The iconic jets launched from the deck of Ark Royal at 0900hrs this morning approximately 40 nautical miles (74km) off the coast of Newcastle.
The aircraft were from Joint Force Harrier, based at RAF Cottesmore, the home of the Harriers belonging to 1 (Fighter) Squadron RAF and 800 Naval Air Squadron (NAS).
The GR9 aircraft’s tails were repainted and emblazoned with the emblems of the squadrons they represent and each squadron embarked two aircraft on HMS Ark Royal whilst she was transiting the Moray Firth on Friday 19 November, prior to her entering Newcastle, the city in which Swan Hunter built the ship - her steel being cut in 1978.
Launched by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother in 1981, HMS Ark Royal entered service in 1985 and was commissioned on 1 November 1985, again by the Queen Mother.
Deliberately keen to highlight the very joint nature of Joint Force Harrier the last jet to recover (land) on HMS Ark Royal today was an 800 NAS jet piloted by a Royal Air Force officer, while the last jet to launch was a 1 (Fighter) Squadron RAF jet piloted by a Royal Naval officer.
Departing the ship in one wave of four aircraft, the launch was led by Captain Mike Carty, Royal Marines, followed by Lieutenant Matt Fooks-Bale, Royal Navy, and Flight Lieutenant Em Rickards before Lieutenant Commander James Blackmore’s historic final launch.
Lt Cdr Blackmore, aged 35, the last pilot to ever launch a Harrier from the decks of HMS Ark Royal, said:
This is a truly memorable day. We accept the decision to decommission both the Harrier and HMS Ark Royal; however, of course the final launch will be emotional.
I have flown over 90 sorties off the ship and combat sorties in Afghanistan, and the aircraft’s capability still astounds me. Landing an aircraft on a runway which is not in the same location as where you launched from gives exceptional flexibility.
I remember witnessing a Harrier in the hover when I was just eight years old; since then I had wanted to do nothing else. I have flown Harriers for over ten years; the training is complex and challenging but the added challenge and excitement of hovering a Harrier off the port side of HMS Ark Royal before landing vertically is an experience I will miss immensely.
I feel honoured and proud to be the last pilot to ever launch a Harrier jet from HMS Ark Royal.
After the launch, the four aircraft conducted a two-ship flypast, each squadron flying low past the port side of the ship before conducting a final fighter exercise controlled by 849 NAS’ Sea King Mk7 helicopter, prior to returning to RAF Cottesmore.
Following the decommissioning of HMS Ark Royal, HMS Illustrious, presently in refit in Rosyth, will regenerate her helicopter capability alongside HMS Ocean.
Reflecting on the Harrier and HMS Ark Royal, Captain Jerry Kyd, HMS Ark Royal’s Commanding Officer, said:
As the last Harriers lift off the deck of HMS Ark Royal for the final time, it is with a real sense of pride that we remember the fantastic contribution they, and the carriers, have made to UK defence around the world.
The tremendous reception we received in Newcastle last weekend, where Ark Royal was built, reflects the very deep fondness for this iconic warship and her air group.
Although we now look back on the significant achievements of the Harrier with immense pride and a tinge of sadness at our loss, we can now look forward to an exciting new chapter of naval aviation as we continue the training for and procurement of the Joint Strike Fighter aircraft.
HMS Queen Elizabeth, together with her helicopters and the Joint Strike Fighter, will be a very powerful strategic asset able to project serious power anywhere in the world, delivering 21st century carrier strike capability.