By all accounts, the first flight was an astounding success! We had managed to not only get the airplane in the United States, certified, approved, and ground tested, but we flew it!
Despite a minor annoyance of losing communications, there were no other notable problems with the airplane. All systems appeared to be working as advertised and after a mild celebration (mild by Harrier pilot standards), we prepared for round two the following day.
We did have ONE issue of a minor fuel leak. Rich Gill has suspected a worn bonded seal, and in fact it failed under full flight fuel pressure and needed to be replaced. Not a big deal, except that fuel leaked all over Rich while he replaced the seal. He accepted his fate with a smile, since he was the one who determined it might be good enough. He showed up at the celebration smelling of Jet A. The next day’s flight was briefed to build upon the successes of the first day. As with all test programs, a flight test card was prepared, discussed and briefed in detail. No ad libs. Each maneuver was planned and should be flown as planned and as briefed.
For this flight, we intended to cycle the landing gear in flight. You will recall that the gear remained extended for the entire first flight. We were going to retract the gear, do some more maneuvers up to 2G’s, and obtain some much needed cruise performance data. Operating a Sea Harrier in the civilian environment requires strict observation of airspeed limits, especially near Washington, D.C. Our top speed permitted is 230 knots, indicated airspeed. For those who know Harriers, this is not much higher than normal landing pattern airspeed and well below the landing gear limiting speed. That being the case, we had no real data to judge fuel flows while loitering around Washington and at lower altitudes, so that data was very important to us.
The flight was again briefed with a chase pilot, and Ricardo Traven again had the chase pilot duty with his Baron. Start up, taxi checks and the join up were exactly as briefed. So far, so good.
With the chase plane in position, and a film crew filming, I cycled the landing gear. Four up and locked, followed by four down and locked. All conditions normal. I then cycled the gear back up to continue with our test sequence.
Even at 230 knots, I soon out paced the chase plane. I was across the Chesapeake Bay in a minute or two with the Baron in extended trail position, being all they could be.
Approximately 11 minutes into the flight, I had the first warning light illuminate. “HYD 1” was the indication. Cross-checking the pressure gage, I saw diminishing pressure, approaching zero, and announced to the chase plane that I had a problem. I turned to head for NAS Pax River, which I could easily see, even from across the bay, and completed the first couple of items in the emergency procedures. I attempted to lower the landing gear before pressure reached zero, but nothing happened beyond the gear doors opening slightly.
FORTUNATELY, the excellent aircraft designers at British Aerospace had anticipated just such a problem and designed an emergency gear lowering system. UNFORTUNATELY, it was not installed in our airplane. That system uses an explosive valve, which was not surplused with the airplane and we didn’t have it. But since that’s a backup to a normal system, we weren’t expecting any combat operations, and we had done hundreds if not thousands of landing gear cycles while on the ground and on jacks, the need was judged to be minimal. Right now, I was wishing we had re-thought that decision. I actuated the emergency gear extension handle, knowing full well that nothing was going to happen.
Both airplanes switched to the Pax River tower frequency and declared an emergency. I knew from past experience that with a HYD 1 failure, most of the airplane controls are unavailable. Normal gear extension and retraction, flaps, nose wheel steering, speed brake, and wheel brakes are the main ones. Since the Harrier has centerline brakes, nose wheel steering is absolutely required to maneuver the airplane on the ground. Since the brakes are on HYD 1 as well, there’s no way to stop the airplane or steer it on the ground, so a vertical landing is preferred. Flaps aren’t a great concern, but steering and brakes are. A vertical landing would give me the greatest chance of success and we needed CONCRETE for that. The Harrier jet exhaust, especially in the vertical landing, points right at the landing surface. If that surface is asphalt, it quickly melts becoming small rocks and tar. That is NOT good for a jet engine. NAS Patuxent River, MD has the ONLY concrete within 56 miles of St. Mary’s, so we were going to Pax River.
Joe Anderson, who again was the Paddles LSO at St. Mary’s, quickly herded the ground crew and as many fire extinguishers as he could, into the Paddles truck and headed to Pax River at a high rate of speed. He would coordinate the crash crew, if needed, and they were definitely needed.
In the meantime, the chase airplane assisted by reading the emergency procedures to me. We confirmed that a vertical landing offered the best chance for survival and advised the Pax River tower.
There was just one problem – – I had not hovered a Harrier for over 18 years. We also did not know if we missed something in the airplane. Maybe something was connected improperly, maybe the center of gravity wasn’t where it needed to be, maybe the engine was not strong enough to actually hover. There were lots of unknowns and lots of maybes, too. But the one thing we DID know, was that I had approximately 20 minutes of fuel to figure it out and there was no one else in the cockpit. I was the pilot-in-command.
While Joe and the maintenance team, complete with fire extinguishers, were ignoring all the posted speed limits and heading to NAS Pax River, I was attempting to us positive and negative G to persuade the landing gear to extend. In order to get G on the aircraft, I had to accelerate to about 350 knots and obviously the chase airplane could not keep up. I would accelerate, pull some G’s, then attempt to rejoin with the chase for a visual inspection. We quickly determined that would take too much time and too much fuel. We also quickly determined that the chase airplane did not know WHAT the gear fully extended looked like. He could see the nose tire extending, but had no idea what a down-and-locked nose gear would look like. (We since added some photos and arrows to our briefing guide, just for this purpose)
After a few attempts, the main gear was down and indicated locked. That’s one out of four. The nose gear was a concern. The small outriggers (training wheels for the uninitiated) would only go down, but are locked by hydraulic pressure which was ZERO, so I anticipated that the airplane would settle to one side, after landing. I’ve had that happen twice before in the AV-8A and AV-8B, so it was NOT a major concern. Both of those airplanes flew again.
But my main concern was the nose gear. Each time I would pull some G, it would extend slightly, so I continued. There is a note in the procedures that says the landing light, attached to the nose gear, would illuminate providing a secondary indication that the gear was extended, so I applied G and would point directly at the Pax River tower asking if they could see the landing light. There were numerous replies to the negative. No light visible to the tower.
With Joe and paddles now on station, a final attempt was made to sling the gear down and point at the tower. The tower affirmed they could see the landing light! Success, or at least so we thought. The nose gear still indicated UNSAFE in the cockpit, but with the secondary indication of the landing light, and fuel becoming very precious, Joe directed me to the hover.
Our original intent was to hover abeam the control tower on good, solid, secure concrete. But the tower personnel disapproved that request and directed me to the hover pit, at center field. I don’t blame them. Who, in their right mind, would want an Experimental Civilian Harrier hovering right in front of them? Nothing good can come of that, so with the center hover pit in sight and both crash crew and Paddles on scene, it was time to hover.
NOW is the moment of truth. For the first time, Joe called me by my military callsign “KAOS,” instead of Art, and directed me to the hover. I knew he was serious, just like when Dad calls you using your full name. You KNOW you’re in trouble. This was serious.
Not having hovered in 18 years, we had planned to build up to this, on maybe the fourth or fifth flight, not the fourth or fifth minute. The Sea Harrier has a much smaller wing than the AV-8B. It is more like the AV-8A. Without too much of the boring details, we use a 90 knot check of engine power during the decelerating transition, to determine IF WE CAN HOVER AT ALL. For that power check, the airplane should be stable, in nearly level flight, under control, with very little rate of descent. That check needs to be accurate, or the pilot could find himself approaching the hover with not enough power and no ability to wave off and try again. Gravity will take control of the situation. We make that decision at 90 knots approaching the hover. The engine temperature should be 660 degs centigrade, or less to continue. Otherwise, wave off, burn down more fuel and try again.
I lined up into the wind, which was also into the low setting sun, and at a mile or so, rotated the exhaust nozzles to straight down, or the hover stop. As the airspeed decreased, I focused on getting a good 90-knot check. At this point, I had minutes of fuel remaining. MINUTES.
At 90 knots, the temperature was 540 degrees C. Now, that’s great – if it’s accurate. Was it an error? Was the check off? Was I too far back on the power? Lots of questions, but I had to focus on the hover.
I checked my temperatures numerous times as I approached the hover, but it all seemed normal to me. The throttle position seemed to coincide with the indications and I was able to hover at 580 degree C. That is actually below the maximum continuous temperature limit for the engine, so this meant we have a superstar of an engine, coupled with a very light airplane. It was not all bad.
Stabilized at 100 feet over the pad, Joe walked out to the pad and gave me a visual hand signal to ‘do a very, very gentle vertical landing.’ I looked and nodded. He turned his back and walked away. That visual left an indelible impression on me, re-emphasizing this is very, very serious.
I’ve got 100 feet to go, straight down, with no sideways drift. Piece of cake, in pilot’s terms. Recall that the nose gear still indicated UNSAFE, but the landing light was illuminated.
I touched down softly, and snatched the throttle to idle (normal Vertical Landing procedure)
Within a second, I hear a loud thump and the nose fell to the ground. It caught me completely off guard, since it remained on the gear for the first micro-second at touchdown. The nose fell 5 and a half feet to the ground and I violently slung forward in the seat. It was just like setting in your favorite lounge chair and having someone drop you 5 feet. It was quite a jolt.
I shut the engine down, normally, secured the fuel system, and turned the batteries off, but I did not move. I was concerned that the jolt had broken my neck and I was in shock, so since there was no immediate fire, I just sat there and opened the canopy.
Rich Gill, came running over and told me to get out! Get out! I asked if I was on fire and he said NO, so I just sat there. Then, I said, “You know, these babies almost land themselves!” (I stole that from the movie ‘Executive Decision’ so it’s not original)
I wiggled my toes and fingers, moved my neck back and forth, and did not sense any injuries, other than being a bit shook up on the play.
I climbed out of the cockpit and surveyed the mess. No one was killed, no one was hurt, and nothing beyond the world’s only civilian Harrier, appeared be damaged at all.
But the next few hours, days, and weeks proved to be the biggest challenges we’ve seen.
More on that with the next installment…