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The Indian Navy will officially bid farewell to its carrier-borne jump-jet the Sea Harrier on May 11 in Goa. It is expected to be a nostalgic moment for those who were associated with this very distinctive fighter aircraft.
When the navy’s elegant, first-generation Sea Hawk fighter grew old and weary in the late 1970s, having proved its mettle in the 1971 war for Bangladesh, a search was mounted for a suitable replacement. Since most of the contemporary fighters were either unsuitable or unavailable, the future of naval aviation, and of the sole carrier INS Vikrant, looked bleak. Coincidentally, the Royal Navy (RN) was in a similar plight, having lost its aircraft-carriers and surrendered its aircraft to the Royal Air Force (RAF).
It was the Harrier which came to the rescue of Britain’s as well as Indian naval air arms. Cold War psychosis had led the RAF to believe that runways in Central Europe would be rapidly destroyed by early Warsaw Pact strikes, and it keenly sought a fighter with the attributes of a helicopter, capable of operating from jungle hideouts.
The Indian Navy bought 30 British-made Sea Harriers in 1983 but only 11 now remain. Using the revolutionary Pegasus engine, with its four swivelling exhaust nozzles, the Hawker Aircraft Co produced the Kestrel, which showed that vertical/short take-off and landing (V/STOL) operations were a practical proposition. By the early 1970s, the experimental Kestrel mutated into the Harrier ground-attack fighter, acquired by the RAF and US Marine Corps, and eventually into the Sea Harrier version for the RN.
In early 1982, an IN team of pilots and maintenance personnel belonging to IN Air Squadron 300 (nom de guerre ‘White Tigers’) arrived in the UK to commence training. Conventional aircraft fly on the aerodynamic ‘lift’ generated by air that flows at high speed, over the wings. This lift also enables the pilot to control the aircraft. Pilots can take off and land at any speed from zero to 160 knots. While others ‘landed and then stopped’, Harrier pilots had the luxury of ‘first stopping and then landing’! In the Falklands War, the British claimed a kill ratio of 21:1 for the Harrier, against Argentine Mirages and Skyhawks.
On May 11, 2016, a lone Sea Harrier will lead a formation of MiG-29K supersonic jets at a farewell flypast in Goa; its replacement in the ‘White Tiger’ squadron. The MiGs are a generation ahead and will enable the IN to look every other navy and air force in the eye. The retired Sea Harriers are now being mothballed at the Indian Navy’s Air Station in Goa before being distributed as museum pieces. IANS