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Way to go...pic by Jamie Hunter/AviacomMad world

As the world becomes a more dangerous place each day, and Britain's armed forces are stretched around the globe on peacekeeping duties, the Government seems intent on reducing its defensive capabilities. The first of a latest of cuts came into being on 31 March when 800 Naval Air Squadron disbanded, leaving the Navy with just one front-line unit for the next two years, until it too will go. It will be at least six years before its replacement is ready... Damien Burke reports from Yeovilton. Pictures by the author, Jamie Hunter and Nick Blacow

It seems that when it comes to Harriers, nothing ever goes to plan. Joint Force Harrier all turned into a bit of a damp squib; a grand plan for a 42-Harrier flypast this month was scuppered by spoilsports at RAF stations along the route not granting permission for the overflight; and the fleet's only viable air defence component is now being thrown away by a government who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

800 NAS was formed on 3 April 1933, together with 801, with which it has a strong bond and friendly rivalry. Its motto, "Nunquam Non Paratus", means "Never Unprepared", and it was the first jet unit within the Fleet Air Arm. First aircraft in 1933 were Hawker Nimrods, the navalised version of the Fury, and during the Second World War the squadron operated from HMS Ark Royal, flying Blackburn Skuas against such targets as the battleship Scharnhorst. Sea Hurricanes replaced the Skuas later in the war to support the North African landings, and towards the end of the war Hellcats from the unit helped 617 Squadron in the destruction of the Tirpitz.

Seafires followed post-war, then the first jets in the shape of the Sea Hawk FGA6 during the Suez Crisis, flying from HMS Albion, progressing through the Scimitar and Buccaneer until disbandment in 1972. Re-formed on 31 March 1980 with the Sea Harrier FRS1, the squadron saw action in the South Atlantic two years later with HMS Hermes, its pilots being awarded many decorations for their heroic efforts against the Argentine forces.

800 NAS Battle Honours:

Norway 1940-1944
Mediterranean 1940-1941
Bismark 1941
Malta Convoys 1941-1942
Diego Suarez 1942
North Africa 1942
South of France 1944
Aegean 1944
Burma 1945
Korea 1950
Falklands 1982

800 NAS are the oldest Naval Air Squadron and have the dubious honour of being the first Sea Harrier squadron to be axed after twenty-four years of operating the type. Formed in 1933, they have an impressively long list of battle honours and fifty air-to-air kills including more than twelve in the 1982 Falklands War, with the Sea Harrier FRS1.

The FA2 has been flown by the Squadron since 1995, and progressively upgraded while in service so that today's FA2 is still a very capable aircraft and being retired well before its use-by date. They may not be as easy to maintain as more modern designs but regularly embarrass supposedly more capable opponents in air-to-air combat training (such as the F-15Cs from RAF Lakenheath), and in a recent bombing competition FA2s trounced their RAF colleagues flying more advanced GR7s and GR7As - and also left Lakenheath's F-15Es trailing in their wake.

Don't cry for me, Argentina
ZH809 in celebratory 899 NAS colours
ZD613 in anniversary scheme
Last line-up
Movin' out
ZE696
ZD579
Formation take-off
Flypast
Pic by Damien Burke

So - historic squadron - highly proficient pilots and ground staff - nifty little jet... well, they were clearly crying out to be disbanded and the jets stripped for spares... and, oh yes, let's not bother replacing them with anything else. The Falklands War cost the Royal Navy several expensive ships and many valuable personnel because of the lack of Airborne Early Warning - it seems now the lessons are being forgotten once again because we are throwing away the fleet's air defence entirely.

CO gets a drenching - pic by Nick Blacow
Commander Paul Stone BSc, now ex-CO 800 NAS, joined Britannia Royal Naval College in January 1985. After graduation he joined 800 NAS for his first FRS1 tour on HMS Invincible, and later joined 899 NAS OEU in 1993 to bring the FA2 into service. He flew on Operation Deny Flight in Bosnia. Graduated from the Empire Test Pilots School in 1994, he has flown the GR7, Jaguar, Hunter, F/A-18 and X-32 as the UK X-32 Project Pilot. He joined 801 NAS in 2001 and assumed command of 800 NAS in 2002. In his spare time he flies vintage aircraft with the Shuttleworth Collection and the Royal Naval Historic Flight.

31 March was chosen for the disbandment, and the sad day was marked with a parade of the entire squadron complement on the ground and a flypast by six 800 NAS SHARs. A pair of 899 NAS jets had been pulled out onto the ramp just in case they were required but clearly 800's ground crews had been making sure that wasn't necessary, and six 800 NAS jets plus another as air spare departed Yeovilton for the last time just before the disbandment ceremony began.

Last flypast - pic by Damien BurkeThe First Sea Lord made a speech (including a gentle reminder to the RAF about who won that most recent bombing competition) and inspected the assembled Squadron; 800's Commanding Officer (Commander Paul Stone) also spoke, and the 2003 Flight Safety award was presented to the Squadron. After a brief service, it was time for the assembled Divisions to about-face and await the flypast. Dead on track the six Sea Jets roared overhead and with that, 800 NAS was officially history.

With the formalities out of the way, Naval fighter pilots...a rare breed. Pic by Nick Blacowthe seven jets all came back for a positively fearsome run and break - the reason for the speed of arrival being clear when champagne bottles sprouted everywhere for some traditional dousing of the pilots who carried out the flypast. With the news that two of the Navy's carriers are going to be mothballed, the fixed wing carrier pilot is now officially an endangered species in the UK...

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