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The Harrier Jump Jet: How Cold War Anxiety Inspired a Vertical Takeoff

We set the scene on a cold, dreary day in Surrey, England. A few miles away from a small, unsuspecting British village named Dunsfold, lies a secret flight-testing facility with a jet sitting on the runway tarmac. At first all seems normal – the pilot is communicating with the tower, after which a short message of clearance is granted. Final flight checks are carried out and the mission goes ahead. It’s a sight we’ve all invariably seen before in the likes of Top Gun and other such movies.

As the jets begin to spool up you would probably expect to see a huge surge of forward momentum to push this jet skyward, but even as the engines continue to get louder and louder, nothing seems to be happening and then finally the jet moves – but, not forward as you might expect. Instead it begins to float just a few meters off the ground and remains suspended there for a minute or two until the engines begin to power down and the jet slowly descends back onto the tarmac. The date is the 21st of October 1960 and what you just witnessed was the first test of a prototype jet that would revolutionise warfare – a jet that would eventually become known to the world as the Harrier.


Before we get into the rest of our story today, there are a few things that we need to clear up. First and foremost, what is VTOL? Well, VTOL is an acronym and it comes in a few different forms. You may have heard of S/VTOL or STOL. Basically, they all effectively mean the same thing – Vertical Take-off and Landing or, Short Take-off and Landing.

So thinking back to our scene in the intro, imagine a jet that is capable of simply … taking off and landing vertically instead of horizontally. Now you’re probably wondering … what’s the point in making it a jet? Isn’t that pretty much what a helicopter does? And that is true; however a helicopter can’t carry anywhere near as much weight, or travel anywhere near as far, or as fast, as a conventional jet. All those things do provide a significant advantage – however, building a jet like this eliminates one of the largest strategic weaknesses of any air force – their runways. Which, in a situation such as, oh I don’t know, say, two countries with opposing ideologies. that share a border. who are locked in a constant battle of threats and one-upmanship that at any moment could explode into open combat and or nuclear destruction (just as a random example) yep, that’s right, we are talking about the Cold War again. Welcome to Megaprojects ladies and gentlemen.

To explain how that might be relevant, it was the firm belief in the West that, should a Soviet invasion of West Germany occur, the first targets to be hit would be airstrips that could facilitate the take-off of any counterattacking military aircraft, including nuclear armed bombers. This was the time before ICBM’s, after all.

And, because of this, the top military brass felt that they needed a means of providing close air support, counter-attacking Soviet tank advances and accessing key locations in the Soviet Union within 2 or 3 hours. This meant that they could carry out retaliatory nuclear strikes even after all runways had been destroyed. As a measure of cutting costs they decided to simply create a into a VTOL jet that would be capable of carrying out all of these various requirements. 

All that being said you may now be wondering, was there not a more sensible and peaceful way of resolving this issue?

Anyway, that’s pretty much everything we needed to cover in terms of context, let’s crack on with the story.


Today’s story begins with the NBMR-3, an uninterestingly named document, created by NATO in the early 1960’s. It stood for: NATO Basic Military Requirement 3 (and there was me thinking it couldn’t get any more boring). However, veiled behind all that boringness was a request for a truly groundbreaking vehicle.

Shortly after its release, the NBMR document made its way across the desk of one Ralph Hooper, a Senior Engineer at the aircraft manufacturer Hawker Siddley in England. What he found in this document was a lucrative contract to produce a jet with the following requirements:

§  Strike fighter capabilities.

§  Fully capable of carrying and deploying a nuclear weapon.

§  Capable of going supersonic.

§  A combat radius of 460 kilometers – that’s 250 nautical miles.

§  A dash speed of Mach 1.5 and a cruise speed of Mach 0.92.

§  AND be capable of a Vertical Take-Off and Landing.

That last requirement caught Hooper’s eye, because it just so happened that he had already been developing a jet that was capable of VTOL.

About 3 years prior in 1957, the Bristol Engine Company had put out the first of a particular kind of engine, called a “Vectored Thrust Engine”. Later, this engine would become known as the Pegasus engine (more on that later). And, when Mr. Hooper heard of the release of this engine, he had immediately set about designing a jet fuselage to go around it – in effect beginning work on the first ever VTOL jet.

He excitedly contacted the Commission in charge of this boringly named contract, proposing to enter the Hawker-Siddley P.1127 jet (which we will just call Design 1 because I just can’t be bothered with any more boring names). However Mr Hooper received a prompt reply from said Commission, stating that this particular jet was not capable of supersonic flight and so they could not award Hawker-Siddley the contract. Seeing the potential in the contract however, the head of Hawker-Siddley gave the go-ahead for a second round of developments – another jet called the P.1154 – which, if all went to plan, would be capable of supersonic flight. We’ll call this Design 2.

With Hawker-Siddley’s first design getting knocked back and the subsequent re-design, it gave their competitors time to catch up with VTOL designs of their own. The engine that posed the largest threat was the French designed Dassault Mirage 8. There was also another design built by the Italians called the Fiat G95. However it was unable to enter the competition due to the requirement that precluded terrible car brands from entering. There actually was a jet called the Fiat G95 and they did enter it into the competition but they didn’t get it. 

At this stage, some intensely boring and convoluted bureaucracy ensued, which we will just skip over for the sake of everyone’s sanity. All you need to know is that the NMBR-3 contract was cancelled and the British Royal Navy and Royal Airforce were put in charge of development thereafter.

That brings us around to about to where our video began, with the first successful tethered test flight of a Harrier jet, or as it was known then, the Kestrel. However, this was merely a proof of concept. There were still many engineering challenges to overcome, some of which we will cover shortly.

Skipping ahead 6 years, the Harrier was approaching its final form. In 1965 the British RAF took delivery of 6 pre-production Kestrels, which would act as training models and a test for their suitability in the RAF. Clearly the RAF was impressed because within a year they had put down an order for 60 aircrafts. It was also at this moment that the final design was to be named after the harrier hawk, very similar to a kestrel, but larger. A fitting name.

An Engineering Marvel:

Over a decade of development later, the final designs for these jets were complete. It had a wingspan of 25 feet, stood 11 feet tall and 47 feet long. The Harrier also had a top speed of 731 mph, putting it just below the sound barrier, and had a total development cost of around £180-200 million in 1974 (which is about £2.13 billion today or $2.9 billion).

If you’re familiar with some of the topics that we cover here on Megaprojects, those numbers may seem a little tame, even average, compared to projects like the F-35 (video coming shortly) or the B-2 bomber. But it wouldn’t be a Megaprojects video without something being exceptional. You remember those vectored thrust engines we mentioned earlier? Well, they were also capable of producing an ungodly amount of thrust. Even compared to the engines of today.

United States Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier II hovering
McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II hovering by D. Miller is licensed under CC-BY

For reference, the McDonell Douglas Phantom jet, which was developed around the same time as the Harrier used GE-J79 aixal-flow turbojet engines, producing 53 kilo-newtons of dry thrust. That’s about 11,905 pound feet for those freedom lovers out there. Compare that to a single Pegasus engine which was capable of producing 106 Kilo-Newtons or 23,800 pound feet of thrust, almost exactly double the amount of thrust the GE-J79s produced.

Perhaps that might seem excessive, but every bit of that thrust was completely necessary for their purposes. That’s because, when a regular plane is taking off it needs a nice long, flat runway to get itself up to get up to speed. And, as you probably already know, at a certain point, enough air will be passing over the wings to generate a sufficient amount of lift for the plane to overcome the force of gravity.

The amount of thrust required from the engines in that scenario would only need to be enough to overcome the aircraft’s inertia from stationary, and the drag generated during take-off and flight, the air around the craft is the one carrying its weight. But, when you consider the Harrier, it’s an entirely different story – not only are you having to deal with the inertia and drag but also the entire weight of the aircraft. The difference is like picking up and carrying a heavy boulder, rather than rolling it along the floor and it was for this reason that the engines had to be so powerful.

As you can imagine this was only the beginning of the obstacles that the Engineers at Hawker Sidelley had to overcome. Next was actually getting a jet to reliably carry out a vertical takeoff and you may even be wondering how they managed it. Or, you may not be wondering that, but regardless, I’m going to tell you anyway. So as to save time, we won’t go too deep into how these planes work. These are just some of the basics.

To begin with, a jet engine works by sucking air into an intake, that is the forefront hole you see on commercial jets. You will also see many slanted blades within the engine, these are just the first of several rows of spinning fans that compress the air entering the engine. After this, (the compression) stage, the air enters a cavity within the engine, now at a very high pressure, the air is then channeled into a narrow pipe of a smaller volume than the cavity, which, in accordance with Bernoulli’s principal, will cause the velocity of the air to increase. It is at this point that a mist of fuel is sprayed into the highly pressurized air, where it combusts, causing a powerful jet to be pushed out the back of the engine, thereby producing thrust. There are a few variations to this format but this is the basis of jet engine operation.

The Pegasus engine worked on the principle that, instead of putting all the thrust through one exhaust, it’s split it into 4 smaller exhausts. You may have noticed that a Harrier does not have the regular giant exhaust port like most jets. When it flies forward, it just points the exhausts backwards. And when it needs to take off in a vertical fashion these four jets rotate and point at the ground. For those with an interest in physics, among you, this is a prime example of Newton’s third law “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” – the jet pushes the air downwards, so the air pushes the jet upwards.

Now, the more observant of you may have also noticed a problem with this – when a plane is in flight (regular flight that is) you can use regular control surfaces on the wings and tail to control the pitch; yaw and roll, you know, the flaps on airplane wings that control the direction that the airplane points. The problem with that design is that when you adjust the angle of the flaps on the wing, you necessarily rely on the air passing over it to change the direction that the plane is pointing. But a jet that is just hovering doesn’t have any air passing around it, so it can’t rely on this effect. In fact, ignoring the obvious differences, from a mathematical perspective, a jet that is hovering here on Earth can be seen in a similar way to a spacecraft floating in space. And, similarly to a spacecraft, you can’t rely on the atmosphere to control the direction you are pointing. So, if you were to take off vertically you could do little more than move up, down, forwards or backwards. Think of it like driving a car with no steering wheel, arguably a pretty serious floor when you are trying to avoid things like bullets and rockets. 

However, once the engineers made this connection between a hovering jet and a spacecraft, they could pull from experience gained on the Apollo Programs to reach a solution to the problem. They ended up creating a pipeline direct from the compressor stage of the engine to some reaction control valves on the tail, nose and tip of each wing. So, just like a spacecraft, if it needed to roll it would fire a jet of air from the wings. If it needed to point the nose up or down, it would release the air from the nose or the tail.

And those are just some of the primary developments that made this jet a possibility, it would take days to go into detail on every advancement these jets made over the years. That’s not to say that these jets weren’t without their flaws though and even after decades of use and numerous redesigns, one of the biggest failures of these jets was their instability during landing. As you know, when this jet is coming in for a short or vertical landing, it will be pointing its jets at the ground. You can probably imagine slowing down or holding a jet of this size in place using just air requires a tremendous volume of air needing to be moved at a very high speed.

And as you get closer to the ground, a problem begins to present itself, a problem that more or less all of us have faced at some point on an aircraft – turbulence. Now, turbulence in a normal aircraft, when you are thousands of metres off the ground is bad enough. But turbulence when you are only a few metres from the ground and rapidly getting nearer, is a different ball game entirely. And, it was an unfortunately common occurrence that the swell from the jets would cause an oscillation to occur which could rapidly worsen to the point that the aircraft would flip and smash into the ground. This would happen too fast for the pilot to react and would often, be fatal to any in the aircraft. Advice on how to avoid this was simply to cut the engines a few metres above the ground and accept a rough landing. As advancements in computing progressed they were able to put a computer in charge of keeping the aircraft stable and the problem became less and less frequent, but never fully went away.

As we have said this is just the cliff notes on the numerous mechanical happenings onboard the Harrier and that’s without even going over the many updates and upgrades that the jet received over the years. At the end of the development phase however, the jet was ready to take to the skies and it has to be said that what those engineers had built, was, at the time, an immense achievement. As we are about to see, the Harrier would become one of the most versatile aircraft in any modern military’s arsenal. Finally, after a long development period and as 1969 dawned the jet was finally ready to prove its worth on the modern-day battlefield.


The Harrier was ready for service and it was in April of 1969 that Squadron Number 1 became the first squadron in the world to be equipped with a Harrier jet (actually they received a few Harrier jets, and I’m pretty sure the naming of the squadron was a coincidence, but you have to give them some props for the creativity). And, just quickly while we are on the topic of names, can I take a second to mention the naming of this jet – the Harrier jump jet. It just sounds cool and like we have nothing against Americans but your jet names are a bunch of letters and numbers: F-35, B10, U2. It’s almost as though you think that the name of an aircraft doesn’t affect its performance.

Anyway, Squadron 1, became the first to receive and operate their jets and actually there is a really cool story here. In May of 1969, one of Squadron 1’s Harriers took part in this Transatlantic air race going from London to New York. It was a combined foot and air race that started in the London Post Office Tower, from where the pilots had to race to St Pancras station; get in their aircraft and then fly across the Atlantic to the Empire State Building. The Harrier got the fastest overall time, not because they had the fastest jet but because apparently, the crew were able to just land within the city rather than going to the nearest airport which if that’s true, is pretty cool. Can you imagine, The Harrier was still brand new; not many people were even aware of this leap forward in technology, you’re just a regular person wandering arround central park and here comes a jet landing like a helicopter. I mean there is also the flipside of that – this was the Cold War and here comes a military jet you’ve never seen before. Really that encounter could have gone either way.

Moving on, in 1970, two more squadrons received their first Harriers, both in West Germany. Within the RAF, the Harrier’s primary role was as a close air support machine, and I suppose that this is hardly surprising seeing as one of their initial design criteria was to halt a Soviet tank advance. Thankfully they were never used for this and instead during 1982, after sitting around for about a decade, the decision was made to enlist the RAF Harriers in the Royal Navy’s attack during the Falklands War. After some upgrades that would allow them to operate better at sea, they were sent over with the rest of the RN’s fleet. Between the 2nd of April and the 14th of June 1982 the Harriers flew upwards of 2000 successful sorties, in which 10 total Harriers were lost to a combination of ground fire, accidents or mechanical failure.

By this time the Harrier had been fully accepted into pop culture as an icon of military engineering. And it wouldn’t be a Simon Whistler video without mentioning .. The Pepsi Ad.

For those of you that don’t know, Simon has, to the best of my knowledge, made at minimum 3 to 5 separate videos over his different channels, specifically about this Pepsi ad and he has mentioned it countless more times, so it is important that I mention it once again. Don’t worry, I will be quick.

In 1996 Pepsi began a promotional campaign that allowed Pepsi drinkers to collect points from every bottle of Pepsi they drank and then trade in those points for Pepsi branded prizes. On the accompanying ad campaign, there was an offer of a Harrier jet in exchange for something like 10,000,000 points, which would have taken drinking millions of bottles of Pepsi to acquire. Long story short, a guy found a flaw in the system, got 10,000,000 points together after only spending only a few thousand dollars and then sued Pepsi when they told him they wouldn’t give him a Harrier jet, what a surprise. Spoiler alert he absolutely did not win the court case and just ended up with a lot of legal debt.

Returning to the latter part of the Harriers career, we find ourselves at the start of the 1990’s. As the new decade dawned, we can see the onset of a conflict that will remain ongoing even to this day. The first time troops set foot in the Middle East was at the beginning of the Gulf War in 1990. Until then, the US hadn’t really put their fleet of Harriers to much use, having only recently cleared them for operation by the US Marine Corps. As of the beginning of the conflict, they were still an unproven technology and many personnel had their doubts. But prove itself it did. During the initial assault phase of Operation Desert Storm, the Harriers were kept in reserve should they be needed. However, as the operation progressed, they began to see more and more combat, and by the end of the conflict in 1991, they had flown more than 3,350 sorties and amassed a total of 4,100 flight hours.

Where the UK used their Harriers primarily as a support vehicle, the Marines saw them as a far more versatile aircraft, enlisting their use in carrying out bombing raids, supply missions, air support and a few examples of air-to-air combat against Iraqi jets. While the Harrier was nowhere near as fast or agile as the Iraqi MIGs, they were able to use their vectored thrust engines to great effect. A tactic known as “dumping speed” was a favorite of Harrier pilots, using the forward jets to slow themselves down very quickly, causing a pursuing enemy to fly past them and allow the Harrier pilot to get in behind them with a clear shot. 

After their victory in Iraq, the US mostly pulled out of the Middle East. However, following the events of September 11th the Harrier was once again called into service. And as the sun rose upon the Arabian sea on the morning of the 20th of March 2003, two amphibious assault ships – the USS Bonhomme Richard and the USS Bataan – could be seen bearing down upon the coast of Pakistan, loaded with 60 Harriers. These ships would act as the Command Centre for the US Marine Corps aerial assaults, the objective being to use Pakistan as an entrance point into Afghanistan. Over the coming months more than 1,000 sorties would be flown by the Harrier jets onboard those ships, and, as the Marines pushed inland towards the Afghanistan border, more and more missions were carried out, amassing a further 2000 sorties


Even after many decades of service, the Harrier jet is still in use today, almost exclusively with the US Marines. I think it is a testament to just how versatile and reliable these jets are that the Marines are still using them today, despite being a cold war era aircraft, despite the US being sceptical of them at first, even despite production ceasing in 2003 they continue to be a highly valuable tool in today’s battlefield and are still being used in locations such as Syria.

Across the pond, the UK retired their fleet in 2010, selling them to the US in 2011 to be used as spare parts. While the story of the Harrier isn’t altogether over, it is drawing to a close. With the introduction of the F-35 Lightning in 2015, the Harrier has been pushed to the cusp of obsolescence, only remaining relevant thanks to its rugged reliability.

However, as with all things, it must come to an end and this spectacular jet is no exception. The exact date is unclear. Some sources indicate that the final retirement date is to be 2025, while others suggest it has been pushed back to 2030. Only time will tell. All we know is that the next generation of VTOL jets is upon us.

This jet was a product of its time, not just technologically but politically as well. The Harrier was forged in an atmosphere of mistrust and fear, with the intended purpose of keeping the Western nations fully nuclear-capable, even in the event of a surprise attack from the USSR. We joke that there was a more reasonable and peaceful alternative to this, but at that time, this was “reasonable” thinking. Which in essence was, even if we lose, we’re going to make sure that you can’t win. Thankfully, we are past that time and that kind thinking, we can learn from the mistakes of the past and be thankful for the world that we live in today.

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