The Rise & Fall of the Harrier Jump Jet

The Rise & Fall of the Harrier Jump Jet

In Planes, Videos by Paul ShillitoLeave a Comment


In December 2010, The British Royal Air Force and Royal Navy announced they would retire their Harrier jump jets from operational flights before 2011, in what had been two-month rush job to meet the demands of government cuts due to the aftermath of the financial crash of 2008.

This marked the end for an aviation Icon, the last British-designed and built fighter aircraft in favour of the far more modern and capable Successor, the Lockheed Martin F-35B lightning II, even though it would be years away from taking the place of the harrier on the still to be finished British aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and the HMS Prince of Wales.

But it was a miracle that the Harrier had gotten this far, in its lifetime there had been several attempts both in England and in the USA where it was built under licence by McDonnell Douglas, to kill the project off.

But these efforts failed because it was the only operational military aircraft in the world that could combine the vertical takeoff and landing of a helicopter with the flight capabilities of a traditional jet fighter that could take off and land from a small clearing in a forest or a car park and even from the Helicopter landing pad of a ship.

But if this was such a good idea why didn’t anybody else make a similar V/STOL, or  Vertical/short takeoff and landing aircraft.

The reason for creating a vertical and takeoff landing aircraft stems back to after the Second World War.

During the Second World War, fighter and bomber air bases we’re one of the first military assets to be attacked, if you could knock out the planes on the ground or their ability to get them into the air, you could seriously affect their ability to defend themselves or go on the attack. The German blitzkrieg used combined air attacks and ground attacks with a devastating efficiency.

After the war, it was thought that if you could have aircraft which could take off vertically or from very short unmade runways or roads then even if the air bases were destroyed these aircraft would still be operational elsewhere, and could also be deployed closer to the front for shorter turnaround times between attacks.

So there was a flurry of activity from companies and governments around the world to come up with aircraft which were capable of V/STOL takeoffs and landings.

After several years of trials and failures from different countries and companies around the world, one aircraft emerged that managed to combine the much sought after vertical takeoff and landing with the flight operations of a traditional fighter, this would become the Hawker Siddeley Harrier Jump Jet, although it would take 12 years to go from conception to delivery.

But it wasn’t the British who originally came up with the idea of the vectored thrust that the Harrier used. That was Michel Wibault, a French aircraft designer that had become interested in vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, from gyrocopters and helicopters to interceptors and large transport planes.

In 1954, one of his projects was to create a vertical takeoff and landing attack gyrocopter using the most powerful turboshaft engine at the time, the Bristol Orion. This would drive four  compressors, two on each side of the fuselage, forward and aft of the centre of gravity.

The output of the compressors would go through nozzles which could swing from pointing down pointing back and as such in theory would allow a transition from a vertical take off to horizontal flight.

After he was unable to interest the French government,  he approached NATO through the Mutual Weapons Development Programme and was put in contact with Stanley hooker, the chief engineer of Bristol engines. The two worked together to come up with a new design which would be built from existing parts from different Bristol engines to create the Pegasus engine.

This would do away with the four compressors and instead have a compressor fan on the front of the engine which would power the forward nozzles and then the exhaust of the engine would exit through the rear nozzles, with a 60/40 split of thrust biassed to the front.

Work started in 1957 and although Bristol had the engine there wasn’t an airframe, That would come from another company Bristol worked closely with, Hawker aircraft. They had just had their replacement for the Hawker Hunter cancelled as part of the 1957 government white paper which stated that missile technology would be the thing of the future and that manned aircraft were effectively obsolete and that many existing and new programs should be closed down to force consolidation within the sprawling British aviation sector.  

This left Hawker with the available resources to commit to a new project to build a new airframe that would use the Pegasus engine, this project would be the Hawker Siddley P.1127.

There was a supersonic version of the P.1127 planned, the P.1154. A Mach 2 capable aircraft which was put forward after the NATO basic military requirement 3 was released for a supersonic VTOL strike fighter.

The P.1154 was selected as the technical winner from 11 submissions with the Dassault Mirage 8, which used 9 engines to the Hawker Siddleys one, was selected as second. The political infighting that followed between the groups and their various supporters and the changing of the strategic environment led to neither of them going into production.

Now at this point we have to acknowledge that the Soviet Union around the same time was the only other country to get a VTOL aircraft into a limited form of production. This would be the Yak-38, I have a whole video about this plane which you can watch, But the Yak-38 suffered from lack of investment as the Soviet Union was reaching its end days.

After The Soviet Union collapsed, it was the subject of a technology transfer agreement with Lockheed and it’s unique features of the forward lift fan and vectored exhaust ended up as the basis for the Joint Strike Fighter program which became the F-35B, but the Yak-38 ended up like all the other VTOL aircraft, as a footnote in aviation history.

This left the P.1127 to carry on to prove its capabilities and validate the performance of the Pegasus engine.

In late 1961 nine production standard aircraft were ordered for evaluation by the RAF and the name Kestrel was officially used.

By 1964, a tripartite evaluation squadron consisting of pilots from Britain United States and West Germany were trained on the entirely new original technique of flight That was demanded by the Kestrel. But the aircraft was of a traditional structure which lent itself favourably to performing the intended ground attack operations which were envisioned for it.

One of the problems with the aircraft was that because the engine and vectored nozzle unit were so large and the plane was relatively small, there was no room for any internal weapons so everything had to be carried on hard points under the wing, these would include multiple 2 inch rocket batteries 30 millimetre Aden cannon gun pods and 450 kilogramme or 1000 LB bombs or napalm and drop tanks for extended range.

It’s central tandem wheels were supported by outriggers at the end of the wings for balance when manoeuvring on the ground, these then folded back once in flight.

So the aircraft could Maintain its role and pitch whilst in its hover mode, reaction jets or puffer units which directed compressed air from the compressor fan we’re located at the end of the wings and at the front and rear of the aircraft and were used for stabilisation.

There was just one lever to control the vectored thrust nozzles that move them from the  vertical position for takeoff and landing and hovering to the horizontal position for normal flight. The reaction jets we’re also gradually increased in power as was nozzles rotated from a horizontal two vertical positions so the pilot didn’t have to manually control stabilisation.

Once the aircraft had transitioned to forward flight the lift from the wing was enough to allow it to fly like a normal aircraft with standard controls.

However, the workload on the pilot just to keep the plane in the air was much more than that of a normal aircraft and most of the accidents which occurred were during the takeoff and landing. It was originally thought that helicopter pilots would make good Harrier pilots but it was found that fast jet pilots could make the transition to the use a vectored thrust better.

It wasn’t only the air forces that saw the potential of the VSTOL aircraft, the Royal Navy and the US Marines could also see the usefulness of an aircraft that could be launched from small carriers or even large amphibious assault ships, though most would be launched with the aid of a ski jump on a carrier and then land back vertically.

They were more concerned with Soviet anti-ship missiles which had to be guided by maritime patrol aircraft, if NATO ships could carry fast jets with them without the need of a large aircraft carrier they could shoot down the guiding patrol aircraft which would leave the missiles unguided.

The trials were successful and modifications were made to what would become the 1st generation of Hawker Siddley Harrier GR1/GR3 and the AV-8A Harrier for the US marines.

Although the US marines liked the Harrier, they also realised that its limited range and limited weapons carrying capacity greatly hampered the potential which it could have if it had more power and carrying capacity.

So in the early 1970s, a cooperative effort between the US and the United Kingdom was set up where McDonnell Douglas and Hawker Siddley would build an enhanced Harrier with a more powerful engine, a larger composite wing which could carry more weapons, a redesigned more aerodynamic fuselage and other structural refinements.

However, the British were running out of cash and budget cuts meant that they pulled out of the project in 1975 leaving McDonald Douglas to extensively redesign the earlier AV-8A to become the AV-8B by themselves. In 1981 the now British aerospace company rejoined the project but with the now diminished work share of 40% of the airframes and 75% of the engines. 

But the Falklands War of 1982 would be the real testing ground for the British Harriers flying from the light carriers HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes.

These were the only fixed-wing aircraft available to the British in the form of 20 Sea Harriers and 8 Harrier GR.3s which arrived by cargo ship shortly afterwards. These were against approximately 122 Argentinian jet fighters of which fifty were used as air superiority fighters.

The US marines used a method called VIFFing or vectoring in forward flight, this is where the pilot would alter the angle of thrust and be able to dramatically reduce speed and get behind a following aircraft in a dogfight situation, although the British pilots didn’t use this in the Falklands War.

The British shot down 28 Argentinian fighters for zero losses of Harriers in air to air combat but did lose two Harriers to ground fire and another eight Harriers were lost due to accidents and non combat incidents and bad weather.

The major advantage the British had with the Harrier was that they didn’t need to fly their fast jets from either large carriers for long runways both of which would not have been available. This also hampered the Argentinians and meant they had to fly from the mainland approximately 400 miles away or 660 kilometres.

The Harriers could land and take off from almost anywhere on the islands if need be and could land and take off from the aircraft carriers even though the decks were crowded with planes.

The Harriers were used by the British, the Americans the Spanish, Italians, Indians and Thais and would go on to be used in the two gulf wars, the Kosovo War and Afghanistan.

But for the British, the country that had actually created the Harrier, it was decided to remove them from service in 2010 due to budget cuts but even that was a botched job.

The F-35B was meant to arrive in 2013 but they didn’t turn up until 2018 for the RAF and 2019 for the Navy, in the process leaving the Navy without a fixed-wing fighter for almost 9 years or as the Ministry of Defence would say, the navy was taking a “capability holiday”

Although the Harrier was still a good aircraft, it no longer fitted into the modern Navy and Air Force. It was a 1950s design in the 21st century, even though it had been updated it could no longer compete against stealth technology, advanced computer control, aerodynamics and materials

But even now 14 years later, they are still used by the U.S. Marines and the Spanish Navy and the last 72 British operated Harriers were sold to the Americans for spares for $180M, less than the cost of two F-35Bs and are now at the boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona.

But one thing the Harrier can do that the F-35B cannot or at least not that I know of, inless you know better and let me know, and that is to be able to bow to the crowd at the end of it’s airshow appearances, which is a pity because and as the Harrier is such a specialised aircraft to fly and look after and no longer with the RAF, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see them again at any air shows in the UK.`

Paul Shillito
Creator and presenter of Curious Droid Youtube channel and website

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