This is how the AV-8 Harrier won dogfights by stopping in midair
Remember that scene in Top Gun when Maverick tells Goose that he’ll “hit the brakes” and the instructor pursuing him in an A-4 Skyhawk will just fly right by? Braking sharply, while in-flight, is indeed a tactic that can be utilized by fighter pilots in air-to-air combat, but no aircraft could ever do it quite as well as the venerable Harrier jumpjet. The technique was known as “VIFF”.
The Harrier, originally developed by Hawker Siddeley, and later, British Aerospace Systems (BAe), could achieve vertical flight by vectoring four large nozzles straight down towards the ground. The nozzles would vent exhaust at full thrust from the Harrier’s powerful main Pegasus engine, allowing the aircraft to hover, lift off the ground and land like a helicopter.
This carved out a brand new niche for the Harrier that wasn’t really challenged at all until the recent F-35B Lightning II: it could literally fly and land anywhere and everywhere. The Harrier could be launched from highways and unimproved fields and grass strips, or could be deployed to sea aboard small aircraft carriers, or even re-purposed cargo vessels.
The Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, which operated the navalized version of the jumpjet – the Sea Harrier – was enthusiastic about using the aircraft on deployments aboard light aircraft carriers, especially the HMS Invincible (R05). The problem with the Harrier/Sea Harrier was the fact that the aircraft was almost entirely geared towards the strike mission (i.e. flying air-to-ground attacks) while the air-to-air role was more of an afterthought that wasn’t really accounted for. The Royal Air Force’s land-based Harrier, the GR.3, would typically require a flight of more capable air superiority fighters to fly top cover, or to clear the airspace ahead of them, lest they be engaged and taken out of the fight. The Royal Navy, on the other hand, took a different approach.
The Sea Harrier, more commonly known as the “Shar”, was revamped to allow for it to assume both the ground attack, reconnaissance and fighter roles, giving the air wings assigned to the Invincible (and later, the HMS Hermes) a more diverse spread of available capabilities while in-theater (i.e. in the area of operation). The Shar could fly with AIM-9 Sidewiders short-range air-to-air missiles on under-wing pylons, and was equipped with ADEN 30mm cannons to be used for strafing land-based targets or attacking enemy fighters in the air. The Fleet Air Arm’s pilots needed to first develop the tactics required to help the Shar’s future pilots fight and win against enemy fighters that were likely more suited towards aerial combat than the high-wing strike jumpjet.
On the other side of the pond, the United States Marine Corps was busy beefing up its air-to-ground capabilities with the AV-8A Harrier. This new strike jet would give them a versatile fast attack option that could potentially be deployed really anywhere around the world, especially aboard aircraft carriers which would serve as forward-operating staging platforms. In 1976, Marines began taking the Harrier to sea, first aboard the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Midway-class aircraft carrier. On the FDR, the Marine contingent would test out the Harrier’s ability to operate in adverse weather conditions, as well as pit it in air-to-air mock dogfights against the ship’s complement of F-4 Phantom IIs. Marine pilots quickly came to the conclusion that in a close-in fight, they could actually use the aircraft’s thrust vectoring to their advantage.
The Marine Corps put in a request with Rolls Royce, the designer and builder of the Harrier’s Pegasus engine, as to whether or not this technique would put unnecessary and unwanted stresses on the engine, or if it would outright spoil the engine’s functionality. They still carried on with testing before Rolls Royce got back to them with the “all-clear”! Thrust vectoring while in flight could prove to be the key maneuver they needed for closer air-to-air combat. Ultimately, what resulted was known as Vectoring in Forward Flight (VIFF for short).
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VIFF basically involved pilots rotating the nozzles forward from the usual in-flight horizontal position. In doing so, pilots could quickly deplete their airspeed and bleed energy, causing their surprised pursuer(s) to overshoot, suddenly finding their windscreen devoid of any prey they might have previously been chasing. After dropping altitude as a result of VIFFing, the Harrier would now be free to turn the tables on the predator, making the hunter the hunted. In a turning fight, this was an immense advantage for the Harrier’s pilot. But as soon as the pilot VIFFed his opponent, he had to have had a plan for dealing with the bandit, or else he would be in for a world of hurt; that wasn’t a trick any combat pilot would fall for twice.
Among VIFF’s disadvantages was the fact that it could only really be used effectively in turning fights. If the pursuing aircraft was flying with a wingman, or as part of a larger attack flight, the odds would be stacked fairly high against the Harrier. Additionally, after VIFFing, any other enemy fighters that weren’t engaged in the melee between the Harrier and the first jet were placed in a prime position to take a shot at the jumpjet, which took time to rebuild energy from the very-taxing VIFF maneuver (i.e. regain airspeed).
During the Falklands War, in the early 1980s, British Harrier pilots might have attempted putting VIFFing to use against Argentinian Mirage fighters, which were decidedly more suited towards the air-to-air role than the Harrier. In fact, no conclusive evidence exists to prove that VIFFing was indeed the deciding factor in any engagement involving the Harrier. However, even with the Mirage being built for air combat, it still proved to be ineffective against the superior training of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force pilots and technology (i.e. the AIM-9L Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missile), who did not lose a single Harrier or Sea Harrier in air-to-air combat during the entire conflict, while inflicting losses on the Argentinian air force. RAF and Fleet Air Arm pilots were able to employ the tactics they developed like never before, proving that a Harrier, in the right hands, is truly a deadly and highly capable machine.
A huge thanks to Art Nalls of Nalls Aviation, home of the world’s ONLY civilian-owned and operated Sea Harrier for his help and advice in writing this article! Keep an eye out for Art and his legendary Shar on the airshow circuit in North America this year! Special thanks also to Alan Kenny for his fantastic Harrier and Sea Harrier pictures!
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