The Harrier jet makes its final flight – from RAF Cottesmore in Rutland. But the plane’s early retirement as a result of defence spending cuts remains controversial, writes Carl Dinnen.
Harriers will make their last operational flight today, weather permitting, and will pass over seven military bases, the town centres of Stamford and Oakham, and Lincoln Cathedral.
The planes, which were axed in the Strategic Defence Review, will be decommissioned in 2011 and replaced with the Joint Strike Fighter by the end of the decade.
'It tugs at the heart strings'
The decision to get rid of the Harrier remains controversial, writes Channel 4 News reporter Carl Dinnen, from RAF Cottesmore.
Its supporters argue it is the cheaper and more robust of the RAF's two fast jets (Harrier and Tornado, Typhoon is coming into service but can't do everything yet). Getting rid of the Harrier also means the UK has nothing that can take off from aircraft carriers until the new Joint Strike Fighter arrives at the end of the decade.
Harrier people say their plane is getting axed because so many of the top brass were Tornado pilots in their day; the so called "Tornado Mafia".
Of course, it's not that simple. The Tornado is the thoroughbred racehorse of the two. Expensive and temperamental by comparison, but also better over long distances and with reconnaissance capabilities the Harrier can't match. The Harrier did have another advantage, one that has made its loss more keenly felt. It was a British success story, an eccentric, clever piece of kit developed here.
It served the UK from the Falklands to Bosnia to Afghanistan. It tugs at the heart strings. But Defence Reviews aren't written from the heart and today the RAF and Navy will have to say goodbye to their Harriers.
As I write from RAF Cottesmore, the weather may yet have a say in how many they can say goodbye to. If it clears up we hope for a "16 ship flypast". Should look good at 7.
The Harrier fleet could be sold abroad, despite campaigns by former pilots to save it. The first Harrier to fly was the XV276 model in August 1966, developed by the British aircraft maker Hawker Siddeley following World War Two.
It was the world’s first vertical take off and landing jet aircraft in military service, and remains the only craft of its kind. It can reach speeds of up to 700mph at sea level.
The Government has been criticised for the decision to decommission the Harrier fleet because of its unique capabilities, as well as its iconic status.
Former pilot Commander “Sharkey” Ward, who writes for the Phoenix think tank and flew Harriers during the Falklands, told Channel 4 News: “In the old days they used to say the cream of the airforce was put into the Harrier force…Flying it was an absolute joy. There’s a strong groundswell of opinion that to withdraw the Harrier is a huge mistake.”
Earlier this year, artist Fiona Banner hung a Harrier in Tate Britain, London, for an artwork questioning the glorification of fighter planes in mainstream British culture.