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The Harrier, the Plane Not the Bird
The Harrier was the realization of a concept to develop a combat aircraft that could take off vertically. The Harrier is a multirole aircraft that has served in the Royal Air Force (RAF), the Royal Navy (RN), the United States Marine Corps (USMC), and the navies of Spain, Italy, India, and Thailand. It has served in many of the conflicts the U.S. and the UK have been involved in since the 1980s.
The Harrier started out as project P.1127. The prototype aircraft hovered before it flew. It first hovered on October 21, 1960 and made its first flight on March 13, 1961. On February 13, 1964 the Hawker Siddeley Kestrel made its first flight. The development Harrier made its first flight on August 31, 1966.[i]
- December 28, 1967 – First flight of the Harrier GR-1.
- April 1, 1969 – GR-1 Entered RAF squadron service.
- August 20, 1978 – First flight of the Sea Harrier FRS.1.
Late 1979 – Sea Harriers entered service with the Royal Navy.
[i] Modern Fighters and Attack Aircraft, by Bill Gunston, © 1980 Salamander Books, Ltd. Page 57.
Supporters and Detractors
The Harrier’s vertical take-off and landing capability gives it the advantage of being able to carry out operations without a runway. In the 1970s this meant a Harrier could carry out operations even if a Warsaw Pact missile attack took out all the NATO runways. This meant Harriers would be the only fixed wing aircraft support the NATO ground forces could expect in the opening hours of World War III. The Sea Harrier meant a navy could use this multirole aircraft at sea without the need for the large and expensive attack carriers. The Spanish navy based these aircraft on PH-01 Dedalo which was a converted 1942 cruiser.[i] The Vertical take-off severely cut down the aircraft’s operational radius. The AV-8A had a radius of 260-400 miles with a conventional take off. When it took off vertically its combat radius was 115 miles.[ii] While short it was 115 miles more than a conventional fixed winged aircraft could fly without a runway.
After a trial period the U.S. Marine Corps put the AV-8A Harrier into general squadron use. The USMC had 26 Harrier crashes, 24 aircraft were lost and 10 pilots died in these crashes. [iii] The high crash rate wasn’t because of a problem with the aircraft. Vertical take-offs and landings left little room for error. A mistake could cause the Harrier to flip over at low altitude with no chance of recovery. When the USMC decided to have only highly experienced pilots fly the aircraft the Harrier accident rate went down.
The Harrier fulfilled the USMC concept of airpower where its air arm would work closely with the Marine ground forces. It could operate from almost anywhere and be near enough to the Marine ground forces to give these ground forces timely air support. Harrier detractors felt the aircraft had a limited application in a time when the military should be trying to cut back on its expenses. Then Defense Secretary Harold Brown wanted to reduce the number of different types of aircraft the military had. [iv] The Marine Corps was going to get the multirole F/A-18 so the Harrier appeared a duplication of capabilities.
There was an opinion that gained some popularity in the mid-1970s that simpler fighter aircraft could perform in air-air combat about as well as top of the line fighters. Tom Gervasi pointed out, “In hundreds of test dogfights, preserved by computer for study, the ratio of F-5Es shot down by the far more expensive and complex aircraft remained consistently between 1.3 and 1.4 to 1.”[v] The Harrier’s ability to Vector in Forward Flight (VIFF) seemed to give the Harrier an advantage over conventional fighter aircraft. Tom Gervasi claimed Harriers with their VIFF techniques “have successfully jumped the Harrier into new flight paths, breaking the lock on a hostile radar or weapons guidance and homing locks, respectively, of enemy aircraft and missiles.[vi]
There was a combat exercise that pitted Royal Navy Sea Harriers against U.S. Air Force (USAF) F-15 Eagles. The RAF soundly defeated the USAF in this exercise. The multirole Harrier had bested the top of the line air superiority fighter. Many attributed the Harrier victory to its VIFF capability. At the time the British military had undergone severe budget cuts. Their personnel were able to somewhat compensate for these cuts by becoming more proficient in their jobs. At the time of this exercise the Royal Navy and RAF pilots were among the best in NATO. Results of combat exercises can also be deceptive. These mock combats are often made to hone pilot skills rather than show off aircraft capabilities.
[i] America’s War Machine: The Pursuit of Global Dominance, by Tom Gervasi, © 1984, Page 154.
[ii] America’s War Machine: The Pursuit of Global Dominance, by Tom Gervasi, © 1984, Page 155.
[iii] America’s War Machine: The Pursuit of Global Dominance, by Tom Gervasi, © 1984, Page 154.
[iv] America’s War Machine: The Pursuit of Global Dominance, by Tom Gervasi, © 1984, Page 155.
[v] America’s War Machine: The Pursuit of Global Dominance, by Tom Gervasi, © 1984, Page 169.
[vi] America’s War Machine: The Pursuit of Global Dominance, by Tom Gervasi, © 1984, Page 155.
The Harrier in Combat
On Friday, April 2, 1982 Argentine forces invaded The Falkland Islands. The small Royal Marine garrison surrendered after a 3 hour fight. The next day South Georgia Island also surrendered to the invading Argentines. The total British forces for The Falklands and South Georgia were 84 Royal Marines.[i] The Royal Navy decommissioned their last conventional aircraft carrier, the Ark Royal in 1979. The Royal Navy had two aircraft carriers. These carriers, Invincible and Hermes, could carry our Harrier operations but not conventional fixed wing fighters. The British had sold, but not yet delivered, Invincible to Australia. The Hermes was scheduled to be decommissioned and scrapped.[ii]
This meant the only fixed wing air support for an expeditionary force to retake South Georgia and The Falklands were Harriers and some Vulcan bombers. The Vulcan bombers were also scheduled for retirement. [iii] The British had ruled out using nuclear weapons. The British sent a task force to The Falklands with 20 Sea Harriers as the only fixed wing air cover for their fleet.
Argentina had 42 supersonic Mirage and Dagger fighters. The Argentines also had 76 A-4 Skyhawks. The Skyhawks posed a major threat to the British Ships and the British couldn’t afford to underestimate them in air-air combat. The U.S. Navy was using A-4s as aggressor aircraft in its Top Gun school. Argentina had 9 Canberras, 5 Super Etendards, and 115 light attack aircraft.[iv] While these Argentine aircraft were a generation behind the top of the line NATO aircraft they still posed a major threat to the British ships, troops, and helicopters.
The Harriers were hampered by the British force’s lack of airborne radar. The Sea Harriers were equipped with AIM-9L Sidewinder missiles. These Air-Air missiles were far superior to the earlier vintage Sidewinders which the Argentines had.
On April 21, 1982 a Sea Harrier flown by Lieutenant Simon Hargreaves made contact with an Argentine Air Force Boeing 707 of Transport Gruppo 1. The British didn’t want to aggravate the situation so Lieutenant Hargreaves didn’t attempt to shoot down the transport. The 707 did report on its contact with Royal Navy ships.[v] On May 1 the Sea Harriers of No. 800 Squadron attacked the airfields of Port Stanley and Goose Green and surrounding anti-aircraft sites. At Port Stanley a Sea Harrier destroyed an Islander on the ground. At Goose Green the Sea Harriers destroyed a Pucará as it was preparing for take-off. The attack killed the Pucará pilot, Lieutenant Jukie, and 6 of the ground crew. A 20mm anti-aircraft shell struck Flight Lieutenant David Morgan’s Sea Harrier. It was the only damage the Sea Harriers received in the attack. [vi] The ground crew repaired the damaged Sea Harrier in 3 hours. By the end of the conflict similar damage to Sea Harriers were routinely repaired in 1 hour. There were a number of inconclusive encounters between the Sea Harriers and Argentine aircraft. Then in the late afternoon Flight Lieutenant Paul Barton shot down a Mirage. The Mirage pilot, Lieutenant Carlos Perona ejected safely. Lieutenant Steve Thomas damaged a Mirage. The Mirage attempted to make an emergency landing but Argentine gunners shot it down and killed the pilot, Captain Garcia Cuerva. [vii] In another dogfight Sea Harrier pilot Flight Lieutenant Tony Penfold shot down Dagger pilot Lieutenant José Ardiles. Lieutenant Ardiles was killed. Lieutenant Al Curtiss shot down a Canberra. The crew, Lieutenants Gonzales and de Ibaňez, ejected but were lost at sea. [viii] Argentine aircraft strafed the HMS Glamorgan and HMS Arrow, these attacks caused superficial damage and slightly wounded a sailor. [ix]
The next day the Argentine Aircraft Carrier 25 de Mayo could not launch its A-4s because of strong winds. The Sea Harriers could, and did, launch from their carriers even in these strong winds. The Royal Navy submarine HMS Conqueror sank the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano and 321 Argentine sailors died. [x] The sinking of the General Belgrano made the Argentine Navy decide to keep the 25 de Mayo, and most of its surface fleet within their coastal waters.
On May 4, Super Έtendard pilots Lieutenant Commander Augusto Bedacarratz and Lieutenant Armando Mayora fired 2 Exocet missiles one missile struck and sank the HMS Sheffield. The attack killed 21 sailors and wounded 24.[xi] Argentine anti-aircraft, believed to be 35mm, shot down a Sea Harrier and killed its pilot, Lieutenant Taylor. The British moved their ships further away from The Falklands, which meant their Sea Harriers had to carry out missions that took them almost to their maximum operational radius. The Harriers stopped low level missions against heavily defended targets. [xii]
Sea Harriers shot down 22 aircraft. Sea Harriers and Harrier GR 3s destroyed 8 aircraft on the ground. Sea Harriers attacked the Narwal, Bahía Buen Suceso, Rio Carcaraňa, and Rio Iguazu. These Sea Harrier attacks forced their crews to abandon the vessels. The British lost 10 Harriers, 5 to ground fire and 5 to operational accidents. [xiii]
An Argentine Pucará shot down a Royal Marine Scout helicopter and killed its pilot Lieutenant Richard Nunn and wounded the other crew member. Argentine aircraft sank the destroyers HMS Sheffield and HMS Coventry, the frigates HMS Ardent and Antelope, and the container ship Atlantic Conveyor. Aircraft damaged another 14 ships. In a number of cases bombs that struck these ships failed to explode. [xiv]
The Sea Harrier pilots didn’t use VIFF in their air-air combat. Then Lieutenant Commander Nigel Ward explained, “Although the Harrier is capable of ‘viffing’ it is not a good combat tactic because you lose a lot of energy. The Harrier’s success was due to its great maneuverability and our sound training. Our problem was to get the Argentine pilots into tactical positions where we could exploit our better weapons systems.”[xv]
During the 1991 Gulf War the USMC flew AV-8B Harrier IIs in combat. The Marine Corps lost 4 Harriers to enemy ground fire. Captains Reginald Underwood and James N. Wilbourn were killed and Captain Russell A.C. Sanborn and Michael C. Berryman were captured. A night of note was January 28, 1991 when Marine Harriers attacked a convoy and destroyed 24 vehicles.[xvi]
During the Bosnian campaign a SAM-7 shot down a Royal Navy Sea Harrier FRS1 on April 16, 1994. The pilot, Lt. N. Richardson ejected and allied forces rescued him.[xvii] Harriers of the RAF, Royal Navy, and the USMC flew during the Kosovo campaign without loss.
British, USMC, and Italian Harriers flew missions in Afghanistan against al-Qaeda and Taliban forces. One AV-8B, Bu. Number 165391[xviii], crashed on April 2, 2003 as it was attempting to land on the USS Nassau. On September 14, 2012 Taliban troops destroyed 6 AV-8s on the ground and severely damaged 2 other Harriers.
The USMC and RAF Harriers also flew in Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Telic.[xix] The RAK Harrier Number 1, 3, and 4 Squadrons won the Battle Honor IRAQ 2003 with the right to emblazon. The UK retired the Harrier on December 15, 2010. The Harrier served with the UK military for 41 years.
USMC Harriers served in Libya during Operation Odyssey Dawn in 2011. On March 21, 2011 an AV-8B dropped two bombs in support of an operation that rescued a downed F-15E Crew member. The USMC still flies Harriers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
[i] Fight For The Falklands, by John Laffin, © 1982.
[ii] The Story of Air Fighting by Air Vice Marshal J.E. Johnson, © 1985.
[iii] The Story of Air Fighting by Air Vice Marshal J.E. Johnson, © 1985.
[iv] Air War South Atlantic, by Jeffrey Ethell and Alfred Price, © 1983 by Sedgwick and Jackson, Ltd.
[v] Air War South Atlantic, by Jeffrey Ethell and Alfred Price, © 1983 by Sedgwick and Jackson, Ltd.
[vi] Air War South Atlantic, by Jeffrey Ethell and Alfred Price, © 1983 by Sedgwick and Jackson, Ltd.
[vii] Air War South Atlantic, by Jeffrey Ethell and Alfred Price, © 1983 by Sedgwick and Jackson, Ltd.
[viii] Air War South Atlantic, by Jeffrey Ethell and Alfred Price, © 1983 by Sedgwick and Jackson, Ltd.
[ix] Air War South Atlantic, by Jeffrey Ethell and Alfred Price, © 1983 by Sedgwick and Jackson, Ltd.
[x] Air War South Atlantic, by Jeffrey Ethell and Alfred Price, © 1983 by Sedgwick and Jackson, Ltd.
[xi] HMS Sheffield – How Could it Happen?? (http://hmsmaxton.tripod.com/hmsmaxtonm1165suezcanalclearance1974/id13.html), visited June 11, 2016.
[xii] Air War South Atlantic, by Jeffrey Ethell and Alfred Price, © 1983 by Sedgwick and Jackson, Ltd.
[xiii] Air War South Atlantic, by Jeffrey Ethell and Alfred Price, © 1983 by Sedgwick and Jackson, Ltd.
[xiv] Air War South Atlantic, by Jeffrey Ethell and Alfred Price, © 1983 by Sedgwick and Jackson, Ltd.
[xv] The Story of Air Fighting by Air Vice Marshal J.E. Johnson, © 1985.
[xvi] Airpower in the Gulf by James P. Coyne, © 1992 by the Air Force Association, Page 186.
[xvii] Ejection History.org (http://www.ejection-history.org.uk/project/year_pages/1994.htm), visited June 11, 2016.
[xviii] Ejection History.org (http://www.ejection-history.org.uk/PROJECT/YEAR_Pages/2003.htm), visited June 11, 2016.
[xix] Operation Iraqi Freedom was the U.S. name and Operation Telic was the UK name for the invasion of Iraq.
The Harrier has always been a big hit at air shows. Its signature maneuvers include the “wave to the crowd” where a hovering Harrier would face the crowd and dip its nose. The Simpsons episode, “Sideshow Bob’s Last Gleaming”, had an air show performance with a Harrier as the opening demonstration. The movie “True Lies” had three USMC Harriers as supporting performers. In one scene a burst of 7.9mm gunfire shattered a Harrier canopy. This would not happen to a real Harrier. The filmmakers knew this but shattering the canopy meant they wouldn’t have to worry about reflections on the canopy glass.[i]
At the Andrews AFB, MD Joint Service Open House in May of 2000 the weather was below minimums on Saturday. This prevented fixed wing aircraft from performing, except the Harrier. A Harrier performed a hover demonstration.
At the annual Dulles Day on September 14, 2013 the U.S. military didn’t send any of their aircraft. The U.S. military had stopped participating in such events because of the “sequester”. In what could be considered an embarrassment the Luftwaffe had 2 of their aircraft, an Airbus A-340 and a C-160, participate in the event. Retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel Art Nalls did bring his Sea Harrier. His Sea Harrier, The RuckPack N94422, is the only civilian owned Harrier. The days of active military service may be numbered hopefully Art Nalls, and maybe some others, will be able to entertain air show spectators for many years to come.[ii]
[i] United States Movie Database, (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0111503/goofs?ref_=tttrv_sa_1), visited June 11, 2016.
[ii] The web site for Nalls Aviation is artnalls.com.