IT was the end of an era at the Home of the Harrier when the great planes made their last official flight from RAF Wittering.
The jets, regarded as one of Britain’s greatest military planes, blasted away from the base into a bitterly cold but clear blue sky for their ceremonial flight yesterday.
With customary military precision the Harrier GR9 jets from IV Squadron roared into life at 1.30pm as planned, led by Wing Commander Simon Jesset.
The planes, capable of top speeds of more than 600mph, flew over bases in Cambridgeshire and South Lincolnshire before heading back to Wittering in an impressive four-ship diamond formation, arriving at 3pm.
Squadron leader Dunc Mason pulled away to hover before the control tower, dropping the nose of the vehicle to make a symbolic final bow, which is one of the plane’s signature moves.
The planes then landed and the pilots sombrely walked away, some for the last time.
People gathered in surrounding fields and lay-bys to take photos of the jets as they flew past on the emotional flight.
Such is the mystique of the plane that several airmen, who have not been in a harrier for years, made the journey to Wittering to pay their tribute to the iconic craft.
And even schoolchildren at Barnack Primary School got the chance to have a look as the planes flew overhead on one of their final sorties.
Wing commander David Bradshaw, who had flown the plane earlier in the day, will be heading to London for a desk-based job for the Ministry Of Defence (MOD) when the Harrier is formally decommissioned at RAF Cottesmore on Wednesday.
He said: “I have been flying the plane for 20-odd years and it’s difficult to really sum up how iconic the Harrier jet is.
“This is a chance for us to commemorate the time that the Harrier has spent with us in the past 41 years and to close a chapter before they go up the road.
“The guys love them and I have always loved what is a good, old-fashioned airplane – it’s complex, difficult to fly, but very rewarding.”
It is not quite the four jets’ last-ever flight from the base as icy conditions at RAF Cottesmore prevented them from landing there yesterday.
Instead they are due to leave Wittering for the final time today and fly to RAF Cottesmore ahead of a 16-plane display, featuring three other squadrons on Wednesday, after which they will be decommissioned.
A decision will then be made about their long-term future but it is likely they will be sold, possibly to Indian, Italian or American air forces, who could use them whole, or strip them for parts.
Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander Si Rawlins took officers working for the Ministry of Defence on a flight in a Harrier T10 at the base yesterday.
He said: “It is just a lively aircraft, which is very nice for a pilot to fly. It’s a huge amount of fun, with massive acceleration on take-off.
“It’s disappointing that its being scrapped but we all understand that it was a difficult decision to make.
“We know that it had legs as an aircraft and it’s not my place to comment on the decision reached.”
The Government announced it was scrapping the Harrier jets during its Strategic Defence Review in October.
RAF Wittering has been known as the Home of the Harrier since 1968, although the first Harriers arrived at the base a year later.
The plane has a special place in aircraft-lovers’ hearts as it has the distinctive ability of being able to take-off vertically.
Following the Government’s announcement in October it is still not known what will happen at RAF Wittering and RAF Cottesmore.
Of the 2,000 people stationed or working at RAF Wittering, 500 have a connection with the Harriers, including pilots, engineers and ground staff.
After the final flight, many of the Harrier staff from the two bases will work on maintaining the crafts and bringing them up to a standard acceptable for sale.
Some Harrier staff from Wittering will also help with other tasks at the base or in the community.
RAF Cottesmore is due to close in 2013.