The Fights Still On

Mark Ayton visited 801 and 899 Naval Air Squadrons at RNAS Yeovilton to review the conversion training and frontline tasking of the Royal Navy’s Sea Harrier FA.2 fleet, now in its final 22 months of operation.

RNAS YEOVILTON, Somerset, is the home of the Royal Navy’s Sea Harrier FA.2 fleet, comprising one frontline squadron, 801 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) and the Sea Harrier training unit 899 NAS. As of July 2004, the Sea Harrier has 22 months of service remaining with the Royal Navy. Originally planned to be in service until 2012, its early retirement is the result of a decision made by the UK’s Ministry of Defence, announced on February 28. 2002. AFM visited RNAS Yeovilton to take a final look at the training and operations of this legendary British fighter aircraft, a true ‘thoroughbred’, which played an enormous part in winning the Falklands War in 1982.

We spoke to Cdr Dicky Payne, commanding officer of 899 NAS, who gave an insight into the squadron’s remaining months of operational service. Cdr Payne said: «No.899 will be decommissioned on April 1, 2005. The penultimate Sea Harrier training course, Course 67, started in March, and will have two, possibly three, students. The last course, Course 68, starts in July this year, with three students, and they will graduate at the end of March 2005, following which we decommission».

To date, the Joint Force Harrier migration process (the migration of Royal Navy personnel from RNAS Yeovilton to RAF Wittering, Cambridgeshire) has kept 899 NAS very busy. Cdr Payne told us: «We are front loading (transferring people to RAF Wittering ahead of the squadron’s decommissioning). We have taken people out of our system which means we are quite tight on manpower — we have about a 40% gap on instructors, so the QFIs are pretty busy and are currently flying 30+ hours per month.»

The migration plan for the remaining squadron personnel is to ‘trickle’ former Sea Harrier maintainers up to RAF Wittering, Cambridgeshire, to be taught on the Harrier GR.7. The pilots will leave on a rolling basis, and are expected to go to Wittering in pairs to undertake Harrier GR.7 courses. The ultimate goal is to have 20 (R) Squadron manned 50:50 between RAF and Royal Navy personnel, with a rotational command.

Sea Harrier Conversion

After completing fast jet training on the Hawk T.I at RAF Valley. Anglesey, Royal Navy pilots selected for the Sea Harrier FA.2 arrive at RNAS Yeovilton. Somerset, to undertake Sea Harrier conversion training with the resident 899 Naval Air Squadron. The course, lasting 39½ weeks, is made up of two phases. The first half comprises a series of Conversion exercises (CXs) which introduce the student pilot to flying the V-STOL (Vertical — Short Take Off and Landing) Harrier, followed by specific familiarisation phases. The second half is dedicated to teaching the student how to operate and employ the Sea Harrier in its specific roles. The major part of this is the AWI (Air Warfare Instruction) phase which teaches use of the weapons systems in the air-defence and limited air-to-ground roles.

Starting Out

At the beginning of the course, each student undergoes two weeks of ground school, learning the principles of V-STOL flight and undertaking familiarisation of the Harrier and airfield flying procedures at RNAS Yeovilton. Students then make two familiarisation rides in the Harrier simulator. This prepares them for CXI, a basic aircraft-handling mission, flown with an instructor in a Harrier T.8, to land conventionally with the nozzles deflected at a fixed 60 degrees. Two further simulator rides are flown, followed by CX2 — a dual check ride. A fifth simulator ride is then undertaken as a solo check prior to flying CX3, their first ever flight in a single seat aircraft, a Sea Harrier FA.2.

On the fourth CX the student, flying with an instructor, is introduced to purely vertical work and performs a vertical take-off, a hover and a vertical landing on one of the V-STOL pads. The 15-minute mission is reckoned to be the steepest learning curve the student will face on the entire course. The eight or nine minutes spent in the hover are rated as being sufficient time for most students to gain the fundamentals of hover flight. After a further solo hover check ride in the simulator, the student undertakes CX5 — his first solo vertical take-off, hover and a vertical landing. On CX7, the student is taught the transition from forward flight to the hover, learning how to control the rate of deceleration so the aircraft stops at the required point. Students who perform well during CX7 are also taught to perform a rolling vertical landing in which they will land at 50 knots ground speed, a manoeuvre taught to enable them to land the aircraft on a rough strip. For the next three missions, students fly solo, learning how to manage the nozzle lever to induce and perform a braking stop in which the nozzles go forward of the vertical position to generate deceleration.

From the thirteenth conversion exercise, the course starts to focus on flying and landing the aircraft conventionally with the nozzles set in the fully aft position. For this phase, the student pilots make their first trip away from Yeovilton, deploying to RAF Wittering, Cambridgeshire, primarily to make use of the longer runway available and the selection of pads and landing strips, pointing in various directions and the consequent variety of circuit patterns. A standard Wittering detachment involves three students and two OFIs deploying with two Harrier T.8s and two Sea Harrier FA.2s. The final mission of a Wittering detachment, CX21, requires the student to take off from a strip, decelerate and land on a pad enclosed inside a wood. He then performs a vertical take-off from the pad and lands back on a strip. CX21 represents the end of the conversion phase.

Operational Phases

Upon return to RNAS Yeovilton from the RAF Wittering detachment, 899 NAS instructs all the operational phases of the course, including the AWI. The operational phases of the course include a formation phase and the navigation phase in which the student learns how to operate the Sea Harrier’s navigation systems. Each student flies one dual-navigation exercise in the Harrier T.8, followed by two or three solo navigation exercises. One mission will involve using the Blue Vixen radar to locate ships and drop navigation fixers. Students have to practise assessing ships headings, courses and speeds and must undertake height recognition training. The navigation phase leads into the reconnaissance phase for which the student uses the Sea Harrier’s F-95 sideways-looking camera on low-level missions to acquire reconnaissance photos of land targets. An instrument flying phase focuses on getting the student instrument-rated.

A unique aspect of the Sea Harrier course is the ramp phase, during which the student learns how to launch off a 12-degree ‘ski jump’, or ramp, from a 300ft (91m) take-off run. Fully briefed on the particular emergencies related to the ‘ski jump’, students fly a dual trip off the ramp in a Harrier T.8 before making a solo. Recovery to the ramp is also undertaken, to give a good simulation of operating off the restricted area of a flight deck. Students fly two or three more solo missions from the ramp to consolidate that experience, at which point they will have flown approximately 50 missions and will be halfway through the course.

The student now moves to the Air Warfare Instruction (AWI) phase, taught by 899’s Air Warfare Instructors and radar training officers. The AWI phase covers air-to-ground bombing, strafing and air-to-air gunnery, plus other ancillary syllabi, such as close air support. By far the bulk of the AWI course is dedicated to learning how to operate the Blue Vixen radar and the AIM-120 AMRAAM missile — the Sea Harrier’s main weapon system. Each student flies 22 radar syllabus missions of increasing complexity, ranging from a very straightforward non-manoeuvring exercise to radar-intercepted sorties. As the final part of the radar phase, students deploy to RAF Waddington. Lincolnshire, to fly advanced air combat manoeuvring missions on the North Sea ACMI (Air Combat Manoeuvring Instrumentation) range. This is an integral part of the AWI phase, as the ACMI facility provides excellent mission debriefs, allowing each student to see the overall picture of how the air battle went. This affords excellent training — in fact, the ground debrief is reckoned to be of more benefit than the actual flying. On the final few missions of the AWI phase, the student will operate as flight leader to a four-ship of Sea Harriers. During the 2 v 2 fight he will lead one pair against the OFIs, who will undertake complex height evading and speed evading manoeuvres whilst acting as targets.

Surprisingly, deck qualification is undertaken on an ad-hoc basis, depending almost entirely on the aircraft carrier’s programme and whether 899’s requirements fit into that programme. Deck landing comes low in order of importance because of the relative simplicity of landing on a ship’s deck. Going to the ship, however, may come at any stage of the AWI phase. To deck-qualify, a student must land on and then launch off the carrier, mishap-free. An 899 OFI told AFM. «Operating this aircraft on the flight deck is a very simple procedure. It is a rare thing now for students to be deck-qualified before they leave here [899]. They will normally go to the front line and deck-qualify on their first landing».

Shore-side Frontline Ops

An average day at 801 NAS generally begins around 08:15AM with a ‘shareholders meeting’ when all sections of the squadron get together to discuss issues relating to the day. This is followed by the ‘met’ brief after which the flying day generally starts. The amount of daily flying undertaken whilst shore-side at RNAS Yeovilton usually involves a four-ship mission in the morning, a two-ship at midday and another four-ship in the evening. Up to 80% of the training is undertaken in the squadron’s core expertise, air defence. Missions are flown on a regular basis against RAF Tornado F.3s and US Air Force F-15s. The mission packages vary from in-house 2 v 2 fights to mixed fighter force Combined Military Air Operation-style scenarios. On an in-house mission, a four-ship Sea Harrier flight will work a standard Red v Blue scenario, in which two aircraft simulate an adversary, such as the MiG-29, whilst the opposing pair play as Sea Harriers equipped with Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAMs). The training is carried out to practise beyond visual range tactics with the AMRAAM in which the opposing fighters face each other at about 45 miles (72km) separation, from which the fight begins at a 40-mile (64km) split. The resulting air battle requires a good deal of manoeuvring, especially when the objective is to fight into the merge (when the opposing pairs merge with each other). Once the aircraft have burnt down to a fairly low fuel weight, the pilots take advantage of the resulting turning performance and fight short range pitch backs’ within 20 miles (32km) of each other.

801 NAS has its own fighter controller, colloquially known as a ‘Freddie’, who works closely with the aircrew, knows the tactics, attends all the mission briefings and directs the Sea Harriers onto the ‘bad guys’ during the fight. ‘Freddie’ has a good understanding of the standard flow and the way 801 takes a four-ship to the fight. An 801 NAS pilot told AFM. «We like to go in as a four-ship, it gives us great back-up. We have got the whole team up there, we have got a lot of missiles in the air. The lead pair will go in with a pair backing up in trail, mutually supporting each other. We identify the bad guy — they may be able to turn and shoot him, but if they cannot, you know the missiles are coming in from the trailers».

The in-house missions are flown to the west of RNAS Yeovilton, over Devon and Cornwall. The airspace available is extensive and free of other air traffic, allowing the pilots of 801 NAS to operate from FL350 right down to sea level, ideal for AMRAAM training. During a regular week at Yeovilton, 801 NAS ideally like to spend two days on in-house fighting, simply to maintain proficiency in working AMRAAM tactics and air combat manoeuvring skills. The crew try to plan at least two missions per week with tanker support to enable the pilots to fly to the UK’s east coast to fight RAF Tornado F.3s or US Air Force F-15s. Generally, these missions are flown as part of a mixed fighter force Offensive Counter Air (OCA) package. These include bomber aircraft, such as RAF Tornado GR.4s, and provide a more demanding level of training. At the end of most missions, each pilot recovers to Yeovilton with sufficient fuel to conduct some kind of V-STOL work to practise hovering or emergency procedures, such as a nozzle failure. 801 NAS crew described the Sea Harrier V-STOL regime as ‘incredible’, stressing the need for each pilot to retain proficiency and maintain the capacity to deal with an emergency, and to be able to land on a pitching deck, either in bad weather or at night.

The Carrier Launch

When the squadron is embarked and operating from the carrier, the pilots fly both regular and alert missions, the preparations for which vary considerably. On alert the aircraft has to be launched within a specified time from notification, so flight preparation is expedient. The pilot gets into the jet, starts up the auxiliary power unit, powers up and aligns the navigational systems, plugs in all the waypoints for the mission and checks in all the flight members and frequencies.

Each pilot then starts the engine and completes his checks at specific phases on the deck. At a set point prior to launch, all the pilots will ‘slam’ their engine in unison when everybody knows the ground crew are away from the nozzles. At launch one, a set point two-and-a-half minutes from launch, the pilots receive a fixed wing amber — an amber flashing light positioned at the front of the carrier deck. From that point on, the pilot receives positive marshalling from the aircraft handlers on the deck. 801 NAS pilots told AFM. «Whatever they say do, you do. You have to obey them implicitly because on occasions you have only inches between jets».

There are set launch distances for the Sea Harrier. The key factors for a launch are gaining enough wind over the deck and enough speed going off the ramp to get the aircraft flying. If the launch speed is too slow, the aircraft will not fly. If the launch speed is too fast, the nose wheel may get damaged, depending on the gross take-off weight of the aircraft. This is a fairly complex issue and is solved by having plenty of wind over the deck, so the carrier always steams into wind for the launch.

Each Sea Harrier is positioned at a pre-designated spot for launch, as assigned by the ship’s ‘Flyco’ flying control. Flyco’s ‘Commander Air’ has overall command of the deck and co-ordinates all the aircraft and helicopter movements and launch approvals. The approval to launch is given by Flyco at the specific required launch time. At this point a duty engineer performs a final walk-round check. If everything is in order, he gives a ‘thumbs-up’. The pilot reciprocates and then receives a red flag from the flight deck officer instructing him to hold. The front deck light turns to green, but the pilot can only launch when the flight deck officer, who runs the working of the deck, shows the green flag. At this point the pilot initially selects 55% power whilst holding the aircraft fully on the brakes. He then pushes the power to ‘full’ and holds the brakes on for approximately eight to ten feet of skid before releasing them and launching straight up the ramp. On an operational mission, up to four jets will launch within seven to ten seconds of each other. Within 40 seconds, all four aircraft will be airborne.

…and Recovery

Because the Sea Harrier is optimised for sea-borne use, various types of recovery are available to the pilot. The most frequently-practised recovery is the Carrier Controlled Approach (CCA), a talk-down control used to get the pilots back to the ship in bad weather. Sea Harriers can also use the Microwave Aircraft Digital Guidance Equipment (MADGE) system, a microwave approach aid similar to an Instrument Landing System (ILS). MADGE provides a basic steering to the carrier. By using the Blue Vixen radar, the pilot can designate the ship and shoot a radar approach, although for a variety of tactical reasons the pilots are not cleared to use radar approaches. The ship also provides a non-precision Search Radar Approach (SRA).

All pilots plan to recover to the carrier for a CCA, in which the ship’s air traffic control provides a talk-down. This is backed up by radar, purely as a flight safety aid, although no pilot ever plans to default to it. However, if at night the instrument systems are not serviceable and there is insufficient fuel to recover elsewhere, the pilot has to use the radar approach. On recovery, the pilot flies a set pattern down a three-degree glide slope. The pilot levels off at 200ft (61m) and looks up to see the carrier. He then decelerates and converts to a visual approach, decelerating further to bring the aircraft into a hover and ‘land on’ the deck. All approaches are flown to stabilise the aircraft alongside the carrier at 85ft (26m) above sea level, approximately 35ft (11m) above deck level. Once steady alongside the designated spot, the pilot must translate (cross over) to the right to land on the deck centreline.

When the deck is pitching particularly badly, each aircraft is recovered to landing spot four located about the middle of the ship, a position where pitching has least effect. Under such conditions, the pilot aims to hold the aircraft level by using the radar altimeter, hovering on instruments. Each landing is observed and debriefed by a landing safety officer pilots. If a pilot becomes too low, the LSO can call ‘power’, an executive command which the pilot must adhere to, and he or she must go around again.

Ninety per cent of the time the carrier steers into the wind, a move which allows the pilots to recover on the designated flying course (DFC) aligned with the aft pointing landing aids. In the remaining situations, pilots fly aircraft recovery heading (ARH) approaches in which they approach the deck without being aligned to the landing aids.

The ship uses a stack to marshal recovering Sea Harriers back onto the deck. The stack, colloquially known as the ‘cake stand’, is positioned behind the ship on the DFC. Each aircraft is fed from the stack down the glide scope to land on at three-minute intervals. There are three recovery classifications; Case 1 for good weather, Case 2 for low visual weather and Case 3 for night and instrument recoveries, generally below 600ft (183m) cloud base. The ‘cake stand’ is always used for Case 3 recoveries.

Within the stack, there are two holding altitudes, known as waits: low wait 1,000ft (305m) and high wait 1,500ft (457m): these provide the required 500ft (152m) separation. During a Case 1 good weather recovery, the ship’s air traffic control directs the pilots to the stack, initially at the high wait. Once all aircraft are visual, they descend to the low wait and hold. At exactly two-and-a-half minutes prior to Charlie Time (the assigned time to land on), the lead inbound pilot descends to 600ft (183m) and flies down the port side of the ship at 300 knots. He breaks into a standard circuit and decelerates to land. All the other jets follow a similar procedure. Generally, only two-ships run through and break for landing, so the circuit flown is short enough to meet the individual Charlie times. Timings are critical — each mission is launched and recovered to the second. No.801 NAS crew told AFM. «When the ship tells you to land on, you have got to do that because there will be other jets behind you. It’s co-ordinated really closely by the air ops team on board the ship, you have got to get your input streamlined with them.»

Last Calls

Over the next 22 months, the Sea Harrier will be involved in a series of ‘last calls’. The last Sea Harrier training course has already commenced, 899 NAS will fly its last missions and decommission on March 31, 2005, bringing to an end 25 years of Sea Harrier training at RNAS Yeovilton. Meanwhile, 801 NAS expects to embark on the last Sea Harrier cruise. The Sea Harrier will probably always be remembered – and justly so — for its part in the 1982 Falklands War when, manned by Royal Navy aircrew, it provided the British Task Force with round-the-clock fighter protection. Following its upgrade to FA.2 configuration, the Sea Harrier was given ‘more punch’ via the addition of the Blue Vixen radar and AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles. Consequently the aircraft provided the most potent and formidable UK air defence asset available and was deployed to a number of operations, including Bosnia in 1996, Iraq in 1998 and Kosovo in 1999. Despite its history and capability, the ‘suits’ in Whitehall took the decision to send the Sea Harrier into early retirement. In the face of such a decision, all the remaining Sea Harrier aircrew and maintainers at RNAS Yeovilton can take pride in knowing that it remains the only current in-service UK fighter to have shot down another aircraft during hostilities. Until the decommissioning of 801 NAS in March 2006, the fight’s still on at RNAS Yeovilton.

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