Last Harrier Leaves HMS Ark Royal

A Harrier jump jet has taken off for the last time from a British aircraft carrier in North Shields, bringing an end to a proud history of naval and aviation endeavour.

Flight Commander James Blackmore was the last of four Harrier GR9 pilots to roar off the deck of HMS Ark Royal which was sailing from North Shields, North Tyneside, across the North Sea, to Hamburg, Germany.

The Harriers were heading 150 miles back to RAF Cottesmore, Lincolnshire, ahead of decommissioning next year.

The Ark Royal, the Navy's Fleet Flagship, will eventually head back to her Portsmouth base on December 3, where she will end her active life three years before it was planned and 25 years after she was built on Tyneside.

The decision to scrap both was described by one senior officer on board as "madness''. So the last meeting of both famous names was a poignant moment for the crew, who lined the decks to watch the historic departure.

As the Harriers warmed their engines, squally showers washed across the flight deck. But the sun came out shortly after 9am when the planes punched through a chilly northerly wind and hurtled off the desk in a cloud of spray.

Before the flight, Fl Com Blackmore, 35, said:

"I am immensely proud and it is a real privilege to be the last pilot to fly off Ark Royal. It is amazing; I watched a Harrier hovering over Chatham dockyard when I was eight years old and I am now fortunate enough to be flying the Harrier today. It's an amazing aircraft, superb to fly and just very enjoyable.''

The cost-cutting decision to scrap Britain's fixed-wing capability from aircraft carriers caused consternation and puzzlement on board the ship, which some say carries the most famous name in naval history.

This version is the fifth Ark Royal. The first saw battle in 1588 and smashed the Spanish Armada. The latest, and possibly last, saw active service in the Balkans and the second Gulf War.

It will be replaced by the Queen Elizabeth class of aircraft carrier, which will not come into service until the end of the decade. They will carry F35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft. It is believed one of the new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, which is due to be named Prince Charles, could be passed on the Ark Royal name.