IT WAS a spectacular send-off and the end of an era as Harrier jets flew for the last time yesterday in the skies above Rutland.
The plan was for 16 planes to set off from RAF Cottesmore on an historic sortie around seven air bases with diamond formation flypasts over Oakham, Stamford and Lincoln Cathedral. But low cloud and drizzle at Cottesmore all morning prevented that from happening.
Instead, all 16 Harriers took off but flew a much shorter route, which included Oakham but not Stamford, where hundreds of people lined the streets only to be disappointed.
At RAF Cottesmore a crowd of personnel, families, children from the school on the base and invited guests gathered at the side of the runway. They were treated to a display of formation flying, the plane’s characteristic hovering and a final unique Harrier bow – with the pilot facing the crowd and dipping the aircraft’s nose, a move that drew tears from some of those watching.
In a surprise finale, three of the Red Arrows made a flypast before the RAF Waddington Pipe Band escorted the pilots, to applause from the crowd, into the hangar used for the farewell reception.
The jets will be stored at Cottesmore until a decision is taken on their future. The Harriers from Cottesmore and RAF Witttering have been scrapped as part of the Government’s 2010 Strategic Defence Review. It has been suggested they may be sold.
Yesterday was a year to the day since it was announced RAF Cottesmore would close in 2013.
The pilots were due to hold their own wake last night.
Station commander and Harrier Force Commander Group Capt Gary Waterfall said the day had been a tribute to everyone involved with the Harrier family.
“Today is an emotional day for all those who have been fortunate to be involved with one of the true icons of aviation,” he said.
“As the last Harrier Force Commander, it has been a real honour to ensure that the Harrier has been retired from service with all of the respect and dignity deserved.”
Yesterday marked the end of 41 years’ service for the Harrier. It has been stationed at Cottesmore since 1999 and at Wittering since 1969.