Main Harrier Boys, Volume 2

Harrier Boys, Volume 2

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1990 – 2010




1990 – 2010




From time to time Bob Marston has written a short introductory piece to the chapter written by the named contributor. Bob’s piece has been indented for clarification purposes.


• Page 11: Bob Heyhoe’s rank was chief technician not sergeant.

• Page 46: The picture caption should read XV792 not XV982.

• Page 129: Jim Downey’s surname ends -ney not -nie.

• Last page of first photo insert: The top photo attribution should be (unknown) not Jock Heron.

Published by

Grub Street

4 Rainham Close


SW11 6SS

Copyright © Grub Street 2016

Copyright text © Bob Marston 2016

A CIP record for this title is available from the British Library

ISBN-13: 9-781-910690-17-8

eISBN-13: 9-781-910690-68-0

Mobi ISBN-13: 9-781-910690-68-0

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner.





Keith Marshall, Keith Grumbley,

Gerry Humphreys,Bob Marston, Jock Heron


Roger Robertshaw


Jock Heron


Don Fennessey, Marc Frith, Jon Davis


Tony Harper, Keith Skinner


Bernie Scott


Andy Sephton, Heinz Frick


Jonathan Baynton, Chris Benn


Bob Marston, Graham Williams,

Jock Heron, Art Nalls


Mark Zanker


Simon Turner


Mike Harwood


Chris Burwell


Stuart Atha


Stuart Atha


Mark Zanker


Mitch Webb


Dave Baddams, Brian Johnstone


Mark Leakey, Bob Marston


Mark Zanker, Steve Long


Jim Arkell


James Blackmore


Gary Waterfall



Bob Marston

The first generation Harrier was an exciting seat-of-the-pants, stick and rudder, pilots’ flying machine that faithfully followed its Hawker pedigree, with the added dimension of vectored thrust. Bringing the expeditionary air force concept of earlier years into the jet age, it amply fulfilled its role in the Cold War period. Operating from small, mobile, concealed sites near to the battle front, Harriers could support a ground war with impressive sortie rates. While honed for Europe, this concept was proven in national contingencies to protect Belize and the Falkland Islands.

But as the 20th century drew to a close, the Harrier and its world were about to change almost beyond recognition. The second-generation aircraft had a single crew member, a Pegasus engine, and the ability to land vertically. Otherwise, it was more different from the Harrier GR3 than the original GR1 had been from the Hunter. At the same time, the Cold War was won. The Berlin Wall tumbled, Germany was unified, and ex-Warsaw Pact countries defected to NATO. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, the RAF’s Harriers were left on the sideline of the first Gulf War, being not yet ready for combat, but significant lessons were evident. While the vulnerability of hardened aircraft shelters supported the Harrier deployment concept, the wide public visibility of the fighting led to an outcry at Iraqi forces dispersing aircraft away from main bases, risking collateral damage to nearby civilians. The old Harrier war plans had to be re-thought.

The GR5 promised significant advantages over the GR3:

• It had more pylons to carry weapons (nine as against five, including the dedicated pylons in front of the outriggers for air-to-air missiles).

• The pylons were wired through a databus, enabling the pilot to communicate with smart weapons, so that they could be best used.

• More of the pylons were ‘wet’, allowing more external fuel tanks to be used.

• The wing carried significantly more internal fuel.

• Refuelling was facilitated by moving the ground connector to enable use with the engine running, while a retractable probe could be left permanently fitted.

• Fuel flow to the engine was controlled by a digital engine control system, which was easier to maintain and simpler to use than the old hydro-mechanical system.

• An active electronic countermeasures (ECM) system was built into the airframe.

• The raised cockpit and bulbous canopy gave the pilot a much better view.

• The wing, with leading-edge root extensions (LERX), gave improved turning performance. With its huge flaps and drooping ailerons, it also gave much more lift at low speed.

• Vertical lift performance was enhanced by devices to trap engine thrust under the fuselage.

After the decision to go with the American design as a basis for both AV-8B and GR5, rather than the RAF following the BAe Kingston plan for a metal ‘big wing’ Harrier II, introduction of the GR5 was far from trouble-free. The wing gave more lift, but the resultant drag, and that from the canopy, resulted in a lower top speed than that of the GR3. While addressing RAF concerns about bird strike resistance and battle damage survivability, many components were also changed in order to increase the UK manufacturing share within the aircraft.

• Extra bird strike tests on the windscreen and wing leading edges took time and necessitated design tweaks.

• Initial bullet impact tests on fully-fuelled wings caused worry, before it was decided that shock-wave transmission through fluid with no air gap in the wing was unrealistic.

• The Ferranti inertial platform took much longer than anticipated to achieve reliability. American Litton platforms had to be used initially.

• The American plan was to use the on-board oxygen generation system (OBOGS) to provide pure oxygen to the pilot. The RAF insisted on a regulated breathing air mix, giving an appropriate partial pressure of oxygen for the environment; this took time to develop.

• The loss of an early GR5, with the test pilot dying and the airframe disappearing into the deep Atlantic, led to a lengthy pause while an explanation was sought.

• The GR5 was to use two guns developed from the Aden cannon used on the GR3, as opposed to the single Gatling gun on the AV-8B. First, a compromise fuselage design was needed to take either the American gun, with ammunition fed from the other side, or the UK pair of guns, one each side. When this had been solved, development of the gun proved difficult. In testing, gun stoppages were frequent. Moreover, it had been decided that, unlike the GR3-era Aden discarding the used cartridges while collecting the spring-steel links used between rounds, in the new gun, the reverse would be the aim. Unfortunately, it was found that the links flew randomly, sometimes damaging the carbon fibre tailplane. Despite re-designs of the link chute, the problem persisted, along with the stoppages. After considerable development work, the guns were deleted as a cost-saving measure. This was a significant blow for a close air support aircraft, though alternative uses were later found for the gun mounting points, despite the harsh environment in which they were placed.

• The LERX on the wing enhanced pitch rate, but were potentially so destabilising that initially only a 65% size version was fitted.

• Early in GR5 flying, it was found that the skin of the rear fuselage was rippling under the impact of acoustic vibration from the hot nozzles, which were a new ‘zero-scarf’ design rather than the GR3 type, which gave a less focused efflux. Frustratingly, this was the same problem that had been seen in the GR3, leading to modification in the form of titanium reinforcement. Essential modifications caused further delay.

• Harrier II utilised a technology that had become very popular in civil aviation – Kapton wiring. With its lighter core and insulation, it could save huge amounts of weight in an airliner. Weight saving sounded attractive for the Harrier, but the combination of ultra-thin insulation and a cramped high-vibration environment proved disastrous. If two pieces of the wire rubbed together, the insulation would disappear, leading to short circuits, arcing and sometimes fire. After a major fire in the rear end of a GR5, a mass re-wiring programme became essential.

• As we were bringing in just another Harrier, and we already had a two-seat trainer version, the original plan for GR5 was to buy just single-seaters, plus a state-of-the-art simulator. It soon became apparent that the T4’s flying characteristics bore little resemblance to those of the GR5, and that it was more difficult than anticipated to develop a simulator that had full motion and gave realistic all-round visual displays of low-level high-speed flight. The procurement plan was therefore changed, trading off single-seat aircraft against thirteen new two-seaters.

• While a credible night operational capability was an original aim for Harrier II, the necessary equipment and clearances were not available for the early aircraft. The initial production was therefore without FLIR, and designated GR5. The night-attack version, GR7, appeared part-way through the RAF production run, and the GR5s had to be modified later. When the night capability was enabled, it was perhaps the most significant leap forwards in the RAF Harrier, so the process is dwelt on at length in this volume.

• New operational lessons, particularly from the USMC in Gulf War 1, emphasised the high risk of damage from small arms fire to aircraft at low level. The tactical answer was to fly above the level of this threat, but this showed the limitations of the built-in ECM system of the GR5, Zeus. Its antennae were designed to counter threats from above and at small angles of depression below the Harrier, but not to cover the area directly below. Again, a re-think was needed.

Just as the Sea Harrier FRS1 took advantage of GR1/3 experience to introduce a later, but air defence optimised aircraft, so the updated naval jet, the FA2, took the best features of all versions for its particular role. Utilising the known and trusted main airframe, the RN added an outstanding beyond-visual-range missile, the AMRAAM, a much better radar, an improved cockpit and a digital databus to give them an admirable fighter with very good weapons delivery capability. Political considerations subsequently pushed them towards Joint Force Harrier, with resources shared by the RN and RAF, and then to use of the GR airframes, losing the BVR capability.

The demise of the Soviet Union led to a rapid change of RAF Harrier basing policy. First, they moved back within Germany towards the English Channel, to Laarbruch near the Dutch border. Eventually, the RAF left Germany entirely, Harriers replacing the Tornados at RAF Cottesmore.

While all of this was going on, the demands for air power were multiplying. Though the GR5 missed the first Gulf War, the AV-8B (with one RAF pilot among those of the USMC) was put to good use. From then on, a series of conflicts made the UK Harrier a much-used and well-respected weapons system. In the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan, every new demand was met by an innovative solution. By the end of the commitment in Afghanistan, Harrier GR9, flown by RAF and RN pilots, offered a terrific capability to support troops on the ground. Withdrawn to the UK in 2009, and able to regain currency in skills such as embarked operations, the Joint Force Harrier was retired with indecent haste barely a year later. Ironically, the next conflict in which UK air power was needed was in Libya in 2011. With a long Mediterranean coastline, Libya was obviously suited to carrier-borne air operations, as demonstrated by France in spearheading operations, but also by USMC Harrier AV-8Bs. The UK effort had to fly from much further afield, with complex AAR support.

The assembled talent of the Harrier Boys took on many challenges over the years, rapidly developing new ways of using a swiftly-evolving aircraft to serve with distinction in a series of operations that would fill their lives. Some of those operators share their experience in this book, giving an impression of what it was like to have been a member of this august company, working with such a remarkable aircraft. Their contributions cover varying time periods, starting with some background stories from the Cold War years. Rather than artificially dividing them to give a strict chronological narrative, I have added my own explanations of context where they might help to guide the reader. Each chapter is a stand-alone narrative; together they outline the history of the second half of the UK Harrier era.


(in alphabetical order)

Jim Arkell

Wing Commander Jim Arkell OBE flew the GR3 on IV(AC) Squadron, 1(F) Squadron and 233 OCU. On exchange with the USN, he flew FA-18 and A-7E. He was OC Ops Wing in Laarbruch, flying Harrier GR7. He filled several Harrier-related staff posts. Upon retiring from regular service, he served as a squadron uncle on IV Squadron.

Stuart Atha

Air Vice-Marshal Stuart Atha CB, DSO, ADC flew the GR7 on 1(F) Squadron, was a flight commander on IV(AC) Squadron, and then OC 3(F) Squadron. Subsequently, he was the station commander at RAF Coningsby, flying Tornado, Spitfire and Hurricane, and later AOC 1 Group.

Dave Baddams

Lieutenant Commander Dave Baddams MBE was an A-4 pilot with the Royal Australian Navy until the Skyhawk was taken out of front-line service in 1982. He transferred to the RN to fly Harriers, and commanded 800 Squadron.

Jonathan Baynton

Squadron Leader Jonathan Baynton flew the GR3 on 3(F) Squadron after a first tour as a flying instructor. As a QFI on 233 OCU, he was promoted to become a flight commander, and then led the GR5 conversion team. He subsequently became an airline pilot.

Chris Benn

Wing Commander Chris Benn flew the Hunter in Oman before joining the Harrier Force. He was a GR3 pilot on 3(F) Squadron in Germany, then a flight commander on 1(F) Squadron in the early days of the GR5.

James Blackmore

Commander James Blackmore flew the Sea Harrier FA2 on 800 Squadron, and as an instructor on 899 Squadron. In Joint Force Harrier, he was a GR9 pilot on IV(AC) Squadron and 1(F) Squadron. He also flew the F/A-18 on exchange with the USN.

Chris Burwell

Group Captain Chris Burwell MBE, MSc flew Harriers on 1(F) and 3(F) Squadrons, and was OC 1(F) Squadron. He was the station commander of RAF Scampton. Later, he managed a commercial flying training school in Spain.

Jon ‘Dog’ Davis

Lieutenant General Jon ‘Dog’ Davis USMC was an exchange pilot with the RAF in Germany from 1988 to 1991. A long-time Harrier pilot, flying AV-8A, AV-8B, GR3, GR5 and GR7, he rose to become the deputy commandant for aviation of the Marine Corps at the time of writing.

Don Fennessey

Captain Don Fennessey USN was an exchange officer on 3(F) Squadron. He later commanded an F-18 Squadron and retired as a navy captain, to teach at a university.

Heinz Frick

Heinz Frick qualified as a test pilot while serving with the RAF, then became a company test pilot with Hawker Siddeley, later British Aerospace.

Marc ‘Rambo’ Frith

Captain Marc ‘Rambo’ Frith USAF flew A-10 attack aircraft before becoming an exchange Harrier pilot on IV(AC) Squadron. Later, he became an airline pilot.

Keith Grumbley

Wing Commander Keith Grumbley flew GR3 Harriers on 1(F) Squadron, 3(F) Squadron and Air Commander Belize, and commanded the SAOEU flying the GR7.

Tony Harper

Wing Commander Tony Harper flew GR3 Harriers with 20 Squadron, 1(F) Squadron during the Falklands War, and GR5/7 as OC 233 OCU. After retiring from regular service, he served as a squadron uncle on 1(F) Squadron.

Mike Harwood

Air Vice-Marshal Mike Harwood CB, CBE, MA flew GR3 Harriers in Germany and GR5/7 on the SAOEU and as a flight commander on 1(F) Squadron. He commanded 20(R) Squadron and RAF Cottesmore.

John ‘Jock’ Heron

Group Captain John ‘Jock’ Heron OBE flew Harriers as a flight commander on IV(AC) Squadron and as OC Ops Wing at RAF Gütersloh. He was the station commander of RAF Swinderby. After retiring from the RAF, he was the military representative at Rolls-Royce. His full story is told in his book From Schoolboy to Station Commander.

Gerry Humphreys

Squadron Leader Gerry Humphreys flew the GR3 in the UK and Germany. He was a flight commander on 1(F) Squadron during the introduction of the GR5/7.

Brian Johnstone

Warrant Officer Brian Johnstone was an RN aircraft mechanic who first worked on the Sea Vixen then Phantom. In 1980 he started a 22-year association with the Sea Harrier which ended when he left the RN. He was awarded the MBE for services to the Sea Harrier force. After leaving the RN he worked on the JSF programme and then for Saab on the Sea Gripen programme. He is the chief engineer for Sea Vixen XP924.

Mark Leakey

Air Commodore Mark Leakey flew the GR3 as a junior pilot, then GR3/5 as a flight commander on 3(F) Squadron. He commanded 1(F) Squadron in the GR7 era.

Steve Long

Flight Lieutenant Steve Long flew the GR7 on 3(F) Squadron, then the AV-8B Plus on exchange with the USMC. Having qualified as a test pilot, he flew the F-35 before becoming a civilian test pilot.

Keith Marshall

Squadron Leader Keith Marshall flew GR3 Harriers on IV(AC) Squadron and as a flight commander on 3(F) Squadron. He then followed a career in civil aviation.

Art Nalls

Lieutenant Colonel Art Nalls flew the AV-8A Harrier with the USMC before becoming a test pilot. He then flew many AV-8B development trials, including ski-jump take-offs and airborne engine relights. On retirement from the corps, he went into the real estate development business before founding Nalls Aviation and displaying his Sea Harrier.

Roger Robertshaw

Flight Lieutenant Roger Robertshaw was a GR3 pilot on 1(F) Squadron, then a Hawk tactical-weapons instructor. He again flew the GR3 on IV(AC) Squadron in Germany, and 1417 Flight in Belize, before becoming an airline pilot.

Bernie Scott

Flight Lieutenant Bernie Scott flew the GR3 on 1(F) Squadron before joining the Red Arrows flying the Gnat and Hawk. On exchange with the RNLAF, he flew the F-16. After qualifying as a test pilot, he flew early GR5s, before transferring to BAe, where he worked on GR7, GR9 and Sea Harrier as well as the Hawk. He was also an airline pilot.

Andy Sephton

Flight Lieutenant Andy Sephton was on the same advanced flying training course at Valley as the author; he then flew the Jaguar. He became a test pilot, and qualified to fly the Harrier for trials work. As a Rolls-Royce test pilot, he conducted Pegasus engine development flying. He was later the chief test pilot for Marshall Aerospace, and chief pilot for the Shuttleworth Collection of historic aircraft.

Keith Skinner

Wing Commander Keith Skinner was an air defence pilot flying the Lightning and Phantom, and a TWU instructor. He served on the UK Taceval team, with the MoD team in Saudi Arabia, and as wing commander RAFAT, before becoming a Harrier squadron uncle.

Simon Turner

Squadron Leader Simon Turner flew the Harrier GR3 on IV(AC) Squadron, the GR5 on 1(F) Squadron, then the AV-8B with the USMC. He was a 1 Squadron GR7 pilot before becoming a flight commander on 20 Squadron, then OCU. He then retired from the RAF to fly airliners.

Gary Waterfall

Air Vice-Marshal Gary Waterfall CBE flew the GR3 on 3(F) Squadron, and the Hawk with the Red Arrows. He commanded 41 (Test and Evaluation) Squadron and was the final station commander of RAF Cottesmore and force commander of Joint Force Harrier. At the time of writing, he was AOC 1 Group.

Mitch Webb

Squadron Leader Mitch Webb flew the Hawk on 100 Squadron before becoming a Harrier pilot. She flew the GR7 on 3(F) Squadron, IV(AC) Squadron and as a QWI on 20(R) Squadron. She was squadron leader Ops at Wittering before becoming a school teacher and mother living in France. She runs ultra marathons “because everyone needs a challenge”.

Graham Williams

Air Vice-Marshal Graham Williams AFC*, FRAeS was one of the first Harrier development test pilots, and later commanded 3(F) Squadron at RAF Wildenrath. He was the station commander of RAF Brüggen as a Jaguar station. A full account of his RAF career is in his book Rhapsody In Blue.

Mark Zanker

Flight Lieutenant Mark Zanker began his flying career as a Jaguar pilot. After converting to the Harrier, he flew the GR3 then GR5 on 3(F) Squadron and 233 OCU. After a tour on the Red Arrows, he flew the GR7 on IV(AC) Squadron and 1(F) Squadron before becoming an airline pilot.



During the 1980s, most of the RAF’s Harrier Force was based at Gütersloh in West Germany, just minutes of flying time from the inner German border, which marked the start of Warsaw Pact territory. The two squadrons, 3(F) Squadron and IV(AC) Squadron, were each bigger than 1(F) Squadron in Wittering, having incorporated the assets of 20 Squadron on moving forward from Wildenrath. Life on the Gütersloh squadrons was dominated by the Cold War and the proximity of the perceived threat. When the border between the two parts of Germany was opened up in November 1989, and all of Germany was reunified in October 1990, that was all to change.

Having developed from the Wildenrath days, the Harrier concept of operations in Germany in the 80s was based on dispersal of the aircraft to temporary sites spread over a wide area, making them difficult to locate and to attack. Each squadron had three flights, each of which had its own flying site. In addition, there was a logistics site for each squadron, supplying fuel, weapons and spare parts as necessary. The sappers (Royal Engineers) who did the site preparation had their own resources park where they stored the materials to build operating surfaces, fuel storage and aircraft hides. Providing control and coordination for all of these was the Forward Wing Operations Centre (FWOC), giving ten active sites at any time. The sappers would normally have two more flying sites ready for use in case a site became compromised. It was anticipated that sites might need to move as often as every 48 hours. Ground defence was provided by an RAF Regiment field squadron, while all deployed personnel were armed for self-protection. The second vital army asset to make the concept workable was the Royal Signals, who provided communications between the sites and out to the tasking agency. Generally, tasks would come from the NATO HQ in the caves at Maastricht in Holland, though this function could be delegated to HQ 1 (BR) Corps, for whom the Harriers mostly provided support. Air traffic controllers also deployed to each site, but their job was unusual in that flying operations were conducted in radio silence, to avoid revealing site locations, unless flight safety required an intervention.

On each flying site, there were eight hides, able to accommodate the six aircraft of the deployed flight, plus two spare hides to be used by aircraft diverted during a site move. Each time a new flying site was activated, a modified air traffic plan was issued from the FWOC, showing departure lanes, initial points (IPs) and sites. For a pilot, recovering to a field site was always a challenge. All military pilots are taught to find a target by flying accurately from an IP, which would be chosen as a feature easily identifiable from the air, to a target at a constant speed. However, for recovery to a field site, a Harrier pilot would start the run at 420kts and end it in the hover over the pad. With the site camouflaged to make it difficult for enemies to find, and operating in radio silence, this was a tricky procedure.

Simple air traffic plan with just five flying sites. (Author)

Identifying potential sites was a continuous process carried out by the Harrier Plans staff. The prime requirements for a flying site were fairly level and firm surfaces for a take-off strip of some 200 metres, a square landing pad, and the aircraft hides. The pad would be a MEXE pad constructed by the sappers using PSA1 material. The strip would often be made of this same material, necessitating the sapper ritual of ‘kicking tin’ to go on for rather longer, or for a short period, the natural surface could be used, if its hardness (CBR) was sufficient, as tested by the ‘pogo stick’ or cone penetrometer. Any local deficit in hardness would often lead to the Harrier ‘bogging in’, typically with the nosewheel sinking in far enough to prevent further movement. Ground crew became very skilled at extracting jets from such situations, digging a ramp in front of the wheel before as many people as possible climbed onto the tailplane while a Unimog, or if more weight was needed for grip, a three-ton Bedford truck, pulled on the towbar. In extreme situations, usually after heavy rainfall, a metal skid device could be attached to the nosewheel to prevent it sinking beyond the axle while it taxied to the take-off strip. The skid was removed before departure. The potential bog-in embarrassment factor for the pilot was increased by a design feature of the GR3, whereby a footstep to assist access lowered as the canopy opened. However, if the aircraft bogged in far enough, the canopy could not be opened until a hole had been dug for the footstep to go down into. To maintain the necessary level of expertise, field deployments were usually practised three times a year.

The qualities of sites varied a lot, from a new autobahn in one case, to the trickiest of grass strips. Often, the strip length was such that there was no option to abort the take-off on the strip once the engine had reached full power; if anything went wrong after that, ejection was the way out. One strip that sticks in my mind was in the Bergen-Hohne training area. We had moved site overnight, and after diverting to other sites, I and five other pilots flew into the new site early in the morning. We had a look at the take-off strip, which was not very long and pointed towards tall trees, and were reassured that all the calculations showed that it would be safe. However, the standard calculations appeared not to make sufficient allowance for gradient, and this strip was distinctly downhill. With a new task planned, I was the first to take off. I was told later that my jet blast parted the tree tops sufficiently for me to miss them. The next pilot out was not so lucky. He collected some foliage in his undercarriage, which he left down as he flew to the diversion airfield. All further tasking was cancelled, the remaining jets were defuelled to a light weight, and the site was abandoned.

The challenge of a first field deployment is described below by Keith Marshall. Keith Grumbley admits his error in the account that follows, as does Gerry Humphreys in the third story.


It was my first deployment with 4 Squadron. I was an experienced pilot with more than 2,000 hours but very new on the Harrier and what I am about to tell you does me no credit, but exemplifies the complexity of the aircraft I was now assigned to fly and the equally demanding environment in which to operate it.

I was not trusted to fly in with the big boys and instead went to our operating base, Eberhard in the Sennelager military training area, with the ground party. The weather was very poor for the first five days with thick fog preventing the arrival of the jets and I kept thinking how nice it must be to still be on base, going home each night to a warm cuddly wife instead of enduring the joys of a damp ‘green worm’ sleeping bag. Sometimes life gets unbearably tough so we, the boss, the engineers and several of the lads sought solace in the local strip club (funny how these things always pop up around barracks) which was quiet at the time and more than happy to give us its undivided attention and lots of excellent beer.

On the morning of the sixth day the fog cleared enough to allow the jets to fly in and so with a splitting head I watched with awe as they arrived; then the fog came mockingly back, preventing any more activity that day. The flyers were most impressed with our thorough reconnaissance of the local locales and insisted that we take them for a personal look, and so it was that when the next day unexpectedly broke crystal clear, the last thing we really wanted was to put a bone dome on our aching heads. But queen and country call, and we briefed, grabbed our kit and I set off for my first flight from a deployed site.

This particular site had a stretch of road (open to traffic except during take-off or landing) of about 300 yards for take-off with what looked to me like extremely tall and hard pine trees immediately off the end of the runway. The normal procedure was to use water, injected into the rear of the combustion chamber to give an extra boost for take-off and for the vertical landing. A full tank was enough for 90 seconds and weighed about 500 lbs. On arrival at my jet, the crew chief told me that the water system was unserviceable; no sweat, I’d been briefed that a waterless departure was perfectly OK at this particular location provided, of course, the water tank was empty. I’m sure you know what’s coming; the tank was not empty and I was so nervous of making a mess of things that it was precisely what I did. The water contents gauge was right in front of my face and indicating full but I did not see it. In mitigation, everything was a bit rushed and in what seemed like seconds I was out of the hide and onto the road.

The usual checks were completed and off I went for my first deployment take-off, which came uncomfortably close to being my last. Even without water flowing and with an extra 500 lbs of weight, the Harrier acceleration is pretty impressive, but not impressive enough for my liking with those big, hard-looking trees getting ominously close. It was beginning to dawn on me that something was not quite right but it was too late to abort, I just had to hang in there and hope. At the pre-computed speed I rotated the nozzles and the nose at the same time but those trees were still filling an awfully big part of the forward cockpit window. I kept rotating, probably exceeding the recommended angle of attack limit, but as I went past the trees there were still some branches above the level of my head. I’m not sure, but I think I felt a bump somewhere on the underside of my aircraft.

Surprised at still being inside this tiny cockpit, I lowered the nose with much relief, raised the gear and flaps and scanned the horizon for my leader. There was no time to reflect on what had just happened as in moments the lead and I were engaged by two RAF Phantoms that had been sneakily waiting for us. We managed to shake them off and then flew through the surface-to-air missile (SAM) zone with lots of avoiding action to break the locks as indicated on the radar warning receiver (RWR). Lead called us over to the Forward Air Controller frequency and we started our attack runs. The target was an inflatable rubber tank which when fully erect (so to speak) looked like a Russian T62. On this morning however, it was looking much as I felt, half deflated, with its protruding rubber gun barrel drooping like a sad little worm hanging over the edge of a table.

Back through the SAM belt to find the Phantoms still lurking on the other side, we quickly saw them off and headed for our temporary home. Now comes the tricky bit: trying to find one’s site when it is specifically designed not to be found from the air. I decided to follow my leader and started the deceleration about two miles in trail. He made it look easy and I was feeling pretty confident that I could accomplish a vertical landing onto the pad with every bit as much panache as he had done. There was just one small problem: to hover, the Harrier needed to be below a certain fuel weight and the trick was to get below that weight but still have enough fuel to divert if necessary. (As experience and expertise grew, most Harrier pilots would start their deceleration above that critical weight and arrive above the pad, in the hover, fractionally below it.) It usually meant getting into the hover with about 600-800 lbs of fuel. Now, remember that extra 500 lbs of water that I did not think I had?

Everything was going fine until I realised I had the nozzles down with full power and still some wing lift. I decided to go round again to burn off a bit more fuel, thinking that my hover weight calculations must have been a bit off. It would mean going below fuel minimums but I was the last airborne and there was therefore no reason to have to divert. I figured that if I was going to crash, it might as well be on my own site.

The next approach got me into the hover with just about enough fuel to land. The only problem now was that I had full power on the engine and the jet was going down. There was nothing left, I was sinking into the trees but luckily somewhere over the pad. There was no chance to do the customary pause at 50 feet and make corrections. I was committed for better or for worse. Lucky for me, it was for better. I taxied to the hide and at last had a chance to think. It was then that I saw the water contents gauge and cringed inside my shell.


Harrier operations off grass-field sites were not uncommon during the halcyon years of the RAF Germany Harrier Force. We did them for three reasons: the aircraft could do it, there were seldom enough conventional field sites (either road or metal alloy ‘tin’ strips) and it was 21 another challenging dimension to the force’s capability. Let me explain.

Grass runway. (Dave Morgan)

Rules of thumb came into play when selecting a grass site. The surface smoothness was deemed OK if you could drive a Land Rover over it at 40 mph and maintain control. The surface hardness was measured by a spring-loaded pogo stick jabber which gave a reading at various depths. For us a reading of three at six inches was generally OK although heavy rain degraded the soil structure leading to much effort and swearing when the site had to turn out to extricate bogged-in Harriers. One became pretty adept at eyeballing the length of strips and the 10° obstacle clearance criterion, but these were confirmed by the Harrier operating manual.

Take-off and obstacle clearance assumed that the engine was performing at full poke, that flaps were down and that the correct climb-out angle was achieved by easing back on the stick at lift-off. Regardless of the Land Rover check, the vibration during take-off rendered the instruments an illegible blur. The take-off, or nozzle rotate, point was therefore marked with an orange peg at a position calculated to take account of aircraft weight, engine thrust rating, wind, ambient temperature and pressure. The marker would be moved during the day as conditions changed, but for simplicity the heaviest site aircraft and the worst site engine were used in the calculation.

Harrier exhaust eroded and burnt grass surfaces very quickly so special techniques were applied. These involved some changes to normal procedures to minimise time on the ground and so everything from engine start-up onwards was done at the double. If the field was big enough, the start point for the take-off roll would be moved around to spread the wear. If you failed to keep the site operational for the full two weeks of the deployment, you were automatically the poor sods nailed for a site move. Thus it was up to everyone to facilitate a highly slick operation.

The short time from start-up to take-off necessitated the quickest romp through the checks to get out of the hide without blowing all manner of dust and crap into the site, and over your colleagues’ jets. Out of the hide you raced through the pre-take-off vital actions and did a quick acceleration check to ensure that the engine was going to wind up as advertised. During this run up to 55% you needed to check that the engine inlet guide vanes were operating correctly, and pull in a quick dab of nozzle to check that reaction control ducts were pressurizing to give you control between the 70-odd knot lift-off speed and reaching conventional flying speed. These two gauges were inconspicuous little blighters, adversely commented on early in the jet’s life, but never improved.

Check instruments: reaction control duct pressure gauge. (Author)

Finally, as you turned onto the strip for the rolling take-off it was essential to select the flaps down. Air traffic control was always situated to give a good view of the take-off and they were under no illusions about their responsibility to break radio silence should they doubt the flap selection. The engines were reliable and would respond willingly, which left the human action of selecting flaps down at a time of great distraction as the weak link in the chain. Flapless take-offs could have serious consequences.

In 1981 I was site commander at Jägergrund, one of our grass sites in the Sennelager training area. There were some tall trees in the climb-out, but no problem according to the calculations. They were brought to pilots’ notice before we started flying when we walked the site. Early one morning I observed one of our newer pilots conduct a flawless flapless take-off. Instead of crisply adopting the climb-away attitude the jet mushed sluggishly into the air and climbed reluctantly at a shallow angle. I could see that he was concerned at the proximity of the trees as he dropped a wing, which helped with clearance. As ever in these situations, a sequence of small events conspired to very nearly cause a big one. ATC were late with their call as the dust made it very difficult to see the flaps clearly and I think there was some other needless R/T chatter going on. In any case by the time the pilot realised the error, the last thing he could do was take his hand off the throttle and grope for the flap selector. On the turnround I think I went over and had a word along the lines, “You won’t do that again will you?” “No,” he said, “that is a very big tree indeed.” Later I had a trip myself, and bugger me, I went and did exactly the same thing.

At cease flying we always had a wash-up before relaxing or heading off to get a shower. This was no holds barred time and I think I opened proceedings with a statement of the blindingly obvious along the lines that that was a very big tree and no more flapless take-offs please.


Chick Kirkham was one of our most experienced Harrier simulator instructors. A charming man and somewhat of a legend in the RAF, he first retired from active service in 1976 and at that time was the oldest known practising Hunter pilot in the service. He then served as a ‘retired officer’ finishing on the Harrier simulator at RAF Wildenrath. It was a delight to discover from Chick when we first met in 1982, that he and my dad had flown photo-reconnaissance Mosquitos on 81(PR) Squadron in Borneo in the early 1950s. My dad hardly ever mentioned his time in the RAF so I found it fascinating to chat with Chick about what life was like in the old days.

I always enjoyed flying the simulator with Chick as instructor; everyone who flew the Harrier in those days learned from his vast store of experience – often without realising it until much later. One of his favourite tricks towards the end of a busy ‘mission’ was to introduce pressures and minor emergencies to the point where one was almost overloaded, but not quite. Then he would introduce a catastrophic control or engine failure from which it was only possible to survive if one ejected immediately... I certainly had reason to thank him personally for this in my future career on the Harrier, as did many others. At one stage in the mid-1980s approximately one out of three Harrier pilots had ejected at least once.

Towards the end of my first tour on 3(F) Squadron, Chick and I found ourselves manning the ops wagon for a few days during a field exercise at Geseke, one of the many Cold War deployment sites from where we practised off-base operations. I was the auth and Chick was ops officer; we ran the site from a small cabin on the back of a truck. This site was particularly tight, the standard strip length was 747 ft long; there was little to spare off the end of this one, in fact there was a nasty ditch in the over-run which would probably swallow a Harrier whole. The standard brief here was to eject rather than abort if the engine failed late during the take-off roll. Each day during my site inspection I noticed a possible escape route along a short track at around 45º to the right just before the end of the strip. It led through a gap in the hedge alongside and seemed like it would fit a Harrier, but it led to a ploughed field, so not ideal.

Chick Kirkham, Gareth ‘Bones’ Jones and Hum, 3(F) Squadron site ops control July 1985.

This was to be our last field deployment; Chick was finally retiring after over 40 years of continuous RAF service. I had been posted to the other Germany Harrier squadron, so someone decided it would be nice if we flew our last trip together from the site in a T4. A little publicity was always good for morale and so we ‘suited up’ and had our photos taken.

We lined up at the beginning of the strip, lots of photographers were about so we posed; TV wanted a different angle so we posed again, then we were off. I carefully briefed Chick: “Make sure your seat is live, if we have an engine failure we will eject, ready? Let’s go.”

I put on full power and immediately realised something was wrong... the RPM was 3% low and the green water flow light was not on. I’d forgotten to turn it on! I reached to flick the switch on the right side of the instrument panel... it was not there. This can’t be... then I remembered this was one of the first jets with a new ‘improved’ water switch location down by the throttle on the left side. By now I realised we would be in trouble if we kept going as we were in a seriously limited performance situation. We needed full power immediately after brake-release and all through the ground roll to get off before the end of the strip. In fact we had de-fuelled the jet to give ourselves adequate take-off performance. I immediately pulled the HP cock to shut down the engine... DON’T EJECT CHICK! I have a plan... max wheel braking and total concentration on that farmer’s track now. We shot through the gap with inches to spare and came to a gentle halt in the beginning of the ploughed field. I’ll never forget that moment’s silence, broken only by the clanking of the Pegasus fan blades and Chick, cool as a cucumber saying, “Nice abort Gerry”.

Hum and Chick.


Dispersed sites were sometimes in interesting places. In exploring around a site located on a big grass gliding site at Borkenberge, I found an old man in a workshop making a huge wooden framework for a wing. He showed me the plans for an assault glider, explaining that he was building it for display in a museum in Munich. Asked why he had this job up in the north of the country, he said that he was chosen because he had flown this type in WW2. I thought that he wouldn’t have many hours on type, but he said he had flown 400 hours, mostly being towed from Italy to North Africa laden with Jerry cans of fuel to keep Rommel’s tanks going, then being towed back if unbroken. The intended operational assault profile involved the glider being towed to near overhead the target carrying ten troops. Having cast off from the towing aircraft, the pilot would put the glider into a near-vertical dive with airbrakes out, the gunner would put his head and shoulders out of the top hatch and fire his aimed machine gun (there were also fixed forward-firing guns) to deter ground defences, then at the last moment the pilot would pull back hard, pop the brake ’chute, and fire the retro rockets. He had, of course, never actually done that. He also showed me a photo of himself as a young student glider pilot at Borkenberge in the 1930s, proudly wearing his Hitler Youth uniform. At another site on a former military airfield, where grass had grown all over the rather thin tarmac runway surfaces, two more veterans turned up, introducing themselves as the last jet pilots to have used those runways – flying Me 262s.

Overshadowing all of this high readiness was the spectre of the NATO Taceval. All air assets would be assessed each year by a permanent team, augmented by drafted-in subject matter experts. Evaluations were of two types: part one – readiness and generation, part two – operational effectiveness, including weapons delivery. Both were also practised through Maxeval, run by HQ RAFG, and Mineval, generated at station level. For part one, the assessors went to great lengths to achieve surprise. At some stage, an evaluator with a little learning must have noted the average circadian rhythm, as 0430 became a fairly standard time for the hooter to sound after the short delay that followed the incoming alert message. I still wake at that time most mornings, just in case. One of the more imaginative Gütersloh call-outs came on a Sunday afternoon. I was flying a display at Bergneustadt auf dem Dümpel, and quite a few Gütersloh personnel were there as spectators. Ops staff telephoned the organisers, who put out a message over the PA system telling all Gütersloh personnel to return to base immediately. I phoned back to query this, and was told to fly the display, then return, cancelling the post-show entertainment and hotel booking. Back home, I found that this was all generated by the station commander, who, during a lunchtime drinks party with his executives, had nipped out to tell the duty operations staff to initiate the recall. Another time, the NATO Taceval team, based at Ramstein in southern Germany, arrived in the early hours on 1 November. This being All Saints’ Day and a religious holiday in northern Germany, the officers and SNCOs had taken advantage of the opportunity to hold a games night in the sergeants’ mess, starting on the previous evening. When the call-out started, I was on my way home; many others were still at the party. I was the first to arrive at the squadron, and as more soon gathered, the evaluators issued modified instructions to the effect that anyone who had reached home from the games night must not attempt to drive to work, and under no circumstances must any aircraft engines be started. Fortunately, part two Tacevals had to be pre-programmed, and were usually during the third field deployment of the year.

Occasionally, other special events were superimposed on the training deployment cycle. One such was Trial Arbitrator, an evaluation of the effect of fighting a war in NBC kit. One flying site spent a week in July in the Bergen-Hohne training area in such conditions. They were at NBC High, wearing charcoal-impregnated suits in addition to normal clothes, or NBC Black, with respirators, hoods, overboots and gloves as well. Pilots had to wear the AR5, a rubber hood with attached visor and oxygen mask, with a neck seal to ensure that air could enter only from the aircraft’s oxygen system or a portable electric fan unit driving air through filters. With this and the additional layer of clothing, in the July heat, body temperature was a particular area of interest. The pilots slept in a Porton liner, a pressurised chemical-proof fabric chamber inside a tent, and were monitored at every step. The first action of the day was to fit a core temperature sensor. As modern swallowable RF transmitters were not then available, this involved (self-) insertion of an anal-thermistor with wired connection to a remote monitor. For safety, pilots flew in T-birds with a safety pilot in the rear seat wearing normal summer kit who could monitor performance and temperature. One pilot, having performed the dressing ritual, attended the morning briefing, received a task, planned and briefed, finally strapped into the aircraft and prepared to start. At this point, the safety pilot intervened, pointing out that the pilot was too hot, and so the sortie was terminated. This was the only occasion of which I am aware when a Harrier flight was cancelled due to a ‘bottom over-temp’. Probably the most stressful task was loading heavy weapons in high temperatures, but that continued up to the point of collapse. At the end of the week, personnel of Site 6 looked shattered but distinctly relieved.

Another memorable event was the firepower demo during a major NATO exercise to which Soviet observers were invited. All of the deployed Harriers took part, as well as those of 1(F) Squadron operating from Gütersloh, giving a total of forty-two aircraft. The plan would have been ambitious on a good day, but in fact the notoriously poor low-level visibility in Germany that day was a real challenge. At the designated first take-off time, 3 Squadron launched an aircraft from each of its sites to form an escort formation. Thirty seconds later, 4 Squadron did the same from its three sites, and so on until all were airborne. 1 Squadron joined on to the back of the Balbo. So far, so good. However, having managed to get to the target, the first few aircraft dropped their practice bombs, and on the ground the army set off explosive charges to simulate HE weapons. The smoke from the explosions considerably reduced the already limited visibility, leading to some very close shaves among the following Harriers. It was with great relief that we all landed safely, but when the message came down that the demonstration had been so impressive that the general would like to repeat it the next day, trepidation resumed. Fortunately, the weather was so bad in the morning that the task was cancelled. Another firepower demo flown from Sennelager involved some exploration of take-off and landing planning data. Four aircraft were each to fire four full pods of the operational version of SNEB, which fired all of its rockets before the pod itself was jettisoned. The pods and the HE rockets were fine, but the frangible fibreglass nosecones through which they fired had been declared a FOD hazard, so we flew with the rockets projecting beyond the front of the pod. No take-off performance figures existed for this configuration, so the site commander took off first; seeing him safely over the trees, the others followed. Then, in the demo, one of the pods failed to fire all of its rockets, so did not jettison. The pilot thus had to do his vertical landing back at Eberhard with half a pod of rockets on an outboard wing pylon. But again, all was well.

In the UK, the national Taceval team once arrived at Wittering at 1900 hours on a midweek day. I was on the OCU, where we were declared for a low level of readiness that required us just to call out all our personnel and to show that we had sufficient aircraft. Soon, the evaluators became uneasy at the lack of reaction from the high readiness squadron, 1(F) Squadron. They were assured by ops staff that 1(F) Squadron were all ready, and arming their aircraft, but they were in Lossiemouth. As they were required to verify this first hand, I ended up launching at 2300, after a normal day’s work, in a T4 with an evaluator in the rear seat. It was a dark and stormy night, and I suffered an unusual aircraft fault. When the undercarriage was raised, the airbrake remained in its normal gear-down position, extended to 25°. The extra directional stability this gives is useful at low speeds, but not so good when cruising at high speed. So we rode on through the dark and the weather with a strange Dutch rolling motion up to Scotland. There the weather was worse, and the strong wind required landing on the shorter runway with less good approach aids. Having taxied to the line of armed 1(F) Squadron jets in the pouring rain, we were greeted by the rather wet OC and even wetter engineers. After a cursory check of readiness, the evaluator cleared the engineers to unload the weapons, while we went off in search of an open bar. He seemed unconcerned about his popularity, or lack thereof.

The complexity of the support organisation for deployed Harrier operations was reflected in the staff I commanded in my tour as OC Harrier Plans. They included officers representing the RAF Regiment, RAF Logistics Branch, Royal Engineers and Royal Signals. So, while the most visible feature of the Harrier Force was the flying of the few aircraft by the slightly larger number of pilots, each squadron also needed some 100 engineers to support on-base operations, while all the external agencies listed above would be needed for flying from a typical austere site. In Germany, Harrier Plans coordinated all of this for the traditional three annual training deployments, and also maintained plans for wartime deployments within the anticipated area of operation. Some of these sites were similar to those used for exercises, but others were planned utilising roads and existing buildings, minimising build times but relying on a relaxation of peacetime constraints. In the divided Germany of that era, exercises could, and did, utilise some such assets, but the cost of the compensation that had to be paid to owners limited their use. When a reunited Germany lost its appetite for such overtly martial activities, and events in the first Gulf War led to a public perception that military activity could and should be segregated from civilian areas, a major re-think became necessary.

The planned locations of war sites were known only to those that needed such knowledge. There had to be co-ordination with HQ 1(BR) Corps, because a huge number of military units needed dispersed bases, while movements into and out of the area had to be maintained. Within the Harrier Force, the planners had the big picture, but down at flight commander level, each flight commander was briefed only on his initial site location. Jock Heron describes below his own introduction to this covert practice.


As the squadron executive officer it was my responsibility to carry out periodic surveys of the squadron’s proposed war sites and, with the Harrier Force planning team, to ensure that their characteristics had not changed materially. We were always on the lookout for significant road improvements or new construction development in our potential area of operation in an attempt to increase the number of site options. These ground-reconnaissance visits were conducted very discreetly in groups of two or three in civilian clothes and invariably we travelled in a variety of private cars. We would rendezvous with our sapper and signals colleagues and drive in one vehicle to the appropriate grid reference. No photographs were taken during the ground recce to avoid compromise and detailed measurements of strip length, width and hide access were noted mentally and committed to paper in the vehicle afterwards. It was an elaborate subterfuge and I well remember taking measured strides along and across potential strips, dressed in a sports jacket and tweed hat, while engaged in earnest conversation with my sapper colleague about widening the access to car parks and potential aircraft hides or demolishing advertising hoardings. In the event that we might be challenged while exploring a light industrial estate we always had a brief question in German to protect our motives, such as “Wo ist der BP Tankstelle bitte?” which broadly translated meant “Where is the BP petrol station please?” We were never challenged but we shall never know how successful were our attempts to keep secret our clandestine duties.

Comprehensive dossiers were held for each site and on our return to base after these war site ground recces, we added our findings to the information which was secured in the wing operations centre in locked cabinets. Airborne reconnaissance photography of the sites was handled very carefully to guard against compromise and the sorties were flown only by the site commander who had conducted the ground recce. These pictures were essential to enable each site to be documented faithfully. Operation Warlock existed for over 20 years and although we knew that the reconnaissance expertise of the Warsaw Pact was formidable and that we risked being compromised by satellite imagery and by other clandestine means, we were confident that by moving our sites periodically the Harrier Force could survive and make a substantial contribution to NATO’s offensive air effort.



The adrenaline-pumping excitement of Harrier life did not appeal to everyone. Some people did one tour of high drama and low flying, then went off to do something more sensible. Others didn’t even go that far; one member of my OCU course quit before the final operational phase. A pilot whose first tour would lead to nightmares in later life describes some incidents below. Despite his efforts never to return to Harrier flying, he eventually did, and came to enjoy the life in Germany and Belize.



It was nearly twenty-five years ago that I placed some memories into that dark corner of my mind, in the padlocked suitcase under the bed with the devils and all, never to be opened again.

23 JANUARY 1981

On an OCU course solo I foolishly set the nozzles to 60° rather than 20° on a radar approach and being heavy, had insufficient vertical thrust to hover, insufficient horizontal thrust component to maintain speed for full wing lift to fly, and was therefore descending slowly with maximum thrust and decreasing airspeed, losing wing lift as time went on. Suspecting something was ‘not right’ early on, I started to overshoot from the approach rather early at about 1,000 ft, but the beast had other plans and continued down. The PAR controller’s voice went up an octave on each subsequent call after “going below the glide slope” to “well below the glide slope”. I knew I was in trouble when he stopped talking altogether. I figured he had given up on me, but he was actually scrambling to contact the duty pilot in the tower for help. The duty pilot broke onto the controller’s frequency and we had a lengthy discussion on the wireless as to possible reasons why I was about to join some of my anatomy cadavers from my university days. Believe me I was very interested as I slowly headed towards mother earth with only a Martin-Baker letdown option available, speed decaying and some red lights flashing on the CWP ( I think it was the ‘limiters’ telling me I was melting the engine).

During training you rapidly learn that amber warnings (cautions) are bad, real bad in a fighter, but a red warning equals a ‘balls-up’. The conversation went something like this: “Duty pilot here, overshoot,” I replied, “I am, it isn’t working”, “Full power” “Yes it is,” “Got the gear up?”, “Done that as well”, “Flaps?”, “yep, they are up as well” – no idea what was said next, as the fence and trees were getting rather large, and I was thinking, ‘I have done so much to get here, I have only just got onto the Harrier, it was my dream, now I am going to lose this beautiful aircraft and splat it slowly into the ground short of the runway – it’s going to make the headlines and also a mess on the ground, and I will be in the shit again and end my career in a fireball – I have two options, stay longer and risk being part of the wreckage, or pull the handle – which will it be?’ It is amazing what goes through your head in these situations. If I close my eyes now, I am back there, the devils chewing at my heels. It was slow, surreal, and almost a dream. Sun, blue skies, the lovely English countryside around, large (getting larger) houses and fields (getting much bigger now) down there ... erm, here; they weren’t down there anymore! Just before I disappeared from view of the tower, the duty pilot screamed, “Nozzles” as he astutely realised my error (his next order was going to be “eject” he told me afterwards in the bar) so I slammed the nozzles aft. Bad move ... I just killed all the vertical thrust and plummeted closer to the grass as the aircraft accelerated forward rapidly with a huge kick in the backside. Fifty to 150 in seconds was only just fast enough and I was lucky, and got away with it. If I had to put a number on it, maybe 100 ft from the deck. This whole event left two or three very distinct, red-hot branded impressions on my subconscious peanut-sized brain forever. Firstly, the Harrier was dangerous as it didn’t fly like a normal aeroplane. Secondly, it was dangerous and I got away with it. Thirdly, and most importantly, the Harrier was dangerous and had to be handled rather carefully as there were going to be more dangerous situations ahead of me and oh yes, the Harrier was rather dangerous (period, full stop).

20 NOVEMBER 1981

Having achieved my life’s ambition, I was a 1(F) Squadron Harrier pilot. I was tasked to fly into a small clearing in the wooded tank range on Salisbury Plain, VL, simulate a weapon upload, get airborne vertically on minimum fuel, fly on to Boscombe Down to refuel, then back to Wittering at low level. This was all to be in front of a contingent of army officers to demonstrate the Harrier’s capability. No-one on 1(F) wanted to do it, and being the junior pilot, the job came my way. The approach to the site was to be straight in at low level using a 50,000:1 map, with no prior recce of the area, just appearing ‘out of the blue’. Simple enough, but I missed the pad (being a camouflaged site in the middle of a wood surrounded by more woods in a wooded range) and found myself flying past some 200 yards south of the pad, at 75 feet, doing 80 kts or so. The RAF controller on the pad heard me (courtesy of high-power Pegasus) and said, “You missed the pad [thanks], turn north, we are only a short way away”. Which I duly did, raising the nose to slow down (high angle of attack) to about 60 kts (in the 30-90 kts range) and put a boot of rudder in to help the turn (sideslip). POW ... POW, POW. I thought I had been hit on the side by a runaway truck as the aircraft jarred violently sideways and I guess, began to flick. I hit the power to full, dropped the nose and straightened the rudder (as we had been taught) to go around for another shot. There goes another life. That’s number two so far and I am not even halfway through my first tour. I was very lucky that day, far luckier than many, and what hit me the most, was the violent reaction of the aircraft. If it had fully departed and rolled over, I would not have been able to control it.


I arrived in theatre after several weeks on Ascension Island (carrying out air defence – and dare I say it – first-ever night-vision goggle trials), and after a quick week back in the UK honing more skills and then flying back to Ascension (tanking a Harrier from the UK) followed by four weeks on a gutted ferry troopship, with the aircraft on a cargo ship where we had flown them the day before. After a week of going around in circles just offshore from Stanley, we finally sailed into Stanley Sound the day after the shooting war stopped, on 25 May 1982.

Once we had settled in, QRA consisted of two pilots on ‘Alert 2’ (two minutes to airborne), sitting in the aircraft in sub-zero conditions in the South Atlantic winter with no heaters. I did a six-hour stint like this and had to be lifted out of the cockpit as I was so cold and couldn’t move – so the boss cut it down to four hours a go in the ‘freezer’. Thanks boss.

17 JULY 1982

Falklands QRA. (Dave Morgan)

On QRA sitting in a shot-out abandoned shed someone had liberated, next to the runway at 0500 hours local time. Dark, cold and windy outside. We were the QRA team – a radar-equipped Sea Harrier and a GR3 each with two x Aim-9 and several hundred rounds of HE 30mm cannon shells. It was common to set up the aircraft ‘hot to go’, that is all weapons live except the final master arm switch. There were four of us in the shed, two pilots and two engineers nodding off in the warmth of a stolen paraffin stove hissing away – someone had finally seen sense and decided QRA 2 in the aircraft seat could not be carried out due to the weather after I had to be lifted out, and QRA 5 was adequate. Inside the shed was the warmest place on Stanley airfield, but the carbon monoxide levels were probably slightly higher than recommended Falklands QRA. (Dave Morgan) as all the shed’s bullet holes had been taped up to stop the cold wind blowing through – it looked like mom’s kitchen sieve with plasters on it.

Red phone rings: “Scramble, Scramble, Scramble. Vector west, inbound raid, picket ship will give details, call ZZZZ on xxx frequency, good luck.” Two minutes later we were screaming down the runway, and away as a pair, all weapons live. I remember some white fluffy stuff going between me and the leader’s wingtip, and it was dark. WHOA! Hold on a minute – dark? We don’t fly in the dark. We just didn’t fly in the dark ... no radar on a GR3 and no letdown aids ... so I guess it must be important and the sun was about to come up soon anyway. We broke cloud tops around 12,000 ft and headed west at full power as the sun slowly rose behind us. We tested the guns with a two-shot burst as we coasted out, checked we weren’t leaving contrails that might give us away, and the adrenalin started to kick in. We were a pair of fighter pilots looking for a fight, dare I say it, wanting a fight, and we had the edge with the Aim-9L missiles.

The picket ship was about 100 miles west of land, and they told us fast moving targets 200 nm west, so vector west. We looked at our maps. Err, hang on a minute, that’s pretty close to the Argentinian coast which would put us in heavily-defended Argentinian airspace with no back-up and a bunch of angry fighters, no air-to-air refuel capability, middle of winter, no real radar cover and 20,000 other good reasons that this was not a good idea.

“I say old chap, bit far to go” – i.e. we needed fuel to get back to Stanley, or our short back-up strip on the side of a mountain, and we didn’t have enough fuel right then ... “Set up a CAP in your current position,” was the reply. After only five minutes (it seemed like an eternity) we were running really low on fuel and told the picket ship we needed to leave very soon, so they had better scramble another pair to replace us. Ten seconds later and the voice came back, “Vector south immediately, multiple bogeys coming in, angels 100, range 60 miles, high speed”. Holy shit, this was it. Years of training about to be put to the test. Full power, dive-off height down to 10,000 ft, cross-check all weapon switches live again and let’s get in there.

Eyes on stalks – straining to see the wisp of an enemy trail. Fast-moving so probably Mirages – they will be in burner so not much time to fight and they will use the vertical – which we couldn’t use so well. How the hell did they outflank us? Keep them low and turning and the missiles will do the rest. We needed to get below them for the initial engagement so we went lower, maybe 8,000 ft, and stayed in wide line abreast formation (‘battle’ about 3 nm split) so we could cover each other’s six o’clock, as briefed before getting airborne. “40 miles, 20 miles, 10… merge” from the controller. Nothing, not a dicky bird, not even a speck of fly shit on the windscreen. ‘Merge’ when you don’t see the enemy is death – 99.999% for sure. It means the controller’s ‘blips’ have merged to one blob.

We blew through the fight, decided we would turn back for another go to see if we can put them out front, have a quick shot and then bug out fast if nothing was seen, always leave the fight heading home, and today it was a good idea to do just that as we had no fuel. Hi ‘G’ turn back and we were in again with the controller telling us targets 15 miles, 10 miles, 5 then “merge” … Again. Now we were in serious trouble as we couldn’t see them and didn’t have any fuel. We decided to run out at full power. “Bingo, bugging out” to the controller, meaning no fuel and going home, fast as we could. The reply echoes in my mind to this day; I will never forget it. Someone opened the cupboard and let a devil out and it had me by the throat. “OK, thanks for the training, have a good one”. There is that long, pregnant pause when you know, just know, there has been an almighty balls-up and someone is going to be in serious trouble. A fraction of a second later you realise that someone is you. We didn’t have enough fuel to get back to Stanley, but we could just make San Carlos airstrip if we were lucky. We had our own pilot there (Ada), with a hand-held radio, some engineers, and some fuel. That was it. No instrument let down aids, no nothing. The strip was halfway up a mountain and hard to see. The boss had crashed there during the war so there was still debris around, and it was a known bad place to be, but nevertheless it had fuel.

We throttled back, climbed, and said a little prayer. Looking down from 30,000 ft, I could see that all the Falklands was out in weather. This will be fun, NOT. We finally got hold of Ada, comms were poor, and he told us the strip was out in fog, so bad in fact he couldn’t see it and he was only 100 ft from the strip. The strip was ‘cumulo granite’ (land in cloud). His wished us good luck and said he would try and alert Stanley. We climbed to max altitude around 42,000 ft. We weren’t going to make it unless we saved gas. Eighty miles out we radioed Stanley ATC for a weather update. Nothing. We tried a dozen times or more. Not a thing. Our only means of a let down below cloud on the GR3 was a barometric altimeter to 300 ft or whatever you dared, then fly in under the cloud. There were no let down aids for the airfield, the original Argentinian radars having been ‘tweaked’ by Johnny Paratrooper, and the RAF radar sent south going to the bottom of the sea with the Atlantic Conveyor. So we couldn’t self let down easily unless the weather was satisfactory.

An army chopper pilot breaks in on guard (emergency frequency) and in a broken chopper-sounding voice, “Harriers calling Stanley. They have a power failure. I am in the bay at 5 ft and can’t get in because of the weather. It’s bad. Thick fog. If I can’t get in, you don’t stand a chance so forget it,” or words to that effect. This was not what we wanted to hear. Fog you can only ever get under once, then you ‘push up daisies’ forever, so we flew higher – higher than I had ever been and way outside the flight envelope of the Harrier, to save some gas. We had a chat on the radio and decided to head out to sea and see if we could find the fleet. We knew where it was yesterday, but overnight it could sail 200 miles, or more, and we weren’t going to make it anyway.

It was a long shot, but better than a Martin-Baker let down. Way below us, 20 to 40 ft sea swells, freezing Antarctic Ocean, no rescue helicopter, no ideas, no chance – not good. Fighter pilots do not get heart attacks under such circumstances, you tend to have an ‘oh well, not my day’ kind of approach and get on with it. So we headed out to sea, with no gas and my leader working his radar into a lather. We both knew it wasn’t going to work unless Andy found the ship. After some time watching the fuel gauges edge towards ‘empty’ a call comes “I got them, follow me” – some 100 miles or so out to one side he spotted the fleet as a small blip on his air-to-air radar, so we turned towards, and set up a ‘glide’ approach. Shortly after he gets them on the radio, and tells them to launch the helicopter, because “we aren’t going to make it”. “Negative, turn back, all flying is cancelled due fog” was the immediate reply.

Did he just say that? Fog. Yup F-O-G with a capital F, “OK launch the helicopter because we will be ejecting shortly, we can’t make the ship anyway” from Andy, provokes the irate schoolteacher response, “Didn’t you hear us, we can’t launch, we are in fog and all flying suspended. You are not cleared the approach so go back to Stanley.” F no longer stands for fog. We decide to go for it anyway. Another memory burnt so deep in my brain, as if cast in stone, as we break into a lucky hole in the fogbank at 2,000 ft, a dark distant toy ship sails out of the bath bubbles and into the hole, then another appears from out of the murk just like being in the bath as a kid. From the fog and murk the whole fleet slowly emerges, but immediately ahead of them more fog, so we throw the jets onto the deck amid a flurry of deck personnel and flashing lights. I never, ever landed so quickly, ever, never ever. A chopper is winding up on the deck. They must have hit the crash button. A few seconds later and we can’t see the end of the ski jump as it is in fog. I climbed out with less than 200 lbs of fuel, which is less than one minute to flameout, and shaky knees as the adrenalin rush hit again. Getting to be a habit this. Andy had zero fuel on his gauges and was living on borrowed time. That was the last of his nine lives – he died shortly after the Falklands in an air crash doing what he loved best: flying fighters at an air show. We were stuck in fog for two days onboard the ship. We were launched in fog for a navy exercise and some idiot in ops didn’t check the weather or tell us it was an exercise. We were airborne for 1 hour 45 minutes on 100-gal drop tanks (6,600 lbs of fuel), with half that time being at pretty much full power. We had been 200 miles to the west of the farthest of the Falklands Islands, and then ended up over 150 miles to the east. That was the third of my nine lives blown away. The next one was just five days later.

22 JULY 1982

This was my one morning off for the month, so I decided to lie in bed an extra hour or two and have a slow start to the day. I hated this place beyond belief. Around 0800 hours, the familiar roar of engines as the QRA pair scrambled about 500 yds away from my tent – again. The thought ran through my head, ‘getting to be a habit, hope they will be OK’. Within a minute the ops corporal appeared inside my tent, yelling for me to “get out now, report to the ops tent”. Bit cheeky I thought, he didn’t say “Sir”, as I threw on a goon suit and ran towards the ops setup. The airfield air raid siren was wailing again, so probably time to get a tin hat on and dive into a slit trench ‘tout suite’. Squadron Leader Pete Moules (Squadron Exec O) saw me running towards him and hanging half out the caravan he yells, “No duff. Air raid 60 miles out to the west. Get airborne NOW there’s an air raid coming in!” Anyone else and I might have said hold on a minute, just done that, but after my earlier incident, there had been a change of thinking and no scrambles were to be called unless confirmed targets and good weather (meaning no thick fog rolling over the airfield, and no false scrambles). I ran past him straight to the tent containing our flying gear, stole someone’s jacket, found my helmet and raced to the line. Everyone was going ‘weapons free’ diving into slit trenches, cocking their weapons, and those with a job on the line were pulling blanks off aircraft, getting chocks out, and scrambling around.

The first jet I got to had someone in it, which I found annoying at the time. Their engine howled into life before I even reached the aircraft next to it. This jet was empty so I yelled at the ground crew to remove the missile caps and engine blanks immediately, leant over the side and hit the gang bar (turns on all the electrics) and hit the engine start whist strapping in. Within a minute I was taxiing out, luckily without anyone sucked into the intake in my haste to go. I knew we were vulnerable, all the jets cleverly parked in that straight line next to the runway. All the time I was looking skyward expecting little black dots to appear from the cloud with napalm or cluster weapons falling from them.

The cloud base was solid at around 900 ft, with the surrounding hills and mountain tops in thick cloud. Onto the runway, thankful I hadn’t been strafed yet, or worse, only to find a Sea Harrier just in front of me some 20 yds away, carrying out flight control checks as if he was on a summer’s day jolly. “Get airborne NOW” I yelled over the radio, and a second later he was doing 100 kts, with me close behind him. He turned east downwind, and I paired with him, both of us heading east at 800 ft and 500 kts, me slightly in trail. East? The raid was inbound from the west. I quickly asked where he was going and he said “Back to the carrier” which was lurking out at sea well east of the Falklands. I sure as hell didn’t ever want to see another flat-top as long as I lived, despite the ‘going to protect mother’ attitude of the Sea Harrier pilot. What about protecting our guys on the ground at Stanley Airfield? There was some high octave chatter on the radio about targets to the west above cloud, and I thought why would anyone head east if the fight was to the west. That was all the incentive I needed, so I pulled away up into cloud, to quickly get above it, and join the rapidly developing dogfight to the west. That was Plan A all thought through and executed in the blink of an eye.

Speed washing back, altimeter climbing, head-up display straight and level and VSI showing a climb. Let’s try that again, altimeter winding up, speed is decaying, VSI off the clock ‘up’, that means I am climbing, HUD straight and level. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure it out. Downwind a few seconds ago the HUD was working fine, straight and level, airspeed, altimeter all OK. One more time, still straight and level, still climbing with airspeed rapidly washing off, I topped at about 12,000 ft, IMC in cloud, still trying to figure it out as the altimeter began to unwind at first slowly, with the airspeed starting to increase, VSI showing a shallow descent, and the HUD still straight and level. I looked for the standby artificial horizon, something we never used, so it took about one millisecond to find it (time does slow down when you are having a life-threatening moment) and there it was. All bright and shiny, with the biggest red and white chequered flag right across the face that I had ever seen. I mean it was huge. This meant the standby artificial horizon was about as useful as a condom in a convent. Since it felt like I was upside down in a shallow descent with no instruments, I rolled and pulled to what I thought was level, and the altimeter began unwinding so fast it was a blur, VSI went ‘off the clock’, and the speedo wound up ‘rapidly’.

Oh shit, another balls-up but this one is a huge one, even by my standards. My thought process went along the lines of this: ‘I don’t have control ... I can’t do anything else ... I went IMC at about 1,000 ft in the climb, I am on the way down I think, so if I don’t break cloud by about 1,000 ft, I will bang out’. Everything felt smooth like a shallow descent, but that wasn’t what the instruments were telling me. Everything had been silky smooth and I really couldn’t assimilate it or understand what was going on. Mountains nearby, but I have to be in the bay so I will stay with it till 1,000 ft? Those QFIs out there will be wondering about the turn and slip. It was never taught, never used, and someone had stolen the bubble from it a long time ago!

At about 900 ft I broke cloud. That was a relief. But what is that huge boat in the 12 o’clock high position (that is, if you look up 45 degrees, it was there), along with a world full of sea in place of the sky. Being both upside down and some 45 degrees nose down going like a train, I instinctively rolled and pulled. I think I even got a hand on the nozzles at some point to help with pitch, and with both hands full and pulling like a bastard, came within a few feet of hitting the sea and the boat. I hadn’t even gone for the handle, and would probably not have made it, leaving it so late. Thank you Lord, now if I could ask just one more favour please.

I had no IFF and was in an active Blindfire Rapier fire zone with trigger happy RAF Regiment operators keen to add an airframe to their scorecard and blasting out of cloud at 500+ kts upside down one mile north of the airfield didn’t leave Johnny Rock Ape much ‘trigger finger thinking time’. No call sign either, so all that came to mind was “Don’t shoot, it’s me” at about three octaves higher than my normal voice pitch.

I found the standby AH switch, turned it on, erected it, then climbed through cloud on standby instruments getting clear on top at about 15,000 ft, headed west with a gallon of adrenalin rushing through my veins and both missiles ready to go, listening to the ensuing chatter on the radio with eyes on stalks scanning for targets. I recall other Harriers popping out of cloud ahead of me, so the odds were getting better in our favour.

Then a “No Duff, everyone come back and land” over the radio. But ... “No buts, come back immediately and land. We will explain later”. I recognised the voice as Pete Moules and let myself down over the sea to the east of the airfield, ‘schneebled in’ below dank clouds and landed. I signed for the jet (noting it was red lined for the standby AH not turning on with the gang bar switch) and walked towards the ops tent. I met Pete just outside the tent, and then I started shaking uncontrollably. “I just nearly crashed, what happened out there?” When he asked about what happened to me I told him, trying desperately not to have a meltdown. I didn’t need to remind him this was the second time in five days I had used up another of my cat’s lives. He wasn’t happy, and said we nearly just lost three aircraft in the space of a few minutes. The QRA pair intercepted the incoming targets at a distance, had growling missiles and were going to fire, when they decided to close in and visually identify the targets (smelling a dead rat – or in this case, rotting fish). Delaying a shot could have cost them their lives in combat, but it was a good thing on this occasion.

Two Sea Harriers had decided to fly a practice airfield attack in a ‘war zone’. They had been at low level, hit bad weather and pulled up. To be on the safe side, they had called, “FAKIR 60 miles out for an airfield attack.” Unfortunately the radio operator in ATC hadn’t a clue what “FAKIR” meant, and the ops clerk didn’t either, so ops commander had hit the airfield air raid siren sending the entire RAF airfield contingent from ‘weapons tight’ (safe) to ‘weapons free’ (meaning it is now war and shoot anything you think is the enemy) in the space of a nanosecond. Good old navy again, but since they didn’t hold a monopoly on idiots, the RAF ATC/OPS all had a finger in the ‘balls-up’ pie this time.

My story, and I am sticking to it, is we scrambled the entire squadron in less than sixteen minutes. I was in bed 400 yds from the line when the hooter went up, and wasn’t the last one airborne. I hadn’t signed for the jet, had no idea about its state, and certainly wasn’t aware of the red line entry. When you taxi onto a runway with a whole bunch of people out there you think are trying to kill you with HE and napalm, you don’t tend to look inside the cockpit. The INAS wasn’t in align to prepare the HUD, which was the primary attitude information for flying in cloud. With the aircraft straight and level on the ground, the HUD showed straight and level whether in alignment or not. Straight and level flying down wind, it showed straight and level, and all the pitot and barometric systems (like airspeed, VSI, and altitude) worked normally. So I had flown into cloud with no instruments, gone all the way to 12,000 ft and fallen out upside down, climbed back up on standby instruments, and managed to walk away from it at the end of the day. Thank you Lord. I am not worthy of your graces. I was running out of cat’s lives, as this was my fourth.

I spent another few months in the war zone, witnessed stuff you only read about from ‘juicy’ war books, and then came back to the UK. A few weeks later I found myself back in the Falklands for another tour (albeit only three months this time). I spent nine months away from home that year, averaged just nine hours flying per month, was lucky to be alive, and hated the Harrier. I went back again to the Falklands the following year to help on a BoI (Harrier crashed in the circuit). The boss decided I was the perfect man for the job, so screaming and yelling I went back to hell.

Yes, I still have occasional nightmares thirty years later that I am tasked to do the seemingly impossible .... in full Technicolor, with the squadron mates, the TOT tasking with minimum time to plan and brief, the fear of a ‘balls-up’, and trying to find a camouflaged pad in the middle of nowhere with no gas. I even see my fellow pilots’ individual faces in my dreams; such was the powerful force that branded my brain, leaving indelible impressions. My wife understands immediately when I wake up in a cold sweat and say to her I was ‘back on the squadron again’ that night, but she doesn’t really know what happened.



Like all defence equipment, the Harrier went through a continuous process of evolution. Military kit is very expensive, but, there being no silver medal for coming second in a war, you always want the best. Knowing that something even better is always just around the corner, it is tempting to delay procurement. However, even if the risks posed by gaps in capability are accepted, there comes a point where commitment is necessary. So it was at the start of the Harrier story that, despite a Royal Navy and indeed RAF preference for the bigger, faster, P1154 project, the P1127 was developed into the Kestrel and then the Harrier GR1.

The GR1 soon gained INAS, then a more powerful version of the Pegasus, becoming the GR3, then the LRMTS that so changed the appearance of the aircraft. The RWR further modified the profile of the tail fin, while new weapons and defensive measures vied for position on the five pylons.

But even in the 1970s, thought was being devoted to what would be the next major step. Jock Heron offers a fascinating insight into that process from the viewpoint of a desk in the MoD.


When I arrived in the office on the fourth floor of the Whitehall main building I knew many of the personalities in the Air Support branch. I replaced a test pilot who was being promoted to take up another MoD PE flying appointment at Bedford and I had first met him several years before when he had been a few entries ahead of me as a flight cadet at Cranwell. He had flown the Harrier and its P1127 predecessors at Boscombe Down but having been away from front-line squadron duties since his Hunter days his judgement and priorities for the Harrier, understandably, were influenced by his experience as a test pilot. I saw things from a different standpoint because my background principally was as a front-line pilot but my position in the MoD command chain was fairly low down the pecking order. My wing commander boss was a seasoned Hunter man, our group captain deputy director had been a Vampire and Hunter pilot earlier in his career and our new director who had arrived shortly after me was a young, charismatic air commodore. He had completed a tour as a station commander in Germany only a year earlier and was widely experienced on several aircraft roles and types, including the Phantom and Buccaneer. However, none had flown the Harrier so I was considered to be the branch ‘expert’.

The arrival briefings were straightforward and my terms of reference were to manage the operational aspects of the Harrier fleet and to ensure that the aircraft remained capable of performing its task for the foreseeable future. It seemed to me therefore that my first task in the office should be to ascertain the existing MoD air staff policy for the aircraft by meeting the air plans staff and agreeing with them an order of priority for the Harrier and its development. The next step, in consultation with my colleagues in the MoD PE project office in St Giles Court and the RAF engineers, was to achieve a sound working relationship with the designers and manufacturers at the Kingston factory of Hawker Siddeley Aviation (HSA) and with the test pilots at the Dunsfold aerodrome, to determine how best to enhance the Harrier’s operational capability.

Although these steps sounded fairly simple in principle, it was less easy in practice to prepare a suitable outline plan of action. I was a member of several committees which were responsible for Harrier aircraft modifications, trials priorities and project reviews and there was a need to pay regular visits to the RAF headquarters and front-line stations. The in tray was always threatening to bury me in staff papers on matters which were very relevant to the job so I was not in control of my own diary. Nevertheless I began to understand where the Harrier fitted into the long-term plans for the RAF front line. It became evident, but only indirectly, that the Harrier was not seen in a good light in the MoD at senior levels due partly, I suspect, to the cost of the deployed concept of operations, its apparent unreliability and its limited performance. Although its status in 1975 seemed reasonably secure, with an attrition buy of fifteen GR3 and three T4 aircraft being assembled at Dunsfold for delivery the following year, it was apparent that the long-term prospects for the Harrier were bleak.

The loss of twenty-four aircraft and several pilots in aircraft accidents since its introduction in 1969, together with the apparent high cost of ownership and its short range and limited payload, which were significant operational limitations, had damaged the aircraft’s reputation. So the Harrier supporters in the MoD were faced by substantial and well presented but ill-informed prejudice against the aircraft. In 1975 the threat from the Warsaw Pact was real and very capable and it was my view firstly that there was a need to retain operational flexibility by protecting the future of the Harrier Force and secondly to enhance significantly its operational capability. But to gain such improvements meant considerable investment and there was the problem. After the previous year’s election the new Labour government had inherited a significant overspend, funding for defence was tight and other projects took priority. Also, aircraft fuel was being rationed to save money and it was another of my tasks to argue the case for a sensible allocation for the Harrier Force.

In 1975 the planning assumptions for the RAF offensive support forces were to buy twenty-four more Jaguars and extend their service life to 1995 while allowing the Harrier Force to run down by about 1985. My argument to retain operational flexibility by extending the life of the Harrier instead of the Jaguar was not palatable to the MoD hierarchy, but fortunately world events helped to promote the Harrier’s cause. In late 1975 the newly-independent Belize, formerly British Honduras, was under threat from Guatemala, its bigger Central American neighbour, whose armed forces were deployed along the border between the two countries. Britain had a commitment to protect Belize so, in the deteriorating political and military situation, troops and helicopters were despatched quickly in transport aircraft to the small airfield at Belize city to support our treaty obligations. The only combat type which could operate safely from the short runway was the Harrier, so within a few days six aircraft were deployed from RAF Wittering to Belize, using air refuelling for the lengthy transit, to provide offensive air support and a limited air defence capability. Although they never saw active service this commitment was to last almost continuously for the next eighteen years, until the GR3 finally was withdrawn from service in 1993. The Belize operation confirmed the unique operational flexibility of the Harrier and its advantages were recognised, perhaps reluctantly by the disbelievers. Gradually the mood in the MoD began to change in favour of the little jet.

In 1976 the first battle in the campaign to protect the Harrier Force was won when the MoD acknowledged the Harrier’s special capabilities by reversing the policy for the acquisition of new offensive-support aircraft. Twenty-four Harriers were ordered as a long-term attrition buy and the Jaguar Force was frozen at its initial level. Also relevant to this decision, I suspect, was the Labour government’s wish to balance work between the British Aircraft Corporation at Warton and its satellites in the north against a diminishing workload at Hawker Siddeley in the south at Kingston and Dunsfold. Preparations were underway to amalgamate and nationalise the two companies and in 1977 British Aerospace was formed as a state-owned company. The order book was thus better balanced and more healthy at both groups of sites with substantial numbers of Jaguars and Tornados being produced at Warton and Hawks and Harriers being manufactured at Kingston and assembled at Dunsfold.

The MoD’s long-term planning assumptions dictated that there was no budget to acquire a new aircraft type, other than the requirement for an agile fighter known as Air Staff Target (AST) 403 which was planned to replace the Harrier and the Jaguar by the 1990s. However, to sustain the capability of the current offensive support front line in the shorter term, there was some money to pay for improvements to our existing inventory, so I began to explore the possibility, with the HSA Harrier project team, of designing a new wing for the Harrier GR3 which could improve its payload and performance and extend its range. Because the wing assembly was removed as a single item for routine engine changes, my proposal was that a bigger wing could be fitted as a replacement and that this modification could provide these improvements. Wing loading would be reduced, manoeuvrability enhanced and the greater area would allow more fuel to be carried internally and provide the space for additional underwing pylons. It seemed to be a simple proposal although I acknowledged that matters wouldn’t be that straightforward. The late Dr John Fozard and his Kingston team were supportive and by early 1977 I had drafted the first air staff papers for circulation within the MoD to justify a feasibility study for a much modified GR3, which we designated the GR5, the ‘Big Wing’ Harrier.

I was encouraged to promote my ideas by my old station commander at Wildenrath who had returned to the MoD as the RAF director of public relations and both the MoD PE project director and my air staff director supported the work. However as there was no funding for a new aircraft type it was important to describe the GR5 as merely a major modification of the GR3 which could be introduced as a retrofit to existing aircraft. Because the Harrier was a 1965 development of the Kestrel which itself was a development of the original P1127, only the minimum of changes to the Kestrel were introduced to contain costs and development timescales. The design aim in 1965 had been to offer a credible operational capability with the little aircraft and the wing area, only marginally larger than that on the prototype, was constrained by weight and therefore size. The original Harrier wing had an area of 200 square feet and contained some of the aircraft’s internal fuel which totalled 5,000 lbs. To achieve an acceptable performance for take-off and landing and manoeuvring in conventional flight, the wing section and area were defined to offer the most suitable compromise between all the requirements and was as light as possible so that performance in the hover with the original Pegasus Mk101 of 19,000-lb thrust was not unduly penalised.

By 1976 the Pegasus Mk103 offered substantial improvements in hover performance so there was a strong argument to trade some of this extra thrust for an increase in all-up weight which would have permitted a bigger but slightly heavier wing to be retrofitted to the Harrier. The original proposal from HSA for the big wing had an area of about 250 square feet plus leading-edge root extensions and was equipped with six underwing pylons. Considerably more internal fuel was carried in the wing which raised the total internal fuel capacity to 6,700 lbs and our outline specification required the Harrier to manoeuvre like a Hunter and to have the same radius of action with six bombs, two air-to-air missiles, guns and ammunition as did the GR3 with two external fuel tanks, two bombs and guns but without air-to-air missiles. More thrust from the Pegasus and a digital avionics suite were also desirable features and on paper the promising HSA design met these aspirations.

From a different standpoint, by 1976 the US Marine Corps had lost several AV-8A aircraft apparently due to pilot error and I was one of the RAF team who visited Norfolk, Virginia to compare notes on concepts of operation, pilot selection and training standards. Several presentations were given by the RAF and by the USMC mainly on the cause and analysis of Harrier accidents and the need to select high-calibre pilots in the first place. However one of the presentations from the marines was on the improvements which would be sought to the STOVL handling of the AV-8A’s successor, the ‘AV-8B’. This was the first time I had heard of the USMC’s aspirations for such an aircraft, which had emerged as an affordable option for the USMC STOVL attack aircraft requirement, after the cancellation of the AV-16 programme in 1975. It seemed that the marines wanted similar improvements in the AV-8B to those which we had specified for the HSA GR5 although we had not sought improved STOVL handling as a key characteristic. The detailed performance and design parameters were not defined but the ‘B’ was to be a new airframe with a thicker composite wing of increased area and it had several features which could not be incorporated as modifications to the existing aircraft, the option which we had been forced to pursue for the HSA GR5 Harrier.

After our return to the UK I asked the HSA design team about Kingston’s involvement with the AV-8B and they acknowledged that several of their people were working with McDonnell Douglas on the details of the design and that HSA hoped to gain a contract for major airframe assemblies. Their view was that although the AV-8B and the HSA GR5 might share certain features, the need for enhanced manoeuvrability had not been addressed by the USMC who placed greater emphasis on the requirement for longer range while carrying bombs at medium altitude. Senior MoD OR and PE staffs had been briefed on the AV-8B earlier in the year but because it was a new aircraft and therefore a ‘procurement’ programme there was no provision in the long-term costings for such a proposal so MoD involvement had been rejected. However, subsequent events were to change this situation.

Comparison of options. (Jock Heron)

Throughout my tour, which was at the height of the Cold War, the draft papers from the operational requirements branch on future equipment policy saw the need for an agile fighter to replace the Harrier and the Jaguar by the 1990s. AST 403 was the basis for the aircraft which, many years later through several iterations, became the Eurofighter Typhoon. In the Harrier office we were convinced of the need for a STOVL capability in a new aircraft and our views were endorsed by the branch director. The studies which were being conducted by the Defence Operational Analysis Establishment at the time did not acknowledge the validity of our arguments and official MoD policy directed that the airfield performance criteria were to be based on a STOL requirement with the assumption that in operational circumstances there would always be short runways available. For several years the Harrier lobby aspiration was for a supersonic STOVL multi-role fighter and to reflect this need an outline AST 396 had been drafted as early as 1970. Although stealth as a design characteristic was not specified in the AST, today’s Joint Strike Fighter performance requirements are close to those which we had expressed several decades earlier for a ‘Harrier replacement’. Hindsight is a wonderful attribute but I still have a slide which I composed to promote the Big Wing Harrier in 1977 which stated: ‘The Harrier today is where the helicopter was thirty years ago; limited in range and payload, misunderstood by many and opposed by men without vision, but it is a new dimension in tactical air operations and its versatile capability must be recognised.’

Long after my time in the MoD, the record shows that after submission of the feasibility study on the big wing retrofit option in 1980, the tide of opinion had moved progressively in favour of the Harrier and the attractions of the improved ‘GR5’ version finally had been accepted by the doubters in the MoD. Because of delays in other aircraft projects, particularly for the agile fighter, the MoD decided in 1981 that funding should be split between the AST 403 project studies and the procurement of a new and much more capable variant of the Harrier, rather than pursuing the original modification package. Prolonged debate took place on the development costs, performance comparisons, the political and industrial attractio