Arts & Life
4:44 pm
Sun July 27, 2014

What It's Like To Own Your Very Own Harrier Jump Jet

Originally published on Sun July 27, 2014 5:52 pm

The Harrier Jump Jet combines the speed of a jet with the maneuverability of a helicopter.

These single-seater planes are known for vertical take-offs and landings, making them ideal for close-air support near the front-lines where runways may be damaged or non-existent.

Designed by the British and now flown by the U.S. Marine Corps, Harriers also have an accident-prone track record and are notoriously difficult to fly.

But why not have one for your private collection?

On Saturday, a 1976 Harrier that once flew in the British Royal Air Force sold at Silverstone Auctions in England for the equivalent of $179,611.

The weapons systems are dismantled and the engine isn't fitted to the plane. But with some work, it could fly again.

If a civilian flying a Harrier sounds ridiculous, well, there's already a guy doing it. His name is Art Nalls, a retired Marine Corps test pilot.

Nalls says he's the only civilian in the world to privately own and fly a Harrier.

He's got a history with these planes. The first time he sat in the cockpit of one was 35 years ago.

"I had the great fortune to fly about 75 different type model series of airplanes," Nalls says. "Most of them, pretty exciting. The F-18, the F-16. But my absolute favorite has and always will be the Harrier." That's why he bought his own.

A Labor Of Love — And Just A Lot Of Labor

He bought his rare 1979 Sea Harrier in England back in 2006. Like the Harrier from Saturday's auction, there were no weapons systems and it was no longer equipped to fly, but Nalls was determined to get it back in the air.

"The FAA was on board, the bank was on board," Nalls says. "He offered it up for sale and I was the first one there with a checkbook."

Nalls won't say how much he spent.

"We shook hands on a deal and signed a one-page contract written in Sharpie," he says. "And I headed back to the United States."

Meanwhile, the plane was taken apart, loaded onto a ship and sent to the U.S. Nalls and his crew painstakingly put it back together again. The manual was 400,000 pages long, Nalls says.

Everything from instructions on fixing the landing gear, to gas-turbine jet-engine starters, and wiring diagrams. "We started following the instructions, step by step by step," he says.

Ever Hear A Plane Hover?

Finally, his plane was restored and airborne. "It can come to a complete stop in the air, it can back up, it can turn sideways," Nalls says.

The plane's Rolls-Royce engines roar. It takes a lot of thrust to keep Harriers hovering.

"It burns a little bit of gas," Nalls says. "When we're in a hover, we're burning a gallon of jet fuel every two seconds."

Since his plane has been restored, Nalls travels the country taking it to air shows.

"When we're at an airshow, I love the opportunity to be able to share it with other people," he says.

Now that someone else has bought a Harrier for their private collection, Nalls says he's also willing to share his expertise.

"There's no reason that a competent pilot who had been properly instructed and trained, couldn't, with the right supervision, safely fly this airplane," he says.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

The Harrier jet combines the speed of a fighter plane with the maneuverability of a helicopter. These single-seater jets are know for their vertical takeoff and landing. Ideal for close air support near the frontlines. Designed by the British and now flown by the U.S. Marine Corps, harrier's have an accident prone track record and are notoriously difficult to fly. But why not have one for your private collection? Yesterday an 1976 Harrier sold at the Silverstone Auctions in England for the equivalent of nearly $180,000. The weapon systems are dismantled and the engine isn't fitted to the plane but with a little work it could fly again. If a civilian flying a Hairier sounds, well, there's already a guy doing it.

ART NALLS: Hi, my name is Art Nalls and I'm a retired Marine Corps pilot.

WESTERVELT: Nalls says he's the only civilian in the world to privately own and fly a Harrier. He's got a history with these planes. The first time he sat in the cockpit of one was 35 years ago.

NALLS: I had the great fortune to fly about 75 different type model series of airplanes, most of them pretty exciting - F-18, F-16. But my absolute favorite has and always will be the Harrier.

WESTERVELT: That's why Nalls bought one. Back in 2006 a Sea Harrier went up for sale in the UK. Like the Harrier from this weekend's auction it had no weapon systems and it was no longer equipped to fly. But Nalls was determined to get it back in the air.

NALLS: The FAA was on board, the bank was on board. He offered it up for sale and I was the first one there with a checkbook.

WESTERVELT: As for what he paid for this rare 1979 Sea Harrier, Nalls won't say.

NALLS: We shook hands on a deal and signed a one- page contract written in sharpie. And I headed back to the United States.

WESTERVELT: Meanwhile the plane was taken apart loaded onto a ship and sent to the U.S.. Then Nalls and his crew painstakingly put it all back together. If you're wondering what a manual for a Harrier looks like.

NALLS: It's about 400,000 pages.

WESTERVELT: Instructions on landing gear, gas, turbine jet engine starter's, wiring diagrams.

NALLS: We started following the instructions step by step by step by step.

WESTERVELT: Finally his plane was restored and airborne.

NALLS: It can come to a complete stop in the air. It can back up, it can turn sideways.

WESTERVELT: Those big Rolls-Royce engines roar. It takes a lot of thrust to keep these planes hovering.

NALLS: Well, it burns a little bit of gas. And when we're in a hover, we're burning a gallon of fuel - jet fuel, every two seconds. One thousand one, one thousand two, that was a gallon of jet fuel right there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: Stand and watch and be amazed at Art Nalls.

WESTERVELT: Nalls now travels the country, taking his Sea Harrier to air shows like the Langley Air show in Virginia.

SPEAKER: How bout that? He backed it up like a school bus. Art Nalls.

NALLS: When We're at an air show, I love the opportunity to be able to share it with other people.

WESTERVELT: And now with another private collector buying a Harrier at this weekend's auction. Nalls is also willing to share his expertise. He says he's available to help get that Hairier back in the air too.

NALLS: There's no reason that a competent pilot, who had been properly instructed and trained couldn't with the right supervision safely fly this airplane.

WESTERVELT: Retired Marine Aviator Art Nalls. The pilot of his own private Harrier Jump Jet.

This is NPR NEWS. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.