Last year artist Fiona Banner exhibited a Harrier Jump Jet at London’s Tate Britain, hung like a “captive bird” as part of a modern art exhibit called Harrier and Jaguar. Symbolically turning the combat jet from brutal warplane to submissive beast found mixed emotions among aviation enthusiasts, but few would have imagined that less than a year later Britain would retire its Harriers amid controversial defence cuts and Banner’s image would become reality. In this article we take a visual tour of the Harrier’s distinguised career and, true to our Urban Ghosts mission, explore the rusting afterlife of one of Britain’s finest aviation achievements.
The Harrier Family
Famously known as the Jump Jet for its vertical/short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) capabilities, the British-designed Harrier is one of the most celebrated multi-role combat aircraft of the modern era. While similar in appearance, the latest version marks an evolutionary leap forward from its revolutionary predecessors, as the second generation of four main variants in the Harrier family: Hawker Siddeley Harrier, British Aerospace Sea Harrier, Boeing/BAE Systems AV-8B Harrier II, and BAE Systems/Boeing Harrier II.
Early Years and the Arrival of V/STOL: P.1127 and the Kestrel
Development of the Harrier as the first successful V/STOL aircraft began in 1957, when Britol Engine Company invested in the Pegasus vectored thrust engine. Meeting the NATO specification for a “Light Tactical Support Fighter”, Hawker Aircraft designed the P.1127 prototype, which first flew in 1960. The company also devised the P.1150 and P.1154 as a supersonic V/STOL aircraft. But despite winning the NATO competition, development was cancelled in 1965.
Successful trials of six P.1127 prototypes brought forth an order for nine evaluation aircraft, christened the Hawker Siddeley Kestrel. The Kestrel first flew in 1964 with the “Tri-partite Evaluation Squadron” made-up of British, U.S. and German pilots, and paved the way for a modified aircraft introduced as the Harrier GR.1 in 1966.
Hawker Siddeley Harrier
The Hawker Siddeley Harrier GR.1, later upgraded to GR.3, formed the first generation of the Harrier family. They included the AV-8A, built on the Hawker Siddeley production line for an enthusiastic U.S. Marine Corps. As the first ever operational V/STOL fighter-bomber, these early Harriers were developed directly from the groundbreaking P.1127 prototype and Kestrel evaluation aircraft. Furthermore, the complexities of V/STOL flying ensured that, throughout its career, the Harrier was literally flown by the best of the best.
British Aerospace Sea Harrier
The British Aerospace Sea Harrier, nicknamed the “Shar”, was the naval version of the jet, used for air defence, reconnaisance and attack duties. Entering service with the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy in 1980, the original Sea Harrier was upgraded to FA2 standard in 1993 and remained in service until 2006. Today, the Indian Navy still operates a version of the Sea Harrier from its aircraft carrier, INS Viraat.
Harriers in the Falklands
While Harriers have taken part in various conflicts, both the Sea Harrier and Harrier GR.3 cut their teeth during the Falklands War, flying an astounding six sorties per aircraft per day on average and destroying an impressive 20 enemy aircraft without suffering a single air-to-air loss. The Harrier’s vectored thrust gave it a significant advantage over opposing Argentinian jets, and gave rise to reporter Brian Hanrahan’s famous line: “I am not allowed to say how many planes joined the raid, but I counted them all out and I counted them all back“.
Arrival of the Second Generation Harrier II
These impressive early jets paved the way for a second generation of larger Harriers, similar in appearance but heavily modified with improved systems and avionics, culminating in one of the most flexible and lethal weapons platforms ever built. Bristling with high tech sensors and ordinance, the modern Harrier II was the result of a major redevelopment by McDonnell Douglas and British Aerospace (and later Boeing and BAE Systems) to create the AV-8B Harrier II (operated by U.S., Spain, Italy) and the Harrier GR5/GR7/GR9 series (operated by the Royal Air Force until 2011).
Retirement and the Joint Strike Fighter
While the last new Harrier rolled off the production line in 1997, 824 variants were delivered between 1969 and 2003 (including remanufactered and updated aircraft). While the U.S. and several other countries still operate the Harrier II, the UK retired its fleet amid huge controversy following a 2010 defence review. It’s set to be replaced by the F-35C Lightning II, but not before 2020 and without V/STOL capability. The Ministry of Defence has since been asked to “review the review“, but it’s unlikely the iconic Harrier, which captured the hearts and minds of generations, will be granted a reprieve. The plus side is that if you want one in your garden, you can pick-up a fully restored first generation twin-seat trainer via eBay for £69,999.
End of an Era: Forgotten, Wrecked and Abandoned Harriers
(Images: cgull123, all rights reserved, reproduced with permission)
While the recently retired Harrier IIs won’t yet (we hope) have gone to the scrap heap, airfields around the UK are littered with the rusting shells of first generation Harriers. The sorry sight above is an early GR.1 first flown in November 1970. Later upgraded to GR.3 standard, the jet has clearly been used in some form of ground instruction but now appears abandoned in a lonely corner of the North Luffenham airfield, Rutland. Despite years of neglect, the faded lettering on the fuselage just about reveals the name of its last pilot: Flt Lt Davis.
Predannack Airfield on Cornwall’s Lizard Peninsula, now operated by the Royal Navy, has a large plane graveyard dotted with derelict airframes. Likely used for crash rescue training by the Royal Naval School of Fire Fighting, the rusty remains include about eight Harriers of which the British Aerospace Sea Harrier and Hawker Siddley Harrier GR.3 (above) look to be in reasonable condition. Those intrepid urban explorers at 28DL have a report but remember to seek permission before straying onto the site, as it is an operational military airfield.
(Images: Dave Bellamy, all rights reserved, reproduced with permission)
This redundant GR.3 beautifully captured by photographer Dave Bellamy stands alone on another weed-invaded dispersal within Predannack’s extensive plane graveyard. Again the Harrier appears reasonably intact although the corrosive seaside air continues to take its toll on the neglected airframe. Dave also photographed this twin-seat trainer, which has lost its wing-mounted outer wheels and relies on bricks and rocks for balance.
(Images: Chris Globe, all rights reserved, reproduced with permission)
The retirement of the Harrier marks the end of an era for aviation enthusiasts sad to see it go, but also a major bone of contention for advocates of a strong armed forces. For a government fond of buzzwords like “streamlining”, “adaptability” and “flexibility”, axing a military asset that meets those criteria seems a strange choice to some. But in the end, the Harrier will live on in memory and history, while rusting survivors (like those above by Chris Globe) will litter negected corners of airbases for years to come, with a lucky few preserved in museums – or gardens.