AV-8 to A-10
When the Harrier was in light condition, thrust from the Rolls-Royce Pegasus could lift the plane vertically upwards (VTOL), or with more weight, a short takeoff (STOL) of 1,000 feet was possible. While a full load would require a lengthier run, only a short landing space was needed after stores were dropped. The tactical opportunities for short-deck or unprepared field operations were apparent to the Marines.
Hawker first flew its VTOL concept in 1960, and a series of Kestrel development aircraft tested the system in the field, including six tested in the U.S. as the XV-6A. Harrier combat versions were already in RAF service when the first Marine order for 12 AV-8s was announced December 23, 1969.
The first AV-8A was delivered at the Kingston-upon-Thames factory January 6, 1971, shipped to the U.S. and began service trials with VMA-513 on April 16. An additional 90 single-seat AV-8A and eight two-seat TAV-8As were ordered and equipped VMA-513, 542, and 231 by 1974. While they demonstrated successful weapons delivery from both land bases and amphibious assault (LPH) ships, they were troubled by a high accident rate over twice that of other jets, 50 aircraft destroyed in 213,000 flying hours.
On June 1, 1975, the AV-8B designation was assigned to the follow-on offensive support Harrier, and McDonnell Douglas was ordered on July 27, 1976, to convert two prototypes from existing AV-8A airframes and the first YAV-8B flew at St. Louis on November 9, 1978. A new larger wing of composite materials and improved engine inlets enabled the AV-8B to double either the payload or radius of action, and a new canopy improved pilot vision.
Four development AV-8 Harriers followed from 1981 to 1983 with the F402-RR-404. While the new model was made ready, 47 AV-8As reworked with new electronics and lift improvements by the Navy became AV-8Cs from 1979 to 1983.
The Armada Espanola ordered a light sea control carrier in June 1977, using a U.S. design and loan to build the Principe de Asturias for Spain. Six AV-8As added to the U.S. Marine order and called the AV-8S, or Matador I became a training squadron at Rota in 1976. Twelve Matador IIs (AV-8B) were ordered from McDonnell in March 1983 and delivery began on October 6, 1987, for the new ski-ramp carrier’s sea trials. Nine new Harrier II plus models were added in 1990 and the older Matador Is would be sold to Thailand in 1992.
Fighting with Argentina around the Falkland Islands in May 1982 demonstrated the ability of Royal Navy Sea Harriers. Over 2,000 sorties by 28 carrier-based Harriers had resulted in 20 kills claimed, 16 with AIM-9L Sidewinders, without a loss in air-to-air combat, as well as ground attacks that cost two aircraft. This success accelerated confidence in the type.
The United States Marines had also developed evasive maneuvers that can be appreciated by anyone who has watched the Harrier stop in midair, fly backwards, and even sideways, like a helicopter. Two 30-mm Aden guns in pods that could be attached to the fuselage or two Sidewinder missiles under the wings became dangerous to an attacker. Four under-wing pylons could accommodate 1,000-pound bombs, rocket pods, or whatever mission- required stores and takeoff conditions allowed.
The first production AV-8B Harrier II was flown at St. Louis on August 23, 1983, by a British test pilot, and deliveries would begin on an RAF version, the Harrier Mk 5, in 1987. New electronics, with a Head-Up Display, FLIR, and ECM defense was included. A 25-mm five-barrel GAU-12 gun with 300 rounds was fitted along with pylons for six 565-pound Mk 82 Snakeye bombs, or an AGM-65E Maverick missile or drop tank combination. A retractable probe on the port engine intake provided inflight refueling, now required on all American combat planes.
The first of eight 20-plane Marine AV-8B attack squadrons was VMA-331, established in January 1985, and began its first Westpac cruise in January 1987 aboard the Belleau Wood (LHA-3). Amphibious assault ships of that class could operate up to 20 Harriers and several helicopters. Weight is especially critical in STOL aircraft. Weighing 21,201 pounds, a clean AV-8B could take off in only 260 feet and top speed was 661 mph, but that was without any weapons at all. When carrying four AIM-9 missiles and its gun, AV-8B takeoff required 510 feet, and top speed was 611 mph. That run was reduced to 275 feet when taking off into a 25-knot wind over an LHA’s deck. With six Mk 82SE bombs, 730 or 425 feet are needed.
Production of 256 AV-8B and 20 two-place TAV-8B continued until April 1996. The Gulf War in 1991 involved five Marine squadrons with 60 Harriers flying 3,380 sorties in 42 days. They flew against ground targets from the USS Nassau (LHA-4) and a small Saudi Arabian field and lost five planes to enemy ground fire.
In 1993, Marine aircraft modernization programmed a gradual remanufacture to the “Harrier II Plus” standard with APG-65 radar, new ECM, and F402-RR-408 engine. At the century’s end, 130 Harriers remained in the inventory.
Italy became the fourth country to try the Harrier II when two TAV-8B trainers were purchased in May 1989 and 16 reworked AV-8B+ models ordered on April 1994. They arrived in time to fly combat missions in Somalia in 1995.