Tears as last Harrier jets leave Ark Royal
A formation of Harrier jump jets has made its final journey from HMS Ark Royal - the last such flight from a UK aircraft carrier for about 10 years.
The four GR9 jets marked the end of an era when they roared off the deck near North Shields, North Tyneside.
Both the Ark Royal and the Harriers are being scrapped under cost-saving plans.
The Harriers, heading to RAF Cottesmore in Rutland, will be decommissioned in 2011 and replaced by the F35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft.
The Ark Royal was sailing across the North Sea to Hamburg in Germany.
Lt Cdr James Blackmore, who was the last Harrier pilot to leave, said he was immensely proud.
"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," he said.
"It's an amazing aircraft, superb to fly and just very enjoyable."
End Quote PO Andrew Collins
HMS Ark Royal is like the girlfriend you hate and you only realise you loved her when she has binned you”
The crew of the 22,000-tonne Ark Royal, which has seen active service in the Balkans and 2003 invasion of Iraq, lined the decks to watch the historic departure.
Captain Jerry Kyd said there was a tear in his eye when the last Harrier left.
"It was an emotional moment and also one of real pride as we look back over 25 years service to Queen and country," he said.
"No naval officer wants to see any ship decommissioned early and she is a fine vessel and she has a fine history.
"She is at the peak of her efficiency but one understands that very difficult decisions have to be made across government."
One senior officer described the decision to scrap both the jets and carrier as "madness".
Petty Officer Andrew Collins, 26, from Glasgow, said: "HMS Ark Royal is like the girlfriend you hate and you only realise you loved her when she has binned you."
And Petty Officer David Terracciano, 31, from Portsmouth, added he was "gutted".
The Ark Royal - the Royal Navy's flagship - will eventually head back to her Portsmouth base on 3 December.
It will be replaced by the Queen Elizabeth class of aircraft carrier at the end of the decade, which will carry F35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft.
A group of former Royal Navy admirals have suggested scrapping the Harrier force and HMS Ark Royal could leave the Falklands open to attack - a claim denied by ministers who insist the UK will still be able to defend the islands.