899 NAS Disbandment Feature Report
Wednesday 23rd March
The 23rd of March 2005 saw the second of three disbandments in the continuing draw down of Sea Harrier operations at RNAS Yeovilton. On this emotional day, a number of UKAR eyes watched 899 Naval Air Squadron bow out in style, leaving a single front line unit behind. We got up close and personal with the squadron just a month before the end of their love affair with the "SHar", for a memorable day courtesy of Ian Allan Photo Tours.
Report and pictures by. Additional photography from and .
The retirement of the much loved Sea Harrier is one that has caused many a stern word from UK aviation enthusiasts. Understandably so, because this aircraft has become symbol of the success of the Royal Navy and British fighter aircraft design and we are sad to see it becoming a victim of ever decreasing budgets and the associated changes in defence policy. With it, we give up the Fleet Air Arm's fixed-wing fighter force to concentrate Joint Force Harrier on a common type, and a changing role (for the FAA pilots at least).
899 NAS were the largest fighter squadron in the Royal Navy, serving as an operational conversion unit for Sea Harrier pilots and training engineers alongside. It was also the Sea Harrier Operational Evaluation Unit (OEU), trialling new equipment, upgrades and tactics to keep the fleet at the forefront of naval aviation.
899's lineage goes back to the middle of The Second World War when the squadron first formed with Supermarine Seafires and soon after was flying from HMS Indomitable in support of the Sicily landings. At the time of their first disbandment in 1945, 899 had flown more than 500 missions. Reforming on the Hawker Sea Hawk, 10 years afterward, the squadron flew in part of the Suez campaign from HMS Eagle. Operating the Sea Vixen in a later incarnation, it was to see action during the enforcement of the Beira Blockade in 1965.
The final chapter of the 899 NAS History book saw them recommission in 1980 from 700A Flight, the start of their 25 year association with the "Sea Jet". In 1982, participating in Operation Corporate (The Falklands Campaign) the squadron's pilots flew with both 800 and 801 NAS and normal operations did not restart properly until May that year. Receiving the updated SHar - the F/A.2 - in 1993, 899 went to Boscombe down to form the Operational Evaluation Unit for the type and conversion training, initially for existing Sea Harrier pilots, began in March 1994.
An unmissable opportunity for the SHar enthusiast was up for grabs at the end of February this year, only one month before 899 decomissioned. Organised by Ian Allan Photo tours and made possible by 899's hospitality, those lucky enough to book up fast enough were treated to a great day's flying and unique photo opportunities. Most notably during the afternoon, the entire tour party were able to stand on VL's ski ramp to get a raised angle of the runway. We were also able to have a look around the SHar Hangar, Royal Navy Historic Flight Hangar and had a chance to grab a piece of squadron memorabilia - as we were told "everything must go - you can have it if the price is right". Consequently, a number of the party left with the nice black office signs from the squadron building, complete with the winged fist logo - an instant hit!
And so we reach what is likely to be 899's last disbandment. The sad day was marked with a squadron parade, music from the Royal Marines Band and two flypasts. Two Sea Harrier F/A.2s and two Harrier T.8s, the last aircraft to be operated by 899, formed the first. The second consisted of some representitive types formerly flown by the squadron, namely Sea Vixen D3 G-CVIX (itself an aircraft once belonging to 899 NAS), Hawker Hunter F.58 G-PSST "Miss Demeanour" carrying an 899 fist on her tail, and the RNHF Hawker Sea Hawk FGA.6 WV908 - a truly unique formation.
With the departure of 899 NAS now recorded in many photograph albums and column inches, one squadron of Sea Harriers remains at RNAS Yeovilton, 801 NAS. They too will relinquish their aircraft, in March 2006 as the Fleet Air Arm's fixed wing component moves north with the RAF and reforms on the Harrier GR7/9. For now, some of the remaining SHars have been absorbed by 801, and the rest are "bagged and tagged" for sale and disposal, whilst two T.8s have been retained by the Naval Fixed Wing Standards Flight.
Royal Navy SHar pilots are remarkably upbeat about the future. Some are looking forward to flying the Harrier GR.7/GR.9 and beyond that, the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), due to enter service in 2012, whilst others move on to different things. Indeed, 899's Senior Pilot was to fly the AV-8B with the USMC. The SHars may be going, but the Royal Navy armed with VSTOL aircraft lives on...