UK Military Aviation

APR 12 2011
Military Aviation >> Royal Air Force > Tornado F.3: Airshow Performer

Thirty one years have now passed since the UK was given a first public sighting of the Tornado ADV when the F.2 prototype, ZA254 / A01, appeared at Farnborough in 1980. Fast forward three decades to RAF Leuchars in 2010 and we find the aircraft's final airshow appearance at an event marking not just the F.3's impending retirement but a changing of the guard with the symbolic handover of UK air defence duties to the Eurofighter Typhoon.

Some of those who displayed the F.3 during its RAF career have almost become legends in their own right. For enthusiasts of the time, the name of Fred Grundy will always be synonymous with the aircraft; as its first dedicated solo display pilot his routine, and the exuberance with which he performed it, remains in many minds unmatched by those who followed.

But regardless of that fact the Tornado F.3 was always a hugely popular performer. It wasn't especially manoeuvrable and in that regard it certainly couldn't compete with the likes of the F-16 it frequently shared the stage with, but it was mightily impressive never the less; noisy and exceedingly quick with its wings swept back, nothing could match the sight and sound of an F.3 at full chat.

The first F.2 display wasn't actually a solo however and saw Wg Cdr Rick Peacock-Edwards performing with a BBMF Spitfire in 1985, the forerunner of course of the Typhoon and Spitfire synchro routine which was such a huge success at UK airshows last summer. Unlike the Typhoon, which benefits from a huge excess of power and computerised flight controls to maintain maximum alpha (angle of attack), the F.2 really was flying on the edge while paired with the legendary Supermarine fighter.

Flt Lt Rich Walton who flew the Typhoon in the synchro display last year and is himself a former Tornado F.3 pilot reckons it must have been 'miserable' to fly the F.2 / F.3 in a similar routine. Hats off then to Rick Peacock-Edwards and his display navigators, Gp Cpt Mike Elsam (then Coningsby Station Commander) and Sqn Ldrs Andy Lister-Tomlinson and Nobby Clark. It was certainly a superb introduction to the aircraft for the British public and paved the way for what followed.

What did follow, or rather who, was the aforementioned Fred Grundy of 229 OCU at RAF Coningsby, first with Colin Wills in the back seat and then Martin Parker. Perhaps most memorable was Fred's final season in 1990 when the pair flew in display mount ZE907 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. The red spine and red and white chevron covered tail looked truly stunning and remains one of the finest display schemes applied to any RAF aircraft.

Two years earlier Fred had found himself displaying the aircraft worldwide as part of 29 Squadron's exercise 'Golden Eagle'. Four F.3s from the unit flew around the world taking in Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Australia and America, principally for deployment to Malaysia in support of the Malaysian Peninsular five nation defence arrangement. In effect it was a sales tour however and Fred joined 29 at various locations to display the aircraft to potential buyers!

When Fred finally relinquished the role of solo display pilot it was left to Archie Neil and Jim Brown (1991 and 1992) to take up the mantle, a move which also signalled a change of unit as 25 Squadron was given the responsibility for the display. They were followed by Jerry Goatham and Paul Brown (56 Squadron - 1993 and 1994) and Matt Hawkins and Jon Hancock (56 Squadron - 1995). There was no solo display in 1996, a period of poor serviceability for the F.3 and one which saw greatly reduced flying hours for the fleet.

Willie Hackett and Al Taylor / John Shields (25 Squadron - 1997 and 1998) brought the jet back to the airshow circuit and were followed by Antony Parkinson and Dave Hake (1999 and 2000), Simon Stevens and David Chadderton (56 Squadron - 2001 and 2002) and Tim Freeman and Nigel Cookson / Neil Crawley (56 Squadron - 2003 and 2004). Finally, honours for the last F.3 solo display crew went to Richard Moyes and Gareth Littlechild for 56 Squadron in 2005.

Some ten years earlier PlanesTV filmed the 1995 display, with Matt Hawkins and 'Herbie' Hancock at the helm, at Biggin Hill. This clip, which includes in-cockpit footage, is taken from PTV's RAF Airshow DVD and also shows the specially marked display jet.

David Chadderton was a nav instructor on 56 Squadron when the possibility of displaying the aircraft came about.

"I'd always fancied doing it to be honest, but I didn't really think that I would ever get the chance," he recalls. "The display was the OCU's responsibility and I never really planned on becoming an instructor - it just kind of happened - and, while I was on my Staff 'work-up' Course to become a Qualified Tactics Instructor, the display opportunity arose.

"I knew it would probably be the only time it was potentially available for me so I put my name forward and, when he heard this, Simon Stevens approached me and asked if I would like to apply with him as a crew. We went back a long way and had known each other since university so we pitched it to the Boss and we got it - much to the annoyance of one particular nav who thought he had it in the bag. He didn't speak to me for months!"

Having taken over the F.3 Display Office, Si and Dave sat down with Parky and Jabba who had flown it for the two previous years and talked about what they wanted to do.

"It was tried and tested really. Other than one or two manoeuvres the display was pretty much unchanged from Fred Grundy's day in all honesty. It was effectively a symmetrical routine so could be flown from either direction - unlike the GR.1 display which at the time could only display from one!

"I did all my nav planning at Coningsby and would work on everything, transits and such like, up to the point where we would run in. Simon would take it from there and work on an IP (initial point) and draw that out on the maps. Sometimes that would throw up some interesting issues with villages or factories and such like that we couldn't overfly during our run-in. We would often have to try and work out whether we wanted to make the display longer or maybe tighter for ourselves, so it was always interesting."

As a display crew, Dave and Simon not only had to trust each other's judgement implicitly but also had to work together as a team to deal with any issues they might face.

"We sat down before the start of the season and decided that if we ever disagreed in the air we would always do the safest thing and then talk about it when we were back on the ground. It might be a situation where Simon felt we could go from a rolling to a full display as the weather allowed it - if I disagreed we would stay rolling. When we discussed it afterwards we might decide I was completely wrong and we could have gone full, but we always erred on the side of caution; we did that all the way through."

How aware were they I wonder of the F.3's huge popularity at airshows and the anticipation its display always generated?

"Well, we knew how good it looked when we nailed an airfield at 100ft and 600kts! That always impressed me, even as a punter if you like, so we definitely made the most of that - it looked awesome and caught everyone's attention." It looked pretty impressive from the cockpit too and I think you'll agree if you check out this video footage:

And what about how it felt in the back and David's role during the display?

"We used to talk pilots down to low level targets as part of the instruction on the OCU and that could involve quite violent manoeuvring in dogfights and such like, so the jump to low level aerobatics maybe wasn't quite as surprising as you might expect. If I'd only ever sat in the jet at 20,000ft it would have been different, but in some ways it was less taxing - I didn't have to operate the radar or anything like that for a start! Simon's workload was quite high as he had to look after the wing sweep and such like so I also had to read out wind adjusted headings which were mentally calculated (there was no wind indicator on the pilot's HUD) and made all the radio calls too so it was quite busy in there for me as well."

It was however great fun with numerous highlights.

'Gaz' and 'Dicko' taxi out for a practice at RAF Cottesmore 56(R) Sqn Tornado F3 ZE156 at PDA Day 2005 at RAF Coningsby

"The whole thing was awesome. The flying, the going away, the sometimes bizarre idolisation you find yourself facing……but also being able to have a say. I presented at numerous air display symposiums and it was good being able to influence the events and try to make things easier for participants.

"We went to FIDAE '02 in Chile and that was amazing - the South American Farnborough if you like. That was a two week trip which was superb. Displaying at Southport with my parents watching from the seafront was pretty special too. Basically, the shows where you could easily meet and mingle with the public were excellent, that was what it was all about and it was brilliant to take the F.3 out to show them."

So, with the final solo season complete in 2005, and the F.3 force already winding down at RAF Leuchars, would the British public be given the chance to see the jet strut its stuff ever again? Thankfully the answer was yes and it was as part of one of the most spectacular military demonstrations of recent years - a set piece which would see the Royal Air Force not only showcase a number of different capabilities in a contextual sense, but with the F.3 leading the way.

The man behind Exercise Summer Lightning, the RAF's role demo of 2007 and 2008, was Andy Pawsey, then a Squadron Leader with the Events Team at RAF Cranwell. To see the F.3 strutting its stuff as part of a pyrotechnic filled scenario which included (at various points over the two seasons) Tornado GR.4s, E-3D Sentry, Hercules, Apache and Chinook was superb. The F.3 even got to intercept and see-off two marauding enemy aircraft, represented by a pair of Hawks from 100 Squadron.

Seeing the aircraft actually demonstrating something of the day job rather than aerobatics was fascinating and engaging, and the F.3s were given plenty of opportunities to light up the skies and increase the noise levels with those RB199 engines in full burner. Crowds lapped it up and it was a fitting way for the jet to bow out in terms of playing a major airshow role.

In 2010 a single jet appeared at July's Royal International Air Tattoo, this as part of the event's spectacular tribute for the Battle of Britain's 70th anniversary. A 111 Sqn aircraft flew as part of a series of formations which included Mirage 2000 from the Armee de l'Air, USAF F-15s, RNZAF 757, Belgian and Dutch F-16s and RAF Hawks. With just a home show at RAF Leuchars remaining, the F.3's three decades of public airshow appearances were just about done.

And so we reach September 2010 and RAF Leuchars where a singleton flew with Typhoon and Spitfire, a quite unique formation to mark 70 years of UK air defence, then, a little later in the day, a four-ship of Tremblers departed and returned in formation. One jet broke off to join a 6 Sqn Typhoon and the (now) three-ship returned over the top of the 111 Sqn HAS site. It was left for the F.3 and Typhoon to come steaming in for a fast pass with the Tornado departing vertically, burners ablaze. Fittingly, Tornado F.3 (HB/ZE961) which was part of the show's traditional sunset ceremony was one of the first two F.3s to arrive at Leuchars back in 1989 as Golf Alpha of 43(F) Sqn and therefore became the last Tornado F.3 to land at a Leuchars Airshow. It was over. After 30 years and countless appearances, an airshow crowd had seen its last Tornado F.3.

It's only right to talk about capability when aircraft are retired, to discuss replacements and look at what will be providing that capability in the future. But, for many aviation enthusiasts, their only close look at modern military hardware is at the many airshows available to them during the summer months. The F.3 thrilled us all for many years and certainly had a good run for its money - it will be sadly missed.

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