That Magnificent Flying Machine

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Trying to retake the Falklands, the British task force needed three kinds of warplanes: a naval interceptor to protect the fleet, a ground-attack aircraft to soften up enemy defenses on the islands, and an agile troop-support plane to cover British forces as they advance from their bridgehead toward the main Argentine garrison at Port Stanley. All those roles have been filled by what the British regard as their magnificent flying machine: the Sea Harrier, a vertical short-takeoff and landing jet whose maneuverability and advanced avionics have made it more than a match for the land-based attack aircraft that Buenos Aires has launched against the British fleet. British Defense Ministry sources estimate that the Harriers have been responsible for two-thirds of the 69 Argentine planes and helicopters London claims have been destroyed, while none of the six lost Harriers have been shot down by enemy planes.

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With a maximum cruising speed of only 690 m.p.h., the Sea Harrier would seem to be at a disadvantage against Argentina's faster Mirage III-EAs. But in the Falklands, the Mirages have to sacrifice speed as, heavily loaded, they come in low to try to get under the radar. The Harrier fights best low and slow. With its maneuverability, it can stop in midair, hover, veer off sharply in new directions and land on almost any flat surface. Armed with 1,000-lb. cluster bombs for ground attack, and 30-mm guns and U.S.-built AIM-9L Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles, the Sea Harrier has an advanced avionics and radar system that allows it to fly day or night in any weather, unlike Argentina's Mirages and Skyhawks. Says a Harrier flyer: "It's a pilot's dream."

The British task force set sail for the Falklands with 20 Sea Harriers. After a few losses, three replacements were hastily dispatched, and additional reinforcements of 18 Harriers arrived in time for the San Carlos landing. These planes have provided the task force's only cover against an Argentine force that numbered some 230 planes at the outset of hostilities.

The same devices that give the Harrier its ability to take off vertically also permit it to outmaneuver conventional aircraft by using a technique known as "viffing" (from Vector in Forward Flight). By adjusting his exhaust nozzles to reverse the thrust, the pilot can cause his plane to decelerate rapidly and veer to the side. "You want to smash through the canopy, but the harness tightens over your shoulders, holds you down at the waist. You think you are stopping at 12,000 ft.," wrote British Journalist John Edwards, who was given a demonstration ride in a Harrier last week. In combat, a sudden viff usually causes a pursuing fighter to overshoot. Explains one veteran Harrier pilot: "From being the attacking aircraft, it becomes the attacked."

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