Ever wondered what it's like to fly a multi-million pound fighter very low and very, very fast? I had too, until I got the opportunity to fly in - and take control of - a Royal Air Force Harrier T10 trainer yesterday.
My invitation required me to travel to RAF Wittering in Lincolnshire; home to the RAF's 20 Sqn operational conversion unit, which prepares students to fly British Aerospace-built Harrier GR7/7A ground-attack aircraft assigned to the UK's Joint Force Harrier (JFH). And as if the weight of honing the capabilities of the next generation of RAF and Royal Navy combat pilots isn't great enough, its instructors also from time to time get to fly with less experienced aviators, such as sporting celebrities, TV presenters and journalists.
After suffering a few minutes of utter dejection when my aircraft - ZH659 - experienced a technical problem just prior to walking out to the jet on Wednesday afternoon, I returned to Wittering the following morning to achieve a life's ambition. As I expected, this was to be a very different experience to my previous flights in a two-seat RAF aircraft - the de Havilland
Squadron pilots had told me that the Harrier's acceleration was spectacular, but our take-off run of around 300m (1,000ft) followed by a steep climb - simulating a departure from a forest clearing - was made all the more remarkable by the late appearance of a rabbit on the runway. Thankfully this was no brave bunny, and with no harm done we departed the Wittering circuit for a spell of low-level flight. I had requested that my pilot - an RN Lt Cdr who requests that I identify him only by his nickname: Tinsel - let me have a stint at the controls during our sortie, but I hadn't expected him to show such confidence in my abilities so early. My first chance to fly a Harrier, and I was at 250ft doing 450kt (520 mph)! Thankfully, the need to concentrate all my energy on the altitude and speed readings displayed on the aircraft's head-up display to keep us straight and level meant there was no time to feel nervous at the risk of something going wrong.
Having survived my first test, Tinsel took the controls to show me what the T10 can really do. Even with its Rolls-Royce Pegasus 105 engine (the GR7A uses the more powerful 107), the aircraft has a breathtaking turn of speed, while the nozzles which allow it to hover on its own thrust also enable it to perform some unique manoeuvres, such as a push-over - a kind of loop which sees the aircraft inverted but traveling at an airspeed of only 60-70kt. High g manoeuvres (well, around 4g is high in my book!) were also demonstrated, including during a simulated attack on a disused RAF airfield. I then had a second go at flying the aircraft at around 400ft, again without incident.
Several touch-and-go circuits followed at Wittering to demonstrate the various configurations available to a Harrier pilot - including a rolling vertical landing with a forward speed of around 50kt. We then came in for a final hover, during which I took the throttle and stick controls for a couple of seconds, before Tinsel performed the Harrier's signature air show trick - a braking stop bow - before landing.
I drove back to the office feeling honoured to have had the opportunity to get airborne in a Harrier, and look forward to drinking from the squadron "hover pot" (a two-pint yard-arm) next time I'm at Wittering and can get a taxi back to my hotel!
There's a joke that goes something like: "If there's a bar full of pilots, how can you tell which one flies a Harrier? He'll tell you". Apologies to all who know me, but now I know why they go on about it so much.