The final flight of the Harrier Jump Jet has prompted a Heage man to reveal how he stumbled across a top secret prototype being tested in the 1950s.
The fighter planes, which could take off and land vertically, were decommissioned last month, after more than 40 years in service as part of a series of cuts in the Government’s Strategic Defence Review.
The event has tugged the heart strings of former Ripley miner, Keith Staley, from Heage, who spotted pilots testing an early version of the aircraft known as the ‘Flying Bedstead’ at Hucknall Aerodrome in 1956.
He would have been one of the first people to see a vertical take-off craft in action.
He said: “Me and a friend took a trip up to Hucknall on our bikes and we stopped to have a cigarette. Then low and behold this thing appeared. We sat for 20 minutes watching it go up and down trying both engines.
“We wondered what the devil it was. We found out later that it was the ‘Flying Bedstead’. At first we thought it might as well have come from Mars.
“We both thought that the military police would end up chasing after us because the Flying Bedstead was top secret. We could have easily been shot if we were spotted – they might have thought we were spies.”
Mr Staley, a former Ripley town councillor, only regretted not having his camera with him to record what he saw.
He and his friend Raymond Webster, who has since died, stayed to smoke another Woodbine cigarette and eat their sandwiches before making a run for it when they spotted police arriving.
Mr Staley also recalled his memory of the event in a book he released in 2007 called Grandma’s Pudding and other stories of a Ripley miner, which sold 3,000 copies.
In it he writes: ‘No-one and I mean no-one was meant to know that these tests were taking place. Top secret, and here were me and my friend Raymond looking at England’s secret weapon.’
Hucknall Aerodrome was used to test the craft from 1953. The technology tested there was later used in developing the Harrier jump jets and even the Lunar landing research vehicle as part of the Apollo moon missions.
The scrapping of the Harrier planes has marked a sad moment for Mr Staley. He said: “It is very sad. I’m very upset about it because of all the trouble that went into making it. Then it made it through the Falklands. I bet nobody in the RAF wanted to see it scrapped.”