Return of the Harrier at RIAT 2019
Welcome to this latest edition of Aerodrome and our regular look at the fascinating world of aeroplanes and the historic aviation scene in the UK.
As we all now begin to get stuck into 2020 in earnest, I am very much looking forward to bringing our readers another year of aviation related blogs and scouring the country for interesting subject matter which I hope you will all enjoy hearing about. We will have our usual selection of topical aviation features, Airshow and event reviews, in addition to attempting to discover subjects which may be a little less familiar to people. You can look forward to a host of contemporary and breaking news features, as well as dipping into my extensive archives, if a little aviation nostalgia is called for – I would be grateful if you would join me for what promises to be another exciting year for the aviation enthusiast.
For this first standard Aerodrome blog of the year, we will be heading back to the world’s largest military Airshow event of 2019 and one of the many aviation highlights which the Royal International Air Tattoo could boast as part of its impressive flying programme. The appearance of one particular aircraft type had thousands of enthusiasts rushing to secure their show tickets last year, so they could be amongst those gathered to witness the long overdue return of the much loved ‘V/STOL’ Harrier Jump Jet to this massive event. Your intrepid Aerodrome reporter was in position to battle with the crowds and some particularly challenging weather conditions to take my place on the RIAT crowd line to document the occasion for our readers, as the Harrier performed at a RIAT show for what may well prove to be the final time.
A very British aircraft with international appeal
Throughout the history of powered flight, there have been many occasions when British aviation companies have developed iconic, often ground breaking aircraft designs, which went on to become the envy of the aviation world. Aircraft types such as the Sopwith Camel, Supermarine Spitfire, De Havilland Mosquito and English Electric Lightning can all claim to be included in any list of famous British aircraft, but from a purely technological standpoint, surely no other aircraft type could be considered above the Hawker Siddeley (British Aerospace) Harrier.
At a time when Britain was entrenched in a period of punishing national austerity and with the world of aviation seemingly preoccupied with the development of aircraft capable of attaining ever greater speeds, the designers at Hawker Siddeley Aviation were pursuing a radically different development path for their new aircraft. Working closely with the Bristol Engine Company, they were building a totally new type of jet strike fighter, one which would be powered by an ingenious vectored trust engine, technology which held the potential of making their aeroplane more operationally flexible than anything that had gone before it.
The classic profile of the Harrier marked it as one of the world’s most effective strike jets and one which represented a stunning achievement for Britain’s aviation industry. This example is a former RAF GR.3 (ZX991) and is now preserved at RAF Cosford
A lack of Government interest and therefore development funding dictated that the new aircraft project would initially have to rely on private money to continue, but as the programme progressed and the potential of this magnificent aircraft became clearly apparent, interest at home and abroad soon followed, as did the necessary development investment. As the Harrier GR.1 entered Royal Air Force service with No.1 Squadron at Wittering during the summer of 1969, Britain now had an aircraft which was not only unique in its capabilities for a fixed wing aircraft, but one which offered countless operational and deterrent benefits, at a time when Europe was gripped by a terrifying period of East versus West military chest beating.
The unique nature of the Harrier’s design dictated that operational aircraft would rarely be stationed too far away from potential areas of conflict, but also allowed military planners the option to operate aircraft as autonomous individual strike units if and when required. In the event of war, Harriers could be dispersed at sites all around the potential combat area, giving the RAF and NATO a flexible and extremely potent strike option and perhaps more importantly, a feared deterrent against attack. With Soviet missiles and fast attack aircraft more than capable of reducing most NATO airfields in Western Europe to rubble, the Soviets knew that the RAF’s Harrier force could be stationed almost anywhere. With their ground support crews in attendance and plenty of weapons stockpiled, Harriers could be hiding in forest clearings, school playgrounds, industrial units or motorway service stations, each one ready to launch their retaliatory strike at a moment’s notice.
This Spanish Navy VA-2 Matador II represents one of the latest incarnations of the original Harrier design and was one of the stars of last year’s Royal International Air Tattoo
Early RAF Harrier operations were always hampered by the aircraft’s lack of range, to the point where if any sortie commenced with a vertical take-off, the aircraft would burn so much fuel that the weight available for offensive stores and additional fuel would limit operations to very close proximity air support, or reconnaissance flights. Successive upgrades and improvements dramatically improved the operational effectiveness of the Harrier, however, despite possessing the impressive ability to do so, aircraft would rarely be required to take off vertically in a combat situation. In most instances, the aircraft would either take off in a conventional manner, or use a short, rolling take off, which still allowed it to use a much shorter length of runway than other fixed wing aircraft, but also enabled the Harrier to carry significantly greater fuel and weapons loads.
As the most effective of the world’s V/STOL aircraft, the Harrier had plenty of international admirers, not least the United States Marine Corps, who saw this as an ideal aircraft for their close air support operations and indeed future development of the aircraft would be undertaken as a joint venture between Hawker Siddeley (now BAe) and McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing). Operators of the Harrier/Sea Harrier/AV series would be the RAF and Royal Navy, US Marine Corps and the navies of Spain, Italy, India and Thailand.
An Airshow performer like no other
This historic photograph shows one of the aircraft which took part in the final sortie for British Harriers at RAF Cottesmore on 15th December 2010
Although clearly not one of the pressing specification parameters discussed during the development of the aircraft, the Harrier would prove to be the consummate Airshow performer and for the many millions of people fortunate enough to see one display, will probably still stand as the most impressive display act on any Airshow programme. In addition to this, from the perspective of national pride, the British public like nothing more than having the opportunity to celebrate world-beating British achievements and in the world of aviation, the Harrier arguably allowed them to do this more effectively than any other aircraft.
From its first Airshow appearance, the Harrier captivated the public with its unique display of power and control, with this effective strike aircraft moving from high speed flight to hover above the airfield, suspended on four columns of air from the vectored nozzles of the Rolls Royce Pegasus engine. As if that were not enough to completely enthral its audience, having it pay its respects to the gathered masses by bowing in a slow and dignified manner in their direction, before applying power and returning to forward flight, forged a unique bond between aircraft and its adoring public.
Knowing exactly how to ‘play’ their appreciative audiences, Harrier display pilots were also well versed in using the benefits of vectored thrust to dramatic Airshow effect when displaying their aircraft from water soaked runways, or freshly mown grass airfields. The downward thrust created by the engine during a STOL take off produced either a dust or vapour cloud which further emphasised the drama of a Harrier display, giving the aircraft an almost legendary status which extended far beyond the committed aviation enthusiast. During its Airshow performing years, the Harrier became a firm display favourite and did a fine job for event attendance figures and for RAF recruitment alike – it also happened to be an essential component of Britain’s military arsenal.
For an aircraft which held such a significant place in the history of British aviation and in the hearts of the general public, its withdrawal from service was something which still causes some consternation, or at the very least, the raising of eyebrows. With the aircraft still appearing to be as effective a platform as it ever was, the withdrawal of Britain’s remaining Joint Force Harrier took place with what can only be described as inexplicable haste and would leave the country without an aviation asset which was probably the most useful in combatting any potential world threats at that time.
A huge favourite with Airshow crowds, news that last year’s RIAT show would feature a pair of Spanish Navy Harriers had enthusiasts rushing to secure their tickets, so they could enjoy one final Harrier fix
On a cold and grey December morning in 2010, large numbers of enthusiasts gathered around the perimeter fence at RAF Cottesmore, determined that they would not let Britain’s Harrier disappear from service without paying their own personal respects to an aircraft that many of them had grown up with. This date had been publicised as the ceremonial final flight of Britain’s Harrier Force and whilst military dignitaries, families and the media were allowed access to the base on the day, the general enthusiast was restricted to finding a decent vantage point in the surrounding fields, in their attempt to document this sombre occasion.
In the end, the sad final day of British Harrier operations proved to be something of a disappointment, as the planned formation flypast over RAF Cottesmore was cancelled due to the weather, but even as the last Pegasus engine fell silent, many were still thinking that this could surely not be the end for this famous aircraft. Any thoughts of a reprieve were cruelly dashed just weeks later, as in a move which infuriated a great many people at the time, the remaining British Harrier fleet of around 74 airframes, plus all available spares were sold as a single lot to the United States in 2011, an option which had previously been denied by the government . The American’s needed the aircraft to keep their own fleet of US Marine Corps Harrier’s flying for the foreseeable future, which the acquisition of the former British aircraft would allow them to do.
With many of the former British Harriers having only recently undergone upgrade and re-fit at significant expense to the treasury, the Americans were getting something of an aviation bargain. One commentator at the time described how the US were taking advantage of an almost farcical situation and likened it to ‘Buying a used car with only 15,000 miles on the clock’. At a knockdown price of just £110 Million pounds, the American’s certainly bagged themselves an unbelievable deal.
Return of the Harrier
One of the many benefits of a Harrier display is the aircraft’s ability to create its own atmosphere, no matter what the weather decides to do
Even though the annual aviation behemoth which is the Royal International Air Tattoo can always boast a great many crowd-pulling aircraft attendees and specially arranged commemorative formations, these do not always have to feature the world’s latest cutting edge machines to attract the crowds. On many occasions, it is the aviation classics which prove to be the real draw and that certainly proved to be the case at the 2019 show. With the tantalising scheduled appearance of both Turkish Phantoms and Romanian MiG 21 Lancers, the big draw for many people at last year’s show was the attendance of two Spanish Navy Harrier’s and the chance to marvel at a flying display by this magnificent aircraft once more.
The only nations still using the Harrier operationally are America’s Marine Corps and the navies of Spain and Italy and since the withdrawal of Britain’s Harrier force, the UK aviation enthusiast has been unable to enjoy the particular delights of a Harrier display for several years. The last time an British Harrier displayed for a RIAT crowd was in 2010, only months before the dramatic withdrawal of Joint Force Harrier, with many enthusiasts probably already accepting that they would never see one performing at Fairford again. Thankfully and in what turned out to be a real coup for the show organisers, they had impressively managed to secure the attendance of a pair of Spanish Navy Harriers for the 2019 event and with these arrangements in place, all they now had to do was just sat back and watch the ticket sales flood in.
The last time the Spanish Navy sent one of their Harriers to RIAT was back in 1994, so to be present at their return a quarter of a century later was reason enough to have people flocking to RAF Fairford, not to mention the chance to enjoy a Harrier display one more time. The two aircraft which performed at RIAT 2019 were both EAV-8B Harrier II plus variants of the aircraft, which are designated VA-2 Matador IIs by the Spanish Navy and recognising the historic significance of their attendance at the show, presented both aircraft with striking Air Tattoo tail artwork. For readers interested in such things, the two aircraft in attendance were Armada 01-914 (VA.1B-24) and Armada 01-925 (VA.1B-37), which both represented the 9th Aircraft Squadron ‘Cobras’ of the Spanish Navy, the only fixed wing fighter squadron of the Spanish Navy.
Resplendent in their specially applied commemorative tails, the pair of Spanish Navy Harriers which attended RIAT 2019 were making their appearance some 25 years after the Spanish Navy had previously sent one of their Harriers to the show
For many people, the sight of a Harrier in British skies once more was the highlight of the 2019 RIAT show
The aircraft are usually based at the huge Spanish naval base at Rota in the province of Cadiz, a base they share with the Americans. When not based on land, the only vessel Spanish Harriers can now operate from is the impressive amphibious assault ship Juan Carlos I, one of the most capable ships of its type in the world. The Spanish Navy have been long time operators of the Harrier, since taking delivery of their first VA.1 Matadors in 1976, upgrading their aircraft regularly to maintain their capability in an ever changing aviation world. Although ultimately scheduled to be replaced by the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, the state of the Spanish economy currently prevents them from committing to an F-35 ‘in service’ date and at this time, it seems as if their venerable Harriers may well be flying until 2025 and beyond.
Aware of the historic nature of the Harriers 2019 RIAT attendance, the show organisers were quick to publish details informing people what they could expect to see from the aircraft at the show. In what would prove to be a definite highlight, the aircraft were scheduled to perform a ‘pairs routine’ on all three public days of the show, in a demonstration which would remind many people of the fantastic shows of years past. In the end, the weather and aircraft serviceability issues dictated that only a single Harrier took to the skies on a very wet and depressing Friday, however, both aircraft would go on to perform on both Saturday and Sunday, to the absolute delight of everyone in attendance.
Pulling rank – Red 1 takes the opportunity to spend some time in the cockpit of one of RIAT 2019’s illustrious aviation visitors
This impromptu Red Arrows photoshoot would have been missed by most visitors at last year’s RIAT show, as it took place following the completion of their display and in the active aircraft area of the airfield, at the eastern end of the showground
The historic nature of the Spanish Harrier’s 2019 RIAT attendance was also not lost on other aviation professionals at the show and after performing their final UK public display before heading off on a high profile tour of North America, the Red Arrows were only too pleased to accept an invitation for an impromptu photo opportunity aboard one of these magnificent machines. Undoubtedly one of the highlights of the 2019 show, the sight of these beautifully presented Harriers will live long in the memory of those lucky enough to have clapped eyes them and it was truly memorable to see how these classic jet aeroplanes completely captivated their audience for the duration of their display. Even though the modern equivalent of the V/STOL Harrier was sharing the same display billing as its classic predecessor, for me and many others I suspect, the F-35 couldn’t come close to the thrill of seeing a Harrier fly again, although I am sure we will all come to love this new aviation upstart in the years to come.
With the Spanish Navy currently scheduled to keep their remaining Harriers for some time to come, could we be fortunate enough to see these beautiful aeroplanes returning to a future RIAT show before their eventual retirement? We can only live in hope, whilst at the same time being thankful that we had this opportunity to enjoy a Harrier display one more time and pay our respects to a spectacular achievement in British aviation.
Here is a final selection of Harrier images taken at the 2019 Royal International Air Tattoo.
This final selection of images mark the triumphant return of the crowd-favourite Harrier to a RIAT Airshow. Knowing the affection in which the British still hold this aircraft, the Spanish Navy did a fantastic job in making sure the occasion was as memorable for enthusiasts as it possibly could be
I am afraid that is all we have for you in this latest edition of Aerodrome, but we will be back as usual in two weeks’ time with more aviation related content for your enjoyment. If you would like to send us a selection of your own pictures, or suggest an aviation related subject you would like to see covered in a future edition, please use our firstname.lastname@example.org address, where we will be only to happy to hear from you.
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