PICTURES: How the UK's last Harriers bowed out

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More than four decades of aviation history came to an end on 15 December, when the UK flew its last operational sorties with the vertical/short take-off and vertical landing Harrier.

First fielded by the Royal Air Force in 1969 in the GR1 guise, the iconic type bowed out of use at the service's Cottesmore air base in Rutland in a spectacular mass retirement event. Sixteen aircraft - split between ground-attack GR9/9As and two-seat T12 trainers - performed flypasts at several RAF bases before returning to land at Cottesmore for the last time.

 
© Cpl Al Crowe/Crown Copyright

One of the aircraft was painted in a retrospective colour scheme previously used with the RAF's first Harriers. Three others are pictured with their tail fins painted to mark their operation by the RAF's 1 and 4 squadrons - the latter of which was disbanded earlier in 2010, and by the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm's 800 NAS.

Due to have remained in use until at least 2018 following a major series of upgrades conducted by BAE Systems and the integration of Rolls-Royce's Pegasus 107 engine in part of the fleet, the aircraft will now be placed into storage and offered for possible sale.

 
© Terry Harris/Rex Features

Over its 41-year service history, the Harrier was involved in campaigns including the Falklands War, Bosnia, Iraq and most recently Afghanistan. Operations were consolidated between the RAF and RN within the Joint Force Harrier organisation from 2000, and the latter's remaining Sea Harrier FA2 fighters were retired in March 2006.

Joint Force Harrier units sustained an almost five-year commitment to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan until mid-2009, where they amassed more than 8,500 sorties and 22,000 flight hours from Kandahar airfield. They were replaced in Afghanistan by the RAF's Panavia Tornado GR4, before falling victim to spending cuts associated with the UK government's Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR).

 
© Sunshine Band gallery on flightglobal.com/AirSpace
The UK has parked up its Harriers for the last time

Announcing the decision in late October, Prime Minister David Cameron described the Harrier as "a remarkably flexible aircraft", but said the Tornado was "more capable and better able to sustain operations in Afghanistan".

The retirement also brings to an end the UK's pioneering use of V/STOVL operations. As a result of the SDSR, the nation's planned production commitment to the Lockheed Martin F-35 will be switched to the programme's C-model carrier variant.

 
© SAC Mark Dixon/Crown Copyright

Air Vice Marshal Greg Bagwell, Air Officer Commanding the RAF's 1 Group, says the Harrier "has had a truly distinguished service with both the RAF and the Royal Navy, from the South Atlantic to the skies over Afghanistan. It now takes its place in history as one of aviation's greats."