Howard Heeley/Down to Earth Promotions reviews the career of Newark Air Museum's recently acquired Sea Harrier ZA176. Pictures by the author unless stated otherwise
Since Newark Air Museum volunteers and staff have rebuilt and restored the original operational paintwork back up to display standard on BAe Sea Harrier FA2 ZA176, the aircraft has attracted significant interest from the museum’s visitors. This interest has resulted in several fresh sources of service history being made available for the Falkland veteran. Thanks go out to everyone who has contributed with this information.
After coming off the production line as a FRS1 version ZA176 undertook its first flight at Dunsfold, Surrey on 25 November 1981. It was subsequently delivered to RAF St Athan, South Glamorgan on 16 December where it was held on Fleet Reserve Storage.
On 6 April 1982 it was flown from RAF St Athan to RNAS Yeovilton, Somerset and issued to the newly-reformed 809 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) two days later. Supported by in-flight refuelling from Victor tanker aircraft ZA176 started its journey south to join the Falklands Task Force on 30 April with a flight via Banjul in the Gambia and on to Ascension Island, arriving on 1 May.
On 6 May ZA176 was flown onto the container ship Atlantic Conveyor, which sailed for the South Atlantic the flowing day. Coded 76, the aircraft was transferred to 800 NAS and joined the squadron onboard HMS Hermes on 18 May. ZA176 served operationally during the campaign and details of some sorties have come to light.
On 21 May ZA176 was patrolling over San Carlos Water with Sea Harrier ZA455, when they were vectored on to a flight of Argentinean Daggers by HMS Brilliant. ZA455 fired a Sidewinder missile that impacted on one of the Daggers (believed to be C-409) whose pilot ejected. ZA176 directed cannon fire at the other aircraft, but no hits were recorded.
In the late afternoon of 25 May ZA176 is noted as having arrived overhead the guided missile destroyer HMS Coventry just before the ship capsized, having hit by Argentinean bombs.
At the end of the conflict ZA176 remained as a patrol aircraft operating from HMS Hermes, which finally set sail for the UK on 3 July. The aircraft left the carrier in the Bay of Biscay on 19 July and flew into RNAS Yeovilton.
On 22 July ZA176 was transferred to 809 NAS coded 250, embarking on HMS Illustrious on 2 August, which immediately set sail for patrol in the South Atlantic. The carrier and ship’s company returned on 21 October and ZA176 finally arrived back at RNAS Yeovilton on 6 December and was immediately transferred to 801 NAS, coded N001.
Whilst operating from HMS Illustrious it caused an international incident on 7 June 1983 when pilot Lt I. 'Soapy' Watson landed the aircraft on a Spanish freighter Alraigo after an avionics malfunctions left him without contact with the carrier. The landing area used on the Alraigo freighter was the base plate for a telescope that was being shipped to the La Palma Observatory in the Canary Islands. The aircraft did partially slip off its temporary landing platform onto some containers and was eventually off-loaded from the Alraigo at Santa Cruz in Tenerife and was returned to the UK on the MV British Tay.
ZA176 is noted as being at RNAS Yeovilton by 22 June 1983 and, coded 712, was issued to 899 NAS on 4 July. It remained with the squadron until 30 October 1985 when it was transferred to RAF St Athan. From here it moved back to 899 NAS on 21 March 1986 coded 716 and it returned to RAF St Athan on 15 June 1987.
The aircraft was issued to 801 NAS coded R007 on HMS Ark Royal on 19 January 1988. After a tour on HMS Ark Royal, ZA176 was transferred to Air Movements Group (AMG) at RNAS Yeovilton on 26 January 1990 before being moved by road to RAF St Athan on 2 February.
ZA176’s next operational squadron started on 20 August 1990 with 800 NAS on HMS Invincible, coded N122. This was the last squadron it flew operationally with as an FRS1 before it transferred back to AMG Yeovilton on 22 October 1991.
On 17 February 1992, along with many other FRS1s, ZA176 was transferred to BAe Dunsfold for conversion to FA2 standard. This involved the further modification of the nose and the incorporation of the 'Blue Vixen' based advanced avionics suite. A key feature of this upgrade was the ability to engage multiple targets beyond visual range (BVR).
ZA176’s first flight as a FA2 version took place from Dunsfold on 1 October 1993, before moving to RAF St Athan on 6 October. Coded 716, the aircraft was issued to 899 NAS at RNAS Yeovilton on 11 November and is believed to have been the first FA2 to be delivered to the squadron, which was the first squadron to operate the mark.
The aircraft transferred to 801 NAS on 5 October 1994 and, coded 000, operated off HMS Illustrious. It flew operationally in the Adriatic Sea during ‘Operation Decisive Enhancement’ during the Bosnian Conflict in the former Yugoslavia. It returned to AMG Yeovilton on 27 July 1995.
At the Royal Tournament, Earls Court, London in 1996 ZA176 was displayed as a static exhibit before moving back to AMG Yeovilton and again to RAF St Athan. Between September and November, 1997 it is noted as being with 899 NAS, 801 NAS and 800 NAS, moving back to AMG Yeovilton in July, 1999.
On 24 September 2001 it joined 800 NAS, coded R126, on HMS Ark Royal, where it remained until it was transferred to DARA St Athan in 2002. Later in 2002 it served with 801 RNS on HMS Ark Royal coded R126 and R006 and later with HMS Invincible.
ZA176’s final naval transfer was to AMG Yeovilton on 24 July 2003. The aircraft was recorded 'Withdrawn From Use' (wfu) on 20 September and was used for spares recovery at RNAS Yeovilton.
The aircraft type was crossed off the Newark Air Museum’s ‘aircraft wish list’ when ZA176 was purchased from the Royal Navy in July 2004. The aircraft helped complete the V-TOL airframe lineage, which starts at the museum with the Meteor FR9 flying test-bed. The aircraft was transported to the museum by road on 21 July 2004.