Flying & Fighting in the Harrier: RAF pilot interview

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Prior to flying the F-35B Lightning IIRAF Wing Commander James Schofield flew and fought in RAF Harriers. We interviewed him to find out more about mastering the immortal jump-jet. 

What were your first impressions of the Harrier?

Coming from the Hawk T.1 with its analogue dials and navigating by map and stopwatch, its one type of takeoff and three types of landing (normal, flapless and glide), on arriving at the Operational Conversion Unit in 2000 reading the Harrier GR.7 groundschool notes gave a good impression of the step increase in capability ahead! The systems included a GPS/INS, frequency-agile radios, colour moving map, Zeus electronic warfare (EW) system and infra-red camera both integrated into the head-up display, angle-rate bombing system with a TV/laser tracker… Then there were rockets, freefall bombs, retarded bombs, cluster bombs, practice bombs, laser guided bombs, infra-red guided Maverick missiles, Sidewinder air-to-air missiles… The laser could come from your aircraft (via the TIALD targeting pod), a wingman or a chap on the ground. There were manual releases, computed impact point releases, automatic releases, toss/loft releases. There was visual targeting, GPS/INS targeting, TV targeting, laser targeting. Also chaff, flares, night vision goggles. A lot to read up on!

 

 But before you got to play with much of that you had to learn how to take off (conventional, short, strip, creeping vertical or vertical) and land (conventional, fixed-throttle variable-nozzle, slow, rolling vertical, creeping vertical, vertical). Additional variables were the use of auto flap or STOL flap, and the use of water injection to augment the thrust. You could land on normal runways, roads, grass, on perforated steel planking runways and aircraft carriers. Each of those combinations had a prescribed technique, often complicated and challenging, that you strayed from at your peril. Before every flight you put the aircraft tail number, temperature, pressure and stores configuration into a computer and it told you what nozzle angle to use for whichever flavour of takeoff you were going to attempt, and how much fuel/water you could hover or try a rolling vertical landing with.

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 Key indicators to watch like a hawk in order to make it to the bar that evening without an ejection and a trip to hospital were: the velocity vector in the HUD which became an inertial vertical speed indicator in the hover (watch out for any unwanted descent!), the “Billy Whizz” hexagon diagram in the HUD telling you how close you were to the most limiting engine parameter (be it RPM, jet pipe temperature or the non-dimensional fan speed), and the unique wind vane in front of the cockpit that enabled you to minimise potentially fatal crosswinds. Oh, and a vibrating rudder pedal that you had to stamp on at your soonest convenience if you ignored the vane.

 

Every aircraft has its challenges/foibles but I remember getting the books out and thinking “bugger me, there’s a lot here”! Looking back on it now, there was an awful lot to not get wrong but at the time we flew daily which made a big difference. I remember feeling rusty on a Monday morning having had a weekend off!

 There were also a fearsome array of limitations to remember, both engine and airframe, which varied depending on aircraft build standard, load-out and speed.

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Memories of flying the beast will always stay with me. A fantastic view from that big bubble canopy, a neat and well-laid out cockpit, on the ground the impingement of the jet efflux on the tailplane making it tremble like an attack dog straining to be released, massive air intakes right next to you with a loud whine at full power, brutal acceleration during takeoff, a very responsive aircraft to fly, a strange rumble at idle power as air spilled from those intakes, the laws of physics overpowering common sense as you decelerated towards the hover between swaying trees over some nondescript field in Rutland, cows looking on curiously, your throttle hand advancing all the time as wing lift receded, in your multi-million pound jet fighter. Halcyon days.

 I don’t think I was alone, however, in spending most of each flight worrying about the landing – something the Harrier and the Pitts Special sports biplane have in common!” 

 What is the hardest thing about flying the Harrier? 

 “Not screwing up in the VSTOL regime.”

 What was your most memorable Harrier mission or flight? 

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There were hundreds of memorable moments, but Ill pick my first takeoff from an aircraft carrier. You read the notes, youre talked through the procedures by an instructor, then you walk out to the aircraft, fire her up and line up on the deck. Although the ski jump is only at an angle of 12 degrees, it looks like a vertical wall in front of you! Up to full power, release the brakes only when the tyres start to skid and youre off. Screaming down the deck towards the ramp wondering idly if this is actually going to work or whether its all an incredibly elaborate wind-up! Up the ramp, lower the nozzles at the top, and youre airborne. Ease the nozzles aft. Huh, it worked. Time to start worrying about the landing a mere hour away…

Rate the Harrier in the following:

A. Instantaneous turn rate.

“Good, particularly with Vectoring In Forward Flight (VIFF).”

B. Sustained turn rate.

“OK at low level, not much good at medium level.”

C. Climb rate.

“With a thrust to weight ratio of greater than 1:1 it went up very nicely!”

D. High AoA performance.

“Although there were no AoA limits in the earlier aircraft with small LERX (leading edge root extensions) – just handling limits, it wasn’t built for large angles. The larger LERX came with a 24 AoA limit so couldn’t quite match a Hornet (60 AoA) in a nose-pointing contest!”

E. Acceleration.

“Eye-watering going down the runway, disappointing at high speed (all that drag…).”

 Did you fly the Harrier in combat? How combat effective was the type? 

 “Yes, over Iraq in 2003. It was very effective; flexible basing options, lots of hardpoints, a good all-rounder. Obviously combat missions come in a range of exciting flavours. In 2003 over Iraq ours involved both close air support (CAS) and strike missions. 

The background to all of this starts back in the UK where we had the luxury of an extensive pre-deployment training period. This was interspersed with intelligence briefs so you’d know what the enemy order of battle was, location of units and so on. We were also very focused on understanding how all of the extra gear worked in the various pockets our jackets were festooned with – mostly survival gear – and what the plans were for egressing on foot if we had to.

In theatre, you’d have regular intelligence briefs to keep abreast of what was always a fluid situation on the ground. On the day, you’d have a weather brief and would then be allocated a piece of sky to hold in and wait for tasking (for CAS) or you’d be given target details (for strike). Significant planning was required to understand what was expected of us, particularly critical given that there would be myriad other air and ground assets in the area, all with their own missions. It was always obvious that we were just one part of a much larger war effort.

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The missions themselves were fairly tense at the start of hostilities as each side assessed what was being brought to bear against them. As things progressed it was easier to get into a rhythm, whilst always trying to guard against complacency. There’s nothing like getting shot at over barren, hostile territory to focus the mind back on the task at hand! It’s difficult to convey how stressful releasing live ordnance over a battlefield is, particularly with CAS where friendlies are often perilously close. One incorrectly typed digit, or the slightest ambiguity on the radio leading to misidentification of the target area, could lead to disaster. Clearly, there were well-honed procedures to mitigate against these risks but when the chap on the ground is shouting at you to get the bomb off because he’s under attack – you need to be disciplined under pressure.

There’s always a sense of relief after a mission, but it may not be long until you’re off again…” 

 Are there any things a Harrier can do that a F-35B can’t? 

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 “Not many – bow in the hover; operate from a grass runway; punish the pilot for careless handling. That’s your lot!”

 Was the Harrier the most demanding aircraft you have flown?

 “It’s certainly in the top three; take the rolling vertical landing (RVL) for instance. You’re on final approach to a 1000 foot long strip at night in rain: fore and aft on the stick initially controls flightpath as you’d expect. You then move the nozzle lever to the hover stop to decelerate at which point you use the stick to control pitch attitude. At 50 knots groundspeed you select a lesser nozzle angle to stop decelerating and the stick then controls groundspeed. Just prior to touchdown it reverts to pitch attitude. So four control strategies with just one of the three hand controllers (stick, throttle, nozzle lever) in under 30 seconds while trying to execute a precise landing with little margin for error – lots of armchair flying required for that one!

 The up-and-away handling was occasionally a little tricky too. During an air-to-air refuelling test flight in a very aft CG configuration I was working so hard just to put the probe in the basket I lost the power of speech! Requiring full back stick around finals was common in the two-seater; if the nose carried on dropping the only way out was to add power, which was somewhat counter-intuitive.

 It would potentially depart from controlled flight due to intake momentum drag if you let sideslip build up during the transition to or from the hover, with fatal consequences – hence the wind vane in front of the cockpit, and rudder pedal shakers if you didn’t notice the vane!

 High speed departures were also not unheard of and could be violent, particularly if you exceeded the lateral stick limits and/or reversed the roll rate rapidly.

 Flying at low level at night also had its moments, and no one enjoyed landing on the carrier at night!”

 What were the best and worst things about the Harrier?

 “The best things were its V/STOL capabilities and its ability to reliably project air power for a reasonable cost; it was ultimately a relatively simple aircraft which kept costs down and reliability up.

 The worst things were the unforgiving handling (however, the satisfaction of successfully operating a challenging aircraft was half the appeal) and the V/STOL design compromises meaning we always got whooped during air combat training by F-15s / F-16s / F/A-18s.”

 What equipment/weapons or sensors would have you liked to have seen added to the Harrier? 

 

 Easy – radar and AMRAAM. Having some Harrier II+ configured aircraft would have been fantastic.

 What is the biggest myth about the aircraft? 

 “That the whining doesn’t stop when you turn off the engine! (The joke being that Harrier pilots whinge incessantly. I mean, have you ever met an F.3 pilot??)”

 Is STOVL (short take-off and vertical landing) a good idea?

 “If you’re confident that any conventional runways you may operate from – either at home or at a forward operating base – are invulnerable then you don’t need it. I would opine that such a stance would be foolhardy. Also, stopping then landing on a carrier will always be easier and cheaper than landing then stopping (acknowledging that this leads to design compromises, e.g. a single engine, large intakes or a lift fan).”

 Was the absence of cannon and radar problematic? 

 “The lack of radar did get you looking out of the window a lot, and building a mental picture of the tactical situation from radio transmissions was a cherished skill. At times you did feel like you were stumbling around in the dark – the absolute opposite of the level of situational awareness that today’s F-35 brings. At least we had a very good EW system, the display for which was in the HUD, to let you know who was looking at you and from what angle.

 As for the gun, it’s always nice to have a cheap forward-firing weapon but the attempts to fit a 25mm derivative of the Aden cannon failed and, anecdotally, at that point there was no money to buy the GAU-12 5-barrel cannon (drool).”

 What advice would you give to Harrier pilots? 

 “To any US Marine Corps, Italian Navy or Spanish Navy Harrier pilots; I envy you – enjoy it while it lasts!

Which three words would you use to describe the Harrier? 

 Best. Of. British. (Harrier GR.3 / FA.2)

Revolutionary, legendary, challenging!

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Do you think the British got rid of their fleet too early? And what do you think about what happened to the air frames? 

 “Absolutely, but as I understand it the MoD had to save a load of money and they couldn’t bin the Tornado GR.4 due to its unique (at the time) ability to carry Storm Shadow. We’d have much rather seen the airframes continue to fly than mothballed and used for spares, but the GR.9 was so different from the USMC’s aircraft that they would effectively have had two fleets, which wouldn’t have been a practical proposition.”

 What should I have asked you? 

“F-35 or Harrier? F-35 for everything bar the satisfaction of mastering the handling challenge of the Harrier.

 

Would Vectoring in Forward Flight (VIFFing) have been useful in a dogfight? 

“Using a smidge of nozzle at higher speeds was a valid proposition to gain a little more turn performance. Using a lot of nozzle at lower speeds gave a marked increase in turn rate, but physics being what it is the side-effect was a large reduction in energy which left you a sitting duck if your attempt to snap the nose around for a missile shot failed. I usually found that VIFFing worked quite well when pulling down from the vertical – people weren’t expecting a Hornet-like ability to nose-point – but if I was fighting in the horizontal the nozzle lever often led to disappointment! Putting the nozzles all the way forward in a “Braking Stop Spiral” manoeuvre meant you could descend vertically at a ridiculously low speed and often opponents couldn’t stay behind you. But you had to leave plenty of height to recover…”

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 How good was the GR9 at the time of its retirement? 

 “As with most aircraft when they’re retired, it had never been better and had an amazing future ahead of it! I started flying the GR.7 in 2000 and the GR.9/9A was retired in early 2011; by then it had been fitted with a larger engine (GR.9A) and some truly cutting-edge avionics, sensors and weapons: the excellent Sniper targeting pod, the TIEC datalink which went some way to offsetting the lack of radar, the Paveway 4 GPS/laser bomb with which we could simultaneously release six bombs against six different targets through cloud, the Brimstone anti-armour weapon, the ASRAAM air-to-air missile, encrypted radios…such a shame it went before its time.”

With which units did you fly the Harrier and what was your rank? 

 “I served on No 3 (Fighter) Squadron (2000-2003) at RAF Cottesmore, and the Fast Jet Test Squadron (2005-2006) at MoD Boscombe Down, both as a Flight Lieutenant.

(I joined the RAF in 1996 as a Pilot Officer and left as a Wing Commander in 2016.)”

Tell me something I don’t know about the Harrier 

“Flying through hail would smash the EW “tusk” fairings under the nose. Ask me how I know…” 

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