Once the pride of Britain’s RAF and Royal Navy, the now stripped-down Harrier vertical take-off jump jets sit like skeletons in the famous US aircraft ‘Boneyard’ in the Arizona desert.
The iconic aircraft whose original versions first saw active service more than 40 years ago, are among some of the 72 Harriers that Britain prematurely scrapped and then sold to America for a knockdown £ 116 million last November.
They are now used for spare parts for US Harriers, which America still considers viable fighting planes.
Despite being the world’s only successful combat-tested jump jets – and at one time considered ideal for the Navy’s two new £6.2 billion aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales – the Harriers were decommissioned two years ago as part of the UK Coalition’s defence cuts.
They are due to be replaced towards the end of the decade by the US’s F-35B jump jet, which experts believe will cost as much as £200 million each – about 75 per cent more per plane than the Americans paid for Britain’s entire Harrier fleet.
The US-made jets will not be available until 2018 at the earliest, leaving Britain with two new super-carriers but no jump jets to fly from them.
The discarded Harriers make a sorry sight, parked up at the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) in Tucson, Arizona, known as the world’s largest military aircraft cemetery.
More than 4,000 mothballed or retired aircraft are at the ‘Boneyard’ which has featured in Hollywood films including Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen, and covers 2,600 acres of baking desert.
The site’s high altitude and arid conditions mean aircraft can be left outdoors without deteriorating too rapidly. The estimated value of its collection, including B-52 Stratofortresses, F-14 Tomcats and A-10 Thunderbolt ‘tank-busters’, is an incredible £17.5 billion. Though some areas of the base are classified as secret, the rows of aircraft have become a tourist attraction, with bus tours available to those who visit the nearby air and space museum.
When America bought Britain’s Harriers, Rear Admiral Mark Heinrich, chief of the US Navy’s supply corps, said the deal made sense because many of the British jets had recently undergone a refit – and the US already had pilots who could fly them.
‘We’re taking advantage of all the money the Brits have spent on them,’ he told a US military newspaper.
‘It’s like we’re buying a car with maybe 15,000 miles on it. These are very good platforms. And we’ve already got trained pilots.’
The US Navy, widely acknowledged as the world’s most technologically advanced, believes that the purchase of the British Harriers will allow it to keep flying its own planes into the middle of the next decade.
All planes arriving at the Boneyard go through the same process of being stripped down for storage. Guns, ejector seats and sensitive hardware are removed before the fuel system is drained.