I am indebted to Bryan Mulheran for the use of the following photographs from his collection. These images were taken aboard HMS Illustrious between April and June 1995, prior to a short stop-over in Corfu. Bryan’s website, including many images of military aviation and other themes, can be found here.
The photographs capture a period in the Fleet Air Arm shortly after the Sea Harrier FA.2 was introduced into service. The deployment was probably one of the first to operate the FA.2 solely, after the earlier FRS.1 mark had been phased out.
Sea Harrier FA.2s lined up aft on HMS Illustrious in 1995 – the aircraft at the top of the picture was one of only 3-4 believed to have been painted in Dark Sea Grey. Most aircraft appear to be armed with Sidewinder training rounds
The Sea Harriers wear no squadron markings, and include the rare sight of one aircraft wearing the Dark Sea Grey scheme with bright national markings more associated with FRS.1 aircraft. Later, the fleet standardised on Medium Sea Grey with lo-viz roundels and fin flashes.
The Sea Harrier FA.2 was introduced to improve on the generally successful FRS.1, addressing some of the shortcomings of the earlier type. The newer aircraft was optimised for air defence of the fleet, with an emphasis on tackling low-level aircraft armed with long-range anti-ship missiles – a combination that had proved highly destructive in the Falklands conflict of 1982. The FA.2 was also created with reconnaissance, anti-ship and ground-attack roles in mind.
A Sea Harrier FA.2 launches from HMS Illustrious’ ski-jump. The bow Sea Dart launcher can clearly be seen. The aircraft is fitted with twin-rail launchers for AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles
The FA.2 was based on the earlier all-metal Harrier rather than the more advanced ‘Harrier II’ which incorporated composites in its structure and could carry a greater payload and a wider selection of weaponry. However, the FA.2’s Blue Vixen radar was highly advanced at the time of its introduction, and was designed specifically to be used in conjunction with the medium-range AIM-120 AMRAAM missile with look-down and shoot-down tactical capability. The combination was formidable – Commander Richard Hawkins, Commander Air Warfare at the Sea Harriers’ base Yeovilton, said: “We are flying a 1960s platform but knocking down 1980s platforms all the time.” Hawkins described the FA.2 as: “the best air-defence aircraft in Europe – a view shared by all who have come up against it.”
FA.2s landing aboard HMS Illustrious following an operation, again armed with the twin-rail launchers
The FA.2 could also carry the AIM-9 Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missile, the Sea Eagle anti-ship missile and the ALARM anti-radiation missile.
The Royal Navy operated 56 FA.2s between 1993 and the withdrawal of the type in 2006.
A Sea Harrier FA.2 carrying a bomb on the centreline hardpoint sets down on HMS Illustrious in the Spring of 1995
Bryan came into the possession of the above photographs in an unusual way, following an illness while on holiday in Corfu in 1995. He says:
“I was on holiday in Corfu and became quite seriously ill, being hospitalised for the better part of a week. At the same time, Illustrious had come into port and the deck crew had some shore leave. Their bus crashed in the night and one lad was seriously hurt – broken leg, ribs, etc – and was admitted to the same hospital.
“The following day another one of the deck crew was visiting to check up on him… The next day he returned again to see his mate, but also brought me a set of original photos straight from the ships photographic section that had been taken in the past month or so, and even permission to use them as I see fit! These have been deeply prized possessions of mine ever since.
“With the SHAR long gone and even the Fleet Air Arms fixed wing capability absent since 2010, with Illustrious soon to follow, they are (sadly) part of history now.”
An atmospheric shot of a Sea Harrier FA.2 fitted with an air-to-air refuelling probe. Since these images were taken, the sun has set on the SHAR for good, with the aircraft withdrawn in 2006