key.aero talks to Harrier pilots from the Royal Navy’s Naval Strike Wing at RAF Cottesmore about life aboard an aircraft carrier. For more on the NSW see the February 2010 of AIR International magazine.
It’s a cold, wet and dismal day at Cottesmore in deepest Rutland. All the Harriers are lashed to the ‘deck’, and even the birds are grounded for the day – an ideal time to catch up with pilots kicking their heels before the Christmas break.
“Maritime’s a harsh environment,” remarks Commander Dave ‘Tinsel’ Lindsay, the current ‘boss’ of the Naval Strike Wing. “It’s windy, wet, cold and salty, so the jet’s going to suffer.” All ‘HMS Cottesmore’ lacks today is the salty atmosphere. “This is where our naval experience with the Sea Harrier kicks in,” he adds – “we have transferred that knowledge across to the GR9. Everything we’re cleared to do on land has to be cleared for sea – clearances for various weapons, that sort of thing.”
The crowded flight deck of HMS Illustrious. Royal Navy imageLike Tinsel, Lieutenant Commander Paul ‘Tremors’ Tremelling is a former Sea Harrier pilot. How did the bigger-winged Harrier II compare to the Sea Harrier aboard ship? “Oh, it’s a whole lot easier to land; the stability systems in the aeroplane are fantastic.” “The GR9 has a ring-laser gyro,” says Tinsel, “and what we’ve found is that it’s a great bonus at sea, because to erect an inertial platform is quite difficult on a pitching and rolling deck, whereas a ring-laser gyro happens very quickly.” Tremors continues: “With the Sea Harrier you only had to ‘think’ it across the deck – your hands sort of did the right thing and you moved, whereas with the GR9, if you end up hovering in the wrong place it takes a real effort on the controls to go somewhere else. It’s never going to be a doddle landing an aeroplane on a boat, but the motor skills you need are significantly different from when flying the Sea Harrier.”
“Because the GR9 hasn’t got radar or some of the approach aids we had in the Sea Harrier, the ships have been modified with Tactical Air Navigation [TACAN], so we can do approaches in poor weather at night,” says Tinsel. “It was really frustrating that people saw the Sea Harrier as a ‘one trick pony’, just defensive counter-air for the fleet,” chips in Tremors. “I think if we’d done a better job with the Sea Harrier by taking it to big exercises others would have seen us as more serious war fighters.”
Harrier GR9 ZD406 takes off from HMS Illustrious using the 'ski jump', designed to save fuel and enable the Harrier to carry a bigger weapons load. Royal Navy imageOne aspect of the Sea Harrier that isn’t available on the GR9 is its ‘beyond visual range’ air-to-air capability – the GR is not equipped with the FA2's potent Ferranti Blue Vixen track-while-scan, multi-mode, pulse Doppler radar. Tremors remembers it fondly: "I spent a lot of time flying the Sea Harrier. I really enjoyed the role because you were fighting as a team, and you were fighting with radar with air-to-air missiles, against fighter pilots." This isn’t to say that Tremors doesn’t get a kick out of today’s Close Air Support mission, having spent time recently in Afghanistan for Operation ‘Herrick’. "It was a privilege to have gone into battle with the Coalition,” says Tremors. “You’d see Italians and Bulgarians; taxi out past Belgian, French and Dutch aeroplanes; get gas from an American tanker; talk to an Aussie forward air controller [FAC] and know that it was the Estonians who were keeping the runway safe for when you got back. When you find yourself in the middle of this awesome international effort to make the world a little bit safer, and it’s quite humbling at times to know that you’re a part of it."
Lt Abi Mark (left) discusses tactics with Swedish Air Force officials during Exercise 'Loyal Arrow' in June 2009. Royal Navy imageSo how are the younger pilots that have come straight through training coping with the GR9? Lieutenant Abi Mark is one such pilot, as well as being the only female naval fixed-wing aviator. “We were told early on in training that the Sea Harrier was going out – I was absolutely gutted because when I joined the Navy, my aspiration was to become a naval fighter pilot. I hadn’t considered being a naval bomber pilot, because such a thing didn’t exist. But the opportunity to fly a Harrier from a ship is still something that I was very, very motivated to do.
“We did three ship detachments in 2009, so I’m starting to find my feet a little bit. It’s very different because you’re living and breathing it 24/7, so you can’t find any space on your own and get away from it.”
Tremors adds: “From beginning to end, getting up in the morning to going to bed at night, even trying to sleep at night, you just have to accept that absolutely everything on board the boat is more difficult.” “Yes, and a big thing is communicating with people,” says Abi. “It’s also a very public way of living!”
A Naval Strike Wing Harrier 'buzzes the tower' on an exercise. Royal Navy imageTremors continues: “So you will be more tired, there won’t be food available when you want it, it’s harder to get to the briefing rooms, the computers don’t work quite so quickly, you might have to walk through hatches and blast doors to get to places; everything has to fit in with the ship’s routine. The guys on board, the ship’s company, do everything they can to facilitate what we want to do, because we are their ‘end product’, but there’s a subtle difference between us being the end product to being their complete ‘raison d’être’. They can’t make certain things any easier – the damage control state, you can’t pick up more satellites than the kit can pick up, make the faxes more reliable, that sort of thing.
“On top of all that, when you’re taking off from an aircraft carrier, you can guarantee absolutely that it will not be there when you get back – it might only be a couple of hundred yards away, but it will definitely not be where you left it!”
And of course the deck landing is the most taxing part of any naval aviator’s sortie for the day. What was the first one like? Abi goes first: “One of the most distinct memories is leaving the ramp; your first launch from the ship thinking ‘that’s brilliant!’ You don’t carry a great deal of fuel for the first trip, as you’re just going to do some circuits and then bring it back for the finale, the landing. I remember looking back at the ship from just 1,000ft thinking ‘That’s really small, I’ve got to get back on that!’, and feeling a bit anxious.
“You’re just concentrating on doing what you need to do to get it back on deck – you don’t really have time to be nervous. It was when I got back down I was greeted by the boss, who said ‘Congratulations – welcome to naval aviation!’ Finally I felt like a naval pilot!”
“It’s one of the few human experiences that actually lives up to its billing,” says Tremors. “When you’re doing a deck landing, particularly your first one, or in poor weather and you finally hit the deck, it’s ‘Wow, that’s not a way to pay the mortgage!’ I wouldn’t trade this job for the world, but it does ‘ring the juice’ out of you on some occasions.”
Weather conditions on deck can sometimes be so bad that pilots will be ‘on the margins’ of flying. Tremors explains: “You shouldn’t have a cross wind if the chaps steering the boat are doing their job properly – they should keep it pointing into the wind, but it’s the classic situation when into wind is also into the fog bank. Then you start to earn your pay!
Harrier GR9s return to the 'boat' and prepare for landing. Royal Navy image“As with all aviation there are points where you start to get into the ‘corners’ [of the envelope]; obviously you want a bit of fuel, just in case you have to have another go, or divert, but the engine can only produce so much thrust. There’s no point arriving at the ship with enough fuel to get to a diversion, but too much not be able to hover – it’s a balancing act. Then you’ve got the sea state, the wind, the ship starts to move, and don’t forget that hopefully we’ve just completed a really valuable training mission… At the point where land-based pilots are saying ‘Thank goodness that’s over, I’ve done my job’, that’s when you have to start concentrating, because it’s the bit that can really bite.”
“It’s a lot more satisfying than landing on an airfield,” confirms Abi. “My first landing was uneventful because the weather was lovely, but the first time I came back and the ship was moving a lot, it wasn’t particularly nice. Our next detachment at sea involves night flying, so I’m a little bit nervous!”
Just as adrenaline junkies enjoy extreme sports, so pilots generally look forward to embarking on an aircraft carrier. “It’s the same with all the ship dets,” says Tremors, “you get excited about going, you desperately want to be on the team that’s actually embarking, not just walking on – landing on a boat is what we do. Typhoon pilots will tell you that we can’t get anywhere near 50,000 feet and Mach 2, and they’re right, and that’s something that they should cherish, but this is our ‘thing’, except it’s also a very good way of running yourself off the boat if you don’t pay attention to it!”
Getting it wrong would mean a watery landing, something best avoided in February off the Scottish coast. “You just wrap up warm, put your immersion suit on and be done with it,” says Tremors. “Of course the immersion suit stowage is nowhere near where you’d like it to be, so you have to factor in five more minutes to go and find it and get changed.”
“Our next big exercise is Joint Warrior 10/01 in April, and it will be our fifth carrier deployment in a year,” says Tinsel. “It will involve multi-national maritime, land and air forces around the UK.”
The Royal Navy celebrated 100 years of aviation in 2009. Royal Navy imageTremors is an old hand at the ‘Joint Warrior’ exercises: “The only issue that we face with ‘Joint Warrior’ is that invariably the place where the surface fleet wants to play is up and down the west coast, and the airfields at Aldergrove, Tiree, Islay and Stornoway don’t have precision approach aids, so in poor weather we’re forced to hold diversion fuel for the east coast. The nearest is either Kinloss or Lossiemouth, so we have to come up with a compromise with the fleet as to whether the ship needs to be in the Moray Firth, or further down at Newcastle, or on the west coast playing with all the other surface elements – it’s been a long-standing argument.”
As you might expect, pilots are eagerly anticipating the arrival of the F-35, as Tremors explains: “There are very few aeroplanes in the world that can fight on their own – you’re talking Super Hornet and F-15E, aircraft that can genuinely smash their way in, do the job and smash their way out. That’s exactly what we’re going to be able to do with the F-35.”
Whether it should be the STOVL F-35B is another matter – Abi adds: “From a personal point of view, I’d like to have the most capable jet.”
“I think Abi’s correct, you want ‘bang for your buck’,” says Tremors. “We don’t have that many bucks any more, and if you are asked to choose between carrying fuel, weapons or a lift fan, the answer’s got to be fuel or bombs.” Tremors suggests that the F-35B’s austere basing capability could be traded for the longer ‘reach’ of the F-35C. “If you want a single aeroplane across the spectrum, not just naval aviation, it has got to be the F-35C,” he says – “You could replace every fixed-wing platform other than Typhoon.
Lockheed Martin's F-35B - not the first choice of JSF for some pilots. Lockheed Martin image“What you don’t want to be is the guy who turns up at a ‘Red Flag’ in 2018 and the Americans say there’s no point briefing because we’ve all brought the F-35 – you have to stick your hand up and say ‘Sorry, we’ve brought the ‘B model, we can’t go as far as you, we can’t take as many targets, we’d like to go last and come back first and have more gas on the tanker.’ This is the last manned aircraft and we don’t want to buy the wrong one.”
So there appears to be a difference of opinion between the Ministry of Defence’s procurement team and the pilots who will fly F-35B. Assuming both the aircraft and the new carriers survive the next Strategic Defence Review, it could still be possible to change to the US Navy specification F-35C, and that’s something that would certainly go down well with the men and women destined to operate it.
For more on the Harrier see the FREE 32-page supplement with the March issue of AirForces Monthly magazine, on sale from February 11.
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