The Eeriness of Viffing a Harrier

Illustration for article titled The Eeriness of Viffing a Harrier

Before the Jump Jet was retired and its flight manual posted online, Top Gear presenter James May rode in one and experienced the awesome aerodynamic freak show known as viffing: vectoring in forward flight, the Harrier's signature move.

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Harriers are very old. They were introduced to the Royal Air Force back in those prehistoric days known as the 1960s, home to museum pieces like the Saturn V

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Illustration for article titled The Eeriness of Viffing a Harrier

rocket, the Ford GT40, and the Concorde. Similarly breathtaking to seeing either of these ‘60s relics for the first time is to witness eight tons of fighter jet suspended in thin air by nothing but jet exhaust, its wings useless, dead weight.

Viffing, the move demonstrated here, in the first episode of James May's Big Ideas, was put to devastating use in the Falklands War fought between Argentina and the UK in the Austral winter of 1982. Using this technique, Harrier pilots chased by Argentine Mirages could slow their jets very rapidly in flight and get behind their attackers in an instant, a decidedly handy maneuver in air-to-air combat. Handy it was for the British: no Harriers were lost in dogfighting during the war.

Illustration for article titled The Eeriness of Viffing a Harrier
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Before you worry about similar moves pulled on New York City, the photo here depicts the friendly and reconciliatory scene of HMS Invincible visiting NYC for Independence Day in 2004. Unless the British government is taken over by fringe elements who decide to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 by un-mothballing the Harrier fleet to prod along the eschatological predictions clustered around the end of the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, the threat level of such a scenario is rather beige.

Photo Credit: Michael Pereckas, Jon Jordan, Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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DISCUSSION

Using this technique, Harrier pilots chased by Argentine Mirages could slow their jets very rapidly in flight and get behind their attackers in an instant, a decidedly handy maneuver in air-to-air combat.

No, actually, it's not. It's a pretty damn stupid move on the part of a fighter pilot; don't let Top Gun fool you.

In a dogfight, speed is life. Pilots try to maintain maximum "energy" or momentum, at all times. The more "energy" you have, the easier it is dog-fight. For instance, in some cases, avoiding an opponent's shot may require a sudden climb in altitude, and if you aren't maintaining enough energy, you won't be able to climb fast enough.

Conversely, any kind of maneuvering also depletes energy, so a dogfight is a fine-line between balancing your aircraft energy at any given moment while attempting to get an angle on your opponent. Focus too much on energy, and you'll be be flying in a straight line, easy to pick off. Focus too much on your angle with relation to your opponent, and you'll be a sitting duck with no energy, with your throttles to the firewall attempting to rebuild momentum; aka, you'll be easy to pick off.

The Harrier is a somewhat unique case in that its limits are a little bit different in that respect, but it's still not immune from the basic concept described.

Where the Harrier's "viffing" ability came in handy during the Falklands was in a turning fight. If you were to take away the advantage of thrust vectoring, the Harrier would actually be a dramatically inferior dogfighter to the Mirages is faced off against as a result of its high wing-loading. Wing-loading is calculated by dividing the aircraft's weight by its lifting surface. A lower wing-loading means that the aircraft has more lift area per unit of weight, which translates into greater potential for maneuverability. The Harrier, given the small wing necessary for it to be able get off the ground vertically, has an inherently high wing-loading; much more than most other "fighters".

However, to counter that, the Harrier has the ability to "viff" in a turning fight. Turning fights are pretty much self-explanatory: you and your opponent are in a turn, with one aircraft trying to bleed its opponent out of energy before it's opponent can get a good angle. In any turning fight, or any turning maneuver, you're bleeding off energy, and bleeding it off quickly.

If a Harrier pilot were chasing a Mirage in a turning fight, he's already at a disadvantage in terms of energy, as his high-wing loading means he'll run out of energy first. If that's the case, then there is no harm for the Harrier pilot to vector the thrust in a semi-perpendicular angle from the aircraft's turn trajectory. It will bleed him out of energy much, much faster, but it will also get him into a firing angle more quickly than the Mirage is capable of reacting. As long as that Harrier pilot can make good on that first firing opportunity, he's unbeatable in that situation.

On the other hand, if he misses that first opportunity, he's in a world of hurt, as he's damn near dead in the water and trying furiously to regain the momentum that he needs to escape his opponent. Situations like that rarely end well.

When it comes the Royal Navy's Harrier victories in the Falklands, I chalk it up to a combination of two things:

1) A bunch of highly-trained, extremely talented pilots who knew the strengths and flaws of their aircraft by heart

2) Less experienced, comparatively poorly-trained pilots with inferior avionics.