Spanish Navy Harrier Pilots Interview

Saturday 20th July 2019

It's been nearly ten years since the Harrier was retired from British service. What was probably the most popular and most beloved type in service - a true, genuine British aviation icon - disappeared from the UK quite abruptly and without a really proper send off. Since then, the nation has been starved of its Pegasus-engined spectacle but one country has helped to ease that hunger in recent years. The Spanish Navy (Armada Español) is one of the last three operators of the Harrier and in recent years has provided a flying display at Farnborough International Airshow twice, as well as at the Royal Navy International Air Day and RIAT in 2019.

Sam Wise and Dominic Vickery spoke to Teniente de Navío Andres "Andy" Medina, 9th Squadron, lead display pilot for 2019, to discuss the Harrier in Spanish service. Photos by the Staff Team.

The Armada's Naval Aviation branch, the Flotilla de Aeronaves (FLOAN), currently flies the EAV-8B+ Harrier II, the same model as flown by the US Marines Corps and the Italian Navy. Its Harrier experience was first gained on the original AV-8S, known in Spain as the Matador. Bought from the US in the 70s the first-generation Harriers served with the Spanish Navy until 1996, whereupon they were sold to the Royal Thai Navy. By that point the FLOAN was already operating the EAV-8B Harrier II, having taken delivery of the type in 1987, and as the older variant was retired the service received the radar-equipped EAV-8B+ of which 12 plus one twin-stick TAV-8B currently serve the Spanish Navy.

Tn Medina joined the Spanish Navy in 2001 as a sailor and two years later joined the Spanish Naval Academy at Marin in the north-west of the country. He received the rank of Teniente de Navío (Lieutenant Junior Grade) after 5 years and was selected for the Harrier programme. All Spanish Navy Harrier pilots are trained by the US Navy, so Tn Medina went to the USA, initially to NAS Pensacola in Florida for Aviation Pre-Flight Indoctrination (API) and primary training and then, after being selected for jets, to NAS Meridian, Mississippi. After gaining his wings in 2011 he then went to MCAS Cherry Point for Harrier training with the US Marines. After one year at Cherry Point he returned to the Spanish Navy and has been flying with the 9th Squadron for eight years.

"The Harrier is probably one of the best aircraft ever designed. It's very tricky, it's not a very forgiving aircraft - you have to fly it all the way, every second, but it's an awesome aircraft to fly, it's very cool. It takes a long time to get used to flying the whole envelope, especially in the V/STOL environment, but once you're in the hover, it's wonderful."

In 2014 the announcement came that the Harrier would once again be flying in British skies at Farnborough International Airshow to much excitement, and again in 2018. The much-maligned Farnborough has fallen out of favour with the airshow-going public over the last decade or so and many expressed their hope that they would one day be able to see the Spanish at a more popular venue. And so it was that RIAT, and later Yeovilton, secured what undoubtedly proved to be the stars of this season by announcing their own appearances and Harrier fever gripped the enthusiast community, especially once it was announced that RIAT would see two of the machines in the sky at once. The level of excitement for these displays lends weight to the argument that the Harrier is the UK's most iconic aircraft of the jet age, and Tn Medina is fully aware of that fact when he brings the jet over here:

"Bringing the Harrier to the UK is like being a rockstar. You guys love the Harrier, you created it and it's a huge piece of not only British military history but global aviation history. You can feel the heat of the public when you land - they thank you for displaying. I met people who came across the whole country just to see the Harrier, so it's very rewarding to display in the UK."

"Going to Yeovilton was a special experience. Because it was a Sea Harrier base it was a special part of Harrier history, and everyone there had some previous work and experience on the Harrier so it felt like going somewhere as a part of the Harrier community. It was great to fly there and everyone was thankful to us for showing the Harrier. The Royal Navy were welcoming and helpful and the Navy always know how to do a good hangar party."

Andy's experience on the Harrier has led to him becoming display pilot for the past two years, including at Farnborough 2018. The display flown in 2018 was more or less the same as that at Yeovilton and RIAT's Friday show this year, but RIAT's showpiece was the pairs display. "It's a lot more complicated with two jets," he explains, "I'm the lead and my skipper is the wingman, and we have to make easier turns to keep the jets in formation and hovering two jets is harder than hovering just one as you have to think about staying together so much. But it'll look better from the ground, and let me tell you, when you're in the cockpit and you see a Harrier hovering in front of you, it's pretty exciting as well!"

"We get a lot of freedom to design the display ourselves. We have to send our blueprints of the display to the Navy headquarters who test what we do for approval. We also had to make sure it meets the UK regulations. We performed our two-ship show to a group from RIAT at Rota, they approved our display so we were able to bring it to the UK. You always stick to what you've trained and you never improvise, it's important to be a bit cold-minded since you've got 200,000 people almost underneath you so you stick to what you've trained to do. Safety is always paramount."

"RIAT is the biggest airshow I've been to. Farnborough was great, Yeovilton was great but here everything is bigger, everything is massive. The RIAT experience has been great - the best show I've been to." Friday was a proper washout at RIAT this year but Andy was able to put on one of the only displays of the day, albeit as a singleton routine. Not only did it ensure that people still got to see one of the season's stars, the sight of the Harrier kicking up an enormous plume of spray off the runway was worth the miserable downpours alone and aptly served to highlight the type's unique method of propulsion.

RIAT didn't just mark Tn Medina's biggest show but also an even more significant occasion for the pilot of the second display aircraft, Capitán de Fragata Manuel "Moro" Rodriguez. The Sunday display was his last ever flight in a Harrier, a poignant end in any career but one that was no doubt made all the more remarkable for being on one of the world's biggest stages. As with Ramex Delta in 2016, the Air Tattoo team put on a water cannon salute for Moro as he taxied back following the display, accompanied by a resounding round of applause from the crowd.

All military airshow displays are only ever a side-show to their full-time work, and the Spanish Navy's Harriers have been kept busy, taking part in operations recently both in the Middle East against Islamic State and in the Baltics. Supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, the US-led anti-IS effort over Syria and Iraq, Armada Harriers operated off the Juan Carlos I to escort Spanish Army helicopters on a 24 day cruise from Rota to Kuwait as well as support the Spanish fleet package. This year they flew in support of NATO's BALTOPS alongside other NATO allies and provided the first ship-based tactical aviation that BALTOPS has included in years flying off the Juan Carlos I. "It was interesting going from the hot environment of the Persian Gulf to the cold environment of the Baltics. Actually, it shows both the carrier and the Harrier operating well in hot and cold conditions."

How long will Spain operate the Harrier? "That is a question for the high command, not me!" Tn Medina jokes, "But I would guess they'll be in service until 2030. The US Marines are keeping the same time frame even with the F-35B coming on board as they still need the Harriers for operations as will we. I don't know what the replacement will be, but I had the opportunity to fly the F-35B simulator last year, and it was a pretty cool aeroplane! There's a lot of technology involved. I could see the Spanish Navy replacing the Harrier with the F-35B but I don't know yet. There's nothing else similar in the market really."

With both the US Marine Corps and the Italian Navy replacing their own AV-8s with the F-35B it would seem an obvious move for the Spanish Navy to do likewise, but that announcement has yet to be made. While the Juan Carlos I is ski-jump equipped, and therefore only capable of hosting the F-35B, it is also likely to see the end of service at the same time as the Harriers so that's not necessarily the limiting factor. But with the Franco-German-led Future Combat Air System, of which Spain is a partner nation, not planned to come online until well after the Harrier's suggested service end it seems unlikely that anything other than the F-35B will replace the Harrier in Spanish service.

Comparing it with the Harrier, Andy was blown away by the technology and praised how easy it is to fly but "it takes away a lot of the pilot's fun." With the Royal Navy and RAF's F-35s operating off the UK's new carriers now the chance for cooperation between the FLOAN and the FAA once again opens up, which Andy would relish - "It would be lovely to fly with our allies in the Royal Navy and to fly the Harrier alongside the F-35B. We'll be open to any cooperation."

Hopefully this year won't be the last time the Spanish Navy display their Harriers here. They were the highlights of this season and Tn Medina couldn't emphasise enough the feeling of gratitude and thanks that they received from the British public for "bringing the Harrier home". It'll be a sad, sad day for all aviation when the last Rolls-Royce Pegasus powers down but until then the Harrier will continue to fly with distinction in the Spanish Navy, delighting crowds everywhere it goes.

UKAR would like to thank Tn Santi "Tou" Tourino for his assistance in arranging this interview.