The first Sea Harrier, XZ451 was handed over to the Navy on June 18th 1979. The Intensive Flying Trials Unit, 700A Squadron, commissioned at Yeovilton on September 19th 1979. 700A later became No 899 Squadron, responsible for training pilots.
No 800 Naval Air Squadron was commissioned in April 1980 and embarked aboard "Invincible" in January 1981. No 801 Naval Air Squadron was commissioned in January 1981.
HMS "Invincible" with three Sea Harrier FRS.1s on deck
On October 30th 1980 XZ439 became the first Sea Harrier to launch off a ski jump at sea, doing so from HMS "Invincible".
The first Sea Harrier loss was XZ454, which crashed after striking the top of HMS "Invincible"'s ramp during a flying display on December 1st 1980. The pilot ejected.
On April 1st 1982 Argentinian forces invaded the Falkland Islands, and a Naval task force based around the carriers HMS Hermes and "Invincible" was despatched to retake the islands. Between them these two ships carried a total of 20 Sea Harriers, twelve assigned to No 800 squadron and eight to No 801 squadron. Normally, each squadron had only five aircraft; the balance of aircraft and pilots were drawn from No 899 squadron. The carriers sailed from Portsmouth on April 5th.
800 squadron took the following aircraft: XZ450/50, XZ455/12, XZ457/14, XZ459/25, XZ460, XZ492, XZ494/16, XZ496/27, XZ500/30, ZA191/18, ZA192/92 and ZA193/93. 801 squadron took XZ493/001, XZ495/003, ZA175/004, XZ498/005, XZ451/006, XZ452/007, XZ453/009 and XZ456/008.
The situation did not look too good. The Sea Harriers would be heavily outnumbered, and there was no airborne early warning. Pilots were not fully trained for attack missions, and the aircraft lacked chaff and IR decoys (although the latter were fitted during the voyage south). Two advantages the Sea Harrier had were manoeuvrability, and all-aspect AIM-9L Sidewinders, but neither of these had been tested in combat before.
In order to form a reserve, pilots and airframes were scrounged from where they could be found to form No 809 Squadron. Somehow the squadron, with eight aircraft, was ready on April 30th, and six set off on the long ferry flight to Ascension Island on the 31st, with the remaining two following a day later.
On May 1st eighteen Sea Harriers down south were launched. The six aircraft from "Invincible" provided CAP, while nine from Hermes attacked Port Stanley airfield with iron and cluster bombs, and the other three attacked Goose Green. Also on the 1st two Mirages, a Dagger and a Canberra were shot down by the Sea Harrier/Sidewinder combination as the Argentinians tried to engage the British forces. Flt Lt "Bertie" Penfold shot down Dagger C-433 while flying XZ455; Lt Alan Curtis shot down Canberra B-110 from XZ451; Flt Lt Steve Barton shot down Mirage III I-015 from XZ452 and Lt Steve Thomas, flying XZ453, damaged the other Mirage (I-019) which was then shot down by Argentinian forces while attempting to land at Stanley.
Following the Vulcan attack on Port Stanley airfield on May 1st, the air defence Mirages of Grupo 8 were withdrawn from the south of Argentina in case the RAF attacked the mainland. This meant that the Argentinians had abandoned any chance of achieving air superiority over the Falklands, leaving the Sea Harriers in control. The only trouble was that there were not enough of them.
On May 4th 1982 three Sea Harrier of No 800 squadron carried out another attack at Goose Green. On this occasion aircraft XZ450, flown by Lt Nick Taylor, was shot down by 35mm AAA fire. The pilot was killed.
On May 5th the aircraft of 809 Squadron landed on the Atlantic Conveyor at Ascension.
On May 6th two Sea Harriers of 801 squadron (XZ452 and XZ453) were lost when they apparently collided in bad weather. Both pilots, Lt Cdr John Eyton-Jones and Lt Alan Curtiss, were killed.
On May 9th Sea Harriers flown by Flt Lt Morgan and Lt Cdr Batt dropped 1000lb bombs at the Argentinian trawler Narwhal, when their original target of Port Stanley airfield was obscured by cloud. Although the bombs failed to detonate, one lodged in the trawler's hull; the ship was also raked with 30mm cannon fire. Narwhal sank under tow the next day.
On May 16th two pairs of Sea Harriers from No. 800 squadron carried out bomb and cannon attacks on two ships. One aircraft collected a bullet hole in its tail.
On May 17th Sea Harrier XZ438 belonging to No 809 squadron crashed while taking off from the Yeovilton ski-jump while trialling 330 gallon underwing tanks. The pilot, Lt Cdr Poole, ejected. The cause was found to be an asymetric fuel load condition in the empty tanks.
On May 18th the 809 squadron Sea Harriers were redeployed from Atlantic Conveyor onto the two carriers, which received four aircraft each. Hermes received XZ499/99, ZA176/76, ZA177/77 and ZA194/94, and XZ458/007, XZ491/002, ZA174/000, and ZA190/009 went to "Invincible". Also deployed to Hermes were six Harrier GR.3s of No 1 squadron, which took over ground attack missions from the Sea Harriers.
On May 21st British forces landed on the Falklands, and this provoked a strong Argentinian response. Sea Harriers were flying CAPs, but there was only a 25% chance that aircraft would be in position to intercept any given raiding force. A Pucara was shot down with 30mm cannon fire, 3 Skyhawks and 4 Daggers with Sidewinder, and 1 Skyhawk with 30mm cannon fire. Another Skyhawk was damaged. Lt Morrell shot down two A-4 Skyhawks from XZ457 (0660 and 0665), and Flt Lt Leeming got another (0667) from XZ500. Lt Cdr Neil Thomas in XZ492 and Lt Cdr Mike Blisset in XZ496 each shot down a Skyhawk (C-399 and C-325 respectively), but there is some uncertainty about who actually shot which aircraft down. Lt Steve Thomas shot down two Daggers (C-403 and C-404) from ZA190. Lt Cdr "Sharkey" Ward got another Dagger (C-407) from ZA175, and also the Pucara (A-511) while he was flying XZ451. The final Dagger (C-409) was bagged by Lt Cdr Rod Fredericksen flying XZ455.
On May 23rd an Augusta A109 (AE-337) and a Puma (AE-503) were destroyed on the ground with 30mm cannon fire, both by Flt Lt Dave Morgan in ZA192. Also, one Dagger (C-437) was shot down with a Sidewinder fired by Lt Martin Hale from ZA194.
Also on May 23rd, ZA192 crashed into the sea shortly after taking off from HMS Hermes. The pilot, Lt Cdr "Gordy" Batt from 800 squadron, was killed.
On May 24th Lt Dave Smith shot down another Dagger (C-440) from ZA193 and Lt Cdr Andy Auld got two more, C-419 and C-430, from XZ457.
On May 25th two separate forces of Harriers and Sea Harriers attacked Port Stanley airfield, but didn't inflict any serious damage.
During the period of May 21st to the 25th, the Harriers and Sea Harriers flew about 300 sorties with an average of 30 aircraft (2 sorties per aircraft per day), while the Argentinians managed only 180 sorties although they had more than twice as many aircraft.
On May 29th ZA174 of No 801 squadron slid off the deck of HMS "Invincible" as she was turning in bad weather to the east of the Falklands. The pilot, Lt Cdr Mike Broadwater, ejected and was rescued.
The final loss was on June 1st, when XZ456 of No 801 squadron was shot down by a Roland SAM south of Port Stanley. Flt Lt Ian Mortimer from 801 squadron ejected and was rescued after spending 8 hours in a dingy. Also on the 1st an Argentinian C-130 Hercules (TC-63) was shot down by Lt Cdr "Sharkey" Ward in XZ451 with Sidewinder and 30mm cannon.
On June 2nd a 256m operating strip for Harriers was completed at San Carlos, but it was not until June 5th that the weather made its use possible. This gave the Sea Harriers nearly four times longer on station. Two No 800 squadron aircraft flown by Lt Cdr Auld and Lt Hargreaves were the first to land on the strip.
On June 8th Sea Harriers shot down three Skyhawks with Sidewinders. C-204 was bagged by Lt Dave Smith in XZ499, and C-226 and C-228 by Flt Lt Dave Morgan in ZA177.
On June 11th four No 800 squadron aircraft carried out a toss-bombing attack on Port Stanley airfield.
During the conflict Sea Harriers destroyed (or partly destroyed) 28 enemy aircraft with no air combat losses. They proved convincingly that STOVL aircraft operations were possible, often in weather which would have prevented conventional carrier air operations completely. Aircraft serviceability remained high throughout, and the sortie rate generated was much higher than the Argentinians managed. No 800 squadron had flown over 1000 sorties by the time of cessation of hostilities.
From mid-June to the beginning of July HMS Hermes held the air defence role while HMS "Invincible" carried out a period of self-maintenance. On July 2nd "Invincible" returned and Hermes left for the UK on July 4th. In mid-August HMS "Illustrious" with No 809 squadron on board sailed south to relieve "Invincible" as guard ship, a duty she held until October.
The first Indian Navy FRS.51 was delivered to the Intensive Training Unit at Yeovilton on December 21st 1982. The first six FRS.51s and two T.60s were allocated to this unit.
ZA177 of No 899 squadron crashed at Cattistock, Dorset on January 21st 1983 after failing to recover from a spin. The pilot ejected successfully; the wreckage narrowly missed a housing estate.
XZ500 was lost over the Bay of Biscay on June 15th 1983 while operating from HMS "Illustrious". The aircraft suffered loss of control after a protracted inverted spin. The pilot ejected.
ZA194 of No 899 squadron crashed near Dorchester, Dorset on October 20th 1983 after suffering control problems. The pilot, Major O'Hara (a USMC exchange officer), ejected successfully.
Indian Navy No 300 squadron, based at NAS Hansa Dabolim on Goa, received its first three FRS.51s on December 13th 1983. The first landing on the INS "Vikrant" was made on December 20th 2003. The INTU appears to have been wound up in July 1984.
XZ496 crashed into the North Sea off Norway on March 16th 1984 after its engine failed while on approach to HMS "Illustrious". The pilot ejected.
XZ458 was written off on December 1st 1984 over Fort William, after a birdstrike caused the engine to flame out. The pilot ejected.
T.4N ZB606 was written off on February 7th 1985.
On April 16th 1986 XZ491, the BAe test aircraft, crashed after running out of fuel off Benbecula while operating off HMS "Ark Royal". The pilot ejected.
ZA190 of No 801 squadron crashed into the Atlantic north-west of Ireland on October 15th 1987 after suffering a bird strike while operating off HMS "Ark Royal". The pilot ejected.
The first Indian Navy Sea Harrier to be lost was FRS.51 IN-601, which went down near Goa on May 4th 1988. Pilot Sqd Ldr Vinod Mehta ejected successfully. This was followed on June 27th by T.61 IN-652 which went down in the Chengalpattu district. Cdr Sunil Damle and Lt R Shama ejected.
ZA195 made its first flight as an FA.2 on September 19th 1989.
On October 4th 1989 ZA191 was written off after hitting HMS "Ark Royal"'s mast during a flypast. The pilot ejected.
On December 1st 1989 Sea Harrier XZ451 of No. 801 squadron crashed into the Mediterranean Sea near Sardinia when its Forward Reaction Control Valve seal diaphragm failed. The seal detached and jammed the controls. The pilot ejected but sustained serious injury.
On May 8th 1990 XZ460 flew into the sea after taking off from HMS "Invincible". The pilot was killed.
The first two Sea Harrier FA.2s (ZA195 and XZ349) landed on HMS "Ark Royal" for the first time on November 7th 1990. The 10-day trial period proved the aircraft's compatibility with Invincible-class carriers.
On May 10th 1991 Sea Harrier FRS.1 ZD609 of No 801 squadron crashed in Wentwood Forest, South Wales, when the pilot experienced a severe pitch control restriction, forcing him to eject.
Sea Harrier FRS.1 ZA193 of No 800 squadron was lost on May 28th 1992 while attempting to land on HMS "Invincible" off Cyprus. It appears that the forward RCV failed, but as the aircraft was not recovered this was not proved conclusively. The pilot ejected.
On June 9th 1992 Indian Navy Sea Harrier FRS.51 IN-619 was written off. IN-612 was lost on December 9th of the same year.
In early 1993 Sea Harrier FA.2 XZ439 deployed to the USA for AMRAAM trials. In the course of these it shot down three QF-106 drones, making it the only FA.2 to down another aircraft.
On January 27th 1993 eight Sea Harriers assigned to 801 NAS aboard HMS "Ark Royal" in the Adriatic Sea started flying in support of the UN (and later NATO) in Bosnia.
The first Sea Harrier FA.2, XZ495, was handed over to the Royal Navy on April 2nd 1993. It was assigned to No 899 squadron at Yeovilton.
In July 1993 800 NAS under Lt Cdr Chris Neave embarked on HMS "Invincible" to take over Bosnian commitment. The Shars flew reconnaissance, CAP missions as well as close support with 1000lb Paveway II Laser-guided bombs.
On January 5th 1994 Sea Harrier FA.2 XZ495 crashed into the Bristol Channel after its engine failed. The pilot ejected.
In February 1994 801 NAS returned to the Adriatic aboard "Ark Royal" to relieve 800. On April 16th 1994 the Navy suffered its only loss during the Bosnian theatre, when FRS.1 XZ498 was shot down by a Bosnian Serb SAM while conducting a reconnaissance mission over Gorazde. The pilot, Lt Nick Richardson from No 801 squadron ejected and was recovered by an SAS patrol.
On March 13th 1994 an Indian Navy FRS.51 crashed. The pilot, Cdr Shakar, ejected.
On June 27th 1994 the first two FA.2s of No 899 squadron embarked on HMS "Invincible" as part of the ship's work-up for deployment to the Adriatic in early September (where it would relieve "Ark Royal").
In the period from September 1994 to February 1995 the Sea Harrier FRS.1s flew over 360 sorties in support of the UN's Deny Flight operation.
On August 2nd 1994 an Indian Navy T.60 crashed at Goa. Cdr Karnik ejected successfully but Cdr Rana was killed.
On December 9th 1994 an Indian Navy FRS.51 crashed. The pilot, Lt Negi, ejected successfully.
On December 15th 1994 FRS.1 XZ493 was written off after control failure while in the hover. The pilot ejected; the aircraft was recovered and is now in the FAA Museum at RNAS Yeovilton.
The first front-line squadron to convert to the FA.2 was No 801. It deployed operationally on January 26th 1995, when six aircraft embarked on HMS "Illustrious" in the English Channel. "Illustrious" took part in a major multinational exercise in the North Atlantic, prior to relieving HMS "Ark Royal" in the Adriatic in February.
The first new-build Sea Harrier FA.2, ZH796, was handed over to the Royal Navy on October 20th 1995
FA.2 XZ457 of No 899 squadron suffered a catastrophic engine failure on taking off from Yeovilton on October 20th 1995. The pilot made an immediate heavy landing and ejected. The aircraft rolled down the runway into the barrier.
In July 1995 800 NAS under Lt Cdr Jerry Millward embarked on HMS "Invincible" to again take on the Adriatic commitment. On this deployment the FA.2s carried expendable radar decoys from new AN/ALE-40 dispensers.
The squadron subsequently flew 36 combat sorties in support of NATO operation Deliberate Force, attacking Serb positions with Mk 13 1000lb HE bombs. The squadron returned to Yeovilton on December 7th 1995.
The return of 801 NAS to the region in late 1995 aboard HMS "Illustrious" marked the first combat deployment of the AIM-120 AMRAAM on the Sea Harrier.
Overall the Sea Harriers flew 1748 operational sorties in the Balkans theatre over a three-year period in support of the UN and NATO, without missing a single sortie through unserviceability.
On February 8th 1996 Indian Navy Sea Harrier FRS.51 IN-620 was lost during a night flight over the sea. The pilot, Lt Poonia, was killed.
On February 13th 1996 FA.2 XZ455 crashed into the Adriatic while returning from a NATO mission over Bosnia. The pilot ejected and was rescued by helicopter.
Harrier T.4N XZ445 was written off on February 23rd 1996.
On December 10th 1996 FA.2 XZ492 crashed into the Mediterranean off Tunisia after an engine failure.
On January 13th 1997 a Royal Navy task group, headed by the carrier HMS "Illustrious", set sail for the Asia-Pacific region in a deployment called Ocean Wave 97. No 801 squadron with six Sea Harrier FA.2s was embarked.
On February 28th four RAF Harrier GR.7s of No 1(F) squadron embarked on HMS "Illustrious" and carried out exercises with the Sea Harriers. This was the first time that RAF Harriers had been deployed to an aircraft carrier since the Falklands.
On March 7th five FA.2s, each armed with a pair of AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles, launched from HMS "Illustrious" in the Gulf to undertake the first Royal Navy air defence missions in support of Operation Southern Watch over Iraq. Daily operations were flown until March 12th, providing top cover for allied reconnaissance aircraft.
Later in the deployment (July '97) the Sea Harriers carried out dissimilar air combat training with RAAF F-18 Hornets off the west coast of Australia.
On September 30th 1997 Indian Navy Sea Harrier FRS.51 IN-611 crashed into the sea near Goa. The pilot Lt Prakash was killed.
In mid-November 1997 HMS "Invincible" with Nos 800 (eight FA.2s) and 1(F) (six GR.7s) squadrons embarked headed for the Gulf in response to the latest Iraqi brinkmanship. By late January a bombing campaign against Iraqi targets was being planned (but ultimately not needed).
During this deployment, at the end of January 1998, Lt Martin "Jak" London was flying at 40000 feet over the Gulf of Aden when his aircraft's canopy exploded, filling the cockpit with a maelstrom of sharp fragments. One shard ricocheted off his helmet and embedded itself into his seat only inches from his head. Despite rapid decompression and the swirling debris, Lt London demonstrated superb flying skills and composure, sending a mayday message before rapidly bringing the aircraft down to 3,000ft in around 30 seconds. That plunge was so fast that Lt London suffered windburn to his eyes, but he managed to fly it 70 miles back to the carrier. On his approach to Invincible, London radioed in with the message "Cabriolet Harrier inbound", and said later that he was confident he could bring the plane back safely. Only after he landed did he discover that luck, as well as skill, had been on his side, as the engine had been damaged by pieces of wreckage. London later described the 20-minute return flight as "like driving an open-top sports car at 300mph". For this display of flying skill, Lt London later received the Queen's Commendation for Bravery in the Air .
HMS "Illustrious" with six Sea Harrier FA.2s, six Harrier GR.7s and five Sea Kings on deck
On February 2nd 1998 six Sea Harriers from No 801 squadron flew out to meet HMS "Illustrious" at Gibraltar. Six Harrier GR.7s of No 3 squadron were also deployed. "Illustrious" relieved HMS "Invincible" in the Gulf on March 3rd. "Illustrious" returned to the UK in early April after a reduction in tension.
The 20th anniversary of the first flight of the Sea Harrier occured on August 20th 1998.
HMS "Invincible" sailed from Portsmouth for the Gulf on January 9th 1998 with No 800 squadron embarked.
On November 23rd 1998 an Indian Navy Sea Harrier FRS.51 crashed into the Indian Ocean. The pilot ejected and was rescued.
It was announced in February 1999 that RAF Harrier GR.7 and Royal Navy Sea Harrier FA.2 squadrons were to be merged into a single unit called Joint Force Harrier from April 2000. The aircraft themselves will be based at RAF Cottesmore and RAF Wittering. The aim of this change was to create a proper joint force, capable of reaching trouble spots quickly, and deploying effectively once there.
HMS "Invincible" arrived in the Adriatic from the Gulf on April 15th 1999. No 800 Squadron with its seven Sea Harrier FA.2s became available to NATO for Operation Allied Force on April 17th. They probably flew their first CAP missions on April 20th. "Invincible" arrived back in the UK on May 27th 1999. Presumably it was realised that Sea Harrier CAPs were not actually necessary given the limited amount of Serb air activity over Kosovo and the large number of NATO land-based fighters.
HMS "Illustrious", with seven aircraft from 801 NAS embarked, left Portsmouth on January 17th on a training deployment to the Persion Gulf region. Sea Harriers flew Southern Watch missions over Iraq, and also carried out joint exercises with the Bahrani Air Force.
As planned, the new Joint Force Harrier, under the command of Rear Admiral Iain Henderson, officially came into being on April 1st 2000. The unit came under the control of No 3 Group in a revamped RAF Strike Command.
HMS "Illustrious" with 801 NAS embarked was detached to Sierra Leone in May 2000 to assist UN forces fighting rebels in that country. 85 Sea Harrier sorties were flown during the deployment. "Illustrious" returned to Portsmouth on June 14th 2000.
Sea Harrier FA.2 ZE695 (coded VL718) crashed on landing at RNAS Yeovilton on July 26th 2000 after a tyre burst. The pilot ejected, but aircraft caught fire, left the runway and skidded across the grass towards the tower ramp. The aircraft suffered CAT.4/5 damage.
Harrier T.8 ZD992 (VL724 assigned to 899 NAS) crashed on takeoff at RNAS Yeovilton at 15:40 GMT on November 17th 2000. The aircraft was simulating a carrier takeoff using Yeovilton's ramp. Both crew ejected and sustained injuries in the process. The aircraft is thought to have been on fire before it crashed inside the airfield perimeter.
On May 25th 2001 an Indian Navy Sea Harrier FRS.51 crashed near Canacona. The pilot, Lt Commander Vikram Menon, ejected sucessfully from an altitude of about 4000 feet.
No 801 NAS deployed to RAF Waddington on July 2nd 2001 to take part in Exercise "NOMAD" over the North Sea Air Combat Manoeuvering Range. Also taking part were aircraft from Switzerland, Spain, France, Belgium and the RAF.
HMS "Illustrious", with Number 801 squadron's Sea Harriers and RAF Harrier GR.7s embarked, sailed from Portsmouth with her task group on September 3rd 2001 to join "Argonaut 01", the Royal Navy's largest deployment for nearly 20 years. The deployment was the prelude to Exercise "Saif Sareea II", a major UK-Omani exercise which started on September 15th. The Sea Harriers embarked were XZ497/001, XZ499/003, ZE690/005, ZE694/004, ZH797/002, ZH801/006 and ZH813/000
The 800 NAS pilot of Sea Harrier FA.2 ZD614/R122 ejected and ended up in hospital on October 8th 2001 after his aircraft landed but failed to stop on Yeovilton's runway 04 and ended up in the river Yeo (see picture, left). It was recovered on October 10th.
The UK MoD announced on February 28th 2002 that it was planning
to withdraw the entire Sea Harrier fleet from service by 2006. Joint
Force Harrier would fly an upgrade of the Harrier GR.7 (designated
GR.9) until the F-35 was ready for service in about 2014.
On May 1st 2002 Sea Harrier FA.2 ZH807's undercarriage retracted on the ground at Yeovilton as the result of an electrical fault (see picture, left).
According to the "Daily Telegraph" dated June 15th 2002, the British Government did not consult close military allies or NATO about its plans to axe the Navy's Sea Harrier fleet before the decision was announced. The paper says that the decision to withdraw the UK's most capable air defence aircraft "is known to have caused alarm" among senior USAF and US Navy officers.
The Fourth Report of the House of Commons Select Committee on Defence published on July 10th 2002 considered the Sea Harrier's early withdrawal from service. The report's summary contained the following:
"The MoD has justified its decision to withdraw the Sea Harrier 6-8 years early on 'capability' rather than cost grounds. There are savings that will flow from the decision — £135 million directly and at least another £230 million from not upgrading its engine — but these are not significant sums in terms of the potential operational ramifications. The decision reflected the technical difficulties of upgrading the Sea Harrier to maintain its operational usefulness, and the capabilities available from other systems. The principal burden of air defence for our maritime forces will now fall on the anti-air destroyers and their missile systems. The Type-45 destroyer and its PAAMS system will improve the capability for intercepting fast and agile missiles which may be fired in sea-skimming and high-diving salvoes, but only from late 2007. In the meantime, the existing Type-42 and its 1960s Sea Dart missile technology is after much delay being upgraded. These will help mitigate, but they will not close, the real capability gap that will be created by the Sea Harrier's demise."
"At the heart of this case is the MoD's expectation that maritime task forces in the future will operate in littoral situations rather than in the open oceans, and for the most part with major allies such as the US on whom we could rely for additional air defence. In such operations, the threat to our warships is likely to manifest itself as missiles rather than aircraft, and they will be most effectively countered by the anti-missile systems on board our destroyers. In putting its confidence in more responsive but closer range systems, the MoD will need to ensure the equipment programmes on which they depend are delivered in time and in full."
The following additional points were made:
- "Taking a third of the aircraft out of the Joint Force Harrier operating fleet [83 to 51] represents a significant diminution of carrier-capable fixed-wing maritime aviation"
- "Upgrading the [Harrier] GR7/GR9 for air defence capabilities ... would cost an immense amount of money, take an enormous amount of time, and would result in an aircraft that is not as good at its primary role as it is today."
- "The Type-45 [destroyer] will not fully replicate the capabilities lost with the decommissioning of the Sea Harrier."
- "The Sea Harriers and the anti-air destroyers are not envisaged so much as substitutes, however, but as different layers of air defence for the fleet."
- "The decision to withdraw the Sea Harrier early will provide financial savings, but this does not appear to have been the main impetus behind the decision. That has been the practical difficulty in developing the aircraft with the capability improvements it would need. If, as the MoD maintains, this a question of 'balance of investment' we [ie the committee] expect the MoD to set out clearly what additional, higher priority, investments it now expects to make with these savings. "
- "We [the committee] are forced to conclude that whatever the result of such discussions [with allies], the UK has already decided that in another five years it will rely on others for air-defence patrols for our naval task forces."
HMS "Ark Royal" with No 800 squadron embarked sailed from Portsmouth on September 2nd 2002 en route to the Mediterranean to take part in the NATO exercise "Destined Glory".
Top Sea Harrier pilot Lt Cdr Martin "Jak" London was killed on December 5th 2002 when Harrier T.8 ZB605/720 from No 899 squadron crashed during a conventional take-off at RAF Wittering. The much-decorated pilot, described as a legend in the Navy, died after ejecting from the Harrier shortly before it hit the ground and burst into flames. The trainee on board – who was not named – was injured, but those injuries were described as "non life-threatening".
On June 11th 2003 Sea Harrier F/A.2 ZH805 crashed into the Bristol Channel near Lee Bay in north Devon. The pilot, Lt Cdr Rob Schwab, ejected successfully after the aircraft departed into an unrecoverable spin during a post-maintenance test flight from St Athan. Lt Cdr Schwab became the 7000th airman to be saved by a Martin-Baker ejection seat.
In June 2003 all seven Sea Harriers operated by No 801 NAS, plus 135 personnel, embarked in HMS "Invincible" as part of her Tailored Air Group (TAG). This was the first time that Invincible had embarked all TAG elements concurrently since her emergence from refit in January 2003, so initial flying operations were conducted at a steady pace. By the end of July "Invincible" was able to support a full flying programme, integrated into a tactical scenario, which saw the Sea Harriers flying against Dutch & US F-16s and RAF Jaguars in addition to the JSATO Hawks and Falcons utilised to simulate Anti-ship missiles and missile carriers.
An Indian Navy Sea Harrier FRS.51 crashed into the Indian Ocean near Goa on August 24th 2003 while on approach to the carrier INS Viraat. The pilot, Lt Azad, ejected successfully. The wreckage was recovered from a depth of 90 meters the following day.
During September 2003 801 NAS re-embarked on "Invincible" for Exercise "Northern Light 03", a two-week multi-national exercise conducted off the west coast of Scotland. In addition to the familiar opposition of Hawks and Falcons, French Super Etendards and German Tornados proved highly capable in utilising their high speed and the Scottish terrain to conduct surprise simulated attacks against the naval elements. It was upon the successful completion of "Northern Light 03" that both "Invincible" and 801 NAS were assessed as ready to assume the duties of High-readiness Aircraft Carrier and Sea Harrier Squadron, relieving HMS "Ark Royal" and 800 NAS respectively.
HMS "Invincible"’s next test was to embark RAF Harrier GR.7’s from No 3(F) Squadron for two 3-week periods during October and November, concurrent with the embarkation of 801 NAS and 849 NAS "B" Flight. Missions generally took the form of Composite Air Operations (COMAO) packages, utilising the specialist roles of both Harrier types to provide formidable attack formations.
801 NAS carried out a 10-day detachment to Decimomannu airbase, Sardinia in early 2004. All 7 jets and the full complement of squadron personnel deployed to the base in order to support a heavy flying programme. The detachment was concurrent with that of 18 US Air Force F-15 Eagles from the 493rd and 494th Fighter Squadrons. 801's primary focus was on air-to-air training with the F-15C. As the Sea Harrier and F-15 have very different handling characteristics, early missions concentrated on general familiarisation and Dissimilar Air Combat Training before moving on to the more advanced Air Defence sorties. These missions allowed Beyond Visual Range (BVR) intercepts utilising both aircrafts’ excellent radar and AMRAAM missile capability. All pilots flew a combination of Blue air (friendly) and Red air (simulating enemy) missions, to maximise the overall training value.
No 800 NAS deployed to HMS "Ark Royal" in early February 2004, joining the ship off Newcastle. The training on board was geared around qualifying 3 pilots for their Certificate of Competence, and be cleared for all Sea Harrier roles by day when embarked. Squadron pilots flew recce missions in Northumberland, fought USAF F-15Cs over the North Sea, and gave RAF Tornado GR.4 and F.3 pilots plenty of training. The last Sea Harrier landing on the "Ark" occured on this deployment, as the carrier went into what is called "extended readiness" on March 17th 2004.
Sea Harrier FA.2 ZE692 from No 899 squadron made an emergency landing at St Athan on February 24th 2004 after the canopy shattered at 32000 feet. The aircraft was one of three which had departed Volkel in Holland earlier.
Following a successful detachment to Swidwin airbase in Poland during 2002, 801 Naval Air Squadron set off on a 10-day visit to the Minsk-Mazowieki airbase on March 21st 2004, from where the Polish Air Force operate the Mig-29 Fulcrum. The heavy flying programme of Exercise "Polish Dancer" allowed the Poles an opportunity to familiarise themselves with NATO standard operating procedures, while the Sea Harriers had an excellent chance to pit themselves against the ultimate ‘Red Air’ adversary.
Unfortunately, two days of flying were lost due to poor weather at Minsk airbase but the exercise did allow 801s pilots to familiarise themselves with the Mig-29 fighters in Air Defence missions, before progressing to larger sorties involving the Su-22 bombers based at Swidwin. The combination of the Sea Harrier Blue Vixen radar and AMRAAM missiles was often dominant over the Polish equivalents, though the Mig-29 did excel when engaged in visual dogfights.
No 800 NAS disbanded at RNAS Yeovilton on March 31st 2004 (see image, left, of ZD613 with special markings).
No 801 NAS embarked on HMS "Invincible" in the English Channel on May 5th 2004, for a deployment to the USA called "Aurora 04". The 10-day Atlantic crossing allowed all squadron personnel to settle in to the unique environment of an aircraft carrier at sea, and a considerable amount of flying was achieved.
Once within range of the US mainland, two Squadron jets and their associated engineering and support personnel detached for "Trial Marketplace" – an In Service Firing of 2 AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles in California. In the transit across the USA, supported by RAF VC-10 and Tristar Tanker aircraft, one of the Sea Harriers was refuelling in poor weather, when sudden turbulence caused the VC-10 to rise sharply, in turn forcing the refuelling hose to flex violently and rip off the Sea Harrier’s refuelling probe. The pilot managed to safely divert to Tucson, Arizona despite a significant fuel leak and associated risk of fire. Once the damage was inspected and patched up, the aircraft then flew a short distance to Naval Air Weapons Station Point Mugu, where the AMRAAM firing would be conducted, in conjunction with the RAF Tornado F3 Operational Evaluation Unit.
Over the course of the next 3 weeks, the Tornado F.3 and Sea Harrier FA.2 fired two AMRAAM each at airborne targets over the Point Mugu and China Lake test ranges. "Trial Marketplace" was a complete success, and was the last planned In Service Firing utilising the Sea Harrier airframe before its untimely demise.
During this period, the remaining squadron personnel and 6 aircraft detached to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, for affiliation training with the USAF F-15E squadrons based there. The F-15E tends to specialise in the air-to-ground mission, so the US pilots were glad of the opportunity to fly less familiar Air Defence missions with the Sea Harriers.
Mid-June saw Exercise "Blinding Storm" commence. This was a large scale, multi-national exercise involving the USS "John F Kennedy" Carrier Battle Group and 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines, among many others. The exercise, which was the main focus of the Aurora 04 deployment, built upon the many lessons learnt from Gulf War II and continued joint Royal Navy and US Navy training for coalition operations. It was at this time that 801 NAS had planned their most intensive period of flying operations, but a combination of bad luck and revised engineering directives forced 5 of the 8 squadron Sea Harriers to require engine changes at short notice. This obviously limited the number and type of missions that the Squadron could undertake, and put an immense amount of pressure upon the Squadron maintainers, who were working in uncomfortably hot and cramped conditions in the hangar of Invincible.
Those aircraft and pilots that did fly in "Blinding Storm" experienced at first hand the awesome might of a US Super Carrier, often flying in close proximity to the embarked Air Wing. The Exercise pitted friendly ‘Blue’ maritime forces against enemy ‘Red’ land-based assets, in a bid to achieve total air and surface superiority prior to an amphibious assault. The Red forces comprised of US Navy F-18 Hornets, F-14 Tomcats, Learjets and other missile-simulating platforms, many of which had not been encountered before by the Squadron pilots. It was a last opportunity to encounter the unique Tomcat – which, like the Sea Harrier, is due to be withdraw from front line service in the near future (but unlike the Sea Harrier, it is being replaced).
HMS "Invincible" made port visits at Port Canaveral, Florida, then at New York City on July 4th. The carrier, with No 801 NAS, arrived back in the UK around the middle of July 2004.
Almost all the extant Sea Harriers were present at the Yeovilton air show on 18th September 2004.
The autumn of 2004 saw 801 NAS embark twice in "Invincible" for two-week periods, enabling all involved to refresh themselves with the conduct of embarked Fixed Wing operations. The first period, Exercise "Hold Fast", was a Joint Force Harrier embarkation with 801’s FA2s operating concurrently with the GR.7s of IV(AC) Squadron in the North Sea. As this was IV(AC) Squadron’s first opportunity to sample life on board an aircraft carrier, the deck launch and recovery cycles were initially slow-paced, to allow the maintainers and pilots to operate safely, however the tempo soon accelerated as personnel became increasingly familiar and confident.
Operating in the North Sea allowed Invincible's Tailored Air Group to interact with the many RAF Squadrons based on the East Coast of the UK, whilst flying in segregated airspace, separate from much of the UK’s civil Air Traffic. It also allowed the use of land-based ranges for Electronic Warfare training and practice bombing missions; serials that both Harrier squadrons took advantage of. Fine weather, combined with the excellent serviceability of Squadron aircraft, allowed a high rate of flying to be achieved, in missions which ranged from Air Defence and Air Combat Manoeuvring to dropping live 1000lb bombs onto Cape Wrath, Scotland.
One 801 pilot achieved his Initial Night Qualification (INQ), the first of two significant milestones in a Sea Harrier pilot’s flying career. The INQ recognises the competence to launch and recover safely from a carrier at night. Full Night Qualification (FNQ), which includes tactical aspects, such as leading Air Defence missions and Air-to-Air Refuelling, is the second milestone.
Early October saw 801 embark again in "Invincible", this time in the Mediterranean, for Exercise "Destined Glory 04". Operating between Sardinia and mainland Italy, aircraft serviceability and the local climate were both excellent, allowing all pilots to gain good experience from missions flown in a complex tactical scenario. This embarkation again allowed two pilots to gain respective embarked Night Qualifications, one INQ and one FNQ.
On December 10th 2004 No 801 NAS completed its final detachment of the year, which was an extremely testing Air Defence training package. Working with Belgian Air Force F-16s and French Air Force Mirage 2000s, the two-week period was conducted whilst detached at RAF Waddington. Utilising the BAE Systems Air Combat Manoeuvring Instrumentation (ACMI) North Sea Range facility, all participating pilots were able to fly in, and then debrief in real time, large Air-to-Air training missions with up to 18 aircraft operating concurrently.
On December 17th 2004 an Indian Navy Harrier T.60 crashed while landing at Dabolim airport in Goa. Both aircrew ejected safely.
HMS "Invincible" left Portsmouth on January 17th 2005 to lead a Royal Navy task force on a 3-month series of exercises in the Mediterranean and Middle East, desigated MARSTRIKE 05. The carrier's tailored air group included Sea Harrier FA.2s from No 801 NAS and Harrier GR.7s from IV(AC) squadron.
In January 2005 801 NAS was detached to Florennes AB in Belgium, primarily supporting the NATO Tactical Leadership Package (TLP) being held there. The Squadron returned to the UK at the end of January.
899 NAS went on detachment to Gibraltar on 28th January 2005 and returned on 21st February. They took FA.2s ZH809, ZE692/712, ZH800/713, XZ440/714, ZD579/715 and ZH812/716, and T.8s ZD993/723 and ZB603/724
801 NAS deployed to Oman aboard HMS "Invincible" for Exercise "Magic Carpet 05" from February 8th to March 6th 2005. The exercise, which involved up to 50 aircraft from the UK, France, US and Oman, provided a challenging scenario and varied missions to all participants, with Sea Harriers being tasked in the full spectrum of roles. In Defensive Counter Air missions, the Sea Harriers were using their excellent Blue Vixen Radar and AMRAAM missiles to defend the Harrier GR.7s and "Invincible" from incoming simulated land-based air attacks In Offensive Counter Air Missions, the Shars escorted the GR7s as they attacked their targets, again using their radar and missiles to detect any land-based defending aircraft. Finally, they were tasked with dropping practice bombs themselves, on the Omani Bombing Ranges, using the F95 reconnaissance camera to photograph the after effects.
Before returning to the UK the Squadron deployed to RAF Akrotiri on Cyprus to conduct live air-to-air gunnery training against a towed target. The one-week detachment allowed squadron pilots to hone their gunnery skills, using the Shar's 30mm Aden cannon. During this period the pilot of ZH808/003 declared PAN whilst operating from HMS "Illustrious" off Cyprus. The pilot diverted to the nearest operational airfield, which was RAF Akrotiri. It was discovered that a fuel leak had ignited and caused severe damage inside the wings. The aircraft was declared Cat 5 in May 2005. This was mainly because the MoD was not authorising any major repairs to be carried out on Sea Harriers pending their imminent fleet rundown and withdrawal from service.
The aircraft was purchased from the MoD by a local (Cypriot) scrap dealer in June 2005 for CYP£600. It was moved from RAF Akrotiri to its present location at Kalo Chorio, near Larnaca, in March 2006. It was subsequently purchased from the scrap dealer by its present owner for CYP£3000.
On March 7th 2005 the following 899 squadron aircraft were logged at Kecskemét airbase in Hungary: ZH802/711, ZH692/712, ZH812/716 and ZH809.
The penultimate nail in the Sea Harrier's coffin was driven home on March 18th 2005, which was 899 squadron's final flying day. The squadron was decommissioned on March 23rd, bringing to an end 63 years of distinguished flying operations.
On March 18th 2005 the following 801 squadron aircraft arrived back at RNAS Yeovilton: ZH797/000, ZH796/001, ZH798/002 and ZH804/007.
On May 17th 2005 an Indian Navy FRS.51 was written off while on the ground at Goa.
In May and June 2005 801 squadron spent 6 weeks training with HMS "Illustrious". Embarking for the second and third phases of her Operational Sea Training (OST) package, together with 849 Squadron "A" Flight Sea King Mk 7s and a Sea King Mk 6 of 771 Squadron, 801’s Sea Harriers tailored their flying to provide progressive training for all of Illustrious’ newly-formed crew.
Following a brief port visit to Newcastle at the beginning of June, Illustrious sailed with her full tailored air group (TAG) for Exercise "Neptune Warrior". This exercise had a large number of multinational participants, ranging from HMAS "Anzac" to a Dutch submarine, and was conducted in the challenging waters off the coast of north-west Scotland. "Neptune Warrior" pitted two large Naval Task Groups against each other in a complex scenario, and enabled the TAG to operate in a maritime strike role, focussing on the Harrier GR.7's strike capability. 801’s Shars operated in a variety of roles throughout the two-week exercise, including maritime reconnaissance and Close Air Support, working with ground troops in Loch Ewe.
At the beginning of July 2005 the Indian Navy established a new Sea Harrier training squadron, INAS 552. Previously, pilots had received conversion training at Yeovilton.
In early September 2005 801 squadon departed Yeovilton for Miroslawiec, in north-western Poland, for a 2-week air defence exercise ("Polish Dancer 05") with Polish Air Force Su-22 "Fitter" and Mig-29 "Fulcrum" aircraft. Hosted by the 8th Tactical Squadron at Miroslawiec, 801’s pilots conducted a number of useful combined tactical missions, introducing the "Fitter" pilots to NATO standard procedures and tactics. These missions included dropping practice bombs on the air-to-ground ranges in the vicinity of Miroslawiec, which were vast and scattered with redundant Eastern-bloc tanks and aircraft.
The second week allowed integration with the "Fulcrums" of the 1st Air Tactical Brigade, based near Warsaw, flying air defence missions in central Poland. The combination of the Sea Harrier's Blue Vixen radar and AMRAAM missiles were dominant over the Polish equivalents, though the Mig-29 did excel when engaged in visual dogfights.
On September 17th 2005 the Sea Harrier appeared at its final Yeovilton Air Day, with six aircraft being flown by 801 squadron pilots. There were two launches off the ski jump. The day ended with one of the two aircraft taking part in the commando assault being "shot down" by hostile forces (no prizes for guessing which hostile forces they had in mind.)
It was reported in December 2005 that warbird pilot Art Nalls, a former AV-8 pilot, had purchased Sea Harrier XZ439 and planned to fly the aircraft at airshows in North America.
An Indian Navy Sea Harrier on a routine training mission crashed on takeoff at NAS Hansa Dabolim, Goa, on November 5th 2005, killing the pilot Lt Commander HS Pannu. The aircraft reached the end of the runway but didn't take off. Instead, it tore through the steel wire crash barrier, broke through the perimeter wall and flew over the road before crashing on the other side in a fireball.
In October and November 2005 801 NAS carried out two three-week embarkations on HMS "Illustrious".
The first, participating in Exercise Neptune Warrior on the East coast of Scotland, was conducted concurrently with 1(F) Squadron RAF and 849 Squadron A Flight, flying Harrier GR.7As and Sea King ASaC.7s respectively. The favourable weather conditions enabled a high pace of flying operations to be maintained, often as Organic Carrier Strike packages against other Neptune Warrior participants.
For the first time in many years, a Sea Harrier launched from "Illustrious" with an AIM-9 Sidewinder missile and conducted a successful live firing against a Mirach target in the RAF Aberporth range. Additionally, some of 801’s newest pilots were able to drop live 1000lb bombs on the Cape Wrath range for the first time. Two of the Squadron's pilots gained their Initial Night Qualification. This was a significant milestone in any Sea Harrier pilot’s career, which consolidated their time served with the Squadron and formally recognised their ability to safely launch and recover from an aircraft carrier at night.
After a week’s break from flying operations (during which the Squadron returned to RNAS Yeovilton and "Illustrious" remained alongside in Portsmouth), 801 re-embarked on November 14th for a short deployment to the Mediterranean. This was the last full Squadron embarkation before de-commissioning, and consolidated the tactical training achieved during Neptune Warrior.
As the Sea Harrier's mission was 80% air defence, every opportunity was taken to engage in dissimilar air combat training. On this occasion Portuguese AF F-16s from 201 squadron at Monte Real were the "victims". The carrier then proceeded to Malta, where she arrived on November 21st. Upon sailing for Gibraltar in the final week of November, flying operations resumed again, this time utilising a Larne target streamed behind "Illustrious’" escort, HMS "Exeter" for "Splash" bombing serials with practice bombs. Although hampered by poor weather on occasions, these were the final tactical embarked missions, which allowed the many spectators from "Illustrious" and "Exeter" to judge the pilots’ bombing skills. On November 29th the Sea Harriers successfully disembarked, marking the occasion with an impressive flypast before transiting back home to Yeovilton via the French Navy base at Hyères.
In January 2006 801 NAS were detached to RAF Lakenheath for air defence training with US Air Force F-15s. Flying two missions each day, 801 brought six aircraft and seven pilots to Lakenheath, including the last pilot to qualify on the Sea Harrier, Lt Chris Roy.
Having been dismantled and bagged up, XZ439 left its temporary home at Bentwaters at the end of January 2006 en route for the USA. A spares package accompanied the aircraft, including tyres, starter, drop tanks, wheels and brakes. A spare engine has also been acquired, with two more available if required.
March 28th 2006 won't quite be the end for the Sea Harrier, as six are being evaluated by the Indian Navy for training aircraft and six more are to be transferred to RNAS Culdrose and the School of Flight Deck Operations (SFDO), where they will be kept in taxiable condition for students to learn the fundamentals of aircraft launch and recovery procedures during simulated flying operations on the 'dummy deck'. The aircraft being considered by the Indian Navy will be stripped of their radar, AMRAAM and chaff/flare capability, and would be used while the Navy's current fleet undergoes a mid-life upgrade.
It was reported that the fuselage of Indian Navy FRS.51 IN609 arrived at BAE Systems/Warton on board an An-124, presumably for refurbishment.
The last tactical flight of the FA.2 took place on Thursday 9th March when five Sea Harriers took to the sky to compete with Tornado GR.4s, Jaguar GR.3As and F-15Cs in the Welsh MTA. This very demanding sortie was led by the Commanding Officer, Cdr Tony 'Stinger' Rae.
March 20th 2006 saw the last Harrier T.8 movement at Yeovilton, when ZD993 departed for Boscombe Down.
The inevitable finally happened on Tuesday 28th March, when five Sea Harriers carried out their final flypast at RNAS Yeovilton to mark the disbandment of 801 Naval Air Squadron.
On March 29th 2006 the following aircraft left Yeovilton for storage at Shawbury: ZH796/L001, ZH803/L004, ZH804/L003, ZH811/L002 and ZH812/L005. Departing for Culdrose on the same day was ZE690/L007.
Also on March 28th 2006 the Indian Navy confirmed that it is planning to operate the Sea Harrier FRS.51 for another 6 years until replaced by MiG-29Ks and LCA.
On April 2nd 2006 Indian Navy Sea Harriers landed for the first time on FS "Charles de Gaulle" during exercise "Varuna II" in the Indian Ocean.
On October 13th 2006 it was reported by the Indo-Asian News Service that the Indian Navy had declined to buy the ex-RN Sea Harriers. Because the aircraft had been stripped of vital components like missiles and the Blue Vixen fire control radar, considerable expense would have been required to make them operational again.
On November 10th 2007 Art Nalls finally got XZ439 airborne again at St. Mary's County Airport in Maryland. This was a short conventional takeoff and landing flight with the undercarriage kept down.
For the second flight the next day cycling the landing gear, increasing G turns, mild acrobatics (aileron roll, wingovers, approach to stalls, etc) and some cruise performance, followed by 3 short take-offs and 3 slow landings were planned. After takeoff and the initial landing gear cycle all systems appeared normal.
Approximately 12 minutes into the flight, the "hydraulic 1" (HYD 1) warning light came on. The decision was made to attempt a vertical landing on the hover grid at nearby NAS Patuxent River, as the landing gear was down but there was no way of telling if it was locked. After a gentle touchdown, the nosegear and starboard outrigger collapsed. Damage appeared to be fairly minor, with some cosmetic nose abrasions and some skin wrinkling.
The Indian Navy is to go ahead with a "limited upgrade" of its Sea Harriers. The upgrade, to be performed by Bangalore-based Hindustan Aeronautics, will include more advanced sensors, radars and avionics. It should be completed in 2008 and will extend the aircraft's life by 15 years.
On December 24th 2007 an Indian Navy Sea Harrier crashed while landing at the Dabolim Naval Air Station in Goa. The pilot ejected safely.
Earlier in 2007 another Sea Harrier crashed while landing on the Navy carrier INS Viraat during a multi-nation naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal. Another nose-dived into the Arabian Sea after taking off from Dabolin, killing the pilot.
It was reported on February 17th 2008 that the UK had agreed to supply India with four Sea Harrier airframes.
In April 2008 an Indian Navy Sea Harrier test-fired a "Derby" beyond-visual-range missile, which successfully hit its target. The Indian Navy signed a $25 million contract in 2005 with the missile's maker, Rafael, for procurement of 20 Derby missiles to replace aging Sea Eagle missiles bought from BAE Systems in the early 1980s.