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First Harrier Deck Take-Off - Jim Dresner

The first time I ever saw one of the UK Carriers was shortly after I joined 801 NAS in April 2003.  HMS INVINCIBLE was moored in the Mersey off Liverpool for the celebrations of the Artic Convoys from WW2 and a few of us drove up from Yeovilton to see the ship that we as a squadron were about to join to work her up through BOST and beyond.  Walking out on the Flight Deck there was the immediate thought of ‘how am I ever going to land a Sea Harrier on here?’  Deck landings were not new to me as I had logged over 200 on helicopters, but landing a Sea Harrier, short on fuel and a little more ‘twitchy’ in the hover was going to be a different matter.  It was actually just a mind trick as there was actually more space on the landing spots there than there were on the mexi-pad landing spot back at Yeovilton, but the proximity of other aircraft and people made it slightly more nerve wracking.

In the days of the Sea Harrier where there was a wealth of experience of embarked operations, the act of completing your first deck landing was not considered a great deal, unlike later experience with the USMC and the RAF where there were numerous hoops to jump through.  For a Sea Harrier pilot there were a couple of simulator sorties to complete and there was the ‘dummy deck’ at Yeoviton which simulated the flight deck and ramp of a Carrier, so familiarity was not too much of a problem.  One of the challenges of embarked operations was the strict order and timings that things had to be done in to ensure that the jets launched safely and on time.  The Sea Harrier also had two advantages over the other types of Harrier for Carrier operations which were the Audio ADD and nozzle nudge.  The Audio ADD was a beeping in the pilot’s headset when the landing gear was down which helped him to maintain the correct approach speed.  Jets are flown on ‘angle of attack’ which corresponds to the speed, and in the Sea Harrier 8 Alpha was the target.  If the ‘Alpha’ was higher (going too fast) the beeps would be fast, and if the ‘Alpha’ was low (too slow) the beeps would be slow, and at the correct ‘Alpha’ there was a constant tone.  This was a definite help in the Sea Harrier where the cockpit was not as ‘ergonomic’ and there was not as much information available in the Head Up Display as the other Harrier variants.  The ‘Nozzle Nudge’ become useful in the latter stages of the deceleration to the hover when the pilot wanted to either speed up or slow down his closure to the landing spot.  The spring-loaded button on the throttle, which normally deployed the Speed Brake in flight, now controlled nozzle angle once the gear was down.  By simply by holding this button forward or back from the neutral position the pilot could move the nozzles as opposed to constantly having to switch hands from the throttle to the nozzle lever and back again, as was required in the other Harrier variants.  This came into its own as the jet approached the landing spot on the Carrier when a quick blip of the nozzle nudge would settle the jet nicely alongside the spot ready for the transition across, instead of the quick hands required which got a bit fraught in the other aircraft.

Armed with this knowledge and the inevitable ‘kneeboard of Gouge’ which contained all the information I would need to be able to get onto, and off of, the Carrier my turn came on 26th May 2003.  I was to go with the Squadron CO Cdr ‘Chips’ Lawler and complete some 1v1 intercepts before making a couple of Carrier Controlled Approaches (CCAs) to HMS INVINCIBLE before the time came to make my first deck landing at the end of the sortie.  He gave me a thorough brief of what I needed to do, including the age old advice not to look down at the water between the jet and the ship when in the hover alongside as it messed with the brain as you realised you were not in the hover.  The weather was nice, but as the water temperatures were less than 15 degrees we suited up in our immersion suits before walking for the jets.  I got into Sea Harrier ZH808, flashed her up and off we went to meet the ship off the south coast of England.  Although the main focus of the day was to safely get onto and off the Boat (everyone called it the ‘Boat’ to annoy the seagoing Navy Types who got offended as Boats were officially submarines in the Royal Navy!) we checked in with the Freddies (Fighter Controllers) to get a couple of intercepts done before our Charlie Time.  All landings on the Boat had to be exactly on the designated Charlie Time to ensure that it was ready for the landing and Charlies had to be hit within 5 seconds or so.  This was achieved by flying around ‘the Wait’ above the Boat and then flying through the ‘Slot’ (a position just abeam and to the starboard of the back of the Boat) 3 minutes before Charlie Time.  The close choreography of the landing would mean that if you hit your Slot Time, then you would make your Charlie Time.  There is more than one Harrier pilot who has ‘Slotted’ on their Charlie Time which would never work.

After a short work-out with the Freddies and some simulated AMRAAM Missiles later we switched radio frequencies to speak to ‘Homer’ to vector us in for a couple of radar approaches before our final landings.  Homer was the radar controller, and it always amazed me the service we got from them considering the equipment they were working with.  Homer ensured the two jets were separated in both time and space and then vectored Chips in front of me for the approaches before feeding me in.  Everything was a bit of a blur as my concentration was firmly focused on the final landing, but I obeyed all the heights and headings that Homer gave me before he directed me to one of the CCA frequencies for the final approach.  Once again the Sea Harrier was better equipped than the other variants for embarked operations as we had MADGE, a micro-wave landing system, that would pick up signals from the back of the ship and then give us heights and headings to fly on our Head Up Display to get us into the hover at the back of the ship.  There was always the quandary of what to do if MADGE was saying one thing and the Approach Controller was telling you something different, although invariably it was MADGE that won over the human voice!  It was not going to be an issue for me this time though as I was informed that Mother (the Boat) was not going to be on its DFC (Dedicated Flying Course) for my practice approaches as she would only turn into wind for my final recovery.  This would mean that I would approach the Boat from the port side at ninety degrees and so I would not receive the MADGE signals as they could only be received in the rear arc.  Thus I flew my first CCA in a bit of a blur, getting my first glimpse of the Boat filling my HUD as I sped past her at the bottom of the approach.  Practice over and now it was time for the real thing.

Sea Harriers Landing
Sea Harriers Landing on HMS Invincible

In all Harrier embarked operations it was vitally important that the time / distance / fuel equation was never far from the front of the brain as the idea was to end up in the hover alongside with the requisite amount of fuel at Charlie Time.  Too much fuel and the jet would not hover and would descend into the water (as demonstrated by one of my USMC colleagues a few years later in front of me) and with too little fuel the jet would not get to Charlie Time and would fall into the water before you got there.  As previously mentioned, Charlie Time was sacrosanct and to ask for it to be brought forward as you were going to run out of fuel was a little embarrassing to say the least.  To help us manage the equation we used the Lamb Ladder which was a series of set times before Charlie Time and the minimum amount of fuel that was required at that time to make Charlie.  If the jet was above Lamb then there was no issue and fuel burn was a lot more liberal, but if you hit Lamb at any stage then you were required to set the power to the fuel burn that you had worked out your Lamb Ladder on (70 lbs / minute if memory serves) and stay at that until the vinegar strokes of the landing.  If you got carried away and looked at the fuel gauge only to realise that you were below Lamb then it was a bit more of a problem, but with a bit of ‘hanging on the blades’ at extremely low power settings at altitude, the fuels on the Lamb Ladder could often be recovered, depending on the severity of the deficit!  If the jet had too much fuel as it returned to the Carrier then it could be jettisoned, but only down to 1800 lbs and the rest had to be burnt through the engine to prevent the pilot leaving the dumps on and throwing all his fuel away!  This would often lead to some uncomfortable moments when fuel had to be jettisoned long before the Boat was in sight to make sure that the jet was at hover weight alongside.  The Sea Harrier’s engine was not particularly powerful as the FA2 upgrade had added a lot of weight to the airframe, and so the jet would generally have to have in the region of 800 lbs of fuel alongside to allow it to hover.  It would burn in the region of 300 – 350 lbs per minute in the hover, so the maths of how much fuel you had to stay in the hover or divert are fairly simple!  The Harrier carried 500 lbs of demineralised water which would be armed on the approach to land and when the engine reached a certain temperature it would be sprayed into the combustion chamber to cool it and allow more power to be produced.  Generally the Sea Harrier was ‘wet committed’ which meant it could only hover while there was water being injected.  If it was still in the hover as the water ran out it would not crash straight away, but the engine would be toasted, which was quite an expensive error.  The 90 seconds of water that was carried was actually generally the most restrictive limitation as opposed to fuel.  If too much fuel was still being carried as the jet was in the Wait above the Boat, nozzles could be dropped or Air Brake deployed to up the fuel burn rate to get the aircraft back to the Lamb Ladder.  The Sea Harrier had a very expensive upgrade of a GPS down by the pilot’s right knee in addition to its IN/GPS which worked with the HUD.  There was however no GPS clock in the HUD in the Sea Harrier, and most pilots could not operate the ‘head down’ GPS, except to use it as a clock for their Lamb Ladder and Charlie Time calculations.

 My approach was to be Case 1 which meant it was a visual approach, unlike the Case 3 Instrument Approach I had just practiced.  To achieve this I had to join up with Chips again and fly in close formation with him in the Wait until our Slot Time.  After I had overshot from the Case 3 approach I was vectored by Homer until I had Chips on the Blue Vixen radar and was able to use that to join with him.  We then switched frequencies to Flyco who controlled the visual pattern and requested the Low Wait at 800 feet above the Boat.  We were cleared into the Wait and I was glad that Chips was leading as the Wait we flew was orientated to the DFC that the Boat would be on for our landing, although it was actually steaming on a different heading at that time and would only have to turn onto DFC 3 minutes before our Charlie Time.  This meant that Chips had to fly the Wait which started and finished overhead Mother, in 2 ½ minute orbits, in such a way that his timings would work for our Slot, even though Mother was not on DFC.  For me though it was just a case of checking my fuel was good and making a couple of small fuel burn calculations, and remaining tucked in close on Chips’ starboard wing and counting down the minutes until the landing.  As our Slot Time approached Mother gradually started the turn into wind to help our landing and our Landing Signals Officer (LSO) another Sea Harrier pilot already on board, confirmed over the radio what the DFC was, what the wind was doing relative to the ship’s Head and how many knots she was doing, all important information that would dictate how we would conduct the landing.

As we turned downwind on our final orbit before the Slot there was just time to take one more glance at the fuel gauge by my right knee to check I would be good to hover, and then Chips descended us to 600 feet above the sea as we turned back to run towards Mother for the Slot.  As we passed abeam the starboard side of the Boat I had a quick glance down to get my bearings as we passed overhead at 300 knots.  Chips delayed on the same heading as the ship for 15 or so seconds to get himself enough separation for his landing pattern and then with a wave of his hand he broke away to port, allowing me to continue on for another 30 seconds to build in plenty of separation to ensure he had landed by the time I came into the hover alongside.  From 300 knots and 600 feet I made a hard, levelish turn to port at the allotted time and put the speed brake out to slow the jet down.  As I rolled out on a reciprocal heading to Mother things had to happen quickly to make sure the jet was properly configured to allow me to turn onto the final heading for landing.  I closed the speed brake once the speed was under control and then lowered the landing gear with a reassuring clunk as 4 green lights indicated it was down.  Already I was approaching abeam the front of the ship and so had to drop full landing flap and then pull in 40 degrees of nozzle before moving the water switch to ‘take off’ to allow me to check the water system was functioning.  In the ‘take off’ position the water would flow simply on the position of the throttle, whereas in the ‘landing’ position it would require the same throttle position, but also the engine to be at a certain temperature in order to conserve the water until it was needed.  Therefore to test the water before landing I had to put it to take off and then move the throttle forwards to trip the water system, and look for the ‘W’ in the HUD which would show that water was flowing. The LSO in Flyco would also be able to verify that water had flowed as he would see a distinctive black puff come out the back of the jet as water was injected into the hot engine.  As soon as it indicated I had to pull the throttle back smartly before the speed got too high and then move the water switch to the ‘landing’ position so it was armed.  I then had to ensure that the anti-skid system on the wheels was switched off as it had to be during embarked operations to ensure that the nose wheel steering was ‘live’ at all times, meaning that the jet would steer as the pedals were moved.  Not so important for landing, but  vital for take-off.  The point at which I had to tip finals was rapidly approaching as I flew downwind and the ship steamed away from me, and it was good to see Chips already on deck which gave me plenty of time for any ‘faffs.’  I pushed the throttle up to around 92% RPM which meant that water would not flow until it needed to, and then moved my hand to the nozzle lever to control the beeps in my ear, pulling in more nozzle to slow down if the beeps were too fast, and pushing the nozzles out if they got too slow.  At the prescribed point – generally a number of counts of ‘bananas’ after seeing the back end of the boat pass abeam, depending on wind speed, a rolled around to the left, nozzling out to maintain my speed and flew the jet around onto the ‘Red 175’ which was slightly offset left from the exact  line of the stern of the ship and then it was a case of starting a gradual descent, watching the speed and then figuring out when to pull the nozzles into the Hover Stop to start the deceleration.  As I got to where I estimated was a good place, around 0.6 of a nautical mile or so (visually judged as the Boat did not have TACAN in those days, and neither did the jet!) my left hand moved to the nozzle lever and pulled it back to the hover stop to move the nozzles to around 82°, and the right hand pulled back on the control column slightly to raise the nose to the ‘decel attitude’ which was a level attitude.  Now I could judge my rate of closure on the stern of the Boat and work out if my choice of decel point had been correct.  A little bit too much closure so I simply had to pull back on the nozzle nudge with my left thumb and apply a little power to maintain height, compensating for the engine power that was now pointing aft into the ‘half-braking stop’.  The soothing tones of the LSO in my headset telling me how I was doing was reassuring as I released the nozzle nudge, letting the nozzles get back to the hover stop to slow the rate of deceleration.  The Radio Altimeter (Radalt) pinging off the sea told me the exact height I was at as I aimed for a hover height of 80 feet, but it could also be judged visually by putting the jet at a height where my head was level with the window of Flyco just forward and right of my hover position.  As I slowed to a walking pace approaching the landing spot I picked up the Naval Airman in the yellow surcoat pointing at the designated spot – 6 spot.  It was nice to see that there were not any other aircraft on the deck, except for Chips’ jet which was now well forward, parked at the base of the ramp.  A quick blip of the nozzle nudge and I was nicely stabilised abeam 6 Spot off to my right hand side.  I quickly glanced ahead through the HUD to ensure that it was indicating that my attitude was level and I was neither climbing or descending, and then it was time to think about the cross.  By now the water was flowing and so I was on the stopwatch – I had to be on deck within 70 secs or so.  It was important to cross the deck level, at the correct height, so my right hand moved the column left slightly to start the transition across the deck.  As I did that I had to apply a little power to maintain my height and push forward slightly on the control column to make sure I didn’t drift back as the Boat ran away from me.  I kept glancing right at my references and then back to the HUD to ensure I was not climbing or descending and then forward to the ramp to check my rate of closure over the deck.  As I got over the middle of the tram lines painted up the centre of the deck it was time to check left slightly on the control column to stop the right drift, and then after a slight pause take some throttle off to start the descent.  It was then just a case of a constant scan out to the left to check I was not drifting sideways on the way down and forwards to make sure I was still going to hit the tram line.  Ten feet to go, all looking good, now to wait for the wheels hitting the ground to slam the throttle to idle to prevent a power bounce.  Once on the deck the temptation was there to just kick back and relax having made it all happen, but straight away there is a Yellow Coat marshalling me forwards to park next to Chips on the base of the ramp.  Before I could taxi though I had to push the nozzles forwards again, switch the water off to lower the RPM back to normal and raise the flaps.  Taxying on the boat was always a bit strange, especially when the deck was moving a lot in the swell.  Power would be needed to taxi as the bow raised, but as soon as it crashed down again the brakes were needed to stop the jet accelerating forwards too quickly.  A nice steady walking pace was the name of the game, following the exact directions of the Yellow Coats.  I was always amazed at the job they did, parking the jets very close to each other on a moving deck without incident – or nearly without incident.

Only when I was parked in the desired spot and chains had been attached to the jet to ensure it was not going anywhere, was I given the signal to put the safety pins into the ejection seat to safe it up and shut down.  There was a definite feeling of relief that I had achieved my first deck landing without messing up too badly, with little thought being given to the take-off that I was going to have to do shortly, as that was the easy bit.  Finally I pulled the throttle all the way aft, lifting the safety gate to allow the fuel cock to shut fuel off to the engine so the Pegasus could wind down.  I unstrapped and slid the canopy back to the unmistakeable smell of sea air and aviation fuel.  After climbing down the ladder which the Groundies had kindly attached to the starboard side of the cockpit, I was surprised to be met by the Ship’s Captain Trevor Soar and a couple of the other squadron pilots who were already embarked, along with a bottle of champagne to celebrate my first deck landing.  I had a little sip of the champagne for the camera, but was mindful that I was going to have to fly again shortly!

I had time to watch Compo, an ex-Kiwi A4 pilot who had transferred to the Royal Navy and been through the Sea Harrier course with me, complete his first landing before it was time to brief with Danny Stembridge, the squadron AWI for the return trip to Yeovilton.  The inside of the Carrier was a bit of a rabbit warren, but thankfully I pretty much knew where I needed to go due to our visit to Liverpool.  As a Sea Harrier pilot you could pretty much live your life on 5 Deck – Wardroom, bar and bed, and 2 Deck – Briefing Room.  With just a small trip to the AMCO on the way up and out to the flight deck, that was all that was really needed.  After a brief from the ship about the weather and launch situation, we briefed with the ship’s Freddies about the intercepts we were going to fly on our way back to base.  Danny made sure I was happy with the complex procedure required to get off the front and then we got back into our immersion suits ready for the out brief.  The LSO, which was now Chips, ran through the check list to make sure we had covered everything we needed to and then Danny made sure he clanged the hose of his G-pants against the bell on the way out of the briefing room.  Being the world’s most superstitious man it was something he had to do before he flew from the Carrier, and a couple of times in the future I would see him come back down the corridor as he had forgotten to do it.

I signed for the same jet at the AMCO and then headed back onto the flight deck to find the aircraft.  The Groundies were waiting for me and I climbed up to the cockpit to switch the battery on and start the IN/GPS aligning.  There was then the external walkround to do, which was made slightly more tricky by the back end of the aircraft hanging out over the sea, so an adapted version was required.  Then it was time to climb in, strap in and make sure the GPS clock was working to allow me to run the timeline of events that I had to master.  The jet was plugged into Telebrief which meant I could hear all the ship’s communications, and we could talk to each other if required without transmitting on the radios.  At the allotted time before launch we were checked in from Flyco on Telebrief and then on the radios.  The Freddies came on Telebrief to check our ‘Chirp’ (I-Band Transponder) in turn, and then we had to wait for engine start.  Flyco cleared our Sea Harriers to start and the Groundies gave us the wind up signal.  All started normally and then at the prescribed time we did our ‘accels’ where the throttle was moved to the middle position and back 3 times to fill the fuel galleries in the engine.  After the third accel we had to time the next one with the stopwatch on the left side of the cockpit.  In the other Harrier variants this process was a bit more scientific as the aircraft would time itself, but in the Sea Harrier it was a little subject to the pilot’s reaction times, starting and stopping the watch at the right time.  After the timed accel I had to lower the nozzles to the pre-set launch angle for the Groundie to visually check that they were correct and then check that I had set the tailplane to the correct angle for launch as well.   Once I got the double thumbs up I throttled back and then waited for the Yellow Coat to come round and signal for me to ensure that the parking brake was on, before he indicated to the guys to remove the chains that were lashing me to the deck.  I double-checked that I had the anti-skid switch off and then watched as Danny taxied onto the tram line, under the careful direction of the Yellow Coats.  Once the Duty Engineer had checked over his jet one last time he was given the green flag by the Flight Deck Officer (FDO) and off he went, shooting off the end of the ramp.

Sea Harrier Take Off
A Sea Harrier how it 'should' be shortly after take off.

It was now my turn, so the Yellow Coats indicated that I had to start moving forwards.  I released the parking brake whilst holding the jet on the toe brakes, and then applied a bit of power.  A bad idea would be to release the brakes first as the jet could roll backwards, and with the main wheels inches from the deck edge, that would be a bad idea.  I carefully followed the directions of the Yellow Coats as they marshalled me onto the tram line at the prescribed launch distance.  Once at the right spot they indicated brakes on, and I had to wait for the Duty Engineer to give me the thumbs up after he had checked over the jet one last time.  That gave me time for a last double-check of the cockpit – flaps are down, skid is off, nozzles at 10 °, HUD looks good.  Once the Duty Engineer was happy I just had to wait for the FDO to give me the launch signal, once he had been cleared by Flyco.  There was also a traffic light hanging just below Flyco which would indicate green when I was cleared to launch.  The traffic light went green and the FDO held up his green flag, all indicating that I was cleared to launch whenever I was happy.  I ran the engine up to around 55% power, holding it on the toe brakes and then gave one final glance around the cockpit to check everything.  Once quick glance back to the FDO to check that he still had his green flag up, and it was now time to go.  I ran the engine up to full power, still holding the toe brakes on until they were no longer strong enough to hold back the mighty Pegasus engine power, and checked on the gauge that the Inlet Guide Vanes (IGVs) were behaving normally and thus that the engine was good.  The jet started to skid forward which is what I was wanting, and after 10 feet or so of skid I released the brakes and let her go.  The acceleration was phenomenal as the jet sped towards the ramp with me using the pedals to keep her straight on the tram line heading.  Once I was happy that I could no longer abort the take-off (about 1 sec after brake release) I moved my hand to the nozzle lever ready for the fast approaching ramp exit.  As I hit the bottom of the ramp I felt the trajectory rapidly change as the jet quickly started to head up the ramp.  As the lip of the ramp passed under my seat I pulled the nozzle lever back to the pre-set STO stop and guarded the control column to allow the tailplane angle I had set earlier fly me in an upwards trajectory.  The jet left the end of the ramp and started flying, only on the power of the nozzles as I was not yet going fast enough for the wings to produce any lift.  Everything looked fine for about 2 seconds before the nose of the aircraft very suddenly pitched up.  I slammed the control column fully forward to the stop to try to arrest the nose up attitude, but it was not having any effect.  I looked at the angle of attack indication to the left side of the HUD only to see that it was off the clock, way higher than the maximum permitted 12 Alpha.  It was telling me that the jet was flying way slower than it was supposed to, and what was worse it had started a gentle roll to the right.  I continued to slam the control column forwards to the stop, willing the jet to start flying properly again.  I was worried about the roll to the right as if it continued too much I would jeopardise my ejection option if I rolled inverted.  For one of the few times in my career I looked at the ejection handle, giving it some serious consideration.  Time felt like it had stood still and I still remember the sunlight coming in through the right side of the canopy as I discounted the ejection option thinking that I would never live it down if I had ejected on my first Carrier take off.  I continued to slam the control column against the forward stop and much to my relief, the jet finally started to respond and the nose started to lower with the angle of attack coming back to a much more favourable value.  Once I was fully in control again I raised the landing gear, nozzled out, raised the flap to the mid-position and switched frequency to Homer to get vectors to meet up with Danny.  We switched to the Freddies and commenced our intercepts, before Chips come on the radio about 10 minutes into the intercepts.  He asked me what had happened on the launch, and such is the way that you have to compartmentalise fast jet flying, I had already forgotten that I had almost killed myself on launch, as I had inserted the intercepts cassette in my brain and was now firmly focused my brain on that.  I replied that it had been ‘interesting’ but that all was now good, so we continued the sortie before returning to Yeovilton on completion.

Talking to our groundcrew when I saw them again after they had disembarked, they confirmed that I had indeed performed an impressive ‘Cobra’ manoeuvre off the front.  As the jet had reared up and rolled right it had started to disappear behind the ship’s superstructure, and the lads said that they had all rushed to the starboard side to watch the inevitable crash or ejection.  Reviewing my HUD tape Chips was of the opinion that I had taken the nozzles a bit too late after leaving the ramp, but I am not convinced that was the case.  I think that it is just something that could happen sometimes.  A couple of the more experienced pilots said that I should have nozzled out slightly after it had happened and that would have controlled it.  The USMC actually had an emergency procedure saying exactly that, but it was never a recognised procedure for the Sea Harrier.

In my following 186 day and 36 night launches, I never had the same thing happen to me again.  It did however make me very nervous of Harrier deck launches and I was extremely nervous on my second one!  I got into the habit of pushing forward on the control column just after launch, just in case it happened again, which was actually quite dangerous as it was killing a lot of the lift I was getting.  The Sea Harrier did not actually spring off the ramp like it’s bigger winged, bigger flapped cousin, so any lift was a very vital commodity.  Towards the end of my time on 801 NAS the CO took me aside to tell me I had to stop doing it as he could see the tailplane move as I left the ramp, so I had to make a conscious effort to stop.  The deck take off was probably one of the most adrenalin charged things that we did as so much could go wrong so quickly.  There was always the temptation to have one more check of the cockpit before finally committing to getting airborne.

I thoroughly enjoyed flying the Harrier, and am still bitter that it was cut short by such an small-minded decision as the jet still had plenty to offer.  I was one of the last Sea Harrier pilots and am very proud to have been one of the few to have flown what was a quite remarkable jet.