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Harrier Testing

Andy Lawson spent fourteen years working as a photographer at BAe's Dunsfold site (and a year at Kingston for good measure) but his association went back much further - he grew up playing there as a boy, as his father was already a foreman at Dunsfold, and a member of the golf section, so he used to stroll around with him when little more than a toddler.

The following article is a collection of his memories of his years there, starting with the impact of the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands in April 1982. The article is illustrated with some of his dramatic photographs, previously unpublished. To see a large version of each picture, simply click on the relevant image.

Harrier Testing - by Andy Lawson

I remember the Monday in 1982; we arrived for work as usual in the Experimental Hangar, Dunsfold, to find it virtually empty.Our development Sea Harrier FRS1’s, XZ 450, 438, 439 plus our T8M Hunter XL602 (with Sea Harrier Blue Fox radar), were all gone.

The Experimental Manager, John Kimberley, assembled us all and gave a little speech to the effect of "You all know what’s been going on about the Falkland Islands, well the Navy have been in for their planes over the weekend, they’re assembling a task force, which is sailing as I speak!".

Farley Flyby XZ440 before first flight
John Farley flies-by in a Sea Harrier.
This black and white shot of FRS1 XZ440 was taken just before its first flight. Mike Snelling took FORTY minutes on his walk-round! Eventually even ‘Snagger’ conceded there was nothing obviously wrong and he'd have to fly it!

"They’ve also grabbed back Taylor Scott" he mentioned, though knowing Taylor I don’t think anything could have kept him away. This Navy Test Pilot, seconded to Dunsfold, had carried out the recent trials on the new AIM-9L model Sidewinder, capable of engaging enemy aircraft from ahead rather than just the rear-aspect of earlier versions, and he made strenuous efforts to make sure the task force had this model (supplied discreetly by the U.S.).

I imagine much to his chagrin, Lt. Cdr. Taylor Scott was kept at Yeovilton training up the service pilots, and did not get to the Islands until it was all over, joining the Illustrious in charge of her air-group. It is a cruel twist that Taylor, a true gung-ho Fleet Air Arm pilot, was later killed by a faulty ejection seat drogue firing undemanded at 35,000 feet in an RAF GR5 (ZD 325) on a quiet evening routine test flight. In the pub outside Dunsfold Aerodrome, the ‘Three Compasses’, a simple brass plaque on a beam is dedicated, "Died Testing".

There is a lot more to this story, though no conclusive ending - I would say that it was no way Taylors’ fault, having been photographer on the board of enquiry; however a verdict of open/or pilot error is convenient every time, isn’t it?

Dunsfold was of course very busy indeed during the Falkands conflict, we had a rash of bright ideas from the Kingston design office to help our guys. Among these were an ALE 40 chaff and flare dispenser - as this had not been budgeted for previously, all the Harrier pilots could rely on in the meantime was a bunch of tin foil stowed above the airbrake, giving a vague ‘one-shot’ chaff option!

After urgent requests, the mod’ schemes also came up with larger drop tanks, 190 as opposed to the original 100 gallons, and a fit for four rather than two Sidewinders. We also arranged an AIM-9L Sidewinder fit for the R.A.F. GR3’s - in a marathon effort, nine of them flew non-stop (with in-flight refuelling) to Ascension Island, where 6 were loaded onto Atlantic Conveyor, 3 remaining as guards for the outpost at Wideawake, as there was a perceived threat – albeit slight. 8 Sea Harriers from 809 Sqn were also loaded on the Atlantic Conveyor, along with helicopters.

The Harrier I originally had the option of extended wingtips for ‘ferry’ flights, though I never saw these used, and they were limited to 3g. More important was the topping up of the engine oil to the higher ferry level for sustained endurance.

Perhaps more difficult to sort, the Sea Harrier navigation system (NAVHARS) had to be persuaded it was South of the Equator – no-one had reckoned to try this on trials, (or thought the expenses would wear it) and consequently the system toppled – if you see any cockpit H.U.D. film (Pilot Display Recorder, or P.D.R.) of the time, you’ll see the compass heading stays on zero.

As the GR3’s had never expected to go to sea, a system was quickly come up with to align their inertial platforms while on the carrier – it’s remarkable how the U.K. military seems shambolic at times, but when pressed seems to have a plan ‘B’ for most situations up their sleeve!

Despite feverish activity night and day, we were later told by Navy Test Pilot Steve Thomas, " none of the (Sea Harrier) mods reached us before it was all over ". He also told us of his first two of three ’kills’ in the Falklands - " I had read a book on Vietnam where the pilots had learned to invert and look down every thirty seconds or so. As I did this, I saw two Mirages going for the fleet, and dived, calling ‘Tally-Ho’ to my leader (‘Sharkey’ Ward)".

"I got behind the first one, and gaining ‘tone’ on my Sidewinder, let it go-with unfortunate results for the Mirage". The missile went up the jetpipe and blew the plane apart - as he quoted it, " Miguel was by now generating a lot of heat, so I had to get past the fireball before I could lock on to Carlos and blew his wing off.".

At the time I assumed these were stereotypical names, but it transpired that the pilots had survived and all three now went out for meals together!

The Dunsfold guys did finish the last feasibly useful Sea Harrier in record time. I remember Mike Snelling took off, and did a tight circuit at what seemed full power. He buzzed the production hangars at very high speed, waggling the wings in a thank-you to the workers who had put so much effort in, before heading full-bore for Yeovilton.

This was a very out of character performance for a remarkably restrained flyer - his nick-name, which he was quite proud of, was ‘Snagger’!

At R.N.A.S. Yeovilton it was organised chaos of course; two events spring to mind. One of ‘our’ (actually Ministry) development Sea Harriers, XZ438, was doing ski-jump training, when due to human error - i.e, cock-up - only one drop tank was filled. There are no gauges to inform the pilot of this asymmetric state (though a careful tapping on the walk-round might have revealed a lot!) , and as soon as it left the ski-ramp it yawed violently out of control.

I understand it’s possible that drop tanks which are supposed to be empty can syphon back from the wing tanks over a period of time - my Father discovered this after a lunch break ! - so maybe that’s what happened to 438. The pilot ejected safely, though I met a member of the groundcrew who was watching, realised there was a problem and ran for the A.T.C. door, just closing it behind him when the main undercarriage leg hit it!

1st GR.5 take-off FRS.51 take-off
The first GR5, ZD318, on its first take-off (pilot M. Snelling).
Indian FRS51 of the ‘White Tigers’ leaving Dunsfold on delivery.

Meanwhile, all Sea Harriers were being given low-observability overall grey R.A.M. (radar absorbent material) paint schemes, which also helped reduce radar signatures. Every FRS1 in original blue and white livery which landed at Yeovilton was immediately descended upon by a gang who rubbed down the paint, prior to application of the new scheme.

Unfortunately, our remaining development FRS1, XZ440, was visiting, and as our pilot landed, this gang appeared, and despite all his frantic signalling from the cockpit they proceeded to destroy the paint finish. Funds being what they were, 440 stayed like this for years, and though it was a favourite aircraft of mine, I sighed whenever I heard I had to do a photo-assignment with it!

When the shooting war started, the first casualty was Lt.Nick Taylor in XZ450, brought down by I think a large AAA shell in a leading edge, though some earlier reports reckoned a Roland SAM was responsible. This was obviously uttermost a tragedy in human terms, but also a waste of a special aeroplane; 450 was the first Sea Harrier to fly, in August 1978, and had been with us at Dunsfold for development work ever since.

It had taken thirteen months to instrument this aircraft for the Sea Eagle sea-skimming anti-ship missile, yet the Navy used it on a standard iron bomb raid on Goose Green. The only good thing to come out of it, as related by John Farley, was that the Argentinians found the missile control panel in the wreckage, and thought "Christ, they’ve got Sea Eagle operational already ! " - thus keeping their ships in port.

Personally I can’t help thinking our subs were more a part of the equation, but it’s a nice idea that Lt.Taylor’s sacrifice may have borne some fruit.

Air strikes on the Argentinian fleet (even in port) were indeed planned at one stage. A book very worth reading is ‘One Hundred Days’ by Admiral ‘Sandy’ Woodward.

A little while later, in more peaceful times, I was hanging cine cameras on XZ440 for the first Sea Eagle firing; by typical BAe organisation, we were stationed at Hatfield, while using the Aberporth range in Wales!

We were using a centreline camera pod built at Boscombe Down, which, while streamlined, had a few shortcomings - for one, it ran from a huge self-contained battery which weighed ninety-six pounds and nearly killed me every time I had to take it out for recharging at the battery bay!

The installed Telford cine-cameras were also rather restricted in their angle of view, but overall it worked, and like some of our later films, the results are still used on the ‘Discovery Wings’ satellite T.V. for trailers.

At least whoever designed that pod had the sense to put an ‘eye-lid’ covering over the forward facing camera; the dirt thrown up by a Harrier nosewheel, especially on rough ground, can make short work of any lens! Some manufacturers of reconnaissance pods would have done well to have thought of that. It was not unknown for pilots to forget to arm the cameras on a weapon firing, especially dive attacks - they had a lot to think about! Jim Moore - my boss at Dunsfold Photographic - had a typically ex-R.A.F. expression to use if results turned up blank - " camera switched on, pilot not switched on!"

Later, on the development GR5’s, the Instrumentation Dept came up with a computer-controlled ‘key-pad’ in the cockpit, so we could pre-program the duration, running speed etc of the cameras to commence as soon as the pilot touched the appropriate HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick) buttons for the firing or release of whatever item was supposed to drop off the aeroplane.

The purpose of our film data was to check the release trajectory of the weapon / droptank / whatever, and make sure it released ‘cleanly’, not risking hitting the aircraft. At high speeds especially even iron bombs have been known to ‘float’ in the slipstream of aircraft and take a wing or tail right off - as some American trials on other ‘planes found out the hard way.

All drop-tanks or bombs, whatever, are pushed from the pylon by two explosive cartridges known as ‘E.R.U.s’ - Explosive Release Units. The power of these charges is carefully selected, in what’s known as ‘throttling’- usually the more powerful one at the nose of the weapon or tank, to give a pitch-down effect.

The firing sequence is controlled from the cockpit in what’s known as ‘patching’, though in modern Harriers the S.M.S. (Stores Management System) is programmed to sort this out for itself, once the pilot tells it what the pylons are carrying in his pre-start routine, nowadays by inserting a data cartridge from his briefing.

Wire lanyards are also connected to the pylons, to SPEMS (Secure Points Externally Mounted!) which control such things as bomb tailfin deployment etc.

Meanwhile on the good old FRS1, Mike Snelling was the pilot for the Sea Eagle missile firing; on test ranges, the pilot performs a ‘dry run’ to get the alignments etc OK, then will come back in under range control for a ‘hot run’ to fire.

On this occasion Snelling had completed his ‘dry run’, and was cleared ‘in hot’. He acquired a target in about the right place, and prepared to loose off the Sea Eagle. With a few seconds to go, he thought the angle looked ‘slightly different’, so aborted. The contact turned out to be a fishing boat !

This would have been ironic as he ran a fishing boat of his own out of Brighton in his free time, I once saw a letter by him to the ‘Times’ along the lines of " we poor fishermen..." forgetting to mention he was also a Test Pilot !

One Test Pilot who should not go unmentioned is Graham Tomlinson, or as we knew him, ‘G.T.’; he’s the chap in the shot of the GR5 in the dust on the Rough Ground Trials; they were quite high risk tests, if an outrigger had gone it may well have been curtains, but only wimps like me even mentioned ‘where’s the rescue cover?!’.

Ground erosion 1 Ground erosion 2
Ground erosion 1: GR5 in the dust on the Rough Ground Trials. Note the nose reaction control jet.
Ground erosion 2: ZD319 on trials at Wittering.

Some pilots have been known to put a Harrier wingtip between the hangars at West Freugh (I know of one other service pilot who came back to photographers later with a quiet request to ‘lose’ films) but G.T. is far too laid back and professional to indulge in such hooliganism.

When the GR5, with its Digital Engine Control System (DECS), was quite new, G.T. was taking-off one day when the engine stopped at only a few hundred feet. The drill is of course to get out, but Graham stayed with it, worked out that the L.P. cock microswitches had disengaged, and did a complete restart all in the space of a few seconds - which is about all he had.

I also remember attending a lecture by John Farley, after he’d been helping out in the ‘States with the first AV-8B’s - at the time there was a surge problem, thought to be caused by airflow disturbance from the bulged canopy into (or rather not into) the intakes.

John had at that point amassed FOUR hours GLIDING the Harrier II !!! As I recall, the glide rate of a Harrier II(infinitely better than a I-series) decrees that for an engine-out landing (not recommended) one need be at least 4000 feet up at one mile from the threshold.

John Farley's input cannot be overstated, both as a demonstrator of the aircraft for sales, and extremely risky development flying overcoming such things as the Intake Momentum Drag Yaw problem. This effect occurs when a Harrier hovers with the slipstream stronger on one wing than the other, creating more wing-lift that side. The result could be a catastrophic roll.

There’s a Flight Test film of a U.S. Marines pilot ( Major Chuck Rosberg ) testing a Harrier GR1 at Dunsfold who fell victim to this. He ejected, but hit the ground. He was nursed by Neville Duke and his wife to hospital, but did not make it. This film is also used by ‘Discovery’ somehow, which I find very distasteful.

John Farley deliberately went into this part of the flight envelope repeatedly, right on the edge, and eventually a system was designed to counter it - essentially, more powerful reaction ducts, and sensors to detect yaw onset, causing the appropriate rudder pedal for the pilot to ‘boot’ to shake !

In the early days of P1127 development, Hugh Merewether had his engine explode at high altitude over West Sussex . He spotted a gap in the cloud over Tangmere and went for it - there’s a famous voice tape with him calmly saying, " I’m going in now..." he managed a dead-stick landing at very high speed, and the evidence gave rise to the discovery of titanium fires.

I had an interesting moment at Boscombe Down. We had two development GR5’s (ZD 318& 319) which could mount up to sixteen cine-cameras - Photo-Sonics 1VN’s capable of up to two hundred frames per second, as used in the film ‘Top Gun’ but this time without the makeup!

We could have three cameras on a pylon each side in adapted CBLS200 practice bomb carriers, two - wide angle - by the airbrake facing forward, and four in each dummy (mahogany!) gunpod. Of these, three were facing outboard, and one in each gun position pointing forward to observe missile launches etc.

As it turned out, this should have been a standard fit, it was a lot more useful than the 25mm Aden cannon - a gun whose main threat was that it might hit its opponents with its own innards. I can only presume the old 30mm could not be fitted for ‘political’ reasons - i.e, someone might have to admit to a mistake!

The ‘gunpods’ are used for other purposes now, but I always thought the gatling gun - as in the GAU-12 used by the U.S AV-8B, with the gun one side and ammo’ the other - was designed for a reason (barrel cooling) and the geniuses at Royal Ordnance had tried to bypass the laws of physics. The original 30mm Aden on the Harrier I(i.e. Sea Harrier and GR3), while not trendy in modern terms, at least did its job!

At this stage, the gunpods also had strakes underneath to aid lift in the hover; it was a tight squeeze to get under there and work on the cameras - you could not get in under the centreline from aft because of the main-leg, or from forward because of the LIDS (Lift Improvement Devices) dam.

I remember having to roll under there in snow, as the ‘powers that be’ were bright enough to book a photo-dependent trial in mid-winter Scotland.This was not unusual, I’m sure they got an ‘off season’ discount!

After a part of the Rough Ground Trials at Boscombe Down, I was panelling up the camera bays, between the gunpods. I knew the pilot was in the cockpit, but thought he was just aligning his nav. system (the notorious Ferranti 1097 inertial platform, not their best product - how many Harrier pilots - and civilians - thank God and the U.S.A for GPS!) when I heard the engine igniters click and the main engine (rather than A.P.U.) starting up! I was obviously hidden from the view of the crew-chief, and some communication snag meant no-one had told him I was there.

I happened to know from a previous conversation with Flight Test that start-up took nine seconds, so was able to do up the last two fasteners in world record time before rolling out with haste to a very surprised and apologetic supervisor! We’ve seen a scheme published recently whereby Special Forces, downed aircrew etc. may be inserted or recovered in pods under a Harrier pylon - well I’d have to REALLY want to travel to use that method!

GR.5 hovering ZD319 landing
GR5 in the hover (pilot Graham Tomlinson) during trials.
GR5 ZD 319 landing on a Pierced Steel Planking strip. At the time, the plane, (pilot Bernie Scott) was heavy and committed, side-slipping towards the camera. Flight Test engineer Derek Wrathall and I were pinned against a Land Rover with nowhere to run and thought our time might be up! I thought I might as well go for ‘posthumous photo of the year'!

Another fun job Jim Moore and I had was to photograph the two seat demonstrator Harrier I G-VTOL from beneath while it hovered.

The trials were to test handling with asymmetric loads, on the lines of Sea Eagle one side, drop tank the other, etc. However, Harriers rarely hover on the spot if they can help it, but prefer to creep forwards at around five miles an hour to minimise hot gas re-ingestion. I soon found out that the practice was to walk forward towards the Harrier nose as far as ones’ nerve and ear defenders would allow, then start smartly walking backwards while taking shots upwards.

Jim swears that Heinz Frick chased him around the airfield in the hover, and knowing both of them it sounds about right!

During the development of the ‘Skyhook’ - an idea of Heinz Frick's, whereby a space-stabilised crane arm could pick up a Sea Harrier for launch or recovery from small warships - Kingston Photographic had the brilliant idea of placing an array of stills and cine cameras right under the spot, facing upwards.

We at Dunsfold had our doubts that the average tripod or lens was designed to take 23,500 pounds of thrust (officially – read that as you will – the then current Pegasus was meant to produce a max of 21,500 lbs thrust), and I suspect we were vindicated by the multi-thousand pound repair bill and zero footage!

One moment I did especially enjoy though. We were on a trial for future FRS2 (as then) development at the West Freugh, Scotland, test range. The pilot of the moment was a rather abrasive Navy guy who still thought he could treat everyone as dirt, which is no doubt how he’d behaved in the services (he is yet to retire).

At this time, there was a union dispute on, and we ‘technical staff’ had to support the aircraft without any groundcrew. This was fine and in the rules, as long as we stayed within certain limits, one being that any work on the ‘plane had to capable of being carried out by the pilot ‘in the field’.

As a consequence of this, the pilot had been warned only to use water injection as an emergency measure. As he came in to land after his dummy bombing runs, A.T.C. let him know there was a bunch of visiting schoolgirls watching. He could not resist the full hover routine, complete with a nod to the crowd; the Flight Test engineer next to me groaned, " He’s got to have full water on for that!"

The end result was, ‘glamorous’ pilot sat astride the fuselage in the hangar with a jerry-can; "sorry we’d love to help you but it would break the rules !" 50 gallons later he’d probably got the message.

When my Father, ‘Stan’ Lawson, was crew chief at the Paris Salon air show ( ZD439, piloted by Heinz Frick ) his request for 50 gallons of distilled water a day was met with incredulity - "Sacre Bleu, the thing runs on water !"

There was an amusing ruse by John Farley and Mike Snelling. In the early days of development, when hoping to get the U.S. Marines to buy the aircraft, they had hosted a high-ranking member around Dunsfold, ending back at the Pilots’ Office in the 1942 Control Tower.

This chap made a comment along the lines of " Gee, I think the Harrier's great, but I can’t believe you build that aircraft in such a rustic little place as this!". Mike Snelling, catching Farleys’ eye, instantly replied "Oh, well you obviously don’t have clearance to see the underground production facility!". The American was outraged, "I have the highest clearance, show me it now!". Of course that’s just the sort of thing the Americans WOULD have!

In the 80’s we were having a sales push at the U.S. Navy - J.Farley took up an Admiral in G-VTOL. It was filthy weather, and in an unusual move John taxied back to the hangar to get the Admiral out in the dry. I had to be there poised with my camera; J.F. slung the canopy open, and grinned back at the Admiral, "accelerates well, doesn’t it ?!". The Admiral looked like he’d done several rounds with Tyson, and was in no state to argue.

Then again he got his own back against the ‘limeys’ later on his tour when recovered - he had a glamorous female assistant, and when shown the Harrier simulator she was rather patronisingly asked if she’d like a go. She calmly took the controls and executed a perfect flight, much to the amazement of the technician standing by to gloat. "Yeah, she’s got four thousand hours on helicopters" the Admiral casually mentioned, with a very restrained smile.

GR.7 Dunsfold GR.7 at night
GR.7 in front of the Dunsfold hangars.
GR.7 at night.

I tried flying the GR5 simulator one day - fine wazzing about at altitude, after all I’d played ‘Space Invaders’ enough. Then the Flight Test engineer who was giving me the go, Dave Byford, said, "let’s try a vertical take-off - now mind, this will be sensitive...". I thought, "yeah, I know fighters are sensitive...". On lift off from the runway, the HUD said I was slightly nose down as I ascended. I gave the merest back-pressure possible on the stick - then somersaulted three times before hitting the ground inverted. And that was a ‘user-friendly’ Harrier II!

Text and images Copyright © Andy Lawson 2002. Reproduced by permission.

Comments and queries can be forwarded to Andy. E-mail:

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