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Last Harrier jet leaves Ark Royal

GR9 Harriers from 800 Naval Air Squadron and 1(F) Squadron Royal Air Force launched off the deck of HMS Ark Royal for the last time on Wednesday. Photo: Ray Jones/MoD Crown Copyright/PA Wire

GR9 Harriers from 800 Naval Air Squadron and 1(F) Squadron Royal Air Force launched off the deck of HMS Ark Royal for the last time on Wednesday. Photo: Ray Jones/MoD Crown Copyright/PA Wire

A Harrier jump jet took off for the last time from a British aircraft carrier, bringing an end to a proud history of naval and aviation endevour.

Flight Commander James Blackmore was the last of four Harrier GR9 pilots to roar off the deck of HMS Ark Royal which was sailing from North Shields, North Tyneside, across the North Sea, to Hamburg, Germany.

The Harriers were heading 150 miles back to RAF Cottesmore, Lincolnshire, ahead of decommissioning next year.

The Ark Royal, the Navy’s Fleet Flagship, will eventually head back to her Portsmouth base on December 3, where she will end her active life three years before it was planned and 25 years after she was built on Tyneside.

The decision to scrap both was described by one senior officer on board as “madness”.

So the last meeting of both famous names was a poignant moment for the crew, who lined the decks to watch the historic departure.

As the Harriers warmed their engines, squally showers washed across the flight deck.

But the sun came out shortly after 9 a.m. when the planes punched through a chilly northerly wind and hurtled off the desk in a cloud of spray.

In an ironic twist a cargo vessel called Happy Harrier had a great view of the display. Before the flight, Fl Com Blackmore, 35, said: “I am immensely proud and it is a real privilege to be the last pilot to fly off Ark Royal.

“It is amazing; I watched a Harrier hovering over Chatham dockyard when I was eight years old and I am now fortunate enough to be flying the Harrier today.

“It’s an amazing aircraft, superb to fly and just very enjoyable.”

The cost-cutting decision to scrap Britain’s fixed-wing capability from aircraft carriers caused consternation and puzzlement on board the ship, which some say carries the most famous name in naval history.

This version is the fifth Ark Royal. The first saw battle in 1588 and smashed the Spanish Armada.

The latest, and possibly last, saw active service in the Balkans and the second Gulf War.

It will be replaced by the Queen Elizabeth class of aircraft carrier, which will not come into service until the end of the decade. They will carry F35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft.

Captain Jerry Kyd, who only took command of Ark Royal in September, took the 22,000-tonne vessel to Scotland to have its major weaponry removed.

He said: “It was a sad time because, for a ship like this, it is like taking the teeth from a tiger.”

There was a tear in his eye when the last Harrier took off, he admitted.

“It was an emotional moment and also one of real pride as we look back over 25 years service to Queen and country.

“No naval officer wants to see any ship decommissioned early and she is a fine vessel and she has a fine history.

“She is at the peak of her efficiency but one understands that very difficult decisions have to be made across the government.

“We have flown off four aircraft and it marks the end of an era. I think the whole ship’s company feel bittersweet about it. We understand some tough decisions have had to be made.”

It is believed one of the new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, which is due to be named Prince Charles, could be passed on the Ark Royal name.

Capt Kyd hoped there would be a sixth Ark Royal in the future.

“It’s an iconic name that has real resonance with the British people, with the Royal Navy and around the world.”

Petty Officer David Terracciano, a 31-year-old engineering technician from Portsmouth, was “gutted” about Ark Royal being decommissioned.

“We were shocked when we heard the news on the television and I came into work not knowing if it was true. It got confirmed later that day and it was a strange way to find out.

“Morale is good. It’s only iron and steel at the end of the day. It’s the name that’s famous, it’s a shame they’re not making another one.”

Petty Officer aircraft controller Andrew Collins, 26, from Glasgow, said: “HMS Ark Royal is like the girlfriend you hate and you only realise you loved her when she has binned you.

“Life at sea is a harsh reality and you spend an awful lot of time away from friends and family.

“There’s a lot of pride on board that we serve on the Fleet Flagship. It’s the most famous warship in the world.”

Factbox

• The Harrier is the first operational close-support and reconnaissance fighter aircraft with Vertical/Short Takeoff and Landing (V/Stol) capabilities. It was the only truly successful V/Stol design of the many that arose from the 1960s. The Harrier family models are referred to commonly as the “Harrier Jump Jet”.

• The Harrier was initially built by Hawker Siddeley, in the UK. His first flight took place on December 28, 1967 and it was officially introduced on April 1, 1969 by the Royal Air Force, followed later by US Marine Corps.

• A second improved version was set up by the US for their Marine Corps in 1976 and was flight tested from 1978 until 1979. The aircraft was centred on the Marines’ need for a light ground attack aircraft with increased payload and range. In the early 1980s, the British rejoined the programme.

• The Harrier is a subsonic attack aircraft. It features a single turbofan engine with two intakes and four vectorable nozzles. It has two landing gear on the fuselage and two outrigger landing gear on the wings. The Harrier is equipped with four wing and three fuselage pylons for carrying weapons and external fuel tanks.

• The level of understanding and skill needed to pilot the Harrier is considerable. The aircraft is capable of both forward flight (where it behaves in the manner of a typical fixed-wing aircraft above its stall speed), and vertical/short takeoff and landing manoeuvres (where the traditional lift and control surfaces are useless). This requires skills and understanding more usually associated with helicopters. Most services demand great aptitude and extensive training for Harrier pilots, as well as experience of piloting both types of aircraft.

• The first Harrier models were produced from 1967 to mid-1970s for the first version and the second version from 1981 to 2003. Due to the unique characteristics and operating situations the Harrier allowed for, it generated a large amount of interest from other nations, often as attempts to make their own V/Stol jets ended without producing an effective aircraft.

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