A couple of weeks ago, a US Marine Corps pilot had to be rescued by the Coast Guard when his AV-8B Harrier went down in the sea off the North Carolina coast. Crashes in training are not all that unusual with military aircraft. They’re complicated things, and complicated things sometimes go wrong. Training pilots for war also means doing stuff that would reduce most airline pilots – or health and safety officers – to nervous wrecks. Planes get flown pretty close to the edge of the envelope, and accidents happen, so it’s no surprise that a Harrier went down. What’s more remarkable is that the things get airborne in the first place.
The Harrier is an unusual aircraft, to say the least. Among other things, it’s the only vertical/short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) warplane that’s ever achieved any real success. Its Soviet equivalent, the Yak-38 FORGER, was a bit of a dog to put it mildly, and I’m not going to start on the F-35B. Making an aircraft that can lift itself vertically off the ground, then transition into normal flight and go fight a war, is not an easy task. The usual way to do it is to install lift engines – either small, self-contained jets or a fan that pulls power from the main engine – to lift the front, and add thrust vectoring to the main engine to lift the back. It’s very complex, and when something goes wrong it tends to leave the plane in a rapid, uncontrollable pitch to roll about fifty feet above the ground. Pilots don’t like this much, because when it happens they’re probably going to die. The Yak-38 had two vertical lift jets behind the cockpit; the F-35B has a large fan in the same position. Both have an awful lot of moving parts that can go wrong.
What’s odd about the usual way of doing it is that there’s a simple way, too – the way the Harrier does it. And that way is older, so there’s really no excuse for over-complicating things.
The key to the Harrier’s simplicity is the engine. This is the Rolls-Royce Pegasus, an extremely strange jet engine that was custom-designed for the Harrier. Instead of blasting hot gas out the back, it has two pairs of side-mounted nozzles. The front pair is fed with air from the engine’s enormous front compressor turbine; the rear ones vent the exhaust gases. These nozzles rotate; in normal flight, they point directly backwards, but they can be aimed down, through the vertical to about 10 degrees forwards. Whatever direction you point the nozzles in, the Harrier will go in the opposite direction. Point them down and the Harrier goes up; when you’re high enough, point them backwards and the Harrier will go forwards.
As well as being extremely strange – the nozzles are controlled by Norton motorbike chains – the Pegasus is also extremely large and quite powerful. It’s so large that the Harrier is basically just the engine with wings, tail and a place to sit stuck on. But it’s also pretty reliable, because for a V/STOL design it’s simple. There are no computers to go wrong in a Pegasus.
The Harrier was originally developed as a light ground attack plane that wouldn’t rely on airfields, which the RAF expected the Soviets to mess up quite badly in the first ten minutes of World War III. Unlike every other NATO attack plane, Harriers could operate from car parks, sports fields or clearings in the woods, so they could stay mobile and operational even in a full-scale war. The attack version entered RAF service in 1971 and from then until the Berlin Wall came down they regularly exercised from improvised bases in the German forests.
It didn’t take long before the USMC became interested. They were looking for an attack plane that could operate from their assault ships, and the Harrier was a perfect fit. In the mid-1970s, over a hundred Harrier Mark 50 models – basically the same as the RAF’s GR1 but with simpler weapon systems – were delivered to the Marines, who called it the AV-8A. Meanwhile the RAF upgraded to the GR3, which carried a laser designator. The Royal Navy saw how well the AV-8As were working out and ordered a naval version for their own new small carriers. The Sea Harrier was heavily reworked – it carried an air intercept radar for fleet defense – and in the Falklands war turned out to be a very handy piece of kit.
The current generation of Harriers are an even more radical upgrade, jointly developed by BAe and McDonnell Douglas in the early 1980s. The RAF got the GR5, 7 and 9 models, which are now all retired; the Marines are still flying the AV-8B. The Royal Navy used an upgrade of the Sea Harrier which, though small and slow, had the best air intercept radar in the world for a while. Again, they’re all retired.
As well as the USMC AV-8Bs, which now include a squadron of GR9s bought from the UK when they were retired, some other countries still use the Harrier. India has first-generation Sea Harriers, which fly off the carrier INS Viraat – the former HMS Hermes, which carried Sea Harriers in the Falklands. Spain and Italy both operate AV-8Bs on their carriers. The strange little V/STOL jet looks like hanging around for a few more years. It’s slow compared to a conventional fighter, and has a fairly modest bomb load, but it can take off from a tennis court and doesn’t break very often. It makes you wonder why the next-generation V/STOL design is such an expensive mess.
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