The genius of the naval jump-jet

Historic innovation in naval aviation

Commander Sue Eagles RNR, Communications Director for the charity, Navy Wings, reflects on the origins and the success of the Short Vertical Take Off and Landing (STOVL) concept

In the 1950s, the vision of a military aeroplane that could take off and land vertically without being tied to a runway but was still able to fight and strike seemed a long way off. Over the next 30 years or so, dozens of designs were tried, but failed. The single shining success story is an aircraft that emerged from the British Hawker company and is still flying today – the iconic Harrier Jump Jet.

From 1957, in collaboration with the Bristol Engine Company which was developing a directable fan jet called the Pegasus, Hawkers began to design and build a revolutionary aircraft under the project name P.1127. Having looked to fulfil a NATO requirement, and gained much interest and some funding, this project eventually evolved into the Kestrel programme, attracting support from Germany and the USA.

The requirement persisted for a military jet capable of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) for battlefield ground attack. To improve take-off load capability, the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL or V/ STOL) configuration was recognised, and it became the normal mode of operation.

Prototype demonstrations at dispersed and unprepared sites proved the concept, as did landing on board various Royal Navy ships. The Royal Air Force placed an order for the Harrier GR1 in 1965, and so started over fifty years of Harrier STOVL operations.

The US Marine Corps was also a very early admirer of the aircraft and, knowing that it would fulfil its needs, placed an order for the AV-8A version; it was quite exceptional for the US to buy overseas. Shared arrangements between British Aerospace, Lockheed Martin and Rolls Royce strongly influenced the further development of the basic aircraft, ultimately arriving at the Harrier II standard (AV-8B and GR7/9).

A new concept in fleet defence

F-35B taking off from HMS Queen Elizabeth
An F-35B, today’s successor to the Sea Harrier, taking off from HMS Queen Elizabeth. Photo: Crown Copyright

The UK government’s 1968 decision to withdraw its influence east of Suez had already caused the cancellation of the replacement of the Royal Navy’s conventional aircraft carriers. Then, when HMS Ark Royal and her Phantoms and Buccaneers were withdrawn in 1978, the Royal Navy was left without any seaborne air protection whatsoever. The capabilities of the Harrier had not gone unnoticed, however, and the decision was made to procure a naval fighter version suitably configured for fleet defence. This became the renowned Sea Harrier, which, with the new Through Deck Cruisers, reintroduced strike carrier aviation back into the fleet in 1980.

HMS Invincible, with her sister ships Illustrious and the new Ark Royal, formed the basis of carrier aviation for the Royal Navy until 2014. With their ski-jump flight decks – another stunning Royal Navy carrier innovation to improve the Sea Harrier STOVL capability – they arrived at an opportune moment. In 1982, the 26 Sea Harrier FRS1s embarked in HMS Invincible and the converted HMS Hermes proved themselves exceptionally well during the Falklands War, providing air defence cover and outstanding success against the numerically superior Argentinian air forces. Together with the RAF Harrier GR3s covering ground attack, the Sea Harriers operating from light carriers were game-changing, and might even have exceeded the capabilities of conventional carrier-borne aircraft operating in the rough seas and poor weather experienced at the time. The Sea Harrier, the last all-British fighter, was retired in 2006, together with all UK Harriers by 2011.

The Harrier’s legacy

A true symbol of great British ingenuity and engineering skills, the legacy of the Harrier lives on in the revolutionary supersonic STOVL F-35B Lightning II. This fifth-generation jet, capable of a performance only dreamed of previously, is entering service with the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. Together with the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, with their ski-jump flight decks specifically configured for the benefit of STOVL aircraft, the UK will once again possess a world class carrier aviation force capable of deploying strategic influence wherever it is required.

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