The Harrier, known colloquially as the 'Jump Jet' is a family of military aircraft produced between 1967 and 2003. The jet emerged as the only successful V/STOL aircraft design and was developed originally by Britain's Hawker Siddeley, and later by British Aerospace. A US variant - which is currently still in active service - was also produced by McDonnell Douglas for the US Marine Corps. The type was retired by the UK military in 2011.
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Harrier's origin and history
The Harrier is one of the few aircraft to have found genuine, widespread fame. It was the legendary ‘jump jet’, the airshow attraction that could hover and even ‘reverse’ before generations of disbelieving eyes. For decades various incarnations of the Harrier delighted crowds at events throughout the UK and beyond. Just like Concorde, the Spitfire and the Vulcan, it was a machine easily identified even by those otherwise disinterested in aviation.
The Harrier was, of course, not just for show. It excelled in RAF and Royal Navy service, as well as finding a market in the US and with other overseas air arms. Introduced in April 1969, the type’s ‘finest hour’ was probably the 1982 Falklands War, during which the Harrier and the navalised Sea Harrier supported British troops, flew ground attack ‘ops’, and protected ships from Argentine fighters. Subsequently built in several versions, the final variant was not retired from British service until 2011 – and even then, the decision to withdraw the distinctive jets caused widespread controversy.
Pushing the boundaries
The first Harrier GR.1 made its debut flight on December 28, 1967, but the roots of the aircraft’s near-unique design can be traced back to the Hawker P.1127 and the subsequent Hawker Siddeley Kestrel. These were test aircraft, created to experiment with the principle of vertical and/or short take-off and landing (V/STOL), a capability that had mostly been limited to helicopters.
A fast jet able to take off and land vertically, or from very short or hastily prepared landing areas, would add a potent and versatile weapon to any military force. Six P.1127s and nine Kestrels were built to pioneer this technological breakthrough. The first hovering trials using vectored thrust were undertaken in 1960, with P.1127 XP831 completing several short ‘flights’ while tethered to the ground. Its first untethered hover took place at Dunsfold, Surrey, on November 19 of that year, and a debut conventional flight was accomplished on February 13, 1961, with Bill Bedford at the controls.
The project was not trouble-free – three of the six P.1127s crashed, including one during the 1963 Paris Air Show – but with the concept proven, it led to development work on the Hawker Siddeley P.1154, a potentially supersonic production version. Following the election of Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1964, this ambitious scheme was cancelled, Hawker reverting to plans for a slightly simpler, subsonic version. This ultimately became the Harrier.
The RAF’s No.1 Squadron received its first Harriers in April 1969.
A pre-production aircraft undertook a maiden flight on August 31, 1966, with the GR.1 flying the following year. By this time an order for 60 aircraft had been received, and the type officially entered RAF service on April 18, 1969, when the Harrier Conversion Unit at Wittering, Cambs, received its first aircraft.
Harriers in service
The RAF mostly used the Harrier for close air support duties, along with reconnaissance and ground attack roles. During the Cold War, detachments were deployed to bases in West Germany in a bid to deter potential Soviet aggression. Thanks to its V/STOL capabilities, the ‘jump jet’ could be launched from small, camouflaged bases at short notice.
Harriers were also stationed at airfields in Belize and Norway, with No.1 Squadron flying from the latter as part of Allied Forces Northern Europe (a NATO subordinate). In Belize, the Harrier was the only RAF combat aircraft capable of operating from the former British colony’s short runways. The British forces were stationed there due to tensions over Guatemalan territorial claims. They were finally withdrawn in 1993 after Guatemala backed down.
After proving its worth in the Falklands War, the first generation of Harriers flew no further combat sorties. They remained in service for several years, until gradually phased out in favour of the more modern GR.5 and GR.7 versions.
These were derived from the McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II, the US-built version of the ‘jump jet’. The original variant – the AV-8A – was developed by Hawker Siddeley for the US Marine Corps (USMC), and entered service in 1971. Although all RAF and Royal Navy Harriers have now been withdrawn from use, the USMC and US Navy continue to operate the AV-8B, as do the navies of Spain and Italy.