In the RAF Mark Zanker flew Harrier GR3s, GR5s and GR7s as well as
Hawks with the Red Arrows, so he is a true ‘Hawker’ man. He flew
time-to-height record holder ZD402 and was a Qualified Weapons
Instructor. After retirement he became a commercial pilot and is a
Boeing 747 Captain with Cathay Pacific. Now he remembers flying
I joined the RAF in 1991 and after Officer Training at Cranwell and 3 years of flying training I was posted to 54(F) Sqn at RAF Coltishall, flying the Jaguar GR1. I really enjoyed that first tour as a young, single junior pilot and I assumed that my career path would continue as a Jaguar pilot/instructor and eventually as a flight commander.
In 1987 that was all to change after 2 friends of mine were
tragically killed in a mid-air collision over Otterburn training range
in Northumberland. These two 3(F) Sqn Harrier GR3 pilots had been
flying a simulated low level attack against a mock military target in
difficult conditions. Somehow, during the final 60 seconds of the
attack, they lost sight of each other. Fixated on the task of dropping
their practice bombs on the target they actually converged together and
collided at the point of weapon release.
The accident hit me quite hard. I knew how risky it was to fly a
fast jet close to the ground but I knew both of these men really well.
It was the first time that I had experienced the loss of a close friend.
What happened over the next couple of weeks could easily fill another article and so I will leave the details for another time. Suffice to say that the RAF Harrier Force was now short of two experienced pilots and they needed to fill the gap quickly. I was coming to the end of my first tour, I had always expressed a desire to fly the Harrier (who wouldn’t?) and being single, I had no domestic “baggage” to contend with. On Wednesday 11th November 1987 my boss called me into his office and the conversation went something like this: Boss – “Would you like to fly the Harrier?” Me – “Yes.” Boss – “Can you start on Monday?” Me – “Yes.”
And so it was that I came to be a Harrier pilot and in the summer of 1988 I began a posting to RAF GŁtersloh in Germany to fly the mighty Harrier GR3 on 3(F) Sqn. I didn’t know it then but it turned out that my timing was perfect. Had these events occurred 2 years later I would never have had the chance to fly the GR3 and I would never have experienced flying in West Germany, during the Cold War. The political and military landscape was to change dramatically a few years later with the destruction of the Berlin Wall.
I arrived in Germany just as the Squadron was getting ready to deploy to “the field” for a 2 week training exercise. The Harrier Force did this a few times each year in order to practice its war mission. On this occasion our field site was a small wooded copse in Bergen Hohne military range, a couple of miles from the site of Belsen Concentration Camp. I went there by road and the Squadron pilots flew the aircraft in later that day.
The following day I was to fly an arrival “check” with the Squadron Qualified Flying Instructor, Steve Fox. I remember it vividly. The aircraft, a two seat T4, sitting under a camouflaged net against the tree line.
After starting the thing up I taxied along a dirt track towards a wide gate. On the other side of the gate was a main road. As we approached the gate a RAF Policeman closed the road to traffic and we taxied on to it and along for a hundred yards or so to a place where an air traffic controller stood with a day-glo flag.
The pre-take off checks were completed and I did a slam on the Pegasus engine to check the RPM acceleration time was within limits. The nice lady with the flag lowered it to signal that the flaps were in the correct take off position, I selected full power and off we went. As soon as we had gone the road was re-opened and the German locals could continue to go about their business.
Operating the Harrier from these makeshift sites was an awesome experience. It was a pure team effort to get the whole show up and running. The Royal Engineers would go in a few days before us and lay metal matting for us to taxi, take off and land on. The RAF Regiment would defend our position and the Squadron would operate its Harriers in as close to a war time stance as was possible. The aircraft would take off from a road or a metal mat strip and vertically land back onto a metal ‘Mexe’ pad. The idea was that we would be deployed close to the front-line (or the front-line would come to us) and so sortie times were short.
On some days we would fly six 30 minute flights. It was exhilarating
stuff but exhausting too. For the engineers it was challenging as well.
On more than one occasion I’ve seen them do an engine change during the
night in one of the hides and have the aircraft ready to fly again the
next day. And of course that meant putting the aircraft into a cradle
so that the whole wing could be removed. This was all done outside, in
a field with minimal lighting.
At that time the RAF still had a flight of Harriers stationed in Belize (formerly British Honduras) to provide a deterrent to neighbouring Guatemala, who staked a claim on the country. Pilots were rotated through every six weeks or so and I was lucky enough to be chosen at the end of 1988. We would fly a sortie in the morning and go to the beach in the afternoon, or vice versa.
There were three weapons ranges there and we could drop or fire all
our types of air to ground weapons (There are tight restrictions on
live weapon usage in Europe and so it is rare for pilots to get to drop
them during peacetime). Belize has the second largest barrier reef in
the world, the locals are very friendly, ‘151’ rum flows freely and we
could fly as low as we dared. Have I given you the picture? It was the
best kept secret in the RAF.
In 1989 we began to convert to the Harrier GR5 (airframe conversion to GR7 standard began in 1991). If the GR3 was a Morgan, the GR5 was a modern day Aston Martin. It was bigger, could carry more kit, fly further and was more accurate too. Unlike the GR3 the cockpit was modern, roomy and it had a larger head up display (HUD). The Pegasus engine now had a digital engine control system (DECS) so more accel checks, and more thrust. Much of its structure was carbon fibre and as with most modern aircraft it had a few teething problems. The designers had used Kapton insulated wiring for the electrics throughout the airframe and this was to cause problems. (Google it).
In late July 1991 I flew a local sortie in a GR7. After I landed I made a comment to the engineers about a minor problem with the navigation system. Apart from that it seemed like a good jet and the aircraft was prepped to go again. My colleague took the same aircraft on its next flight. Flying with another Harrier, he climbed above the German countryside to do some air combat manoeuvring. During the sortie something catastrophic happened and the pilot had no idea what it was.
Suddenly all the warning lights came on in the cockpit followed by a total loss of all instrumentation and radios. If that wasn’t bad enough the engine wound down and he found he had no control over it at all - he was in a GR7 glider in a steady descent towards the ground. He pointed it at a wooded area and at a few thousand feet above the ground ejected and landed safely but the jet was destroyed.
The investigation that followed quickly came to the conclusion that
there had been a fire caused by a break down in the Kapton wiring
insulation. The fleet was grounded for 6 weeks whilst a fix was found
and we all went on leave.
In 1992 my tour on 3(F) Sqn came to an end and I was posted to 233 OCU at RAF Wittering. The Operational Conversion Unit was the Harrier flying school. By now I was a Qualified Weapons Instructor (QWI) and I would teach weapons and tactics. The OCU was split into two flights.
Students would spend the first half of the course assigned to B
Flight. Here they learnt the basics of how to fly the Harrier. It is no
understatement to say that the Harrier is almost certainly the most
difficult aircraft in the world to fly. The vectored thrust engine
means that there are as many ways to land the aircraft as there are
days in a month and on B Flight they learnt them all.
On A Flight we taught how to use the aircraft as a weapon and we
trained each pilot on how to drop bombs, fire rockets and use the
air-to-air Sidewinder missile. RAF Wittering is only a few minutes by
Harrier from the Wash and the Holbeach and Wainfleet weapon ranges.
On September 1st 1993 I was programmed to fly ZD402* to Holbeach range to drop eight 3kg practice bombs. The target was at the centre of a 150ft radius circle marked out by white oil drums on the marsh flats. A long line of oil drums led up to the target along the precise attack direction. Next to the bombing target was a strafe target for firing guns and further off the coast were a couple of small rusting ships, grounded on the sand banks and also used as bombing targets. Harrier students would spend a lot of time flying around Holbeach range during their conversion course.
By the end of the course each pilot could hit the centre of the
target with a 3kg practice bomb at a closing speed of 760ft/second. For
those of you familiar with the movie Star Wars this is a similar feat
to Luke Skywalker destroying the Death Star in his X Wing fighter. The
following day I flew ZD402 again to Holbeach, this time for Close Air
Support training (directed on to targets by a ground based Forward Air
We also taught the techniques and tactics of low level tactical formation flying and how to use the navigation and targeting systems and the complex self defence system too. It was a busy and challenging course but immense fun. The end of the course was marked by a 1 week deployment to another airfield in the UK for the final sorties before graduation.
On these sorties each student would have to bring together all of
the skills he had been taught in order to plan and lead another
aircraft to attack a number of simulated military targets. We would
often spend the week at either RAF Leuchars or RAF Lossiemouth for
these phases, which were known as Exercise Tartan. It was there that we
fully embraced the mantra of ‘work hard and play hard‘.
Each day we would send a team out into the Scottish Highlands to set up the targets. These would be full size inflatable Soviet tanks that at 500 miles an hour looked just like the real thing, if you could find them. It added a level of realism to each sortie and gave an enormous amount of satisfaction at the end of a successful attack. Not only did the pilots have to navigate to the target, often in challenging Scottish weather, but they also had to fend off attacks from a third aggressor Harrier flown by one of the staff pilots, and known as ‘the Bounce‘.
At that time we had an interesting mix of aircraft on the OCU, which
included the GR5 and GR7 and a couple of GR3s and T4s. The two seat
Harrier T10 had not yet entered service. The students would fly the
GR5/7 and the staff would ‘bounce’ in the GR3 or T4. On January 27th
1997 I got to fly ZD402 for a third and final time during a deployment
to Leuchars. My log book lists this flight as a pairs SAP or simulated
attack profile. I flew the aircraft as the number 2 to a student on one
of his final course sorties. My job was to be a good wingman, keep a
good look out, stay in formation and destroy the target. Of course I
fulfilled all of those requirements and I even bought a few pints in
the bar that night too.
At the end of 1993 I started a 3 year tour of duty flying the Hawk, which involved a lot of swanning about the world in a red flying suit. In 1996 I returned to the Harrier and spent a year at RAF Laarbruch, Germany, 3 months on HMS Invincible off the coast of Kuwait and the remaining 2 years of my RAF career on 1(F) Sqn, back at RAF Wittering. It was with 1(F) Sqn that I flew 40 missions over Kosovo in 1999. But I’ll leave those adventures for another article.
Whilst it is sad to see the aircraft sent to an early retirement I can rejoice in the fact that I was fortunate and privileged to have been one of a small group of pilots who got to experience the awesomeness of the British Harrier. There never was and never will be a machine quite like it.
* When I flew ZD402 it had been converted to a GR7. This
modification included a FLIR in the nose and a larger HUD and made the
aircraft fully night attack capable. I was not aware at that time that
ZD402 was a record breaker.