This aircraft is the first large-scale deployment of a Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) aircraft in any military force in the world. Used by the United States and Great Britain, this aircraft has a multitude of mission capabilities for the nations that use it. Developed jointly by British Aerospace companies and McDonnell Douglas in the United States, the Harrier also represented a push by the NATO nations to standardize and consolidate some of the equipment to help shoulder the production costs. The aircraft was first deployed operationally on January 1987, while the first plans for the aircraft were pre-1978, when the first prototype flew for demonstration purposes.
The aircraft was designed from the start as a single seat, close air support aircraft. The VTOL concept was also one of the major design considerations in the new aircraft. The Harrier has seven hardpoints to carry weapons, electronic jammers, and external fuel. Six hardpoints are on the wings, with one hardpoint on the center of the fuselage. The aircraft can carry over 5000 pounds of ordnance for combat. Length of the craft is 46.33 feet, has a 30.33 foot wingspan, and is 11.65 feet tall. When on a close support mission the aircraft can remain on the ground for 60 minutes waiting for an attack call plus 1.9 hours in the air with a combat radius of 192 miles with a full combat load. Adding external fuel tanks on any of the hardpoints can increase the radius and the time in the air. The flight time can increase up to an hour with the combat radius increasing 75 to 100 miles.
The British use the Harrier as their primary carrier based fixed wing aircraft. The British carrier design differs from United States carriers in that the end of the launch deck is curved upward at the last hundred or so feet (depending on design and class of the vessel.) This allows the aircraft to be released into the air with an upward angle of flight, allowing the British to field smaller carriers requiring less resources overall. This limits the aircraft onboard to craft that can handle such takeoffs. The Harrier therefore remains the main fixed wing aircraft able to take off from British carriers. The Harrier can be used for air to air combat and performed excellently in the Falkland War between Britain and Argentina. The Argentine military had invaded the Falkland Islands, an area under British rule. British carriers were sent to the islands and encountered the Argentine Airforce. Harriers were launched and were able to down multiple Argentine aircraft with minimal casualties to the British forces in the area.
United States Usage
The United States uses the Harrier only in the United States Marine Corps (USMC). The aircraft is used as the primary fixed wing close support aircraft, supplemented by the F/A-18 Hornet. The Bell Cobra helicopter is the primary rotary wing support aircraft of the Marine Corps. The Harrier was used in the Gulf War to great effect to eliminate enemy tanks for ground forces during 100-hour push against Saddam's army. The Harrier was equipped with the laser guided Maverick missile for anti tanks missions, the Sidewinder heat seeking missile for air to air combat and a multitude of bombs, both smart and dumb, for use against ground targets.
The centerpiece of the AV-8B is its ability to hover stationary, as well as land or take off vertically. This is accomplished by a unique system of ducts and vector thrusting mechanisms. The centerpiece is the Rolls Royce F402 turbofan with 21,550 lbs. of thrust during vertical maneuvers. There are 4 thrust nozzles on the fuselage to direct the trust downward. When the aircraft is in forward flight mode the nozzles are at the 0-degree position. These nozzles are rotated downward for vertical flight, up to 98.5 degrees downward. This allows the aircraft to backup or resist a tailwind during landing. The aircraft can also slip side to side or rotate on its center axis.
A list of the weapons available for use by the AV-8B Harrier:
- MK-83 Single Dumb bombs (Laser Guided Modifications Available)
- MK-82 Triple Cluster dumb bombs (Laser Guided Modifications Available)
- MK-81 Multiple Cluster dumb bombs
- MK-20 Rockeye II Cluster bombs
- MK-77 Firebombs (Napalm)
- LAU-10 Multiple Dumb Rocket Pods
- LAU-61 Multiple Dumb Rocket Pods
- LAU-68 Multiple Dumb Rocket Pods
- AIM-9 Sidewinder Heat Seeking missiles
- AGM-65 Maverick Anti Tank missiles
- GAU-12 25mm Cannon
A major limitation of the system is that the forward thrust nozzles use cold air being compressed by the turbofan for thrust. This makes the power available for the vertical lifting dependant on the ambient temperature. At a temperature of 60 degrees the gross takeoff weight of the aircraft is limited to 19,000 lbs. Should the temperature increase to 110 degrees the gross takeoff weight is limited to 17,000 lbs. These situations were encountered by Harrier squadrons in the Gulf War where the temperature could shift from 40 degrees at night to 110 degrees in the afternoon, meaning the same combat loads could not be used at all times during the day.
Perhaps the most surprising of the limitations that the Harrier has is that during live fire testing the aircraft was discovered to be the most vulnerable to small arms fire in the entire inventory of the United States military. This important discovery helped push the development of the Harrier's replacement the Joint Strike Fighter. This new aircraft can hover and perform all of the missions of the AV-8B Harrier, but is able to perform better in all categories. The future of the Harrier is to become a National Guard vehicle, and then to be retired as it becomes outdated by modern technology.
Interviews with former Harrier Pilots, USMC