Last flight sees Harrier jets bow out of service

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Harrier jump jets flew for the final time yesterday, marking the end of an era.

Sixteen jets took off into grey skies at RAF Cottesmore, Rutland, flying over seven military bases before pilots put on a stunning display to hover to a landing - showing off the planes' ability to take off and land vertically.

The emotional last flight brought an end to an era lasting more than 40 years.

Group Captain Gary Waterfall, the last Harriers force commander, said: 'Without doubt this is an emotional day for all those who have been fortunate to be involved with one of the true icons of aviation.'

The Fleet Air Arm jets were axed in the government's defence review, which decided to retain the RAF's Tornado jets instead.

The government said this was because Tornados are better for use in Afghanistan - its top military priority.

But defence sources say Tornado jets were due to be axed until RAF chiefs launched a last-minute offensive to reverse the decision.

It leaves the navy without any jets for carrier strike operations until 2020.

Retired Harrier pilot Nigel 'Sharkey' Ward has been pushing for the government to reverse the decision.

He said: 'The seriousness of the situation cannot be overstated. Does Mr Cameron really want to go down in history as the man who removed Britain's capability to protect its trade on the high seas?'

His comments came as Lord Alan West warned David Cameron he was a 'victim of bad and biased briefing' over the decision.

The Harrier first came into service in the 1960s and was designed with vertical take-off and landing abilities, allowing it to fly in and out of areas close to battlefields - something conventional aircraft such as the Tornado cannot do.

The Sea Harrier version was credited with playing a key role in securing victory during the Falklands War.

The current Harriers saw action in both Gulf Wars, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan.

Air Vice-Marshal Greg Bagwell said: 'The Harrier is a true icon and stands testament to the innovation and excellence of British design and engineering and the skill and courage of our airmen.

'It has had a truly distinguished service. It now takes its place in history as one of aviation's greats.'