MoD makes a fist of it...
Damien Burke looks at the MoD's latest cutback in the continuing decimation of our flying armed forces, that of the sole Sea Harrier training squadron. Pictures by the author unless credited otherwise
899 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) was formed on 15 December 1942 at Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Hatston, with Seafire IIc aircraft and six pilots detached from 880 Squadron. The five clouds on the squadron's crest represent the five original pilots surrounding the Commanding Officer's mailed fist. The squadron embarked on HMS Indomitable in March 1943, and provided fighter cover for the Sicily landings in July of that year, with a brief pause at RAF North Front (Gibraltar) when the ship was torpedoed. By September it was embarked on HMS Hunter and supported the Allied landings at Salerno. In October the squadron had returned to the UK - initially Ballyhalbert in Northern Ireland but later Belfast, where its strength was increased over the next few months to twenty-six aircraft, many of which were ex-RAF Spitfire VBs until Seafire LIII deliveries replaced the RAF airframes.
The squadron's next major action was in August 1944, supporting the Allied landings in the South of France (Operation Dragoon), embarked on HMS Khedive. The following months were spent on reconnaissance and bombing missions against shipping and shore targets in the Aegean before HMS Khedive returned to the UK in October and 899 disembarked to Long Kesh, Northern Ireland (now an infamous prison of course). In February 1945 the squadron joined the Assault carrier HMS Chaser for service in the Pacific theatre. However, a shortage of Seafire pilots resulted in 899 transferring some of its pilots to 887 and 894 Squadrons on HMS Indefatigable.
In February 1945 899 embarked on HMS Chaser with twenty-four Seafire LIII, and subsequently disembarked at Schofield, Australia in April, where it operated from RAAF Schofield as an Operational Training Unit, teaching ex-RAAF Spitfire pilots to deck-land Seafires, and forming the basis for the modern-day flying element of the Australian Navy. The squadron disbanded at Schofield on 27 September 1945.
899 reformed on 7 November 1955 with twelve Seahawk FGA6 jets at RNAS Brawdy. After an intensive work up the squadron embarked on HMS Eagle on 16 April 1956. HMS Eagle sailed for the Mediterranean and in October her air group were heavily involved in Operation Musketeer - the Suez Campaign. The squadron flew 165 ground attack sorties without loss, and returned to the UK with Eagle in January 1957. On 3 January 897 and 899 Squadrons flew back to RNAS Brawdy, where both were disbanded two days later.
899 next recommissioned at RNAS Yeovilton on 1 February 1961 with five Sea Vixen FAW1s, the first British naval aircraft to be fully armed with guided weapons (Firestreak missiles) instead of guns. The squadron became the Sea Vixen HQ Squadron, responsible for evaluating tactics and equipment. It was involved with in-flight refuelling trials using the 'buddy' pack, demonstrating this at the 1961 and 1962 SBAC displays at Farnborough. In February of 1964 the squadron began to take delivery of the Sea Vixen FAW2, a more capable aircraft with increased fuel stowage and the more effective Red Top missiles. In June 1964 the squadron regained front-line status, becoming the Sea Vixen FAW2 Intensive Flying Trials Unit (IFTU), and in December the squadron, now up to fourteen aircraft, embarked on HMS Eagle and sailed for the Far East.
After returning to the UK in May 1965, HMS Eagle again sailed for the Far East on 25 August. 899 Squadron aircraft were involved in the Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe) UDI crisis of November 1965, with Eagle's air group providing air cover during the Biera Patrol blockade, remaining at sea for a record seventy-two days.
In 1967, Eagle covered the British withdrawal from Aden and a Sea Vixen of 899 was the last aircraft to leave, carrying the British flag. The squadron remained part of HMS Eagle's air group until it was disbanded once more in February 1972, after the then-government decided that Britain no longer needed aircraft carriers. The Sea Vixens had many years of life left to them but were mostly scrapped in short order.
The Sea Harrier has been in service with 899 NAS since 1980, when they reformed, taking over from 700(A) Flight who worked up the type for FAA service. In 1982 the squadron took part in Operation Corporate, the campaign to recapture the Falkland Islands, and normal squadron operations virtually ceased. As the Headquarters Unit 899 provided five pilots each to 800 and 801 Squadrons, with some aircraft. 899 also provided the core of the short-lived 809 Squadron when it commissioned in April 1982.
The squadron returned to normal in August 1982. As the Sea Harrier training squadron 899 also operated the two-seat Harrier T4N trainer, which had no radar and lacked much FRS1 instrumentation, and through FRADU, used three Blue Fox equipped Hunter T8Ms as radar trainers. The upgraded Sea Harrier FA2 was first flown by the OEU (Operational Evaluation Unit) in June 1993, which although initially based at Boscombe Down, was an offshoot of the squadron. The OEU rejoined the squadron at Yeovilton in January 1994 and the squadron continued to convert to the new aircraft. In October and November of the same year a detachment of four 899 OEU aircraft joined 800 NAS on HMS Invincible in the Adriatic, for operations in support of British and United Nations ground forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The introduction of the Sea Harrier FA2 also required an updated trainer, and the T4Ns were upgraded to T8s, the first of which was delivered in May 1995. These aircraft are not fitted with radar, but have a cockpit layout more representative of the FA2. Since 1993 899 NAS has trained pilots and engineers to fly and maintain the Sea Harrier FA2.
With the FA2 upgrade the SHAR became an even more formidable opponent, regularly wiping the floor with more advanced designs not subjected to the compromises forced upon the Harrier - including MiG-29s and F-15s. Lack of investment meant the upgrade wasn't anywhere near as impressive as the GR5/7 the RAF received, and that continued lack meant that the SHAR has become a little tired - less than ideal in 'hot and high' conditions (RAF Harriers have significantly more capable engines to deal with this) and ever more difficult to maintain. Still, some FA2 airframes are only ten years old - or younger (the last was delivered in January 1999) - and retiring an aircraft with so much life left to it harks back to the 1950s, when new variants were introduced every year.
At Yeovilton on 23 March 2005 899 NAS held its disbandment ceremony (officially the disbandment is on 31 March, but Easter leave fell before that). With squadron personnel forming up into divisions on the parade ground in front of the hangars, the Royal Marines band provided the music and four Sea Harriers provided the jet noise. Two FA2s and two T8s took to the air for a final four-ship flypast, followed up by a selection of classic jets representing past types operated by the Squadron. These were the Royal Navy Historic Flight's Sea Hawk FGA6, de Havilland Aviation's 'Red Bull' Sea Vixen D3 (this particular one being an ex-899 airframe) and Jonathon Whaley's Hunter F58 'Miss Demeanour' (representing a T8M, and retaining the 899 NAS winged fist marking on her tail, applied last year for the Yeovilton Air Day - Jon flew Sea Vixens with 899).
After the flypast the four Sea Harriers hovered in front of the parade ground, and bowed to the assembled dignitaries before they landed, leaving the air clear for a further flypast made up of the classic jets and a Royal Navy Hawk T1 - a unique formation. For those of us pointing cameras skyward that day, we were also treated to the RNHF Sea Fury taking to the air for the first time this year (in company with a Jet Provost for some air to air photography), and a couple of departing 847 NAS Gazelles (another squadron that had disbanded just the week prior to 899).
The Falklands War taught us a hard lesson - that defending the fleet required three interlocking facets - airborne early warning, fighters, and lastly ship-borne defences. At the time we had lost AEW, and we paid for it dearly, losing a number of ships and many lives. Since then we have soldiered on with a homebrew concoction of radars slung beneath helicopters to give us an AEW capability... and now we are throwing away the fighters, because the final SHAR squadron, 801, is going to be disbanded next year. The replacement 'fighter', JSF (actually optimised for ground attack!), will not enter service until at least 2012 - if it ever does. The Type 45 destroyer meant to improve ship-borne defence of the fleet is also yet to enter service. This leaves us with a clear policy for fleet defence that involves the use of not fantastically modern missiles, and somebody else's air force or navy providing manned air defence. This was precisely the same policy introduced in 1981, which assumed we would always have the Americans to back us in any conflict. One can only hope we do not see similar results this time round.
899's airframes will suffer a variety of fates - some will be cherry-picked for use by 801 NAS, others will become spares ships, and others will be disposed of. The gift-wrapped collection of SHARs by Yeovilton's water tower will no doubt grow in the months ahead. The T8s will continue to fly with the station's Standards Flight. 899's number plate isn't expected to be resurrected as part of a joint OCU with 20(R) Squadron at RAF Wittering, so this may well have been the final call for the 'Flying Fist'.
Royal Navy website, 899 Squadron Association website.