Sea Harrier FA.2s and Harrier T.8 at RNAS Culdrose Air Day 2016

A collection of images of British Aerospace Harriers conducting ground runs during the RNAS Culdrose Air Day 2016

All photographs kindly contributed by Dave Taskis (please take time to visit his blog by clicking here).

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Hawker Hunter T.8

Hunter T.8 2

Hunter T.8 (


  • Role: Two-seat advanced trainer
  • Powerplant: Rolls-Royce Avon 122 (7,550lbs dry thrust)
  • Max Speed: 694mph
  • Service Ceiling: 47,000ft
  • Ferry Range: 1900miles (with external tanks)
  • Wingspan: 33ft 8in
  • Length: 48ft 10in
  • Height: 13ft 2in

Up until 1939 the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm (FAA) were subservient to the Royal Air Force and as such nearly the entire inventory of FAA aircraft were simply naval versions of the RAF’s own aircraft. Upon gaining independence from the RAF the FAA was finally able to stipulate its own requirements for aircraft and the British military aviation industry branched off in to two sectors – land based for the RAF and carrier based for the FAA. There were of course exceptions and the most notable being the Hawker Sea Hurricane, the Supermarine Seafire and De Havilland’s early jets such as the Vampire and Venom but these were seen as stop-gaps until the resources became available to develop entirely new aircraft.

In the post war period the FAA operated a plethora of jet powered combat types ranging from the relatively simple Supermarine Attacker up to the powerful De Havilland Sea Vixen with plans on the horizon for the even more sophisticated Blackburn Buccaneer and McDonnell Douglas Phantom. The problem was that the training infrastructure in place for the FAA was falling behind the frontline aircraft and so the gap between the lead-in fighter trainers such as the Hawker Fury and the operational conversion units was rapidly growing.

Therefore in the mid-to-late 1950s the FAA looked at options to acquire a new and more capable advanced trainer to plug the gap. After evaluating several options the FAA decided that it would reverse its policy on acquiring jets designed specifically for them and acquire the training version of the RAF’s superlative Hawker Hunter, the Hunter T.7, but tailored to their needs. This produced the Hunter T.8 and this in turn spawned several sub-variants.

Hawker Hunter T.8

In outlining its requirement for the Hunter the FAA decided against making the Hunter carrier-capable as this would increase development (and subsequently unit) costs but the aircraft would have to train FAA pilots in the delicate and dangerous art of carrier landings. To do this a series of arrestor wires could be stretched across the runway at a shore based training station to simulate a carrier deck allowing the pilots to practice making carrier approaches. In order to catch the wire the Hunter T.8 was fitted with a tail hook but this was not strong enough to bring the aircraft to a full halt. It would simply pull on the arrestor wire to allow a ground instructor to grade the landing by the student pilot.

As well as training pilots how to land on a carrier the Hunters were also employed as lead-in fighter trainers teaching pilots the skills necessary for basic air-to-air and air-to-ground combat before moving on to a conversion unit where these skills would be built upon depending on the aircraft and role they would undertake operationally. The first unit to receive the Hunter T.8 was No.726 NAS based at RNAS Lossiemouth. A total of 35 Hunter T.8s were built or converted from ex-RAF Hunter F.4s and served with No.726 NAS and No.764 NAS.

Hunter T.8B

The Blackburn Buccaneer S.1 offered a whole new dimension to the Fleet Air Arm’s ability to fly low and fast but the lack of a dedicated trainer version meant that the FAA turned to the Hunter to fill the gap. Four aircraft were converted to act as trainers for the Buccaneer and featured among other Buccaneer systems a TACAN navigation suite. The new variant was designated the Hunter T.8B and remained in service until the Buccaneer S.2 was withdrawn in 1978 but the RAF would later adopt a similar aircraft for the same role when they inherited the navy’s Buccaneer force.

Hawker Hunter T.8C

Ten of the ex-RAF Hunter F.4s converted to T.8 standard in the early 1960s were fitted with TACAN navigation suites. A tactical air navigation system, commonly referred to by the acronym TACAN, is a navigation system used by military aircraft. It provides the aircrew with a bearing and distance in relation to a ground- or ship-based station. These aircraft were delivered to No.759 NAS at RNAS Brawdy in North Wales and received the peculiar designation of T.8C and were used to train pilots preparing to join a Scimitar or Sea Vixen (later Phantom FG.1) squadron where using these systems were an integral part of flying. A number of observers were also trained in the system’s use.

Later Service

Hunter T.8

As the Royal Navy began scaling back its carrier force such a large training organization was no longer needed and so the three squadrons were disbanded and their personnel and aircraft amalgamated in to a single training squadron based at RNAS Yeovilton under the banner of No.899 NAS. For a very brief time this was the Royal Navy’s only operational fast jet unit between the retirement of HMS Ark Royal and the delivery of the first Sea Harrier FRS.1s.

As well as traditional training tasks the Hunter T.8/8Cs also acted as adversaries for the Royal Navy’s surface fleet training naval gunners and surface-to-air missile (SAM) operators in acquiring high speed low level attack jets. For this role the aircraft were modified with a Harley light in the nose that made the aircraft more visible to new gunners. Once the gunners became more proficient the light would be turned off to provide a more realistic target. This training would prove invaluable during the 1982 Falklands Conflict particularly during the landings at San Carlos.

Between the late 1970s and early 1980s the Hunters were slowly passed to the civilian operated Fleet Requirements and Direction Unit (FRADU) who continued to use them in the target role for surface ships. They were eventually replaced by British Aerospace Hawks.

Hunter T.8M

Hawker Hunter T.8M

Hunter T.8 (

One of the most well-known naval variants of the Hunter in FAA service were the small number of Hunter T.8Ms. The introduction of the Sea Harrier FRS.1 brought with it new problems regarding training of aircrew. It was a totally new form of air operations and the navy’s version was different still being fitted with the large Blue Fox radar. The FAA used two seat Harriers to train their pilots how to fly the aircraft but these lacked the weapon system and it would have been impractical to develop a Harrier trainer with the radar.

Therefore the decision was taken to fit the radar and its accompanying systems to a handful of Hunter T.8s to train the Sea Harrier pilots how to use the weapon system operationally. This produced arguably the most attractive version of the Hunter and many viewed it as a taste of the potential the aircraft had in the late fifties had development continued. The trainee pilot could fly the Hunter T.8M almost exactly like the Sea Harrier FRS.1 bar of course the V/STOL capability and this meant that the aircraft could theoretically have a wartime role of rear guard air defence. As well as the Blue Fox radar the aircraft was wired to carry an AIM-9L Sidewinder acquisition training round to simulate firing the live weapon.

Despite the success of the aircraft no new variant was developed to train FAA pilots on the Sea Harrier FA.2 with its far more sophisticated Blue Vixen radar. Instead the FAA adopted a combination of flight time in the two seat Harrier trainer and ground tuition.

BAe Sea Harrier FA2

Sea Harrier FA2

  • Crew: 1
  • Role: Multi-role Naval Combat Aircraft
  • Length: 46 ft 6 in (14.2 m)
  • Wingspan: 25 ft 3 in (7.6 m)
  • Height: 12 ft 2 in (3.71 m)
  • Empty weight: 14,052 lb (6,374 kg)
  • Max. takeoff weight: 26,200 lb (11,900 kg)
  • Powerplant: 1 × Rolls-Royce Pegasus mk106 vectored thrust turbofan, 21,750 lbs (95.64 kN)
  • Maximum speed: Mach 0.9 (735 mph)
  • Ferry range: 1,740 miles
  • Service ceiling: 51,000 ft
  • Armament:
    2-4× AIM-9L Sidewinders
    2-4x AIM-120B AMRAAM
    2× 30 mm ADEN guns
    8,000lbs of ordinance on external stores

The success of the Sea Harrier FRS.1 in the Falklands War surprised many including the Admiralty who expected a 50% casualty rate among the small force. Nevertheless the conflict highlighted several weaknesses that although were already known before the war were not considered important enough to address for both financial and political reasons not least of which was the expectation that the Sea Harrier was to have a short life in the Royal Navy before they and the carrier HMS Invincible were to be sold to Australia. Indeed, some viewed the Sea Harrier project as merely a demonstration of British technology in order to gain lucrative sub-contracts to other aerospace companies particularly in the US. After 1982 however the aircraft was viewed as an important part of any future British planning and so they were retained.

While the aircraft faired well against the Argentinians with their ageing fighters confidence in its ability to protect the fleet was shaken by the arrival of new long range Soviet fighters such as the MiG-31 “Foxhound” and the Su-27 “Flanker-A”. This fear was exacerbated by the news that the Soviet Navy was about to deploy its first true aircraft carriers with their extremely capable Su-33 “Flanker-Ds”. The Sea Harrier needed an update to remain credible in the face of these new threats and just like in 1982 it was going to have to have a more sophisticated weapon system to make up for the performance shortfall.

The old Blue Fox radar in the FRS.1 was therefore replaced by a far more sophisticated Ferranti Blue Vixen radar which at the time of its introduction in 1988 was claimed to be one of the most capable pulse doppler radars in the world which gave the aircraft its long sought after look down/shoot down capability. As well as being a formidable air-to-air radar it could also perform ground mapping and surface target detection and tracking functions making the Sea Harrier FA2 a true multi-role combat aircraft. Fitting Blue Vixen necessitated a redesign of the radome replacing the rocket-like shape of the FRS.1 with a more bulbous look which was deceptively shorter in length. With the Soviet Navy’s Su-33s sporting a powerful beyond visual range (BVR) capability in the R-27 medium range air-to-air missile it was decided to arm the Sea Harrier FA2 with the AIM-120B AMRAAM to even the odds and in doing so the Sea Harrier FA2 became the first fighter outside of the United States to field this weapon.

Other improvements included uprated Rolls-Royce Pegasus Mk106 turbofan engines and a comprehensive electronic countermeasures (ECM) suite. Imporvements that were planned but ultimately shelved included the fitting of second generation Harrier GR.5/7 style leading edge root extensions (LERXes) that would have improved roll rate and wingtip pylons for an additional pair of AIM-9L Sidewinders.

The Sea Harrier FA2 entered service in 1993 by which time the threat of the now-Russian carrier program had greatly diminished. Nevertheless the Sea Harrier FA2 performed sterling work enforcing no-fly zones over Iraq, Bosnia (during which time a single aircraft was shot down by a SAM) and Kosovo. More importantly the aircraft helped develop Joint Force Harrier which meant that RAF Harriers could operate off the carriers in the strike role freeing up the Sea Harriers for the fighter role building on hard earned experience in the Falklands. Near the end of its career an automatic VTOL landing system was trialled on a Sea Harrier FA2 and this has gone on to form the basis of a similar system for the F-35B Lightning II.

The Sea Harrier FA2 was retired from service in 2006.

BAe Sea Harrier FRS.1


  • Crew: 1
  • Role: Multi-role Naval Combat Aircraft
  • Length: 47 ft 7 in (14.5 m)
  • Wingspan: 25 ft 3 in (7.6 m)
  • Height: 12 ft 2 in (3.71 m)
  • Empty weight: 14,052 lb (6,374 kg)
  • Max. takeoff weight: 26,200 lb (11,900 kg)
  • Powerplant: 1 × Rolls-Royce Pegasus mk.104 vectored thrust turbofan, 21,500 lbs (95.64 kN)
  • Maximum speed: Mach 0.9 (737 mph)
  • Ferry range: 1,740 miles
  • Service ceiling: 51,000 ft
  • Armament:
    2-4× AIM-9 Sidewinders
    2× 30 mm ADEN guns
    8,000lbs of ordinance on external stores

In 1979, HMS Ark Royal (R09) was formally decommissioned bringing an end to conventional fixed wing flight in the Royal Navy. The newest ships coming in to service were designed to operate helicopters but it was found they could also operate Harrier V/STOL aircraft. Handed a lifeline, the Fleet Air Arm placed an order for 34 Sea Harriers; a modified version of the RAF’s Harrier GR.3 incorporating radar and air-to-air missiles for the air defence role. Thus one of the most iconic aircraft to have ever served in the Fleet Air Arm was born.

In the aftermath of the Sea Harrier’s superlative performance as a traditional fighter in the Falklands War it has long been forgotten that this was not the role envisioned for the type in the 1970s. The Admiralty knew that they weren’t fielding an aircraft on a par with the rest of NATO and the Soviet air forces (at least on paper) and instead planned to use it to simply protect the fleet from lumbering maritime patrol and bomber aircraft such as the Il-38 “May” and the Tu-95 “Bear” where it wouldn’t have to ‘mix it’ with fighters. Even after the Falklands this remained the primary mission of the aircraft with a secondary attack and reconnaissance role.

Power for the Sea Harrier came from a Rolls-Royce Pegasus thrust vectoring turbofan engine which was also what gave the aircraft its vertical take-off capability by directing thrust downwards around the aircraft’s centre of gravity. The Sea Harrier had a level speed of 735mph with a service ceiling of 51,000ft which are impressive when you consider that the Rolls-Royce Pegasus is a non-afterburning engine. Although range figures vary depending on what load is carried the Sea Harrier is quoted at having a combat range of around 600 miles with external fuel tanks.

The Sea Harrier was fitted with the Blue Fox air intercept radar which had both air-to-air and air-to-surface modes. It was hardly a modern radar set even in 1978 and lacked many of the modes that could be found on the RAF’s frontline fighters such as the Phantom FGR.2. It was good enough for the original role envisioned however and it was expected to be under ground or ship control up until the intercept point. It could track around twelve targets at a time (some sources claim more but this is disputed) but had very little look down/shoot down capability. It was far superior to the Sapfir-23 radar which is what the export MiG-21 and MiG-23s were fitted with and at one time China was looking at fitting it to their version of the MiG-21, the J-7, for sale to Pakistan. The Sea Harrier also had an excellent radar warning receiver, the Sky Guardian, which was almost the standard set for British aircraft in the 80s.

The Sea Harrier FRS.1 was equipped with the excellent AIM-9L Sidewinder which introduced all-aspect detection capability meaning a pilot didn’t have to get on an enemy plane’s tail to acquire the target. The missile had a powerful fragmentation warhead which meant that even a proximity hit could do potentially fatal damage to a single-engined aircraft. In the fighter role the AIM-9 was backed up by two ventral 30 mm guns whose mounting was designed to help give the aircraft increased stability. The aircraft had a wide range of unguided weapons available to it from rockets to bombs and the maximum warload was around 8,000lbs spread out between a total of five pylons (excluding the two dedicated 30mm cannons). A seldom carried weapon that was nonetheless available to the Sea Harrier was the Sea Eagle anti-ship missile which was a potent open ocean weapon and was capable of disabling all but the largest warship.

In the Falklands War the Sea Harrier dominated the skies over the South Atlantic. The Argentinian pilots in the 1960s-era Dassault Mirage III fighters were unable to match its sophisticated weapon system. After the war the aircraft returned to its original role of protecting the fleet against Soviet air power however towards the late 1980s the introduction of the Sukhoi Su-27K (Su-33) “Flanker” naval fighter demanded the aircraft be upgraded and this produced the Sea Harrier F/A-2.

See Also

BAe Sea Harrier FRS.1 XZ493/001/N at Yeovilton Fleet Air Arm Museum

A Falklands War veteran this aircraft served aboard HMS Invincible with No.801 NAS during the conflict. It continued in service after the war with several squadrons until on the 15th December 1994 it crashed in the Adriatic ocean following the loss of yaw control during the hover phase. The aircraft was recovered but never flew again. Instead it was stripped of any useful parts before being put in storage. Then in 1995 it was decided to start work on restoring it to display condition and now resides in Hall 4 of the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton in Somerset.

Photos were taken on January 3rd 2015

Attack on the Río Iguazú

The Rio Iguaza

The Rio Iguazu

In the darkened early hours of the morning of May 22nd 1982, a pair of Sea Harriers of No.800 NAS made their run along the deck of the ageing carrier HMS Hermes before leaping off the ski-jump mounted on the foredeck and in to the air. Armed for a combat air patrol, they carried a pair of AIM-9L Sidewinder missiles under their outer wing pylons while tucked under the fuselage in two streamlined pods were a pair of 30mm ADEN cannons. Their patrol route took them over Choiseul Sound, a stretch of water north of East Falkland island. Unbeknown to the two British pilots but a solitary vessel draped in camouflage was already traversing this stretch of water hoping to use the poor early morning light for protection from British aircraft. It was the Argentine Coast Guard (Prefectura Naval Argentina) vessel the Río Iguazú under the command of Captain Prefectura Olemda.

Rio Iguaza

Rio Iguazu docked at Puerto Argentino (Port Stanley)

The Río Iguazú  was one of twenty Z-28-class patrol boats built for the Argentine Coast Guard by Blohm & Voss in Germany during the 1970s. 90ft in length she displaced just 65 tons and had a typical crew complement of 15 while armament comprised of two browning 12.7 machine guns and various small arms carried by the crew. The vessel was dispatched along with her sister-ship the Islas Malvinas to the Falklands on April 11th still resplendent in their immaculate white paint schemes denoting that they were maritime security vessels. They arrived at Puerto Argentino (the Argentine occupational name for the Falklands capital Port Stanley) just after midnight on the 13th April and in doing so had violated the maritime exclusion zone established by the British following the Argentinian occupation of the islands on April 2nd. This meant that to the British the vessel was subject to attack without warning. On April 14th the crews of the two patrol boats began to paint over their white schemes with a brown and green camouflage pattern indicating that the Argentinians had every intention of using them in a combat role.

The Río Iguazú  and the Islas Malvinas both carried out a wide variety of duties around the islands as the British taskforce sailed south and these ranged from security missions, escort missions, radar picket duties as well as providing pilot services to ships entering Puerto Argentino (Port Stanley). After the taskforce reached the Falklands on May 1st 1982 the ships also undertook a combat search and rescue role for Argentine pilots shot down in battle with the British. This put the two vessels in combat quite early in to the campaign when on May 2nd while both vessels were searching for a downed FMA IA-58 Pucara crew they were spotted by a Royal Navy helicopter. Early Argentinian reports that the helicopter was a Sea King proved false and it was in fact a Lynx helicopter operating from HMS Ardent. The Argentinian vessels and the helicopter both exchanged machine gun fire before the door gunner in the Lynx was wounded forcing the aircraft to withdraw. The two vessels, fearing further attacks, quickly withdrew also.

On the 21st May the first British forces landed at San Carlos and the ground war for the islands began. Later that very night Captain Olmeda received word that his vessel was to transport two OTO Melara 105mm howitzers and 15 members of the Army from Puerto Argentino to Goose Green to bolster the defences there. Some reports claim that the vessel was also carrying parts for Pucara attack aircraft, the only Argentine attack aircraft to operate from the islands themselves, although this is disputed. The equipment and the soldiers (who effectively doubled the patrol boat’s usual complement to 30) were loaded aboard under the cover of darkness. Due to the size of the patrol boat and the weight of the equipment it was carrying the artillery pieces had to be laid down flat across the deck to prevent the Río Iguazú  from becoming top heavy. At 0430hrs on the morning of May 22nd the vessel slipped its moorings and set off for Goose Green via the Choiseul Sound.

Sea Harrier Rio IguazaAt 0820hrs two Sea Harriers, XZ496 flown by Lieutenant Hale and XZ460 flown by Lieutenant Commander Frederiksen of No.800 NAS, passed over the Choiseul Sound. The murky low light of the early morning over the Falklands can give the islands a rather oppressive feeling but it meant that on the dark grey waters below the wake from the camouflaged patrol boat drew a short white line on the sea visible from the air. Hale signalled his intention to attack while Frederiksen stayed high to protect him from any Argentine aircraft that might try to intercept them.

Argentine comic strip depicting the attack

Argentine comic strip depicting the attack

The Argentine crew saw the two specs in the air and knew they were under attack. They quickly manned their action stations including the two 12.7mm machine guns and prepared to defend themselves. Hale flew in low and switched to his two 30mm cannons before strafing the vessel at a rather shallow angle. The shells struck the rear of the ship striking electrical equipment and damaging the rudder. Several shells also passed right through the hull causing the vessel to take on water. The loss of electrical power inhibited the crews ability to start pumping out the water.

The two 12.7mm guns on the Río Iguazú , manned by Corporal Julio Omar Benitez and Senior Assistant Juan José Baccaro, retaliated firing rounds at Hale’s aircraft during his attacks. Benitez and Baccaro were both hit with Beccaro’s gun being destroyed by a 30mm shell. As the Sea Harrier finished its last attack the one remaining serviceable gun was manned by Corporal Ibáñez who fired shots at the Sea Harrier. In the confusion of the attack the Argentine crew saw the Sea Harrier fly behind a plume of smoke and believed that Ibáñez had scored a direct hit bringing the aircraft down. This proved not to be the case however and both Sea Harriers returned to HMS Hermes.

Captain Olmeda knew that he could not pump out the water seeping in from the holes in his vessel fast enough to remain afloat and so he gave the order to drive the vessel on to the shore at Button Bay. The patrol boat beached and its sharply raked hull left to fall onto its starboard side. Despite the ferocity of the attack only Corporal Benitez was killed in the incident while Bccaro was seriously wounded and a few others sustaining minor injuries. Considering the number of men crammed aboard the vessel it is a miracle the death toll was not higher and Olmeda’s decision to beach almost certainly saved the remainder.

Rio IguazuDespite the fact the patrol boat was taken out of the fight the howitzers onboard remained intact and the Argentinians wasted no time taking them off; they were afraid that a follow up attack might destroy the boat and its precious cargo completely. These guns were later used to defend Darwin from the advancing British before they were captured intact and used against their former owners. Efforts to refloat the Río Iguazú were impractical given the war situation and so Olmeda and his men abandoned the patrol boat at Button bay. The vessel was captured by the British who saw no use for it and so they too left it rot.

Then on June 13th a Royal Navy Lynx helicopter from HMS Penelope spotted the vessel unaware of its condition and believed it was an operational vessel. The Lynx fired a Sea Skua missile which struck the bridge destroying all of its internal equipment and damaging the superstructure beyond repair. This guaranteed that the vessel would never be returned to service. After the war the British towed the hulk off Button Bay and beached it for a last time at Goose Green. It was then broken up and sold for scrap. The name plaque of the Río Iguazú was presented to the Royal Navy and remains on display at the Yeovilton Fleet Air Arm museum.

The Río Iguazú name plaque at Yeovilton in 2015

The Río Iguazú name plaque at Yeovilton in 2015

Rio Iguazu photo credits: Patrulleras Argentinas