The Indian Navy (IN) will bid farewell to its carrier-borne jump-jet the Sea Harrier on May 11 in Goa. It will 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 our 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 miraculously came to the rescue of Britain’s as well as our own 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.
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.
The IN lost no time in placing an order for the Sea Harrier; initially for a batch of eight aircraft, followed by two more, bringing the total to 28, including four trainers. Vikrant and our naval aviation had earned a reprieve.
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. As the Squadron Commander designate, I vividly remember my first day in the RAF Harrier Conversion Unit. Addressing the mixed audience of Indian, Spanish and British student-pilots, an instructor announced: “Gentlemen, only astronauts and Harrier pilots fly on jet-thrust. But never forget that the cold, clammy hand of the Harrier, for ever, rests between your legs. One mistake and you’ll go – Ouch!” We soon learnt the reason for these earthy words of warning.
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. The Harrier’s wings, on the other hand, when it slows down for a vertical-landing, rapidly lose lift; and once below about 100 knots, it is as airworthy as a ‘brick’. Since the aircraft is now totally dependent on thrust to stay airborne, and since its flying controls are also powered by the exhaust, even small mistakes in the ‘jet-borne’ phase can lead to disaster.
However, once we mastered the Harrier’s versatile ‘vectored thrust’, it was easy to become a fan of the amazing ‘Jump Jet’. You could 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.
The ‘White Tigers’ spent 1983 in taking delivery and re-equipping the squadron with new Sea Harriers at the RN Air Station, Yeovilton. While the pilots learnt to exploit the Sea Harrier’s weapons and sensors, our technicians gained experience in maintaining and repairing the complex machine. By mid-December 1983, we were ready to ferry the first batch of three Sea Harriers from Yeovilton to INS Hansa in Goa. Our 5,400 mile ferry flight, via Malta, Luxor and Dubai, took three days, and we were delighted to be welcomed home, on December 16, by the IN’s sole surviving Sea Hawk.
Five days later, when we landed on INS Vikrant, two unpleasant surprises awaited us. Since the ship was not (yet) equipped with a ski-jump, we would exit from the deck at just 40 feet, or less, above the sea. High ambient temperatures, in Indian operating conditions, led to loss of engine thrust, which meant that one had to return to the ship with less fuel – and therefore land very quickly.
Minor teething problems apart, induction of the Sea Harrier brought with it not just a significant enhancement of defensive and offensive capabilities but also a quantum jump in technology for the IN. Its advanced avionics, navigation and weapon aiming computers and complex engine were all representative of third generation state-of-the art.
At that juncture, the main threat to our carrier task force emanated from Pakistan Navy’s maritime patrol aircraft as well as PAF Mirage fighters, armed with anti-ship missiles. The fleet’s defences were limited and it had to be deployed with due caution.
With its multi-mode Blue Fox radar and a weapon suite that included air-air and anti-ship guided missiles, the Sea Harrier ensured protection of the fleet against airborne and surface threats. Its radar and electronic-warfare suite also became the fleet’s ‘eyes in the sky’. The arrival of the Sea Harrier enhanced the self-confidence of our men at sea and expanded the Fleet Commanders’ options.
An event of note needs brief mention before I conclude this elegy. In 1985, eager to show off the navy’s new acquisition, NHQ mooted Sea Harrier participation in the Republic Day fly-past. Considered an IAF preserve, the defence ministry refused to permit us entry into this event, but eventually allowed a brief display before the Beating Retreat ceremony. On January 29, a Vic of three Sea Harriers made a high-speed pass down Rajpath, and after executing a ‘bomb-burst’ over Vijay Chowk, the Leader looped back to hover in front of the assembled dignitaries.
On May 11, 2016, a lone Sea Harrier will lead a formation of MiG-29K supersonic jets; 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. But the unique ‘Jump Jet’ made an extraordinary contribution to our maritime capability for 33 years and its passing will leave many of us with heavy hearts.
(Admiral Arun Prakash is a former Indian Navy chief. A decorated fighter pilot, he oversaw the successful induction of the Sea Harrier into the navy. He can be reached on [email protected] The views experssed are personal.)