From its initial conception and drawings made in 1957 by Ralph Hooper, the P.1127/P.1154/Kestrel went on to become the well-known and much loved icon of British aviation – the Hawker Siddeley Harrier.
The first production Harrier GR1 (XV738) was flown for the first time on December 28, 1967 by Hawker Test Pilot Duncan Simpson OBE and the first two seat variant (XW174), designated T2, flew on the April 24, 1969. Prior to the T2 arriving on the scene, pilots were guided from the control tower during their first daring attempts at vertical flight. In fact, it was XW174 that Duncan Simpson ejected from on June 4, 1969 during its delivery flight from Dunsfold to the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE) at Boscombe Down. Thankfully, Duncan survived albeit with a broken neck having struck a large piece of canopy during the ejection. The aircraft crashed just four miles north of Boscombe Down with the cause of the crash being found to be dirt in the fuel system causing the engine to fail at 3,000ft – the ensuing crash leading to the aircraft being declared a write off.
However this did not stop the production of the two seat variants, which became known as ‘T-Birds’, with XW175 (now residing at the RAF Museum Cosford) being first flown on July 14, 1969 followed by XW264 on October 3, 1969. XW264 and three other airframes were delivered in 1970 while another five airframes followed in 1971.
The Royal Air Force’s 1(F) Squadron was chosen to be the inaugural frontline operator of the type and started their conversion from the Hawker Hunter to the Harrier at RAF Wittering in April of 1969. All training carried out on single seat Harriers at that stage was via the Harrier Conversion Team (HCT) at Wittering, although the initial group of Harrier pilots spent the first months of 1969 at Dunsfold prior to the HCT relocating to the base. Pilots also underwent a preliminary helicopter course to experience vertical flight. On the October 1, 1969, 1(F) Sqn RAF led by Wing Commander Kenneth Hayr was re-formed at RAF Wittering, and became the world’s first operational Harrier Squadron.
Prior to receiving their first two seat Harrier, 1(F) Sqn retained the use of a Hawker Hunter T7 – namely XL601. The T7 was used as an instrument rating, standards and continuation training aircraft and was relinquished when the unit received its first and only T2 Harrier, XW271.
Having first flown on May 26, 1971, Harrier T2 XW271 (c/n212010) was collected from the manufacturer at Dunsfold and delivered to 1(F) Squadron at RAF Wittering on the July 20, 1971. The delivery flight was carried out by one of the squadron’s pilots – Flight Lieutenant Steve Jennings – who later became a wing commander and commanded 233 (Harrier) Operational Conversion unit (OCU). Of note, Harrier GR1 XV803 was also collected and delivered to the squadron at the same time as XW271. This GR1 was lost the following week in a tragic accident claiming the life of Captain Louis Distelzweig, a USAF exchange pilot.
The T2, although a larger two seat aircraft, could carry the same stores and was capable of carrying out the same offensive missions as the GR1. In addition to its training and operational role, aircraft XW271 was utilised by various VIPs, senior officers and ground staff, who were given the opportunity to fly and experience V/STOL (vertical and/or short take-off and landing) flight in an operational aircraft – a truly unforgettable experience.
XW271 was converted to a T2A standard on October 5, 1971, and later to a T4A on December 11, 1973 with the addition of the 103 Pegasus engine from Rolls-Royce.
Serving with 1 Squadron and then 233 OCU at RAF Wittering, the jet also served with both 3 and 4 Squadrons at RAF Gutersloh, in the old West Germany – at times operating from camouflaged hides within the forest.
Despite being damaged and involved in several accidents requiring CAT3 repairs, XW271 was one of the few early Harrier training aircraft to survive until the withdrawal of the type and the introduction of the new ‘plastic’ Harrier fleet.
After retirement from active Royal Air Force service, XW271 was transferred to RNAS Culdrose and saw work at the School of Flight Deck Operations (SFDO), where it was noted on July 18, 2001.
In September of 2007, the aircraft was removed from RNAS Culdrose and placed on the Royal Navy’s fire training dump at Predannack airfield – part of the relief landing ground utilised by Culdrose based aircraft. In October of 2012, the aircraft was disposed of and taken to Everett Aero at Sproughton, Suffolk, and put up for sale and eventually purchased in January of 2015 by the Australian company Advanced VTOL Technolgies (AVT). AVT provides Aerospace engineering services and specialises in helicopter/ship interface analysis as well aircraft simulation, structural analysis, computational fluid dynamics and human factors.
The good news is that Harrier T4A XW271 is now in very good hands. David Howe, the Managing Director, along with the staff of AVT, plan to fully restore XW271 to her former glory.
Asked about whether she will ever run or fly again, David says:
We have no log books unfortunately, apparently they were lost, so a return to flight would be very difficult, although we do have a good team. At this stage we are limited to hopefully getting her back to ground running and taxi condition.
We have a Pegasus 11-21 MK.106 engine that was cleared for another 500 hours but developed a water leak 22 hours in. At that point, the Sea Harrier Squadron was disbanded and so the engine was bagged. We are hoping to restore this engine to its former glory too!
After her purchase in January 2015, with fantastic support from Everett Aero, the aircraft was shipped to Australia in April 2015, arriving in early June. The fuselage went on a Ro-Ro trailer and travelled west via the Panama Canal. The wing section came in a 40′ shipping container, with inches to spare, and travelled east via Malaysia arriving only a few days after the fuselage.
Having squeezed the wing section into the shipping container, it took the AVT team a considerable amount of time to extract it, as it was set at 45 degrees. It took a crane, a car winch and a whole day to remove the wing, with the only damage incurred being a slightly bent aerial.
When asked about the restoration plan of attack, David enthused –
The initial plan is to set up a defect log and record all missing and damaged parts, removing the old engine and dealing with any corrosion. We plan to very carefully strip the aircraft back, record all insignias and the current camouflage paint scheme.
We are then considering painting the aircraft a high gloss black or a very dark blue, not to dissimilar to the later RN (Ed: Royal Navy) T8 variant. We are doing this for company advertising purposes. At a later date we will probably restore her back to its original livery.
There is a requirement to source some spares including the original control column which is missing, We have about 95% in terms of parts, but not including things that don’t work! We are keen to chase down a few more instruments, the actual control columns, centralised warning panels, wheel brakes and a few other boxes and bits. We have the control column from XW268 which is being rebuilt in Norwich, by Dan Lander, and I would like to give it back to him at some point!
If all goes well Harrier T4A XW271 will be on display at the Avalon Airshow in Geelong in 2017, but there is much work to be done. David is keen to hear from any ex-RAF Engineers residing in Australia who may be interested in providing technical support, along with anyone that can help provide information on the location of the original control column or provide help finding those essential spare parts. If you can help please contact XW271@avtolt.com
David is clearly proud of their acquisition and he is very passionate about the engineering brilliance that gave birth to the legendary Harrier –
The aircraft is a fantastic tribute to British engineering and the French designer Michel Wibault who conceived the idea of thrust vectoring. Amidst all the other attempts at VTOL the Harrier stands out as being the most successful. The brilliance of the design is embodied in its robust simplicity. The Bristol (later Rolls-Royce) Pegasus engine with its four nozzles operated by bike chains, and a reaction control system driven by compressor bleed air is an engineering masterpiece. The success of the aircraft is exemplified in its operational success and the US’s acquisition of the aircraft with the expectation to operate out to 2025. Extraordinary for an aircraft designed in the 60s.
As a side note, the Author and his father (a Chief Technician on 1(F) Squadron) were both lucky enough to fly in Harrier T4A XW271 – albeit nearly 20 years apart!
Personally, I was very surprised at how smooth the Harrier was to fly in, and how impressive the acceleration down the runway was, along with the rate of climb. The transition into the hover is something I will never forget, it was a very surreal situation to suddenly be sitting midair and not moving forward! When you think of the incredible noise a Harrier made in the hover, inside the cockpit it was incredibly quiet, almost silent, with very little, if any, vibration. A truly remarkable experience that has been etched in my mind for eternity.
To see this aircraft being restored to her former glory is fantastic news, and as my father Alan stated to me recently “that’s one tough old T-Bird!”
David Howe and the AVT group have to be applauded in saving Harrier T4A XW271 from rusting away and, almost inevitably, meeting the scrap man’s axe – she now appears to now have a very bright future down under.
AeroResource would like to thank David Howe, Alan Monk and the RAF Museum Hendon Archives and Records Department for their help in producing this article.