Matthew Clements/ MCaviationimages.com was at Yeovilton for the Sea Harrier's last hurrah on 14 March
The aircraft that played a key role in the British victory in the Falklands War is currently in the process of being decommissioned due to budget constraints and the promise of a more technically developed aircraft.
In 2002 the Ministry of Defence announced plans to withdraw the Sea Harrier from service by 2006. The aircraft's replacement, the Lockheed/Northrop/BAE F-35, is not due until 2012 at the earliest, however the MoD argues that significant expenditure would be required to upgrade the fleet for only six years service. Although the youngest Sea Harrier only joined the Navy in 1999, the FA2s are almost all-metal, unlike the largely composite RAF Harriers. This increased weight and the relative lack of thrust from the early Pegasus engine restricts operational use of the Sea Harrier - for example FA2s often have to drop unused weapons in the sea before landing, particularly in hot climates. The natural option to install higher-rated Pegasus engines would not be as straightforward as the Harrier GR7 upgrade and would likely be an expensive and slow process. Furthermore, the Sea Harriers are subject to a generally more hostile environment than land-based Harriers, with corrosive salt spray a particular problem. As of 31 March 2006, all Sea Harriers will have been retired from service.
Opponents have argued that the loss of the Sea Harrier would leave the Royal Navy without effective air-defence capability for too long. The Mod argues that the Type 45 destroyer, due to enter service by the end of the decade, will provide sufficient anti-aircraft warfare (AAW) capability. The Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm will continue to share the other component of Joint Force Harrier, the Harrier GR7 and the upgraded Harrier GR9 with the RAF, with the two front-line squadrons, 800 and 801 Naval Air Squadrons, expected to reform using the GR9 by 2007. The projected purchase of around 150 F-35s will be split between the two services and they will operate from the Royal Navy's Future Carriers (CVF), the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.
Harrier is the only operational VSTOL jet aircraft in the western world
and, until the full introduction of Typhoon, the Sea Harrier was also
the only 'swing' role aircraft in the British inventory. However the Royal
Air Force, Royal Navy, United States Marines, Indian Navy, Spanish Navy
and Italian Navy all operate derivatives of the original Harrier introduced
into service in 1969. The Indian Navy is in the process of upgrading up
to fifteen Sea Harriers with Israel by installing the Elta EL/M-2032 radar
and the Rafael 'Derby' medium range air to air missile. This will enable
the Sea Harrier to remain in Indian service till beyond 2012 and also
see limited service off the new carriers the Navy will acquire by that
The FA2 (Fighter Attack) is a development of its predecessor the Sea Harrier FRS1 (Fighter/Reconnaissance/Strike) concentrating on the avionics and weapons system of the aircraft giving it a much improved air-to-air combat capability, essential to its main task of providing a carrier group with air defence. The Blue Vixen radar, coupled with the medium range AIM-120 AMRAAM missile, gives the FA2 the ability to engage hostile aircraft before they come into visual range. Although the main task of the FA2 was air defence it had the capability to be used in the ground attack role - however, the GR7/GR9 would be the first choice of aircraft for this type of mission.
801 Naval Air Squadron was first commissioned on 28 January 1981 with the Sea Harrier FRS1. Since then it has been based at RNAS Yeovilton or at sea on one of three carriers, HMS Ark Royal, Invincible or Illustrious. The squadron initially formed with five aircraft and during the Falklands campaign reached a maximum of eleven aircraft.
During the conflict in 1982 aboard HMS Invincible, the Sea Harriers were to operate in their primary air defence role with the Harrier GR3s from 1 Squadron expected to act as attrition replacements for the Sea Harriers. However the Sea Harriers claimed twenty-four kills with no losses in air combat (two were lost to ground fire and four in accidents), 801 Squadron alone claiming eight kills and probables that were unconfirmed. 801 achieved a sortie rate of 99% for all missions tasked, fired twelve missiles and 3,000 rounds of 30mm cannon and dropped fifty-six bombs.
This enabled the RAF Harrier fleet to operate in its primary ground-attack role. The dominance of the Sea Harrier over the theoretically equal or superior Argentinean Mirage III and Mirage V Daggers surprised many. It should be noted that the disparity in figures, with the Argentinean fighters failing to shoot down a single Sea Harrier, was due to a number of factors, including the fact that the Argentinean planes were operating at the extent of their range, with little fuel for dogfights, the unarguably superior training of the British pilots and the employment by the British of the latest (American-supplied) AIM-9L Sidewinder missiles. The Sea Harriers were able to fly in atrocious weather (a feature of the South Atlantic at the time of year) that many other carrier-based aircraft could not have done. The FAA pilots faced limited fuel reserves (given the need to station the British carriers out of Exocet missile range and the dispersal of the fleet), being greatly outnumbered by the Argentinean aircraft, and operating without early warning systems such as AWACS that would have been available to a full NATO fleet in which the Royal Navy had expected to operate. It is doubtful that the Falklands operation could have been undertaken at all without the presence of the Sea Harrier - the testimony of Argentinean pilots has confirmed that the Sea Harrier was crucial to the British victory.
The Falklands was not the only conflict the SHARs were involved with - in 1993 801 Naval Air Squadron found itself in the Adriatic as part of Operation Deny Flight. For the first time since the Falklands conflict, 801 was flying operational missions over a combat zone, flying in support of the United Nations troops on the ground in the former republic of Yugoslavia. The squadron carried out combat air patrol, Close Air Support (CAS) and reconnaissance missions. The first FA2s were handed over to the Royal Navy's Operational Evaluation Unit in the Spring of 1993 and 801 was the first front line squadron to receive it, the unit acquiring two aircraft in October 1994 followed by a further four in November, giving a full compliment of six FA2s. The unit then returned to the Adriatic in 1995, this time equipped with the much more capable single seat multi-role day/night all-weather FA2. The most recent air defence role the FA2 has undertaken was in 2000 when the squadron had an important reconnaissance role over Sierra Leone, flying from HMS Illustrious, in support of Operation Pallise.
The first two aircraft to leave 801 were delivered to RNAS Culdrose on 23 February 2006, the airframes to be used as a ground training aid to help aircraft handlers at the School of Flight Deck Operations to help practice manoeuvring the aircraft around a dummy flight deck.
The last tactical flight of the FA2 took place on Thursday 9 March when five Sea Harriers took to the sky to compete with four Tornado GR4s, two Jaguars and five 493rd FS F-15Cs from the USAF, in the Welsh MTA. This very demanding sortie was led by the Commanding Officer, Cdr Tony 'Stinger' Rae, who joined 801 Naval Air Squadron in 1996, spending three years on the squadron and being involved in numerous deployments, including Operations Southern Watch and Deny Flight over Iraq and Bosnia respectively. Commenting on this final mission, Cdr Rae said "We saw our aircrew successfully kill their opponents and return to Yeovilton with the feeling of elation and sadness."
Even though 801 Naval Air Squadron flew its last tactical mission on 23 February, the unit will keep flying right up until the final day, practising for the final flypast at the decommissioning parade on Tuesday 28 March. The following day will see the remaining five aircraft flown for the very last time as they are delivered to RAF Shawbury for temporary storage. As a last presentation to the aviation press, a photoshoot was organised for Tuesday 14 March, although leaden skies added to the grey mood of the impending retirement.
On 1 October 2006, 801 Naval Air Squadron will once again stand up, this time equipped with the Harrier GR7/9. The Harrier Force will then consist of four front-line squadrons, two predominantly manned by the Royal Navy and two by the Royal Air Force. The Harrier GR variant provides superb offensive capability and has been proven in the Falklands, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, and the Gulf and currently in Afghanistan by providing power projection from land and sea bases. Full operational capability will be declared by 1 April 2007.
The de- and re-commissioning of 801 Naval Air Squadron is one of the final steps in a three-year transition to the JFH (Joint Force Harrier) operations based at RAF Wittering and RAF Cottesmore. All JFH personnel of both the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force in all ranks and trades are becoming accustomed to working alongside each other in support of a common aircraft and notable deployable capability.
801 Naval Air Squadron has continued to provide a forty-eight hour constant operational readiness to support any task worldwide. Although the unit is small and averaging seven aircraft and 120 Officers and ground crew, 801 has proven to be a highly effective, mobile and dedicated squadron ready to move at a moment's notice.