Gary Parsons reports from RAF Lakenheath as the Sea Harrier fights its last fight
One could debate at length the politics surrounding the premature retirement of the Sea Harrier fleet, but the hard fact is that the time has come - the end of March will see all airframes grounded and the Fleet Air Arm officially transition to the Harrier GR7/9 at RAF Cottesmore, with the reformation of 800 Squadron on 1 April. For its swansong, 801 Squadron wanted to go "out with a bang", so headed off to Suffolk for some last air combat training with the F-15Cs of the 493rd Fighter Squadron, USAFE.
Flying two missions each day, 801 brought six aircraft and seven pilots to Lakenheath, including the last pilot to qualify on the Sea Harrier, Lt Chris Roy. When asked how they were doing against the Americans, Chris replied "Pretty well, considering! We've got an old airframe, but what we've also got is a great radar and a great missile." Senior pilot Lt Cmdr Ian Tidball elaborated - "The airframe is limited compared to the modern threat - we are not very well placed in a turning-type environment, but of course we would always hope to engage Beyond Visual Range (BVR), which is what any pilot would hope to do."
Lt Phil Lee added "We do 1 v 1 dogfighting, that's when it gets really interesting - the F-15 should generally win, but we're about half the size and they often loose visual contact. We use viffing, but it's more of a last-ditch than a standard manoeuvre. The F-15 flies higher and faster, but our missile and radar is on a par - it's their airframe that's a lot better." The F-15 was simulating tactics employed by Su-27 Flankers in the 'red' adversary role, with the Sea Harriers operating as 'blue'.
Asked how they felt about transitioning from an air combat fighter pilot to a gound-attack role, to a man the response was unanimous - "It sucks!" Once a fighter pilot, always a fighter - the Fleet Air Arm pilots are progressing through the OCU at Wittering prior to Harrier GR7, and are ready for the challenge of a new discipline, but there's no denying they'd rather continue with the SHAR for as long as possible. Lt Cmdr Ian Tidball, who has 1,300 hours on the Sea Harrier, added "It's very much a pilot's aeroplane - it requires stick and rudder skills, unlike the more modern fly-by-wire F-18 types, which are much more forgiving aircraft, although that's a good thing - you don't want the pilot wasting capacity in simply flying the aeroplane, you want him to operate the missions systems. But, pilots do love to 'pure-fly' an aeroplane, and that's what so great about the Sea Harrier. The GR7 has a good stabilisation system, which makes it much more stable in the VSTOL regime - the Sea Harrier's a little more of a handful, requiring a little more skill and 'hands-on' approach."
FAA pilots will spend about six months on a cross-over course at Wittering before continuing to their squadrons at Cottesmore. 801 Squadron will follow 800 later in 2006, the two naval squadrons operating alongside 1 and 4 Squadrons of the RAF, retaining as much of their individual service ethos as possible. Initially a couple of RAF pilots will be in each Navy squadron, primarily to ease the transition to the air-ground role and enable the FAA pilots to draw from their experience. The Harrier will have self-defence capability, but its lack of radar means its Sidewinders will be a last resort if caught up in a dogfight scenario - key to avoiding this will be situational awareness, provided by Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS).
801 Squadron officially disbands on 28 March at Yeovilton, where it will be marked with a flypast from the remaining five aircraft that will be on squadron strength on the last day. Its last official duty will be a two-ship flypast at the stand-up of 800 Squadron at Cottesmore on 31 March, the two Sea Harriers then flying direct to Shawbury for storage.
It won't quite be the end for the Sea Harrier's career, as six are being evaluated by the Indian Navy for training aircraft and six more are to be transferred to RNAS Culdrose and the School of Flight Deck Operations (SFDO), where they will be kept in taxiable condition for students to learn the fundamentals of aircraft launch and recovery procedures during simulated flying operations on the 'dummy deck', a life-size concrete replica of an aircraft carrier's deck. The aircraft being considered by the Indian Navy will be stripped of their radar, AMRAAM and chaff/flare capability, and would be used while the Navy's current fleet undergoes a mid-life upgrade.
With thanks to the 48th FW Public Affairs team and 801 Squadron