Here’s a thought for the day: Ever since man achieved powered flight, pilots and engineers have dreamt of taking off and landing vertically, but there has only been one successful vertical take-off jet aircraft. It is now over fifty years since it first flew, the newest examples are over a decade old, and it has not been directly replaced. It has achieved success in combat and peacekeeping roles, operating from airfields, aircraft carriers and gaps in the trees. At its heart is one of the world’s most famous jet engines, and an adaptation of it that is, like many great inventions, simple, effective and seemingly unimprovable. And its lead engineer was a man whose apprenticeship started before the First World War, in a carpenter’s shop, and whose earlier career covered aircraft from wooden gliders to the Hawker Hurricane and Typhoon–a quiet Englishman who turned to the idea of vertical take off and landing just to save his business from extinction.
Most Brits can recognise five aircraft–the war-winning Spitfire and Lancaster; the Boeing 747 jumbo jet; the supersonic Concorde; and a humble little jet that spent most of its time far from home, away in Germany, in Belize, in Afghanistan, or at sea. People who don’t know the difference between a Eurofighter Typhoon and a Tornado, between an F-16 and a MiG, or between an Airbus A320 and a Boeing 737, know and smile at the ‘Jump Jet’.
So what was special about it? Simply, it behaved like no other aircraft–it took off and landed vertically, could turn on a sixpence, and literally spin round in a circle. It could fly backwards, and then take a bow at the end of an airshow piece. With thanks to our friend and useful chap, Big Paws, let’s look at one of Britain’s many moments of engineering genius–the Hawker Siddeley Harrier.
The Harrier (was there ever a more appropriate name for an aircraft?) was the result of a typically British combination of circumstances. First, that great British invention the jet engine had been, if not perfected, at least brought to a fully usable and practical state through the work of Sir Frank Whittle (another great British engineer) and the Rover Car Company by the end of the Second World War.
Second, by the late 1950s, the UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF) was planning to move away from a large fleet of manned fighter jets to missile-based defence supplemented by a single multipurpose supersonic fighter, known as TSR2. This was being developed by the British Aircraft Corp (BAC), one of the two companies into which the British aircraft industry was consolidated by the 1960s.
The wide ranging capability of the TSR2 (and the projected cost) meant that BAC secured the lion’s share of the UK Ministry of Defence development budget, and consequently Hawker Siddeley Aviation, the other consolidation, was left facing the potential run-down of its domestic military business. This included the Hawker Siddeley group’s famous Hawker Aircraft division, the builders of the Hawker Hurricane of Battle of Britain fame (another CC is due, to mark the 75th anniversary of the Hurricane, not the Spitfire, winning the Battle of Britain and ensuring that Britain would stay in the war long enough for the USSR and USA to be drawn in). The government’s focus on TSR2 meant the end of development of the division’s key product, the Hawker Hunter jet fighter.
In response to this threat, Hawker turned to new projects and ideas, including the concept of a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) plane which the Northern Irish company Short Brothers had recently shown was becoming feasible. After the Second World War, and the development of practical jet power, the pace of experimentation with various VTOL ideas escalated in Europe and the USA–all of which had failed to get off the ground (sorry, I had to) until Shorts’ prototype SC1, known informally as the Flying Bedstead, hovered successfully in 1958. SC1 was designed around 5 RR jet engines–4 working downwards for lift and one horizontally for forward thrust.
At the same time, starting in 1957, Bristol Siddeley engines, the Hawker Siddeley Group’s jet engine division, was developing the new Pegasus mid power jet turbine engine. The genius that brought together Shorts’ concept and Bristol’s engine was Sir Sydney Camm.
Camm (1893-1966) worked at Hawker from 1923 to 1965, rising from Draughtsman to Chief Engineer, and to Director by 1935. He was a prolific designer who successfully and prolifically innovated–from wooden biplanes, to metal monoplanes and then jets–and is the credited lead engineer of such landmarks as the Hurricane, Typhoon, Tempest and the Hunter before the Harrier. He was truly one of the greatest aircraft engineers Britain has ever produced, and sadly little known today, overshadowed by names such as Sir Barnes Wallis and Reginald Mitchell.
Hawker’s and Camm’s clinching piece of ingenuity was the use of jet nozzles that could be vectored to send the Pegasus’ thrust straight backwards for level flight, and vertically downward (in fact, up to five degrees forward of vertical) for take-off and to control landing. This meant only one engine was needed, rather than the five engines on Shorts’ Flying Bedstead: simple but brilliant. The nozzles simply rotated through ninety degrees, allowing any angle and thus any speed from zero to almost the speed of sound, with rapid acceleration and, uniquely in a warplane, rapid slowing.
The engine is fitted with two air intakes and four vectoring nozzles for directing the thrust generated: two for the bypass flow and two for the jet exhaust. The forward nozzles were fed off the high pressure turbine, with air that had not been through the combustion chambers, and the rear nozzles from the jet exhaust. There are several smaller reaction nozzles, in the nose, tail and wingtips, for balancing during vertical flight. The aircraft has two landing gear units on the fuselage and two outrigger landing gear units, one on each wing tip.
The other benefit of the nozzles was the ability to achieve a short take off–not only less fuel-hungry than a vertical takeoff, but also allowing the Harrier to take off from, for example, small clearings in woodland, helicopter pads, motorways and the like with larger payloads. Now it was a V/STOL aircraft. Such capability made it ideal for the defensive ground war that was expected to follow a Soviet invasion of West Germany. And, finally, combining the short take off with a ‘ski jump’ allowed a Naval version, the Sea Harrier, to operate from the decks of the Royal Navy’s Invincible class aircraft carriers without catapult launchers or arrester systems–despite HMS Invincible and her sisters HMS Ark Royal and HMS Illustrious being only a quarter of the tonnage of US Navy carriers.
Inevitably, the development of aircraft is a slow process of development and testing, and for something as revolutionary as the Harrier, it was particularly protracted. Shorts had demonstrated their prototype in 1958, and Hawker had prototypes (designated P1127 and known as Kestrels) flying in 1962. In February 1963, trial landings on HMS Ark Royal were made, and international interest began to generate.
A joint assessment exercise with the West German and American air forces in 1964 tested a fleet of six Kestrels, in an attempt to agree to a common specification for the three nations. A failure to reach consensus left the Brits to go it alone, with a foray with the dead end of a supersonic V/STOL craft on the way, before the RAF finally ordered six pre-production Harriers in 1966. These featured Rolls-Royce’s latest engine, the Pegasus 6, and were delivered in 1968 for extensive testing and proving.
In 1968, Bristol Siddeley aero-engines (but not Hawker) was sold to Rolls-Royce (at the time a single company incorporating the original car division and the aero-engine business, which had been assigned to Rolls-Royce in the war from the original developer, Rover), who adopted the Pegasus as their own and developed it right up to the Pegasus 11 that it is still in the catalogue, producing three times as much power as early prototypes.
Squadron Service of the Harrier began with No 1 Squadron, RAF, in April 1969, and then in May 1969 the plane really jumped into British national consciousness when Harrier XV744 was entered in a newspaper sponsored London–New York air race. The RAF Harrier beat the supersonic Phantoms (a version of the American McDonnell Douglas F4) of the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. The trick was that the race was ‘downtown to downtown’, from the Post Office Tower in London to the Empire State Building in New York, and the Harrier exploited this by flying from a railway goods yard outside St Pancras mainline railway station in the heart of London to the Bristol Basin in New York, while the Phantom had to land at Floyd Bennett Air Station. The winning time was 6 hours 11 minutes, achieved with a total of four air-to-air refuellings.
Through the 1970s, the RAF continued to slowly develop and improve the Harrier. A two-seat version was developed, initially as a trainer but later developed into a front line aircraft. But the Harrier had attracted attention elsewhere–from the US Marine Corps, no less.
The Harrier was seen as ideal for the Marines–helicopter like agility, fighter jet like performance and weapon delivery. The US had taken six Kestrels for trial in 1966, but the fleet order did not materialise until 1970–for 110 Harriers (designated AV7A) for the Marines Air Corps. In 1969, Hawker had entered a fifteen year agreement with McDonnell-Douglas giving MD exclusive rights to the Harrier in the USA and access to all the technology but, ultimately, the Marines’ Harriers were built in the UK, with minimal differences from the RAF specification, bar the newer Pegasus 103 jet.
All first-generation Harriers and Sea Harriers were built in the UK, mainly at the Hawker factory in Kingston, southwest of London, with major components supplied by the Hawker Siddeley factories at Brough in Yorkshire and Hamble, near Southampton (also home to the Spitfire). First flights for all aircraft were from Dunsfold, further out from London than Kingston, and now the home of the BBC’s Top Gear. Harrier II production was divided between the UK and USA, with final assembly and flight testing of most USMC aircraft being at the McDonnell Douglas/Boeing plant at St.Louis, Missouri. RAF Harrier IIs were mostly assembled at Kingston and flown from Dunsfold. Rolls-Royce at Bristol supplied all the Pegasus engines, with some of the components for the AV8B being supplied by Pratt & Whitney.
By 1973, Hawker and MD were cooperating on fitting a Harrier with Rolls’ new and more powerful Pegasus 15. However, the greater size of the engine meant that it could not be retrofitted to the existing aircraft, and development turned instead to a cheaper solution–new wings on the same airframe, to give greater payload and performance.
In the 1980s, as the original Harriers reached the end of their lives, British Aerospace (the name for the complete amalgamation of all Britain’s aircraft builders, and now known as BAe Systems) and McDonnell Douglas (later Boeing, of course) collaborated on the second generation Harrier: Harrier II in the UK and AV8B in the US. Wingspan was now up to thirty feet, from the twenty-five feet of the earlier planes, and thrust was 23,500lb, up fifty percent on the early Kestrels. Although speed was down, to 660mph, payload and range were up.
In total, over 820 Harriers were built. Outside the UK and the US, the plane was sold to Spain (as the Matador); Thailand; India, whose Navy operated thirty from second-hand former Royal Navy carriers; and Italy. British operations ceased in 2010, with the simultaneous retirement of the Invincible class carriers, and in December 2010, a final RAF flight of sixteen Harriers flew over the Norfolk and Lincolnshire airbases associated with the Harrier over the years, while a final flight of four Sea Harriers was launched from HMS Ark Royal in the North Sea. The US Marines will persist with Camm’s brainchild until the F35B STVL (short take off, vertical landing, but not vertical take-off) variant is introduced into service in 2016. To that end, the Marines purchased seventy-two surplus RAF Harriers for $180m in 2011, for frontline use–probably the cheapest and best value jets in the US military!
Harriers saw action in the NATO and UN operations in the former Yugoslavia in 1992-95, in the British intervention to end the civil war in Sierra Leone in 2000, in the Iraq war and in Afghanistan.
But for many in Britain, the most prominent service memory of the Harrier came just about as far away as it is possible to get from home–in the 1982 Falklands War with Argentina for control of what Britons call the Falkland Islands and Argentineans call Las Malvinas. Let’s not debate the rights and wrongs of the claims and the conflict here on CC; let’s just note the RAF and Fleet Air Arm deployed a total of ten Harriers and twenty-eight Sea Harriers on HMS Invincible and the older carrier HMS Hermes to the South Atlantic; they flew 1,561 sorties, and ten were lost, mostly to anti-aircraft missiles. The RAF planes were used for ground attack; the Fleet Air Arm for air defence. Between them, they shot down twenty Argentinean Mirage and Dagger jets.
No Harriers were lost in aerial combat against the faster and more heavily armed Argentine Mirage jets, in part because of their ability to direct the jet thrust downwards and thus suddenly slow or even stop, causing the pursuing jet to overshoot. And an early sortie from HMS Hermes, to bomb the airport at Port Stanley, led to the embedded BBC correspondent Brian Hanrahan reassuring a nervous TV audience by uttering what has become one of the best known quotations of the 1980s. “I can’t say how many Harriers took part in the raid, but I counted them all out and I counted them all back in”
Another quotation sums up the Harrier very well. Sir Tommy Sopwith, one of Britain’s greatest aviation pioneers and the man who lent his name to the Sopwith Camel, Britain’s favourite First World War aircraft, said in 1979, “I still don’t believe the Harrier. Think of the millions that have been spent in America and Russia, and quite a bit in Europe, and yet the only vertical take-off aircraft which you can call a success is the Harrier. When I saw the Harrier hovering and flying backwards under control, I reckoned I’d seen everything.
But the best Harrier quotation has to be that from the senior test pilot Bill Bedford. “It is easier to stop and land than it is to land and stop.” Not many pilots can say that.
And the TSR2? It was cancelled by the UK Government in 1964, with just two prototypes built.
So, let the Harrier take its bow!