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VSTOL flight celebrated at Dunsfold

Photo: One of the 4(R) Squadron Harriers makes a last bow at the type's spiritual home of Dunsfold in Surrey. All images courtesy Bob Franklin unless stated otherwise.


It was 50 years ago that test pilot Bill Bedford lifted off in the prototype Hawker P.1127 at Dunsfold. Two Harriers recently paid a return visit, just weeks before the type is retired from service with British forces.

On November 18 the owner of Dunsfold Park in Surrey was delighted to welcome the Harrier back to the aerodrome to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first vertical flight.

On November 19, 1960 Dunsfold Aerodrome was owned by Hawker Aircraft Ltd. and used as its flight-test centre. At nearby Kingston, development of the Harrier was well underway with the prototype aircraft, the P.1127, into its test programme at Dunsfold. In 1959 the Ministry of Supply had issued Specification ER.204D and six prototypes (XP831, XP836, XP972, XP976, XP980 and XP984) were constructed.

The last of six P.1127 prototypes (XP964) made its first flight in October 1963 and is today preserved at the Brooklands aviation museum, seen here before it was moved inside. Aviation News

The P.1127 was the brainchild of Sir Stanley Hooker from Bristol Engines and Sir Sydney Camm, chief of Hawker Aircraft, to simplify the problem of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) by eliminating separate engines for the respective modes and adopting a single engine fitted with rotatable exhaust nozzles – vectored thrust. The marriage of engine and airframe was consummated by Ralph Hooper from Hawker-Kingston, who put the BS.53 Pegasus 2 turbojet into a refined airframe where low weight was at a premium, as the thrust of the engine had to more than equal the mass of the aircraft for it to achieve VTOL.

Two dedicated facilities were built at Dunsfold; a ground running pen for testing the aircraft’s engine and a special grid for hovering trials. The latter was designed to duct away the exhaust of the Pegasus engine, eliminating adverse effects such as thrust losses due to re-ingestion of the hot gases. This was essential, as the thrust of the engine was initially only adequate to lift the aircraft if all extraneous equipment (such as radios) was stripped out and with the aircraft carrying fuel for only a few minutes of flight.

Harrier GR9 ZD321 from 4(R) Squadron, RAF Wittering.

Preparations continued at Dunsfold over the summer and autumn of 1960 with engine running trials and system tests conducted ahead of the initial set of hovering flights. The first of these finally took place on October 21, 1960 with Bill Bedford at the controls. For this initial series of tests the aircraft was tethered to the grid with short cables to limit the height it could lift – limited by one-foot tethers, and with Bill Bedford’s right leg in plaster following a car accident, the first hover was successfully completed. Once reasonable control was demonstrated the tethers were removed and free hovers could commence on November 19, 1960. The first conventional flight was achieved on March 13, 1961 at Royal Aircraft Establishment Bedford.

An order for 60 production aircraft was received from the Royal Air Force in mid-1966 and the first pre-production Harriers, then known as the P.1127 (RAF), were flying by mid-1967, becoming known as Harrier GR1. The Harrier entered RAF service in July 1969 with the first aircraft being issued to No. 1 Squadron at RAF Wittering in Cambridgeshire, where it has been based ever since. Sir Sydney Camm died on March 12, 1966, so would not live to see the outstanding success of this truly revolutionary aircraft.

50 years later

Making a splash at Dunsfold – it was very wet on November 18!

Due to heavy fog on November 16, the Harrier Display Team finally touched down on Dunsfold’s runway two days later to celebrate 50 years of vertical landings.

Among the watching crowd were a host of ex-Harrier personnel, including test pilots Duncan Simpson and John Farley as well as Members of the Hawker Association.

Duncan Simpson (centre left), Jim McAllister, Chief Executive of Dunsfold Park Ltd. (centre) and Jon Farley (centre right) are flanked by the two Harrier pilots on November 18.

Jim McAllister, Chief Executive of Dunsfold Park Ltd. said “Dunsfold Aerodrome has a rich aviation history and the incredibly versatile Harrier is a significant part of that. This week, 50 years ago, aviation history was made with the first vertical take-off and it is with great sadness that today we are witnessing another historical moment as the aircraft performs one of its last flights. An iconic symbol of aviation, the Harrier will continue to be remembered and celebrated at Dunsfold and we would like to thank RAF Wittering and the Harrier team for joining us on this special day.”

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