Technology

Why Britain Never Made A Harrier Successor

And what does the Soviet Yak-141 have to do with it?

This is the Harrier jump jet.

After the Spitfire, it’s probably the Harrier that’s the most iconic British fighter design.

It was one of the few aircraft sold to the US in numbers.

And even Arnold Schwarzenegger was using the Harrier in the film True Lies.

Britain had invented and owned vertical take-off and landing.

So why was it retired? And why do we not have a new harrier? The answer, well it’s complicated …

 

To understand the significance of the Harrier Jump Jet in the British psyche, you need to go back to 1982.

Harriers became infamous during the Falklands War.

It was the first time the vertical/short take-off and landing (VSTOL) aircraft had seen action.

A total of 28 Sea Harriers and 14 Harrier GR3s were deployed. The Sea Harrier squadrons shot down 20 Argentine aircraft in air-to-air combat with no air-to-air losses.

Out of the total Argentine air losses, 28 percent were shot down by Harriers.

The Sea Harrier was dubbed “La Muerta Negra” by Argentine pilots – meaning ‘The Black Death’.

The harrier returned from the Falklands as an icon, cementing the reputation of British aircraft design.

Second generation Harrier IIs went on to see action in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

It was a fighter that was proven in combat and, if it needed to, it could even land on a shipping container.

Clearly, it was a project that should be extended or built on. So what would the next British fighter be?

As it turned out… there wasn’t going to be one. 

Harrier Jet Plane

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, a number of aircraft companies separately decided to investigate the viability of vertical or short take off and landing.

The concrete runways that jet aircraft required, were vulnerable to attack and the solution was to make an aircraft that could take off virtually anywhere – like they could in the second world war.

VSTOL aircraft would be able to take off, land and refuel anywhere. Jets would be able to hide in wood blocks, improvised bases or car parks without requiring large and vulnerable air bases.

For the cold war, that advantage could be huge.

If only they could get it to work.

Making a jet hover turned out to be no easy task. Jet’s fly because of the air passing over their wings, and with no forward momentum... that doesn’t work.

The solution is downward thrust, enough thrust to lift the entire aircraft, with nozzles to keep it stable, and some way of then transitioning into normal flight.

That’s what would make a VSTOL aircraft design successful... but engineers around the world were going about it in different ways.

As early as 1951, there were crazy designs – that had aircraft taking off vertically, like rockets from warships.

In the 60s the US was making failed VSTOL prototypes a bit of a bad habit.

Swivelling engines on wings, lift fans, separate lift jets. The ideas were modern and brave. And of course, few of them worked.

There was even a moment in history when companies were trying to make large, cargo aircraft that could take off on short runways, and land vertically.

Even NASA had a vehicle taking off vertically – the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle was built to simulate the moon landings. And although it helped to put Neil Armstrong on the moon, even it didn’t go without an accident. 

Of the dozens of designs from the 1950s to the 1980s, only the Harrier and the Yak-38 Forger reached operational status. That last one, you might not have heard of.

The Yakovlev Yak-38 was a Soviet Navy VSTOL aircraft intended for use aboard their light carriers. And 231 were built.

It was used on the Soviet Union’s Kiev class carriers, and was even tested in Afghanistan against the Mujahadeen.

Its approach was different to the Harrier – it had two dedicated lift jets located behind the pilot, making it silhouette somewhat reminiscent of today’s F35B.

Royal Navy Sea Harrier 2005
Royal Navy Sea Harrier 2005. Credit Andrew P Clarke.

While other countries were attempting to design their own, unique VSTOL aircraft, Britain was quietly proceeding with its own developments.

First in 1953, with experimental machines like the Rolls-Royce Thrust Measuring Rig known as the flying bedstead.

It became the first jet-lift aircraft to fly anywhere in the world.

And it led to the Short SC.1 –  designed to study vertical take-off and landing, and the transition to forward flight.

It was equipped with the first "fly-by-wire" control system for a VSTOL aircraft, and for years its tests provided data that led to the famous Pegasus engine.

And that engine is what would go on to power the harrier.

It’s this vectored thrust engine that allows the pilot to change the angle at which the thrust is being projected.

Allowing a fighter jet to take off vertically, hover and land vertically for the first time ever.

The Pegasus uses jets of cold air from rotatable nozzles along with a 'hot' jet which was directed through a conventional central tailpipe.

But prioritising the ability to hover, meant that the Harrier had to sacrifice in other areas. It couldn't fly at supersonic speeds, and it couldn’t carry as much fuel or munitions as other fighters.

But a supersonic VSTOL jet was being developed. Just not in the UK.

In the 1980s, the Soviet Union wanted an upgrade to its VSTOL jets.

The result was the Yak-141 capable of flying at Mach 1.7.

It’s similar to today’s F35B, due to its rotating rear nozzle technology. But it never went into production.

That’s because when its manufacturer, Yakovlev, ran out of funds due to the Soviet collapse, it began to look elsewhere for investment.

Yakovlev entered discussions with several foreign partners but it was Lockheed who they reached an agreement with. The same Lockheed who were about to start developing the F35. 

Yakovlev announced a deal with Lockheed for funds of around $400 million, in return, they’d produce three new prototypes and an additional static test aircraft. It was a technology transfer.

The partnership began in late 1991, though it was not publicly announced by Lockheed Martin until 1994.

Yakovlev Yak-141 at the 1992 Farnborough Airshow

This next phase of development in vertical jet aircraft brings us up to the modern era. So why we don’t have a new harrier today?

Well, in 1993, the US began developing its Joint Strike Fighter program. It was looking for a new aircraft.

A fighter that could replace a wide range of existing aircraft: the F-16, A-10, F18 hornet and AV-8B Harrier.

Two years later, the UK became a formal partner, signing up to buy the same aircraft.  For the UK, it would replace the Harrier and Tornado.

As it was replacing so much, this new aircraft had to do a lot. It would need to fly at supersonic speeds, with stealth, and be capable of short take-off and vertical landings.

A scaled-up Pegasus engine couldn’t reach supersonic speeds, and it’s nozzles – sticking out of the aircraft were never going to meet the stealth requirement. The harrier concept didn’t fit the bill.

And to put the nail in the coffin, it seemed like Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works had already found – and patented – the perfect solution years earlier.

Lockheed’s patented solution? A lift fan inside the fuselage, just behind the pilot. Where the two jet engines were on a Yak-141.

Where the Harrier has its rotating engine nozzles for downward thrust, the F-35 uses a combination of its internal lift fan and by rotating its main engine nozzle at the back of the plane so that it’s pointing down.

Together the fan and nozzle produce more than 40,000 pounds of thrust, enough to lift the nearly 20-ton aircraft.

The UK’s lack of access to any of the stealth technologies, that the US had been working on for decades, had put them at a disadvantage.

 

Demo Pilot Captain Kristin BEO Wolfe inside F35 display plane 080920 CREDIT US Dept Defense.jpg
Inside F35 display plane Credit US Dept. Defense

The lift fan, devised by Lockheed and DARPA in the early 1980s, was the only workable solution that could give a plane vertical capability, supersonic speed and radar-evading stealth.

Obviously, Lockheed came out the winners in the procurement process.

And just like that, Britain’s next hovering fighter jet was going to be the F35B.

In some ways, modern hovering jets have more in common with a soviet aircraft than the harrier.

But for UK manufacturing, the F35 project isn’t doom and gloom. BAE and Rolls Royce are building parts all over the airframe.

Success for Lockheed and the F35, means financial success for British engineering. But not necessarily success for British aircraft design.

Not since the Harrier has the UK designed an entire military fighter jet.

Those days of being at the forefront of aircraft design seem to have ended with the Harrier.

But fighter jets that can hover? They didn’t.