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I am reminded of when I flew the US Marine Corps AV8B Harrier VTOL Jet Fighter, sometimes lovingly referred to as The jump Jet or The Street Fighter.  (Think TRUE LIES, the movie). I flew it twice about 20 some years ago. Well, more accurately, I flew the official Marine Corps Harrier simulator. It's a $100 million dollar flight simulator used to train the pilots. Better to crash it and hit reset than to crash the real 40 million dollar one with no reset button. It is an accurately functioning cockpit that sits 20 feet in the air with a six-fold screen that surrounds it. The computer generated graphics are of the actual 400 square mile area of coastal eastern North Carolina, which is where I lived at the time. I had the privilege of flying it on two separate occasions for 3 hours at a pop, Sunday nights from midnight until 3 am when it was not in use training the young pilots.


To date, other than my wedding day or witnessing the birth of my precious three children or 10 grandchildren, it has been the single greatest thing I have ever done – Certainly hands down the most thrilling. After flying, I remember feeling perturbed and just a tad bit jealous that these 26-year-old youngsters could fly this amazing $40 million dollar aircraft and I couldn’t. I will say this, my respect for these young men skyrocketed after that. Now, as then, I would sign 20 years today if they told me I could fly them...

The Harrier Jump Jet takes off like a conventional airplane/jet or like a helicopter – vertically by adjusting the exhaust nozzles directly downward. (This plane can even fly backwards while in the hover mode). As a young man, my dad flew the old F4U Corsair during WWII, the sleek, sexy black prop jet that helped win the war in the Pacific – the same plane Pappy Boyington flew. My dad came to NC to visit me, and I was able to get him in to fly the Harrier too. It blew him away. Fond memories.

I remember while sitting in the cockpit in hover mood about 50 feet off the ground, as well as in traditional flight on approach to land, and thinking, there's way too much going on in the cockpit to be able to concentrate. The engineer, sitting comfortably in the control room with a smile on his face, would have fun throwing out all kinds of problems and emergency situations to see how I would handle it. He would cause severe overheating and, or engine failure among other potential problems to see how I would handle it.

Loud alarms blared in my ears while I desperately looked at the myriad of instruments to try and determine what was happening before I crashed and burned! On one traditional landing approach, I was about 20 feet off the ground and my ears split from the warning alarms blasting in my ear again. I had no clue what was wrong this time. I thought I had everything perfect: correct air speed, flaps in the right position, wings level, perfect rate of descent, my best traditional landing of the night. Apparently, I forgot to lower my landing gear.


Like I said, too much going on in the cockpit! I felt every emotion one would feel in this situation, as if I were actually flying (and crashing). Glad I didn't feel it physically too.

All that aside, to me, there was nothing more thrilling than, #1. pulling the control handle of the vector nozzles straight back (turns the exterior exhaust nozzles pointing down) and then, #2. pushing the throttle lever next to it straight forward and taking off vertically, and hovering in air. And finally, #3. pushing forward the nozzle control lever and punching forward in traditional flight, and being thrown back in the seat as I accelerated to 450 knots (517 mph)...

 I say: SIGN ME UP.

The pneumatic computer shot air in the seat under my calves and knees and deflated in the back of the seat which threw me backwards in my seat giving me the actual feel of extreme acceleration. The matching graphics in front of me added to the realistic sensations.

I say again: SIGN ME UP!

I remember for two weeks after flying the Harrier, I dreamed of sneaking onto the military base (Cherry Point Marine Base) and stealing one of the Harriers off the flight line and flying it out of there undetected. They were the type of dreams that when you wake up, you swear it was so realistic it actually took place. In my dream I remember following all the actual procedures to fly it, and just like the simulator it was very vivid and realistic! Perhaps one day I will yet again get to fly the simulator, or better still, the real thing! Hey, I can dream, can’t I?

UPDATE 2024:

The VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) $40mm Harrier Jump jet (top speed of 622 mph) became outdated and replaced with the F-22 RAPTOR, which, even as I write this, is on its way out to pasture too. Probably sometime within the next decade it will be replaced with the $135mm F35 Raptor (top speed 1500 mph). Its cost and it and capabilities are mind-boggling. (Even this F-35  5th generation fighter jet will be replaced in the not too distant future too, with 6th generation fighters).

DeForest Shields


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