The Harrier Jet: 40 Years Old and Still Jumping

Few aircraft can be described as truly iconic, fewer still remain in service over long periods, but this year the British-designed Harrier celebrates its 40th birthday, having spent the past five years as a mainstay on operations in Afghanistan.

And the Harrier really is unique – no other jet in service has its Vertical/Short Take-Off and Landing (V/STOL) capability where pilots can land on shortened runways, carrier decks or on landing pads in the middle of a forest.


The origins of the plane go back to 1957 when Sir Sydney Camm, Ralph Hooper and Stanley Hooker first began experimenting with the innovative vectored thrust turbofan engine.

This was refined and developed and the first incarnation of the jet as we know it today was the Hawker Siddeley Harrier GR1, which first flew on 28 December 1967.  When the Harrier entered service with the RAF on 1 April 1969, it was a great technological leap forward, being the world’s first successful vectored thrust jet offering vertical take-off and landing.

Since entering service, several upgrades and modifications have been made, but the plane has always been a favourite with pilots. Changes to the GR5 included larger wings that provided the ability to carry twice the amount of fuel and twice the payload.

The latest Harrier GR9 is a heavily updated development of the existing GR7, incorporating the ability to use a wide range of advanced precision weaponry, new communications, and systems and airframe upgrades.  The GR9 can carry six Paveway IV “smart bombs” programmable by the pilot.

A Harrier GR.9 returns from a sortie over Helmland.

A Harrier GR.9 returns from a sortie over Helmland.


Qualified Weapons Instructor Squadron Leader Dan Simmons is one of two RAF brothers flying Harriers. He is based at RAF Wittering with 20 (Reserve) Squadron where both the RAF and Royal Navy train for the Joint Harrier Force. Around 700 engineers and 20 pilots (from both Services) graduate each year. He said:

“In heat of plus 45 degrees centigrade the Harrier can get airborne with a full war load and we do not have to reduce any of our capabilities. It’s an amazing aircraft.”

 Pilots are taught to land on 26 different types of landing surface at RAF Wittering, including a ‘ski-ramp’ that mimics the deck of an aircraft carrier. One student was combat-ready just two-and-a-half weeks after leaving his intensive ten-and-a-half month course.

The Harrier’s V/STOL capability was a massive benefit in the early days in Afghanistan and the short Kandahar airstrip. In a recent incident where a C-17 slid off the runway with its tail blocking the airstrip, Harriers were the only aircraft that could land and take-off for operations.

Joint Force Harrier in Afghanistan 

Harriers are soon to be withdrawn from Afghanistan and replaced by Tornado GR4s.  However, it is still far too early to consign the iconic Harrier to a museum – and there is every chance that the plane will continue to serve Britian until its 50th birthday, as there are ten more years of operational service planned for the plane before it is withdrawn completely and replaced by the Joint Combat Aircraft.

Harrier GR9 from Naval Strike Wing releasing flares whilst on operations in Afghanistan.

Harrier GR9 from Naval Strike Wing releasing flares whilst on operations in Afghanistan.


All photographs Crown Copyright / MoD.

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