Grp.Cpt Jock Heron, who completed two tours with Harriers in RAF Germany, came to talk to the Association on 12th May. He said that he had had an exhilarating time with the Harrier from 1972 to 1982 and much admired its technical competence and merit.
The P.1127 of 1960, said Jock, was an example of technology looking for a job and as the Kestrel in the Evaluation Squadron it found its operational capability. In 1965 the P.1154 was cancelled which turned out to be a sensible decision because operational difficulties could have destroyed the credibility of V/STOL. In its place the P.1127 (RAF) was ordered.
The RAF role for the Harrier was to be in the NATO Central Region; Germany, Denmark and Norway. Here, the location of all bases was published and known so they were vulnerable to many threats: missiles, conventional air attack, ground assault and sabotage.
Threats to aircraft included SAMs (surface-to-air missiles), AAA (anti-aircraft artillery), fighters and attack whilst on the ground. The bases were protected by airfield defences, there were hardened shelters and rapid runway repair facilities. The shelters with steel doors could survive a near miss but not a direct hit. Runway repairs were by the Royal Engineers (RE) who could fill craters in about 2 hours, but a strike by the USSR would leave too many craters to repair. Harriers would be housed three per shelter but when the base was threatened would disperse.
Public roads in towns would be used for STO/VL and the Harriers would hide in the likes of supermarket car parks with fuel, weapons and support brought to the site. RAF personnel, in civilian clothes and with a convincing cover story, surveyed suitable sites on foot. Any RE work needed to remove obstructions would be identified and the sites would be photographed from the air. Secret files were built up on every site, which clearly could not be used in peacetime.
So, training strips with 1000 ft aluminium plank take-off strips, 70 ft square VL pads and taxy tracks were laid in fields, and hides were cut into adjacent woods. Such sites were, in fact, seldom found in exercises; even returning Harriers finding it difficult to spot them.
The Harriers were armed with SNEB rockets in Matra launchers containing 18 or 19 projectiles each, and BL755 cluster weapons with 147 bomblets each; their mission was to find and attack tanks.
As well as Harrier enthusiasts, there were also detractors in the RAF and MoD. By 1975 the Harrier was not seen in as good a light as the Jaguar and the policy became to let the Harrier force waste away by the mid 1980s and buy more Jaguars. However, the tide was turned by the Guatemalan threat to Belize in central America. Its defence was a British responsibility and the only fighter capable of operating there was the Harrier.
Aircraft were ferried from Wittering via the east coast of the USA and the operational flexibility of the aircraft proved the need for the type and subsequently 24 new GRMk3s were ordered.
A new, enlarged, wing was proposed by Kingston and in 1975 a brochure was issued on a Harrier 'GRMk5' with improved manoeuvrability and range using the new wing which could be retrofitted if required. Meanwhile McDonnell-Douglas had embarked upon the AV-8B Harrier II. However, in spite of the MoD preference for the UK wing, Britain joined the US AV-8B programme which resulted in the actual GRMk5, GRMk7 and now the GRMk7A with the uprated Pegasus 11-61.
This brief survey of the later Harrier developments brought Jock's talk to a close. During questions from his attentive and appreciative audience he was asked about his time in the Falkland Islands where he had been Commanding Officer of RAF Stanley after the war. The task of the RAF detachment, he said, was to defend the FIPZ (Falkland Islands Protection Zone) against Argentine incursions and reconnaissance probing be AAF Electra aircraft. The RAF force consisted of 10 F-4J Phantoms with AIM-9 Sidewinder equipped Harrier GRMk3s in case runway damage or adverse weather prevented the Phantoms from flying. Another example of Harrier flexibility! Jock had happy memories of his time with the hospitable and friendly people of the islands.