I flew Sea Harriers for the Indian Navy

The Sea Harrier served the Indian Navy until 2016. We spoke to Commodore Jaideep Avinash Maolankar (retired) to find out more about this unique British fighter-bomber.

Describe the Sea Harrier in 3 words

Can I use three phrases instead?

Feral yet refined (think Lord Greystoke/Tarzan)

Separated the men from the boys (wink-wink “Harrier Boys”).

No respect for seniority, only for skill and wakefulness

Flying the Sea Harrier

Is the Sea Harrier harder to fly (and land / take off) than other types?

By the time the  Sea Harrier came around,  it had already accumulated over twenty years of iterative evolution from the original P1127.   Combined with Hawker’s impeccable flight control pedigree (think Seahawk/Hunter), the recipe made for a superb ‘conventional’ aircraft with a huge array of unconventional possibilities. All unique flight characteristics of the Harrier family could be traced directly to its VSTOL design features – very high T/W, vectoring thrust, reaction controls and high wing loading.  Often these created adverse side effects, but always made for exciting flying. 

Up & Away         

When flown conventionally she handled just superbly – great harmony, terrific roll acceleration etc. I would go so far as to say – like a very high T/W Hunter. Although, to be honest, some of the V/STOL-mandated design features had interesting knock-on effects, not readily apparent to the naked eye. 

The mid-fuselage location of the Pegasus engine meant that the tailplane was always deeply immersed in its jet wake. That made for near-neutral speed stability if the engine was spooled up (seen as virtually no pitch trim changes with speed).  The good – no need to remember to retrim specifically for A/G weapons release after an ACM scrimmage. The not so good – it made her very easy to overstress.  Lacking any pitch control gearing mechanism and only a ‘g’ feel bobweight, stick loads remained light until after the g had built up.  Only those who hit upon “Smooth onset of g / flying with one’s wrist/elbow on the thigh” could maintain an overstress-free record. And oh yes, one had to remember to fly with the flaps partially deflected throughout! – except when extending/trying to accel – and then remember to put them back down before turning, else overstressing just became that much easier!  

Conversely, much of this speed agnostic ‘equilibrium’ disappeared with a change of power setting, especially if one throttled right back. Not surprisingly, coaxing precision flying out of the beast meant absolutely avoiding power changes.  The key to a happy instrument rating test was thus to set the power for each manoeuvre in one big plug (hence necessarily from memory) as opposed to small continuous incremental changes advocated by purists. The relevant cheat code was obviously to set the smallest possible increment one could get away with, ride out the initial boorish response and then finesse the manoeuvre. That would often leave the examiner tut-tutting about “your lack of hormones” while grudgingly admitting that the “height/speed variations were within standards”.  Not without reason was the briefing guide titled “IRT without Tears”.

An existential need to hover efficiently over a wide range of fuel states/external stores drove the designers to minimise thrust wasted on trimming.  The serendipitous discovery of VIFF also demanded controlled pitch effects when vectoring thrust.  All this meant that the engine’s thrust vector had to always pass through or close to the aircraft’s c.g. at all deflection angles.  Hence the thoroughbred Pegasus incorporated a surprising range of engineering tweaks to keep the thrust centre invariant across the vectoring range.  Alongside, the whole Harrier family’s core DNA sought to maintain its c.g. nearly invariant across the full range of configs and fuel states.  A simple/elegant fuel transfer sequence and deliberate alignment of all store pylons made the aircraft behave extremely consistently.  As a result, there were few if any flight manual handling entries unique to individual configurations.   

When completely wing-borne, the high wing loading gave it a Starfighter/MiG-21-like demeanour.  The high T/W, a near-delta planform (look again, it’s not that far off!) and powerful pitch control flight over authority offered a wide range of angles of attack, with retention of control down to very low speeds (even without the benefit of reaction controls).  In fact, controlled flight was possible at speeds low enough for some of the more exotic forces to manifest themselves.  Rare is the ‘conventional’ fighter pilot who cares about gyroscopics and show me one other pilot strain that has even heard of  ‘intake momentum drag yaw’

At low speeds, she was quite happy to fly to any angle of attack so long as you didn’t let her “slot” (sit with a fixed sideslip angle).  A good SHAR bobby, with a lively pair of feet working autonomically (I use that word with precision!) driving the sideslip vane up front, could easily find himself scissoring at 100 KIAS!  Any unwanted gyroscopics were fortunately taken care of by the Pegasus’ contra-rotating spools. 

Unfortunately, at higher Machs, a really strong wing rock dramatically limited the usable AoA.  Snapping the stick back at high speeds could thus lead to indescribable manoeuvres, apart from overstress.

The absence of reheat meant there was no dramatic penalty by way of heat signature or fuel consumption at combat power ratings.  Hence one could use Combat power for ACM with abandon, even against all-aspect IR missiles.  Or for that matter even ignore the fuel gauge – the other guy would invariably call ‘Bingo’ first!

F-14 versus F-15 here


The ability to combine jet-borne and wing-borne lift in virtually any ratio meant it could perform an essentially limitless variety of takeoffs/launches and landings.  Besides the obvious effect on takeoff/landing speed, she changed character quite significantly according to which element was preponderant. The weird undercarriage layout imposed another unique constraint – all landings/takeoffs had to be flown in a fixed pitch attitude throughout -‘Four Square’ in QFI speak (used to be a popular cigarette brand in the 80’s)!  This was a weird world, unique to the Harrier family and made for rather interesting flying. 

The launch involved probably the fiercest acceleration any pilot could ask for – with longitudinal acceleration somewhere between 0.6 and 1.1g. The standard ‘Short Take-Off’ required rotating the nozzles coupled with a perfectly timed and entirely instinctive pitch correction that was coarse in any language. Done properly, to quote one of my anglophile instructors, she would “leap enthusiastically into the air!”  Attempting to unstick by the obvious artifice of pulling back on the stick (as in a conventional take-off) led to an exceedingly ugly bounder.  Only to be expected once you notice that the outriggers were visibly abaft the main leg and would obstinately resist any attempt at nose-up rotation or handsome departure.  Many years later, deja-vu said “you should’ve known this” during just such an ugly takeoff  – on the first flight of the LCA (Navy), but that’s a story for another day.  Lateral handling on the ground was superb though – a very innovative slider linkage in the NWS offered Formula-1 car level steering. 

The stock landing used 60° nozzle resulting in about equal amounts of wing and jet-borne lift.  As speeds were reduced on the approach, with progressively increasing nozzle deflection, the aircraft had to be flown using the classic “Power for slope – Stick for AoA” technique – to that one would have add “Rudder to keep her from going wherever she wanted!”  Per a vocabulary that I acquired only many years later, she was quite “decoupled” – significant attitude changes could be made with minimal effect on the flight path and vice versa!

Counter-intuitively, most VSTOL work was done with nose-down pitch trim settings! At the slower end, one could almost hit the forward stop.  I remember thinking, for my very first simulator check ride, that “nose-down” couldn’t be correct, the QFI must’ve meant “nose-up 5°”; the ensuing wild pitch-up is seared in my memory!  Conversely, during a “conventional” landing, one could just as easily find oneself running out of stick, bumping against the ejection seat-pan handle! Harrier tribal knowledge of powering one’s way out of this fix, rather than merely hoping for more stick, helped me avoid a Jaguar mess one other day (she wouldn’t flare due to a mismanaged fuel sequence – Don’t even get me started about that particular example of British design!)

The most magical of all landings would have to be the “Nozzly” or “Fixed Throttle Slow Landing”.  Freeze the power at whatever was available and then manage one’s speed purely by the use of nozzles.  Of course, all changes in flight path would be achieved much more slowly.  But, for anybody who loves just really flying the thing,  just incredibly satisfying.  Pretty useful too for nursing a sick bird home after having flown through a flock of birds; or a surge in an air test!

Through all these weird combinations of wing/thrust-borne flight, the one thing that never failed to impress as one slowed down, was the seamless transition from aerodynamic to reaction controls.  An incredible piece of British design as it should be! 

Naturally, with the range of such quirks, there were few, if any, fence-sitters amongst those who flew her.  Whilst the saner ones struggled to analyse their way out of trouble, the weirdos revelled in her brutishness.  At least in the Indian Navy, pilots were ‘naturally selected’ to fly the SHAR (as theorised by one C. R. Darwin, M.A.),  on the basis of skill levels demonstrated in prior training.  Unfortunately, many of the techniques emphasised on more conventional aircraft as ‘good habits’ were of little use to the Harrier.  Hence, anyone unwilling to abandon their hard-won “skills” would struggle to make the shift, cursed by their prior success.  And there were plenty of those good sticks who couldn’t reconcile with the beast, with those converting onto the Harrier too late in life tending to suffer the most.  Again, exactly as postulated by the Rt. Hon. Gentleman himself.   

Have you flown DACT from the Sea Harrier, if so which types and how did it go?

Being the only ‘fighter’ child in the Indian Navy meant that DACT was essentially limited to the big sky-blue bruisers who lived up North.  Therefore all the DACT stories are framed by the Air Force-Navy culture wars that Sharkey Ward has set to music so profusely!  In a hilariously macabre twist worthy of Hawkeye Pierce’s personal scriptwriter, we were deemed too ‘dangerous’ (Maverick #1 style) to be allowed DACT with anyone other than the IAF’s Top Guns at TACDE.  Far from complaining, these proved to be terribly fruitful sessions, both ways I dare say.  Inevitably, each phase would begin with the stated aim of teaching the Harrier hill-billys the art of manoeuvre against the ‘superior’ performance of a MiG-21.  A few turns,  zooms and reversals later this would transition to a more egalitarian “Sport of Kings’.  True learning would then ensue amidst much more appropriate bonhomie. 

Even after one got past the sky-blue tinted lenses, the Sea Harrier DACT experience could be largely described as the swagger of the unwary ‘conventional’ knight, scornfully appraising a strange misshapen beast he viewed as beneath his station.  While the discerning could sense the rhino-like energy beneath a stubbornly subsonic Dad-body, few if any appreciated Taylor-Scott’s superb weapon-sensor-ergonomic integration hidden in the cockpit.  The sheer simplicity of a two-command “Accept-Reject” style UI is something that I have hoped to recreate in all my cockpit work ever since.  Hence, even the legacy (non-upgraded) SHAR, brought to bear an advanced weapon system centred around the Magic-2 missile.  I suspect the Falklands performance with the 9-Lima had a lot to do with that very elegance.       

And then, in its incorrigible desire to be different,  the SHAR upended even the no-brainer thumb rules of air combat – clean up, jettison stores etc..

Most SHAR pilots preferred to fight with the appropriately named Combat Tanks installed as the aircraft seemed to actually handle better and with little discernible loss of performance.  I had actually resolved to understand this anomaly, via a full Test-pilot style study, during my squadron command tenure; the full 22 yards –  flight manual comparisons, stab & control flight evaluations, comparative performance tests etc. But as with all good resolutions….  Whatever the reasons, it allowed one to gain moral ascendancy as each DACT rodeo progressed; by retaining drop tanks while the opposing DACTees inevitably slicked-up their jets in an attempt to restore the natural order of things. 

 The Hush-Kit Book of Warplanes, is a gorgeous heavily illustrated – and often irreverent- coffee-table book covering the history of military aviation 1914 – the present.

To this day I feel pretty smug about having gotten away with the final LUSH kit configuration.  I mean disguising a really smart datalink as an ACMI debrief tool under the gobbledygook acronym of CMMFR deserves some kind of an award. “

Similarly, the mandated config of Flaps to Mid (rather than fully up) being preferred for air combat was equally inviting of inquiry.  For the purists, Mid after having selected fully Up, not Mid from fully Down. While this was more directly understandable, I still wonder how Hawker-Siddeley Aviation got past the Procurement Executive with this heresy!  If one was a glutton for workload, useful advantage could be gained by timely retraction for acceleration and back to mid for manoeuvre.   

Conversely, the highly anticipated ‘difference’ that rarely materialised was the use of nozzles for manoeuvre.  Although dutifully trained per a syllabus of ‘bite’ turns and VIFF, surprisingly few SHAR pilots learned to extract significant combat advantage from the nozzles.  The core problem was of course the loss of performance accompanying every short-lived manoeuvre enhancement.  Exaggerated nozzle vectoring as a one-shot measure did obviously have its benefits but most pilots needed significant goading to employ this tactic during actual air combat situations.  An extensive campaign we ran in-house, with dedicated setups necessitating a healthy usage of nozzles, did convince most pilots of the benefits but that nagging feeling of loosening of control remained disconcerting to many.  Paul Tremelling has done a lot more justice to this aspect of VIFF on the SHAR in his various writings.

The last ‘myth’ – ability to manoeuvre at very low speeds due to its reaction controls – was just that, a myth.  Additional control power was potentially available by deflecting nozzles beyond the 16° (?? – my memory fails me) needed to activate the reaction controls.  For one, it wasn’t really necessary as the aerodynamic controls remained quite powerful.  On the other hand, it was often an actual nuisance.  One couldn’t keep the nozzles deflected permanently and the alternating addition/subtraction of control power with intermittent use was more distracting than useful. 

As the novelty of the SHAR wore off for the Air Force, we were of course allowed some DACT with other types (disclaimer – my operational tenure was solely on the non-upgraded SHAR).  One mission that sticks in the memory is of a radar-silent interception of a Mirage 2000 jammer pair, because it embodied some very Harriery (is that an adjective?) attributes.  For background, the pair were supposed to provide Stand-off screening to another ‘Strike’ pair attempting to molest our ‘Mother’ (Those who know, know.  Those who don’t, well good luck!).  Quixotically, the old Blue Fox would dutifully continue to scan the skies even when it was silenced.  As the Jammer pair were triggered into responding by the ships’ radars, a jamming strobe dutifully lit up on the SHAR CAP’s radar scope.  Demanding ‘lock’ on this strobe yielded the extremely useful attribute of accurate angles-only tracking along with the vital ‘target cross’ on the HUD.   The naked man’s eye, aided unfairly thus, achieved an absurdly long-range visual ‘Tally’.  One peek is worth a thousand radar sweeps later, a mildly aggressive pull down through the blind spot above every fighter pilot’s helmet ended up with the SHARs in the saddle, just begging for a photo for bragging rights.  Not via the sh!##~ 16 mm HUD camera, but the more professional 70 mm film of the F95.  For the uninitiated, this was the side/slightly downward-looking camera intended for photo recce.  To capture an aircraft in the frame, one had to come up abreast and above (or level but banking away).  To all appearances, this position was indistinguishable from an unsighted pilot narrowly escaping a mid-air collision!  Much recrimination and name-calling on the R/T followed, exacerbated by disbelief based on our radar silence and the irritation of blue-bloods having to tangle with street urchins.  Eventually, this was only settled in the debrief with the flourish of some perfectly framed F95 images!   A true embodiment, if any, of the classic EW proverb that a grizzled old Israeli colonel had tried gamely to drum into my head – “One man’s jammer is another man’s transponder – the methods are the same – the difference lies only in the context”. 

  • The best DACT sessions, by far, were the annual Varuna series of exercises with the French Navy’s Lascars!  But more on that later.    Sea Harrier Equipment

Was the Sea Harrier lacking any important equipment when you flew it? Almost unanimously, most pilots would say, an autopilot.  Especially since every cockpit carried a few redundant gauges implying that one had been intended.  I remember discovering in later years the reason why it wasn’t added – something about the control authority that could be safely handled in hard-over failure cases being inadequate and vice versa.  And even while understanding that rationale as a Test Pilot, I still believe that it could’ve been done with the prevalent tech had it been wanted badly enough. I know in my heart that it would’ve saved several pilots, besides making a ‘night’ in the office, especially afloat, pretty much just another day’s work!

NOTE FROM EDITOR: In reply to the autopilot comment above I received the following email:

“I never thought I’d get to correct an Indian Commodore, but there you go. Not a lot of people know this and very, very few care – but I wrote the Safety Case for the SHAR Autopilot, so I surmise the reason that Commodore Maolankar didn’t get to use autopilot was financial, not technical…

The way it worked was this. The SHAR autopilot was connected to the Inertial Platform in the jet. Contrary to Cdr M’s comments, it actually had very low authority, around 10% of full deflection, so it wasn’t going to break the jet. (Actually, and even less interestingly, it had full authority in the pitch axis, but only at the speed of the trim, so again, it wasn’t going to break the jet.) 

However… the IN platform was simplex, and rather fallible. So the scenario that I pointed out might be problematic was not some big violent jerking failure, but a slow insidious drift that wouldn’t get the pilot’s attention. Imagine – top of climb, into cloud, select autopilot, attend to some high-workload switchery, platform quietly wanders off by itself and drags the autopilot along with it at 1.05g, only clue before the enormous splash being that the wind noise would have increased. 

This was problematic to the OEM and to Boscombe Down. The discipline of System Safety had been invented along time after the Harrier, and was being inflicted on it in retrospect. We all know the basic design was solidly happy with its compromises – the IN wasn’t going to get tripled (doubled doesn’t help – one fails but you don’t know which one.) But everyone needed a clearance and the autopilot would of course actually be helpful to workload. 

The clearance, therefore, was for use of autopilot “with frequent cross-referencing to the flight instruments.” 

A task that was supposed to be a forty-hour job for the New Boy (me) turned into a 250-hour monster with multiple tedious meetings with Boscombe who could never remember what it was they had agreed to last month. That money wasn’t spent on making anyone any safer, the OEM wasn’t making more money and no-one was having fun. They weren’t ungrateful for me spotting something no-one else had worried about, but, you know. Also it seemed to me that an autopilot that required cross-referencing was intellectually bankrupt (how pompous of me, but not totally stupid; and since then I’ve learned that pilots would have kept a wary eye on things as a matter of course, never mind my little line deep in the manual.) So I didn’t last long in Engineering but used my Russian language skills within the same organisation to go do fun things like an airline for Kazakhstan and ultimately, the roaring success that was NATO upgrades to Mi 24s for Eastern European nations. The GEC Marconi jackboot and FCPA sent me on my way after almost fifteen years of fun, and I now work as an Aerospace Subject Matter Expert at a major management consultancy. 

So I suspect the Indian Navy chose not to pay for autopilot as a costed option – they were famously stingy, and the OEM wasn’t necessarily keen to give “additional capability” (hah !) away. 

My opposite number back in the day used to go off to Lancashire occasionally to tackle System Safety for Nimrod. Given the tragedy that ended in, I do wonder what stories he might have to tell. – Ian Ferguson”

Now back to Mao…

Was there any kit you would have liked to have seen added? The Varuna series of Indo-French naval exercises included, from the year 2002 onwards, a serious air group element.  That was the first time we were allowed to play well outside our league.  Imagine a two SHAR CAP trying to work around a Rafale fighter sweep while attempting to poach a multi-SuE strike, overall backed up by an E2C.  And multiple repeats of the same!  These came as a well-deserved yet refreshing cultural shock – imagine having one’s headquarters-approved draft of rules of combat being brusquely dismissed during the planning conference as “what you’re proposing isn’t air combat, just fly swatting”!   Certainly helped to kick off a much deeper understanding of BVR combat (particularly in the at-sea context) and an overall revolution in exercise realism. 

It was this series of exercises that germinated the kernel of the LUSH configuration.  While Naval HQ was keenly pushing for integration of the Derby BVR missile on the SHAR, the blinkers were clearly on – a dead giveaway was the very name of the project – Limited Upgrade of Sea Harrier! But the deeply imbibed lessons from the Ex-Varuna DACT clearly showed that besides the obligatory radar upgrade, meaningful capability would only be achieved if it included a deeply integrated datalink and a host of features/applications riding on this infrastructure!   Having been deeply imbued with the “White Tigers” ethos of “if anything goes wrong, you are most likely to be Exhibit ‘A’.  Or if you’re particularly lucky, then Witness no 1.  Hence if you aren’t willing to accept No for an answer – don’t ask for permission”.    Or as Dan Wieden, of Nike fame, would put it – Just do It!  The result of all unavoidable subterfuge undertaken in the national interest was that we actually got just what we needed – while avoiding the very problems that bedevilled the F/A2 upgrade (new radome shape leading to engine surges, too heavy for tropical climes etc.). 

To this day I feel pretty smug about having gotten away with the final LUSH kit configuration.  I mean disguising a really smart datalink as an ACMI debrief tool under the gobbledygook acronym of CMMFR deserves some kind of an award.  But I also know that we missed a trick or two – I had thought true HOTAS with a new throttle grip incorporating all the radar controls would not have been possible, hence we remained mired in the old ‘one left hand three levers’ concerto (throttle, nozzle and radar hand-controller). And the really big miss was not utilising the underbelly gun mounts for an additional pair of BVR rails (a-la F/A2)!  Instead, we wasted our energies and money on a Derby/Magic twin rail clunker on the outboard pylons with entirely predictable disappointing results.

Was it the right choice for the Indian Navy?

It was a great choice for its time.  We needed to sustain an afloat air wing with affordable aircraft carriers and this was about the best we could have chosen.  The only problem is we didn’t go in the whole hog – if it’s worth doing in the first place then it’s worth overdoing it is a slogan that needs regular reminding.  We should have bought more than 23+4 to begin with, then supplemented that with an attrition buy (which never happened, okay just two beat-up trainers) and finally a mid-life upgrade (much earlier than we eventually did).

Was it a particularly dangerous aircraft to fly?

Yep.  Of course, the youthful mind rationalised it as “difficult” rather than “dangerous”.  Still, one was acutely aware that “the cold clammy hand of the Harrier never strayed very far from your family jewels”.  She remained terribly unforgiving of carelessness and made it a point to periodically remind even high-timing veterans that howsoever high and mighty you may be ….

Apart from the obvious VSTOL hazards, she seemed to be particularly prone to inducing disorientation.  The difficulties of instrument flying were exacerbated by an essentially circular HUD picture which seemed to be particularly seductive if kept at higher than the bare minimum brightness.   That lesson has meant that I have explored the lower end of many HUD brightness knobs on all manner of aircraft!  

What was the best thing about it?

Given the overall size of the aircraft and its 1960’s DNA, I now know that we have to thank John Farley for the absolutely wonderful SHAR cockpit.  The enhanced all-round visibility must have required serious engineering effort while Taylor-Scott’s work on the Cockpit ergonomics was just exceptional.  The utter elegance of a “Mode” selector followed by ‘Accept or Reject” as the core HOTAS controls allowed true multi-role exploitation with certainty and ease.  And just how good was the layout of the warning lights?  A simple array along the instrument panel coamings accommodated a surprising number of lights with no obstruction to external vision.  And had the effect of permitting intuitive appreciation of any light’s criticality as the vital ones were closer to the HUD and less critical ones further away.  In fact, given some experience, one could unerringly guess the specific nature of a warning through one’s peripheral vision, even without actually looking down to read the caption. 

And of course her unmistakable signature, the turbofan “whine”

….and the worst?

I basically flew the 2nd batch configuration, newly delivered just as I joined the White Tigers.  For the first decade or more, the aircraft, at least the single-seaters, were essentially bulletproof.  Just can’t remember any inflight emergencies and really very few snags.  Naturally, this could not be sustained in later years.  And that’s when one realised the cost incurred for housing such a big engine in the middle of such a small fuselage.  Nearly all major mechanicals were buried under the engine – hence this would have to be removed for most repairs.  To make matters worse, much of the electronics were in the bay aft of the engine with nearly all the related wiring routed to the cockpit through the single-piece wing.  Hence any repairs to thingamajigs below the engine, demanded the removal of firstly the wing, then the engine to access and when putting everything back one realised that nearly all systems had been disturbed due to the wing removal.  The overall maintenance workload was not sustainable once the aircraft started ageing.

The core of the aircraft’s capabilities revolved around the actual engine thrust available in installed condition and extremely rapid thrust modulation capability for VSTOL.  Given the complex hydro-mechanical engine fuel controls, these required careful setup to achieve a safe aircraft.  A&E check flights were therefore essentially a series of trial-and-error attempts at finding the correct settings.  Particularly fidgety was the Pressure Ratio limiter for high-altitude operations.  If one was sloppy, she just wouldn’t climb to ceiling; and if one overdid it, there was the obligatory pop-surge waiting.  I actually believed that one could judge the material state of a SHAR squadron simply by reading the air test records.  That’s in addition to the state of the canopies of course!

If a Sea Harrier faced an F-16 in a dogfight, how should the Sea Harrier pilot fight?

Boelcke Dicta!

Hard to spot?

She always was small, hence difficult to spot.  The original two-tone colour scheme of the 1st batch aircraft (Dark Sea Grey uppers and White underside) wasn’t particularly stealthy, at least for the role of interception of low-flying strike aircraft.  Besides being impossible to keep the white underbelly presentable, the dark grey stuck out as a black speck against the sky!  The 2nd batch of aircraft was delivered with light grey undersides.  But these were only slightly more presentable, yet equally inappropriately camouflaged. 


We undertook a complete revamp of the paint scheme in the last third of its life which made the aircraft light grey all over.  This was frighteningly effective even at surprisingly close ranges. The prototype of this modification used matt finish paint which very rapidly accumulated a ‘patina’!! rendering it even harder to spot.  Sadly this had to be reverted to a gloss finish for husbandry reasons.  Besides the overall colour change, this scheme also introduced a host of detail elements which I am still proud of.  Most of these were completely functional design elements intended to either enhance medium-close range camouflage also or aid inflight visual inspection of critical elements.  A few were simply to mask the inescapable grimy elbows and knees of a VSTOL bird.  And of course, how could one fail to include an odd flourish to emphasise the Tiger iconography, all while still serving a functional purpose?    

How well-armed was the Sea Harrier?

Fit for purpose for the absolute prime task of “Get the MR!”  Two Magics was more than enough.

A bit short of breath for the Alt-prime task of thwarting multi-directional attacks by ASM armed strike aircraft.  Two Magics just weren’t good enough.  Unfortunately, the Falklands lessons-learnt driven “Twin-Magic” config was just too ponderous for air combat while also being too heavy for a safe recovery in our tropical climes. Obviously, things became a lot better with the introduction of the Derby BVR AAM, but I never stood CAP or Condition 1 deck alert with that!  And the twin Derby/Magic combo, although very real, was even more of a work of fiction!

Unfortunately, the Sea Eagle was a bit of a damp squib.  Great on paper, but we really could never get it to work reliably. As young guns, we considered the anti-ship strike task a little grungy, especially the unguided weapons bits.  Besides unfavourable thrill quotient comparisons with air-to-air missions, the prospect of overflying angry ships didn’t sound too inspiring.  Although, I dare say we were damn good at it, having a deeply empathetic understanding of ships as only guys who have stood watches on deck can.  With age and a little exposure to the French carrier force with their investments in the un-sexy Super E, I realise we really missed a trick there.  A very short and twisted ‘counterfactuals’ mind game of ‘reductio ad absurdum’  or ‘exaggerate to see if it still makes sense’, would’ve made us see the light.  As the fleet aged and the air wing size shrank, the air defence task quickly became unachievable well before its anti-ship potential became irrelevant. In hindsight, if one had to choose just one, an air wing capable only of strike with anti-ship missiles would’ve probably served us better than a force solely capable of air-to-air.  But for that, we first need a doctrinal debate on “What is an Aircraft Carrier?  Why do we want one? Or two, or three!

Which weapons did you fire from the Sea Harrier and what was it like? What was it like firing the cannon? 

The whole range of unguided weapons in copious amounts.  The quantities fired really took a quantum leap once we convinced the Navy to stop counting weapons expended for air displays against our training quotas.  Honestly felt a bit like Milo Minderbender while justifying that policy change, as that was the Trojan horse for a similar justification regarding the flying hours permitted – so that the mindless hours of “ironing the air” didn’t count against pilot training!

During my front-line tenure I managed to fire one Magic-1 air-to-air missile.  Despite all the briefing, the surprising pull of the rocket motor before the detents let go was surpassed only by the speed of closure of the debris cloud after the missile hit its target.  Several years later, as part of the LUSH of course I made sure to corner most of the developmental Derby firings, claiming Test Pilot privilege.

The Aden cannons were pretty anti-climactic to fire.  Their belly installation ensured a much attenuated visceral feel to the actual firing. And the link ejection mechanism was always cranky, inevitably leading one to walk away with a few link strikes on the tailplane.  Actually they were much more fun to see from the outside.  Watching firing on the splash target towed astern the carrier is a fun way to spend a lazy afternoon.

Do you miss the Sea Harrier?

Well, I shed literal tears when I handed over command of the White Tigers, convinced that was the last time I would ever fly her.  And then had to do it all over again at the end of the LUSH upgrade program – but this time I knew it really was the end. 

So many little design details I admired about her are buried as easter eggs in the design of the LCA Tejas and even more so, the LCA (Navy).

In later years, I’ve pretty much scoured Amazon for the full range of Sea Harrier books.  Soaked up the wonderful hours upon hours of oral history in the Imperial War Museum’s absolutely amazing sound archives (Bill Bedford, John Farley, Sharkey Ward, Tim Gedge ….)

Come to think of it, a recent experience of just standing silently in the presence of a P1127/Kestrel mash-up at Cosford was the closest I’ve been to a spiritual rapture.

So, maybe I do miss the old girl a bit.

What was your most memorable experience on the Sea Harrier?

Without a doubt, the opportunity to give back to the fleet via the LUSH upgrade.  It was an exceptionally well-conceived and executed upgrade, even if I say so, undertaken without any involvement of the aircraft’s OEM! Essentially I was loaned to M/s Elta who were responsible for putting the whole kit together.  They, in turn, were smart enough to see this as an opportunity to stitch together a properly engineered weapon system that would be attractive to other customers too – as opposed to just trying to maximise profits off this single contract.  Thus they were open to a 1st principles approach to design of the upgrade, even if it led well beyond the letter of the contract. Not having to fight the prime contractor thus left me free to focus on the difficult task of flight testing the new equipment.  With neither, the Indian Navy nor M/s IAI (who were responsible for flight test) having deep design knowledge of the aircraft, we essentially ran a full analogy/regression based flight test programme.  The basic aircraft was first mapped over the full flight envelope and then a complete set of regression tests with the new configurations was used to check for anomalies.  The opportunity to see the whole programme through, from concept to proof firing, virtually single-handedly was just exactly what I needed to equip me to take on the LCA (Navy) programme.  The learning value of this programme was such that, despite my complete lack of conviction about the twin missile configurations, I chose to go through with it as a training ground for the next generation of Navy test pilots.  Essentially threw him into the deep end and said “you are welcome to join the LCA programme if you make it through!”  Of course, by then there were enough guardrails to the playpen, but I doubt I let him know that.

Besides LUSH, I would think the sheer bull-headedness required for night operations afloat was personality transforming.  Achieving the capability to launch into a dark blackness, and undertake a bunch of rough and tumble air interceptions good enough to qualify as operations-ready was by itself worth something.  And then being able to switch the brain to Zen mode constantly minimising errors and deviations while coming in for recovery.  Even one’s sweat smelt different after a Dark night recovery on a carrier.  Never mistook it for fun, but always knew that one was at the cutting edge of the Navy’s sword.

Tell me something I don’t know about the Sea Harrier

After 5000 words of rambling, I’m not sure there’s much left to surprise you with!

What should I have asked you? “How do you recognise a Sea Harrier driver?” – by his autonomic feet movements, hyperactive left hand, multi-disciplinary thinking and oversized but entirely justified ego!



  1. James Smith

    Fine article. Just leaving a nod here to the late Rod Fredericksen, who used to deliver Indian SHAR by air, all the way from Dunsfold to Goa. Lovely man, always cheerful, and a good friend.

  2. Jay

    The best article you’ve published in a while, thoroughly entertaining but also full of intriguing technical and historical detail.

  3. Pingback: ≫ Volé Sea Harriers para la Armada de la India

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