harrier (5/6)

Peter Snow looks at the untold stories of British scientists and engineers who developed some of the modern world’s most incredible technology.

This week, Peter focuses on two young designers whose vision and persistence led to the development of the world’s first vertical take-off (VTOL) aircraft – the Harrier jump jet.

This week’s story begins in 1956, when British jet engineer Gordon Lewis was shown a proposal for a VTOL plane by French designer Michel Wibault. The design centred around one large jet engine, which could drive a craft forwards, as well as powering four fans capable of lifting the plane off the ground. Though the plan was flawed, it inspired Lewis. “My reaction was, ‘Great idea, but there’s a much better way of doing it’,” he recalls. Lewis began to adapt Wibault’s blueprint and had soon come up with his own proposal. His idea involved channelling air generated by a modified jet engine into two nozzles on the side of the plane. During take-off, these nozzles would face downwards to lift the plane off the ground; then during flight, the nozzles would revolve to help propel the craft forwards. By 1957, Lewis was ready to turn his idea into reality – but he needed the assistance of a specialist air-frame designer.

Lewis contacted Ralph Hooper, a young designer from independent aircraft manufacturer Hawker. The pair worked closely together to build an experimental device, but the project soon hit a snag. One engine could not provide enough thrust to lift the craft off the ground – let alone move it through the air. Hooper came up with the ingenious idea to adapt the jet further so that the exhaust fumes coming out of the back of the engine were also diverted downwards. This alteration effectively doubled the plane’s lift power.

However, Hooper and Lewis were to face an even bigger hurdle. Government ministers were convinced that the future of warfare now lay in missiles, and were not prepared to invest in a VTOL project. What money they did have for aeroplane engineering was geared towards the effort to break the sound barrier. Luckily, Hawker had a visionary chief designer in Sir Sydney Camm, who was willing to invest the company’s own funds – at great financial risk.

By 1960, the prototype VTOL craft was ready for testing. “It all looked terribly tentative and unstable,” remembers Hooper. However, with all the nonessential equipment removed from the fuselage to reduce weight, the plane left the ground.

In 1963, Lewis and Hooper exhibited their masterpiece at the Paris international air show. In front of 110,000 people, the craft that the RAF had dubbed a ‘toy’ and a ‘crowd-pleaser’ lifted into the air – and crashed. After so many years of hard work, the two engineers had missed their big opportunity to gain funding.

The craft clearly needed a lot more work to make it viable, but Lewis and Hooper did not give up. The main problem the engineers faced was in moving the craft from hover to flight – a manoeuvre that presented the pilots with a real challenge. “Make no mistake,” says Harrier test pilot John Farley, “if you got it wrong, you were going to die.”

The real lift for the Harrier came when the US Marines began to show interest owing to their involvement in Vietnam. Seeing the advantage of a VTOL craft, the US government ordered 60 planes and injected some much-needed cash into the project. It was not until 1982, however, that the Harrier proved its worth in combat with major assaults in the Falkands conflict.

In all, 828 Harrier jump jets were built for the armed forces of five nations throughout the world. The planes are still used on a daily basis by British and US troops. “The Harrier is a world-class concept which has been accepted around the world as the leading vertical take-off and landing military aeroplane,” concludes John Farley.

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