In February 1969 Brian Harpur, a director of Harmsworth Publications, owners of the Daily Mail newspaper and sponsors of the 1969 Transatlantic Air Race, was worried. There was still no confirmation that the RAF would participate and he was about to hold an important press conference in New York. His office contacted Air Commodore Peter Brothers, Director of RAF Public Relations and an enthusiastic supporter of the project. “Don’t worry. We’ll clear it”, was his reply and within a few hours he called back, “We are in, in a big way. I told you to rely on the RAF”. It was good news and next day Air Chief Marshal Sir John Grandy, Chief of the Air Staff, announced that RAF Vickers VC10s, Handley Page Victor Strategic Reconnaissance aircraft and the newly accepted Hawker Siddeley Harrier V/STOL aircraft would participate in the race. This was important news for Hawker Siddeley Aviation who were keen to sell the Harrier to the US Marine Corps.
RAF planning commenced but it was immediately recognised that there were difficulties with the Harrier GR1 entry with a number of problems to overcome. The aircraft was still going through acceptance testing before entering RAF service and had not been cleared to carry out air-to-air refuelling. Only three RAF pilots were qualified to fly the aircraft, Squadron Leader Mike Adams had been seconded to Hawker Siddeley as the Operational Requirements Liaison Officer (ORLO) as part of the Hawker Siddeley Aviation test team and Squadron Leaders Tom Lecky-Thompson and Graham Williams who were test pilots at the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE) at Boscombe Down. Adams and Lecky-Thompson were selected for the race with Williams as reserve as he had fewer hours on type. However, this plan changed following an accident at Dunsfold aerodrome at the end of February involving Adams when the nose wheel of the Harrier he was taxiing sheared off and his back was badly injured. Lecky-Thompson would now fly from London to New York and Williams would fly the eastbound leg. Williams later said that he had concerns about carrying out such an exercise at such an early stage in the aircraft’s development and remembers saying to Tom, “If we get away with this we will be bloody lucky”. The Air Force Board stipulated that Williams must have at least 50 hours experience on type. He only had ten hours but this did not prove a problem as flight refuelling trials needed to be carried out involving sorties of at least seven hours to check such details as oil consumption and pilot oxygen use. Williams had never undertaken air-to-air refuelling (AAR) and as he was at Boscombe Down he decided to find an aircraft on the airfield with a refuelling probe. He eventually found a serviceable aircraft with a probe in the Royal Navy’s test squadron, a Supermarine Scimitar. The Navy organised a de Havilland Sea Vixen tanker from RNAS Yeovilton and by the end of the day Williams had achieved a dozen AAR engagements (‘plug-ins’).
The two Harriers selected for the race, XV741 and XV744, were flown to Boscombe Down to be fitted with refuelling probes. The refuelling plan for these race Harriers involved three Victor K1 tankers being available at the top of climb. A further three tankers would then refuel the first three who would then accompany the Harrier across the Atlantic. At Boscombe Down, in addition to the fitting of the refuelling probes, wingtip extensions (ferry tips) were fitted to each Harrier to increase range. Williams later questioned whether the additional four feet of wingspan improved range but said, “The wingtip extensions increased stability and made it easier to fly at high level”. With regard to navigation, XV741 was already fitted with Inertial and Navigation Attack System (INAS) but XV744 was only fitted with basic flight instruments.
Group Captain Peter Williamson, the Commanding Officer of RAF Wittering, was appointed as Harrier team manager and his first problem was to find an acceptable helicopter site close to the Post Office Tower in London for use by RAF Wessex helicopters to ferry participants between the Tower and the British Aircraft Corporation’s Wisley airfield, Surrey being used by the VC10s and Victors and to and from a disused coal yard that had been offered for Harrier use by British Rail, close to St Pancras Station. The Ministry of Public Buildings and Works had refused to allow the Royal Parks or Horse Guards Parade to be used and the Board of Trade refused to make special provision for service aircraft, maintaining they should be treated like any other competitor. A letter from the organisers helped by pointing out that the military and civilian competitors were competing in different categories. The task of finding a suitable helicopter site resumed. Fortunately there was a building construction site close to the Tower being worked on by William Moss Ltd and following representations to the company by the RAF they were keen to help and set about building a temporary helicopter pad. To avoid any possibility of someone raising noise issues regarding its future use, construction of the pad was hidden from the public by hoardings.
Oddly enough the US authorities were far more cooperative with regard to landing sites and after looking at several possibilities, they gave permission to use a vacant lot close to the Empire State Building in New York called the Bristol Basin (so named as it was built from Second World War bombed building rubble from Bristol, England) on the East River, Manhattan, a short motor cycle ride away from the Empire State Building. However, in London key Government ministers were refusing to give permission for the RAF’s use of the abandoned coal yard close to St Pancras Station even though it had been offered by the state owned British Rail. The problem lay with the Board of Trade who were responsible for civil aviation matters and who were reluctant to accept the safety risks of a single engine jet aircraft operating over central London. The Labour Defence Minister, Denis Healey, was totally behind the project and three days before the start of the race week a solution was found – the Harriers would approach and depart over the network of railway lines to avoid built up areas. Exercise BLUE NYLON (New York/London), as the RAF named the project, was to go ahead.
During the weeks before the race start date (4 May) Lecky-Thompson flew XV744 from RAF Northolt to the US Navy’s Floyd Bennett Field, Brooklyn, New York (a trial east to west run) and Williams flew by commercial airliner to New York. Lecky-Thompson returned by BOAC and on Saturday 3 May, he flew XV741 from RAF Northolt to ‘RAF St Pancras’ as the coal yard was named for the race, ready for the westbound attempt planned for Monday 5 May; the RAF wished to avoid any complaints caused by the noise from a departing Harrier over central London on the Sabbath, the first day of the race. The Monday dawned clear in central London but not in Norfolk where the Victor K1 tankers were grounded due to fog at RAF Marham. The fog began to clear and eventually Lecky-Thompson was given the go ahead to punch in his time card at the check-in station on the top floor of the Post Office Tower. The race was on. After exiting the tower at its base he sprinted down the road to the temporary helicopter pad on the Moss construction site and jumped aboard the waiting Wessex helicopter which carried him the three quarters of a mile to the St Pancras coal yard. Here he sprinted to XV741 and after being strapped into the cockpit commenced the start-up procedure for the Pegasus 101 vectored thrust turbofan engine and the carried out his pre take-off checks. The Harrier, in a cloud of coal dust, departed safely, six minutes and twenty seconds after Lecky-Thompson had punched in his time card at the top of the Post Office Tower. Brian Harpur sent off a cable to his New York’s newspaper company bureau: “British Rail are proud to announce that the 1032 Harrier jet from St Pancras Station left on time.”
The 3,500 mile flight was duly completed with nine refuelling contacts and after almost six hours after leaving London Lecky-Thompson, following air traffic control instructions from New York TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control), descended XV741 towards the skyline of Manhattan. He was able to fly the final leg towards the Bristol Basin visually and made a perfect landing. After vacating the cockpit, he jumped on to the back of a motor cycle, ridden by an off duty member of the New York Police Department and was whisked away to the Empire State Building, leaving Graham Williams to be interviewed and field questions from the media. Tom Lecky-Thompson’s time was 6 hours, 11 minutes and 57 seconds. He was disappointed as he had hoped to beat 6 hours for the crossing. After the reporters and spectators had left Bristol Basin, Williams climbed into the cockpit to fly 741 the short distance to Floyd Bennett Field and was surprised to find the cockpit was covered in black coal dust from St Pancras.
The following evening Tom and Graham were relaxing in a bar when they saw on American television news that the Cunard liner Queen Elizabeth 2 was to enter New York in 36 hours’ time on her maiden voyage. Both pilots, determined not to be upstaged by this event, decided to meet the ship with their Harriers and hover either side of the ship’s bridge as it entered harbour. They decided not to seek RAF permission and if necessary ask for forgiveness after the event. On the day of QE2’s arrival, having obtained the necessary clearances from the Port Authority and the Federal Aviation Administration, both Harriers took-off from Floyd Bennett Field. In spite of the strong cross winds over the River Hudson, they managed to hover either side of the QE2. Later in the day both pilots were invited to a welcome cocktail party but had to decline as Graham Williams was on standby to fly the west to east leg in XV744 the following morning. The sortie made the British national newspapers but fortunately they heard nothing from the RAF authorities. Later, they found out that an Air Marshal had claimed credit for the idea!
During the two weeks prior to the start of the race Williams was interviewed on the Johnny Carson TV show broadcast across America and carried out a number of air tests and demonstrations with XV744. After Lecky-Thompson’s arrival, focus was on the west to east attempt but the weather in New York during the beginning of the week was appalling and Williams was becoming concerned that time was running out. The decision was taken to make the attempt come what may on Friday. The forecast for Friday in New York remained bad but was much better for London. The danger in departing in such poor weather was that Williams would not be able to rendezvous with the tankers with no airfield on the US East Coast to divert to. On the Thursday evening Lecky-Thompson positioned XV744 to Bristol Basin, allowing Williams time to carry out his pre-race preparation. Friday dawned with heavy rain in New York. Williams, having checked-in, set off from the Empire State Building as the passenger in an open-topped E-Type Jaguar sports car. Everything seemed against them with every Manhattan traffic light on red. Williams later said, “I believe the choice of a car was a wrong one and that the delays at the road junctions cost me eight minutes in my overall time for the race”. When he reached the aircraft and entered the cockpit he was soaking wet from the rain. There was a Federal Aviation Administration representative present at the basin with powers to stop the attempt but he was kept talking by Bill Bedford, a previous Hawker Chief Test Pilot and before the FAA official realised what was happening XV744 was airborne and transitioning to forward flight. Just after take-off, as the aircraft accelerated and with only conventional flight instruments available, the artificial horizon toppled and Williams was left with only the turn and slip instrument and a compass. He declined an instruction from New York Centre to make a turn as part of the noise abatement procedures and eventually emerged out of the cloud tops at 38,000 feet between New York and Boston and started to look for the tankers. Williams, later talking about this critical phase of the flight said, “Fortunately, I had air-to-air TACAN (tactical air navigation) in the cockpit and was able to see the range from the tankers decreasing”. To his relief he saw the three Victor K1s on track just in the cloud tops. He plugged in for the first refuelling with only 1,200 lbs of fuel remaining equating to approximately 20 minutes of flight time. The remainder of the crossing was relatively straight forward and as he reached 350 miles from landfall on the Irish coast he refuelled for the sixth time and heard that the weather in central London was good with little cloud and a visibility of thirteen kilometres.
London Control took over control of XV744 at 29,000 feet over Strumble, a reporting point on airway Green 1. A late descent was initiated as it approached the London Terminal Control Area and after Williams flew over Alexandra Palace (a feature Williams later said even he couldn’t miss) at 2,000 feet and a speed of 550 knots he turned to line up with the Post Office Tower and followed the railway network towards St Pancras station. Approaching the coal yard he suddenly realised he was too fast and would overshoot the landing pad. He closed the throttle and applied the air brake just in time for transition to the hover, landing vertically on the extended alloy mat covering the coal yard pad. After shutting down everything he exited the cockpit by swinging down using the refuelling probe and jumped onto the pillion seat of an RAF Police motorbike which transported him to the waiting Wessex helicopter. After landing at the William Moss site he ran to the base of the Tower and after ascending by lift, checked-in, totally out of breath, with a time of 5 hours, 49 minutes and 58.5 seconds.
By the Saturday, the last day of the race, it was clear that Tom Lecky-Thompson’s shortest time overall would not be beaten but Graham Williams’ time for the subsonic category eastbound time could still be challenged. On the last day Flight Lieutenant Derek Aldous, a V-Force navigator, set off from the Empire State Building for his waiting aircraft, a No 543 Squadron strategic reconnaissance Victor SR 2 aircraft (XL161), at Floyd Bennett Field. He was determined to beat the Harrier’s time. Unlike Williams’ journey, everything went perfectly, all the traffic lights were green at each junction and the Victor departed ahead of schedule. However, the anticipated 50 knot tail winds did not materialise and when the Victor touched down at Wisley airfield, Surrey there was only the slimmest chance for Aldous to beat Williams’ time. After being transferred by a Wessex helicopter to the landing pad near the Post Office Tower he sprinted for the lift at the base of the building. When he arrived at top floor he thrust his card into the timing machine and pressed the button – he had beaten XV744’s time by 29 and a half seconds. Williams later said, “The fact that I didn’t win [his category], although disappointing, really didn’t concern me, I was just pleased that both myself and Tom completed the course and got away with it”.
Graham Williams when interviewed just after race said of the Harriers’ contribution to the race, “The point was that we were given a perfect opportunity to promote the aircraft and it behaved perfectly”. He also said, “I he was surprised at how many people in the United States had never heard of the Harrier until it landed in Manhattan”. Tom Lecky-Thompson, also interviewed after the race, said, that with regard to intercity travel, the Harrier possibly points the way to the future.
Following the race Tom Lecky-Thompson stayed on with XV741 to demonstrate with John Farley, a Hawker Siddeley test pilot, the Harrier across the United States, an exercise that proved successful and resulted in a substantial US Marine Corps order for the aircraft.
Graham Williams (now a retired air vice-marshal) when asked recently on his recollections of the race, replied, “I still believe we were lucky, the aircraft performed perfectly and it was a stunning demonstration of the aircraft’s capability and versatility”. With regard to the contribution the 69 race Harriers made to the subsequent success of the aircraft, Graham would not comment, but said, “It really brought the aircraft to the attention of the world in no uncertain fashion and I count myself very lucky to have been involved with the aircraft from its early days”. With regard to its participation in the race, he said, “I am still amazed the authorities, both civil and military, gave their blessing to such an activity”.
Where are these two Harriers now? XV741 is privately owned and has recently been converted back by Jet-Art Aviation Ltd to GR1 air race configuration including the fitting of the extended wingtips. The aircraft is now on display at Brooklands Museum, Surrey. XV744 whilst in RAF service was later converted to GR3 standard. The aircraft was purchased from the Ministry of Defence in 2013 by the Society of Friends of the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum. It remains in the Museum’s collection and is on permanent display at the Museum.
Tangmere Military Aviation Museum
The following information sources were used in the writing of this article:
Bostock, Peter The Great Air Race (William Morrow, 1970)
Williams, Graham Rhapsody in Blue (Fonthill, 2016)
This article (text only) originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of Aeroplane magazine. Reprinted here with kind permission.