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Editor's Blog and Industry Comments

Harriers - 40 years old and still jumping

18 March, 2009
Few aircraft can be described as truly iconic, fewer still remain in service over long periods, but this year the British-designed Harrier celebrates its 40th birthday, having spent the past five years as a mainstay on operations in Afghanistan.
And the Harrier really is unique - no other jet in service has its Vertical/Short Take-Off and Landing (V/STOL) capability where pilots can land on shortened runways, carrier decks or on landing pads in the middle of a forest.

Developed during the Cold War, the Harrier has continually been developed from the first GR1 that came into service in 1969.

Changes to the GR5 included larger wings that provided the ability to carry twice the amount of fuel and twice the payload. The cockpit has been designed around the pilot.

The latest Harrier GR9 is a heavily updated development of the existing GR7, incorporating the ability to use a wide range of advanced precision weaponry, new communications, and systems and airframe upgrades. A Harrier can carry six Paveway IV bombs programmable by the pilot.


Qualified Weapons Instructor Squadron Leader Dan Simmons is one of two RAF brothers flying Harriers. He is based at RAF Wittering with 20 (Reserve) Squadron where both the RAF and Royal Navy train for the Joint Harrier Force. Around 700 engineers and 20 pilots (from both Services) graduate each year. He said:

'In heat of plus 45 degrees centigrade the Harrier can get airborne with a full war load and we do not have to reduce any of our capabilities. It's an amazing aircraft.'

Pilots are taught to land on 26 different types of landing surface at RAF Wittering, including a 'ski-ramp' that mimics the deck of an aircraft carrier. One student was combat-ready just two-and-a-half weeks after leaving his intensive ten-and-a-half month course.

The Harrier's V/STOL capability was a massive benefit in the early days in Afghanistan and the short Kandahar airstrip. In a recent incident where a C-17 slid off the runway with its tail blocking the airstrip, Harriers were the only aircraft that could land and take-off for operations.

But Harriers are soon to be withdrawn from Afghanistan and replaced by Tornado GR4s.

And in ten years they will be withdrawn completely from service and replaced by the Joint Combat Aircraft.

Co-operation between both Harrier and Tornado squadrons preparing for the transition is already well-advanced.

However, it is still far too early to consign the iconic Harrier to a museum.

Officer Commanding 20 (Reserve) Squadron, Wing Commander Lincoln Taylor, said:

'The Harrier Force has been on operations around the world give or take for the last 15 years. The aircraft remains relevant in today's ops as it did 40 years ago because of its V/STOL capability.'

To mark the Harrier's anniversary two days of celebrations have been planned for Thursday 23 and Friday 24 July at RAF Wittering and RAF Cottesmore that will include a black tie gala dinner for all those who have served, maintained or flown Harriers since 1969.

This article is taken from the 13 March 2009 edition of RAF News - Voice of the Royal Air Force.

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