The end of an era

Dec 15 2010 - Leave a Comment

TodayH5396/10: Formation flying will take place
Q) EGTT/QWVLW/IV/M/W/000/030/5250N00010W040
FORMATION TRANSIT BY 16 MIL FAST JET ACFT ACFT. THE FORMATION WILL
FORM UP IN VCY OF 5239N 00033E (MARHAM AD) FROM 1305 HR AND THEN
ROUTE:
5239N 00033E (MARHAM AD) 1318 HR
5221N 00006W (WYTON AD) 1322 HR
5237N 00029W (WITTERING AD) 1326 HR
5239N 00029W (STAMFORD) 1327 HR
5302N 00029W (CRANWELL AD) 1401 HR
5310N 00031W (WADDINGTON AD) 1402 HR
5318N 00033W (SCAMPTON AD) 1404 HR
5306N 00010W (CONINGSBY AD) 1411 HR
5244N 00039W (COTTESMORE AD) 1415 HR
5240N 00044W (OAKHAM) 1416 HR
5244N 00039W (COTTESMORE AD) 1420 HR
THE FORMATION WILL REMAIN IN VCY OF 5244N 00039W (COTTESMORE AD)
UNTIL 1430 HR PRIOR TO LANDING.
15TH IS RESERVE DAY. TIMINGS, HGT AND ROUTE ARE APRX AND MAY CHANGE
DUE TO WX OR OTHER REQUIREMENTS. 10-12-0055/AS 1
LOWER: Surface, UPPER: 3,000 Feet AMSL
FROM: 14 Dec 2010 12:55 GMT TO: 15 Dec 2010 14:40 GMT
SCHEDULE: 1255-1440

The above NOTAM has a particular historical value. It provides the route flown during the rehearsal and final flight of the last Harrier GR9s belonging to the Joint Force Harrier. In fact, on Dec. 15, 2010, Cottesmore airbase launched a 16 ship formation that overflew various RAF stations and local towns, which have been associated with the Harrier over the last four decades to bid farewell to the famous STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) aircraft. Beginning today, the STOVL concept is history for UK’s RAF and RN that were due to continue operating the Harrier until at least 2018, when the Joint Force was to have transitioned to Lockheed Martin’s F-35B. However, the iconic jump jet was decommissioned after 41 years of service as part of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) to ensure the survival of a reduced number of Tornado GR.4s, a decision that, along with that of shifting to the carrier variant F-35C, was criticised by many because will leave UK without aircraft for its aircraft carriers, hence without maritime strike force, for at least a decade. The last flight on Dec. 15, was preceded by another historical flight on Nov. 24, 2010, when the HMS Ark Royal, the United Kingdom’s Flagship, facilitated the last ever launch of a Harrier GR9 from her deck at 09.00LT while sailing approximately 40 nautical miles off the coast of Newcastle. HMS Ark Royal is being decommissioned too under the SDSR with a considerable loss in British capabilities to project power and strike globally with an extremely versatile and flexible asset.

This is an excerpt from the RAF news release:

Harrier pilot Lieutenant Commander James Blackmore, the last pilot to ever launch a Harrier from the decks of HMS Ark Royal, said:
“This is a truly memorable day. We accept the decision to decommission both the Harrier and HMS Ark Royal; however, of course the final launch will be emotional. I have flown over 90 sorties off the Ship and combat sorties in Afghanistan, and the aircraft’s capability still astounds me. Landing an aircraft on a runway which is not in the same location as where you launched from gives exceptional flexibility.
I remember witnessing a Harrier in the hover when I was just 8 years old, since then I had wanted to do nothing else. I have flown Harriers for over 10 years, the training is complex and challenging but the added challenge and excitement of hovering a Harrier off the port side of HMS Ark Royal before landing vertically is an experience I will miss immensely.
I feel honoured and proud to be the last pilot to ever launch a Harrier jet from HMS Ark Royal.”
Deliberately keen to highlight the very Joint nature of Joint Force Harrier the last jet to recover in HMS Ark Royal was an 800 NAS jet piloted by a Royal Air Force officer, today the last jet to launch was a 1(Fighter) Squadron RAF jet piloted by a Royal Naval officer. Departing the Ship in one wave of four aircraft, the launch was led by Capt Mike Carty RM followed by: Lt Matt Fooks-Bale RN and Flt Lt Em Rickards before Lt Cdr James Blackmore’s historic final launch.
After the launch, the 4 aircraft conducted a 2 ship fly past, each squadron flying low past the port side of the Ship before conducting a final fighter exercise controlled by 849 NAS’ Seaking Mk7 helicopter, prior to returning to RAF Cottesmore.

Both the Harrier and HMS Ark Royal are due to leave the Service next year.
Reflecting on the Harrier and HMS Ark Royal, Captain Jerry Kyd, HMS Ark Royal’s Commanding Officer said:
“As the last Harriers lift off the deck of HMS Ark Royal for the final time it is with a real sense of pride that we remember the fantastic contribution they, and the carriers, have made to UK Defence around the world. The tremendous reception we received in Newcastle last weekend, where Ark Royal was built, reflects the very deep fondness for this iconic warship and her air group. Although we now look back on the significant achievements of the Harrier with immense pride and a tinge of sadness at our loss, we can now look forward to an exciting new chapter of Naval aviation as we continue the training for and procurement of the Joint Strike Fighter aircraft.
HMS Queen Elizabeth and her sister ship will enter service from 2015 and together with their helicopters and the Joint Strike Fighter, they will be a very powerful strategic asset able to project serious power anywhere in the world, delivering 21st Century Carrier Strike capability. Add to this the new Type 45 Destroyers, the forthcoming Type 26 frigate, the Astute class submarines and the Royal Marine Brigade, the United Kingdom will have a balanced Naval Service that remains in the premier league, working for Britain to deter potential threats, defend our global interests and, if necessary, defeat our enemies.”

The fate of the (+50) early retired Harriers is still unknown. Being perfectly airworthy and far from being too obsolete to serve in some air force, they might be cocooned or preserved until the time to be sold comes. Maybe some air forces could be interested in the aircraft, especially if we consider the uncertain future of the F-35B. Even if I think there are little chance that the B version of the F-35 will be canceled, those services that had planned to get their STOVL variant of the Lightning II as a Harrier replacement will look at the GR9s retired today with some interest.