Development of the British Aerospace Sea Harrier

The aircraft that heralded a revolution in Royal Navy shipborne aviation

When the embarked squadrons launched their Buccaneer S2s and Phantom FG1s for the final time from HMS Ark Royal (R09) on 27 November 1978, this was widely seen as marking the end of fixed-wing flying from aircraft carriers in the Royal Navy. True, three ‘through deck cruisers’ of the Invincible class had been ordered, but these were to be 20,000-tonne vessels with a flight deck too short, at 560ft (170m), to operate anything but helicopters, and were intended primarily for the anti-submarine role.

Sea Harrier
A classic early Sea Harrier FRS1: XZ454 of 800 Naval Air Squadron.

Yet as long ago as 1963 a Hawker P1127 had been flown from Ark Royal. Over a five-day period from 7 February that year, Hawker’s Bill Bedford and Hugh Merewether made a series of flights that revealed no problems in operating the V/ STOL (vertical/short take-off and landing) jet from a carrier deck. Hawker Siddeley recorded the results as “most encouraging”, but the Royal Navy remained unconvinced.

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