the introduction of the twin-seat T2 into service. The third, 3 Squadron, formed in January 1972.
[img src=1398 align=left]By 1977 20 Squadron had converted to the Jaguar and a subsequent reorganisation of RAF Germany’s basing policy saw the remaining two Harrier squadrons relocate to RAF Gutersloh, which was closer to the inner German border and thus the most vulnerable to attack, the logic being that any build-up to war would see the Harriers dispersed into the field. It was in Germany that the revolutionary application of Vertical/Short Take-Off and Landing operations to the tactics of air warfare was taken to the absolute limit on field exercises with Harriers operating from dispersed sites, not only in forests but in all manner of locations from rural barns to supermarket car parks! The squadrons got used to living rough in the field alongside the Army, wearing combat dress rather than uniform with the ground crews having to be multi-skilled and prepared to fight if necessary. It would be another ten years before this practice became the norm on all RAF main operating bases.
[img src=1397 align=right]The Harrier’s effectiveness in the close air support (CAS) role was amply demonstrated in Exercise ‘Big Tee’, held in the Stanford Battle Area in Norfolk over a three-day period in May 1974 when 12 Harriers, comprising those of 1 Squadron augmented by others from Germany flew 364 sorties, delivering 1.1 million pounds of bombs, 13,000 rockets and 77,000 Aden cannon rounds. Another eight years were to elapse before it was to prove itself in combat in the Falklands War, into which 1 Squadron was pitched in May 1982 operating from HMS Hermes. The squadron is credited with turning the tide at the Battle of Goose Green with its dusk attack on the Argentine artillery, which had the assaulting Paras pinned down, undermining the enemy’s morale and leading to its surrender next morning. This was at the cost of one of the Harriers downed by anti-aircraft fire. The ground attacks were generally carried out delivering Cluster Bomb Units, 1,000lb bombs and two inch rockets or strafing with the Aden cannon. By the end of the conflict they had also carried out the first successful attacks with Laser Guided Bombs (LGB) on an artillery position defending Port Stanley. Of the ten Harrier GR3s flown in theatre, three were lost in action and a fourth so badly damaged as to be written off. At the end of hostilities the remaining aircraft went ashore and formed the Harrier Detachment (later named 1435 Flight) assuming a new air defence role equipped with AIM-9G Sidewinders, for which they had received wiring before leaving the UK in the expectation that they may have been needed as Sea Harrier replacements.
[img src=1400 align=left]Enter the Harrier II
The GR3s remained in theatre until 1985 when the air defence role was assumed by F-4 Phantoms from 23 Squadron. Four new-build Harriers were duly ordered as replacements to maintain the fleet at its previous level, bringing the total RAF purchase of first-generation Harriers to 118, but by then a second-generation aircraft was on its way, the UK Government having signed in August 1981 a Memorandum of Understanding with the USA to purchase the Harrier II (AV-8B) that had been developed by McDonnell Douglas. Designated the GR5 in RAF service, 62 examples were purchased and built under licence by BAe Aerospace at Kingston in Surrey.
[img src=1401 align=right]The Harrier II had a beefed-up version of the Pegasus engine (Mk 105) and a large composite wing with more hard points for weaponry, doubling the payload and range performance. The maiden flight took place on April 30, 1985, the first example (ZD232) being delivered to RAF Wittering exactly two years later. Conversion training was a world away from the seat-of-the-pants approach of the 1960s as a Computer Based Trainer (CBT) was developed to familiarise student pilots (who were initially all experienced GR3 pilots) with the aircraft systems over a course of six lessons. At the end of each lesson a simulated mission was flown to test that it had been successfully absorbed. After this the student pilot graduated onto the Harrier Avionics Systems Trainer, a crude type of simulator that had to be mastered before being let loose on the real aircraft. Describing the preparation for the GR5’s entry to service in the publication ‘Royal Air Force 89’ by Sqn Ldr Pete Broekhuizen of the Harrier Conversion Team, he noted that “While the GR5 is easier to fly than previous marks of Harrier, it is many times harder to operate successfully.” The article concluded with reference to the need for further training when the GR5 became the ‘night bird’ GR7 fitted with night-attack avionics and the Zeus Electronics Counter-Measure (ECM) system to facilitate around-the-clock operations. In April 1988 a follow-on order had been placed for another 34 Harrier GR7s, the first of which was delivered to 4 Squadron at RAF Gutersloh on September 12, 1990. Shortly after, a contract was placed with BAe Aerospace to bring the remaining 58 GR5s up to GR7 standard.
In 1992 it was necessary for the two RAF Germany squadrons to detach to RAF Leeming in North Yorkshire in order to conduct night training as German tolerance of low-level flying had evaporated at the end of the Cold War. Although not involved in the 1991 Gulf War, the type was deployed to Incirlik in Turkey for Operation ‘Warden’, the air policing of northern Iraq, followed in 1995 by Operation ‘Deny Flight’ over Bosnia and then Operation ‘Allied Force’ over Kosovo, in which 1 Squadron alone flew 800 combat missions resulting in it being awarded the Kosovo battle honour to add to the one gained in the South Atlantic. Shortly after its return, in 2000, 1 Squadron relocated the short distance to RAF Cottesmore in Rutland, where it joined the other two Harrier squadrons that had arrived from Germany the previous year.
[img src=1402 align=left]The Harrier was soon called into action again during the second Gulf War of 2003 when, operating from Ali Al Salem in Kuwait, it provided air support for the British assault on Basrah, winning yet another battle honour. By now the GR7 had been joined by the T10 trainer and was also the subject of a multi-million pound upgrade programme to GR9 standard, which featured better avionics, advanced precision weaponry and improved communications. This latest mark equipped Joint Force Harrier (formed by merging the Royal Navy’s former Sea Harrier squadrons with the RAF Harrier force in April 2006) and was at the forefront of Operation ‘Herrick’ in Afghanistan for six years providing close air support for hard-pressed NATO ground forces. Replaced in theatre by the Tornado GR4 in the summer of 2009, the Harrier force returned home to RAF Cottesmore in time to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the type’s entry to RAF service.
[img src=1403 align=right]But before the end of the year, in an emergency statement by the Defence Secretary to address the spiralling budget, the beginning of the end was revealed with the announcement that RAF Cottesmore was to close in 2011 and the immediate disbandment of one of its squadrons. Thus, in a parade held at the base at the end of March 2010, IV(AC) Squadron was stood down and its number plate transferred to the Operational Conversion Unit, confining 20 Squadron to history. With the change in government after the indecisive 2010 General Election, the impetus for savings to redress the UK’s astronomical budget deficit led to the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) in October, which contained a bizarre twist – while the two aircraft carriers on order were spared, the Harrier, the only aircraft type in the MoD’s inventory capable of operating from them, was to be retired. This decision has deprived us of the opportunity to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this revolutionary aircraft, but perhaps we should be grateful for the RAF’s decision to return it to the airshow circuit in 2010 because at least this gave us one last chance to marvel at its unique attributes.
Images via the author unless stated otherwise.