High on a Yorkshire hillside, Andrew Vine reports on the garden ornament that caused an internet furore. Pictures by Simon Hulme.
ONLY an aircraft like this could fly into a place like this. Twelve hundred feet up, windy, with Bradford spread out below in the background and the foreground patrolled by two friendly cats and a dog, it’s an unlikely place to find an icon of British military aviation.
But here it is all the same, a lovingly-restored monument to a soon-to-be-lost age of innovation and bravery, the only T2 Harrier trainer still in existence and looking as pristine as it did when it first entered service in 1971. Then, and for its 26-year career, it would have needed to hover in to land, to reach here.
But it hasn’t left the ground under its own power since 1997, let alone fired its 30mm cannon, nor will it ever again. When Chris Wilson found it decaying quietly in a private collection, its cockpit was open to the elements and plants were taking root around the pilot’s seat thanks to the rainwater that poured in. It was just a shell, its jump-jetting days long past, and a sorry sight when it arrived by road in the autumn of 2009. All of which made the spat that erupted over it a few weeks ago the more bizarre. Chris – as he does – had put his Harrier up for sale on the internet auction site eBay, with a suggested price of £70,000, and within days the bids were pouring in. Everybody loved it, including a seven-year-old boy in America, who hit the “Buy It Now” button, to the horror of his father, who made hurried and worried contact with eBay to withdraw the offer.
There were rumours that superstar singer Beyoncé Knowles was bidding for it as the sort of off-the-wall conversation piece that pop divas simply must have, but whether she was or not, the auction was looking good. “It was doing really well, there was massive interest,” said Chris. “We had 140,000 hits in a few days, 80-plus bids from 69 different bidders and then eBay pulled the plug because someone in an office had decided that it was a weapons delivery system. It was crazy really. It’s not even capable of delivering a pizza.”
Indeed it isn’t, however much it gleams, the product of more than 1,000 hours of work. There is a void where the engine should be, and the rocket launchers slung from its wings are fibreglass replicas. Anybody intent on launching an attack with the Harrier would be better off with a pea-shooter. Nevertheless, eBay had decided that the Harrier contravened its policy of not selling “weapons, knives and ammunition”, and its stance made headlines around the world, not least because Chris had previously advertised restored Harriers for sale without any problem.
It’s still for sale, though not via eBay, and the interest in it has brought a note from Chris’s website provider that he’s exceeded his hit limit. Soon enough, it will leave Chris’s garden for someone else’s, just like six other Harriers, among them one to a collector in Greece, and another to Canada. At home, one stands in a garden in Cheshire, another on the south coast.
Part of the reason for the interest is that Britain’s Harriers have taken their last bow after 40 years of distinguished service in such theatres of war as the Falklands and Bosnia, victims of Government cuts to plug a £38bn black hole in the defence budgets, and their demise has produced an upsurge of sentiment and regret at their passing amongst aviation enthusiasts.
“We started this project in November 2009 and we never dreamed that as we restored it, the entire fleet would be retired,” said Chris. “People have got really patriotic about it. It’s a crazy decision, madness, a complete waste.
“The reason we went for Harriers is that they’re fast, flashy, everyone loves the Britishness of them and there are not many of them around. We’ve been picking aircraft that are emotive. I’ve seen it myself at air shows – the Harrier comes on to do its hover and everything stops and everybody watches. It’s an aircraft that even the ladies love.”
Love them they might, but who would want one? Plenty of people, as it turns out, and for Chris, 33, an animated man with an unquenchable enthusiasm for aviation that has gripped him since he was a child, the key to the success of a very unusual business. “We are basically selling the ultimate garden furniture. These aircraft were hand-made. Every hole was drilled by hand, every rivet put in by hand. They are a piece of art that cost millions to build, and if you drive up somebody’s driveway and there’s a Harrier there, it’s the ultimate display piece.”
It can also be an eye-catching way to advertise a business. “The people who buy them range from aircraft enthusiasts with private collections to companies wanting the ultimate business promotion tool. We put one outside an MOT centre in Cheshire, and within 10 minutes people were turning up to have a look. Within half an hour, the Press was there, and the owner suddenly had more interest in his business than he’d had in 20 years.”
It all started from small beginnings for Leeds-born Chris, whose passion for military aircraft led him from the air cadets as a boy into the RAF, in which he served for eight years as an airframe fitter, two years of which were spent with the Red Arrows display team at shows all over the world. He loved it, but it was “a single man’s job, away six months of the year”, and when he met his wife, Mel, it was time to return to civilian life, which he did in 2004.
“We fell into it by accident. I left the RAF and did a couple of house renovations, and over the years, I’d amassed bits and pieces from airshows, and stuck them on eBay. I’d served with the Red Arrows doing airshows where souvenirs were being sold so I knew there was definitely a market there.”
There was. He founded his company, Jet Art Aviation, five years ago and launched an ingenious range of products. He’d build you a coffee table featuring the armoured windscreen from an F8 Crusader, or a mirror based on a compressor vane, or an office chair made from a pilot’s seat. Seating proved to be a particular hit with companies wanting to make an impact on clients or visitors; a healthy trade developed in ejector seats – decommissioned, of course, there are easier ways of getting rid of unwanted callers – for entrance lobbies.
Britain had been one of the great manufacturers of warplanes, and the country remains littered with spare parts. Chris gradually began building up stock, and a list of places where parts could be sourced, before moving into the restoration of complete aircraft. He now employs three people.
“We’re saving aircraft that nobody else would take on. They are purely museum display aircraft. They won’t fly again.”
His hillside in West Yorkshire is full of projects. Grouped together are four nose cones from interceptors. “They make great garden features,” he says: “People will stop and say, ‘What’s that?’ ‘That’s the nose cone off a Tornado F3. It’s gone at Mach 2 has that’.”
There is also the front of a Sea Harrier that flew 50 sorties in the Falklands, downing two Argentine warplanes. It came to grief whilst returning from a combat mission over Bosnia in 1996, its engine failing and its pilot ejecting to safety as it plunged into the sea. It cost £1m to recover in order to find out what had gone wrong. The name of one of its pilots, Lt Cmdr ME Robinson, is still visible on the cockpit in faded paint. Once restored, the cockpit will pay silent tribute to the bravery of the men who flew in it.
The big one, though, is a restoration of a Tornado GR1, which will have to wait until Chris finds new premises with more space. Until then, there is plenty to keep him busy. The front fuselage of a Lightning is being polished to a mirror finish, and will then be mounted to make it appear as if it’s hurtling out of a wall. “It’ll be a real boy toy display item,” says Chris. “Real ‘wow’ factor.”
• Jet Art Aviation can be found at www.jetartaviation.co.uk
FINAL FLIGHT OF A BRITISH MILITARY ICON
A MONTH before Christmas, as the biggest and proudest ship of the Royal Navy pitched in the powerful North Sea swell, the end of an era was witnessed by a crew with tears in their eyes.
The last flight of Harrier jump jets took off from the deck of the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and roared away towards their base in Lincolnshire, and obsolescence. The ship, too, was on its last journey, both the victim of defence cuts.
For the Harrier, that last flight brought to an end a proud and distinguished career of more than 40 years, during which, perhaps more than any other warplane built since the Second World War, it had claimed the affection and respect of the British public.
That may be because of the role it played during the Falklands war of 1982, when the country watched with bated breath as the remote islands in the South Atlantic were reclaimed from Argentine invaders. In the best-remembered broadcast of the conflict, it was Harriers that were seen roaring off the deck of a carrier as BBC reporter Brian Hanrahan told the audience: “I’m not allowed to say how many planes joined the raid, but I counted them all out and I counted them all back.”
The Harriers that left the carrier that day, and their successors taking off on the valedictory flight from Ark Royal had a long history behind them. Development work on a warplane that could get off the ground vertically, or with a very short take-off run, had begun as early as 1957, and a prototype was flying by 1966.
The Harriers, powered by Rolls Royce engines, went into service with the RAF in April 1969, and between then and 2003, 824 were built, seeing service with the RAF in Germany to counter the Cold War threat from the Soviet Union and the Balkans, as well as the Falklands. They were not just a mainstay of the RAF – among the other countries to fly them were the United States, Spain and India.