The history of jet-powered V/STOL at sea goes back to February 9th 1963, when Bill Bedford flew the first P.1127 out to HMS Ark Royal and landed-on. Although Bedford had never flown aboard a ship previously, these early trials covered a great deal of ground without much difficulty.

From 1963 to 1970 further shipboard trials were carried out with Kestrels and AV-6As. In 1970 Harriers flew Service Release trials from HMS Eagle, allowing No 1 Squadron RAF to go to sea in Ark Royal.

The 1966 British Defence White Paper not only cancelled the CVA-01 carrier, but also announced the elimination of Fleet Air Arm fixed-wing air power. The RAF Harrier force was supposed to provide fleet air defence when the RN's carriers were retired. Eventually the penny dropped in the Admiralty, and it was recognised that the RAF's Harriers couldn't carry out fleet air defence as well as their attack and recce roles.

The Maritime Support Harrier (as it was then called) seems to date from early 1971. The main problem was that there was very little money. After much argument in the MoD a Naval Staff Target was issued in 1972 which represented the re-birth of the fixed-wing Fleet Air Arm and was written round the Harrier airframe. The aircraft would operate from what were originally called Through-Deck Cruisers, but in reality were light aircraft carriers.

By 1972 the use of V/STOL at sea was well understood. To be more accurate, it is STOVL, because a short takeoff run was shown to enable a heavier payload to be carried, whereas landings would always be vertical. The usual carrier equipment like catapults, arrester wires and barriers were not necessary, so operation from quite small ships was feasible.

In November 1972 Hawker received a contract for a design study and cost plan for what was by then being called the Sea Harrier. For over a year there was virtually no progress other than to award Rolls-Royce a contract to develop the Pegasus 104 engine, and another to Ferranti for the Blue Fox radar. Final go-ahead for the aircraft was given on May 15th 1975, with twenty-four aircraft ordered.

While the Sea Harrier was still in development, Lt Cdr Doug Taylor RN came up with the idea of the "ski jump", which was an upward-curving ramp at the end of the STO run which imparted a positive vertical velocity to the aircraft. As well as offering more payload, the ski jump enhances safety because the aircraft is going upwards as it leaves the end of the ramp, giving more time to eject in the event of a problem. Initially, 7° ramps were fitted to Invincible and Illustrious, and Hermes and Ark Royal got 12° ramps. Later Invincible and Illustrious were refitted with 12° ramps.

The first flight of the Sea Harrier was made by XZ450 on August 20th 1978. The first aircraft to be handed over to the Navy, XZ451, was delivered on June 18th 1979.

In May 1978 a further ten aircraft were ordered, bringing the total to 34. The aircraft was also ordered by India, which received 23 aircraft from 1983.

In 1982 the Sea Harrier received a baptism of fire, when British forces were sent to retake the Falkland Islands from Argentine invaders. Without the Sea Harrier, Operation Corporate would have been impossible to carry out.

A second batch of 23 aircraft was ordered after the Falklands conflict, and the aircraft were delivered between 1985 and 1988.

In 1984 a mid-life update for the Sea Harrier was given the go-ahead. The main change was the replacement of the rather limited Blue Fox radar with the pulse-Doppler Blue Vixen. The Blue Vixen gave the Sea Harrier FA.2 the ability to carry the AIM-120 AMRAAM.

Thirty-five FRS.1s were converted to FA.2 standard. Eighteen new-build FA.2s were also ordered, which were delivered from 1995 to 1998.

On February 28th 2002 the UK MoD announced that the entire Sea Harrier fleet would be withdrawn from service by 2006. Joint Force Harrier would become an all-Harrier GR.9 operation until the F-35 was ready for service in about 2014.

According to the London "Daily Telegraph" dated June 15th 2002, the British Government did not consult close military allies or NATO about its plans to axe the Navy's Sea Harrier fleet before the decision was announced. The paper said that the decision to withdraw the UK's most capable air defence aircraft "is known to have caused alarm" among senior USAF and US Navy officers. The House of Commons Defence Select Committee report published on July 10th 2002 concluded that "[the committee] are forced to conclude that whatever the result of such discussions [with allies], the UK has already decided that in another five years it will rely on others for air-defence patrols for our naval task forces".

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