UK Military Aviation

MAR 22 2011
Military Aviation >> Royal Air Force > Tornado F.3: Tremblers' Farewell - the end of the Tornado F.3

The sentiments of Air Commodore Harry Atkinson, Station Commander, RAF Leuchars were pretty similar to our own in many ways. This was a sad time, the end of F.3 operations with the RAF after 25 years distinguished service. It was also the end of 111(F) Squadron, a historic unit in so many ways which has operated some very fine aircraft throughout the 94 years since its formation in Palestine in 1917.

"Treble One has got a fabulous history. As well as all the battle honours there are many amazing firsts", explains Wing Commander Mark Gorringe, Officer Commanding 111(F) Squadron:

"It was the first Hurricane equipped squadron in 1938, the first RAF display team with the Black Arrows in 1957 - which then led to the Hunter 22 aircraft loop in 1958, which I still believe is a world record - and from then on there's really an air defence flavour, from Lightning through to Phantom and then on to Tornado F.3."

Yet the Leuchars press event, held a few days before the final disbandment, was a time to celebrate and reflect on 25 years of sterling service. It was also fitting to note that the closure and handover of QRA duties had been completed to the specified timescale required.

"This is also a moment of celebration for us. My emotions are of pride and happiness with success. Our mission over the past two years has been to transition RAF Leuchars from a Tornado F.3 base into a Typhoon base by the end of March this year, and that's exactly what's happened," stated the Station Commander.

Developed to meet a Royal Air Force requirement (Air Staff Requirement 395 or ASR.395) for a long-range interceptor to replace both the Lightning and Phantom, development of the Tornado Air Defence Variant (ADV) was approved in March 1976, with BAe contracted to provide three prototypes, the first of which, ZA254, made its maiden flight on 9th August 1979.

The main differences between the Tornado ADV (F.2 and F.3 in RAF service) and the Tornado IDS (Interdictor Strike - or GR.1 / GR.4 in RAF service) include a greater sweep angle on the inboard fixed wing sections, the deletion of the Krueger Flaps (lift enhancement devices), a longer radome for the Marconi / Ferranti AI.24 Foxhunter radar, and a fuselage stretch of 1.36 metres to allow the carriage of four Skyflash radar homing missiles. The port cannon was also missing on the ADV.

With 152 examples ordered, the ADV entered service in 1984 as the Tornado F.2 with the first aircraft delivered on the 5th November. Serious problems with the Foxhunter radar were discovered early in the aircraft's life which meant that the airframes were delivered with concrete and lead ballast installed in the nose as an interim measure until they could be fitted with the, hopefully working, radar sets. The ballast was nicknamed Blue Circle after the British cement manufacturer and the fleet of F.2s became sarcastically known as the Blue Circle Air Force.

The following exchange from the House of Commons is recorded by Hansard from the 3rd April 1990 Defence debate:

Mr. Haynes to ask the Secretary of State for Defence whether the Foxhunter radar is currently performing according to its original specifications?

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Alan Clark) - "The Foxhunter programme is proceeding by way of staged improvements under a firm price contract. Radars to an agreed interim standard are already being fitted to the Tornado air defence variant. All radars will be brought up to the full technical standard, beginning next year."

Mr. Haynes - "I do not know what this lot are messing about at. They have been at it for a number of years and have spent millions of pounds, yet we do not have the proper radar for the defence of this nation. They should be here at the Bar, and Ministers should be charged with complicity."

Such exchanges are indicative of the aircraft's difficult early years, but it would be wrong to focus solely on what was a troubled entry in to service. It should be emphasised instead that despite these initial problems, successive modifications have constantly improved the Tornado F.3 fleet, especially with regard to the radar. While the F.3 will never be considered a 'fighter' in the same way we might refer to the likes of F-15 and F-16, over the years the F.3 Force learned how to get the very best from the aircraft's long range intercept capabilities and to guard against its weaknesses.

The F.2's service life was a short one and these 18 aircraft were only used for training purposes, equipping 229 Operational Conversion Unit / 65(R) Squadron, before they were replaced by the F.3 and placed into storage.

The F.3 had made its debut flight on 20th November 1985 and featured a number of enhancements over the F.2 - notably the inclusion of the RB.199 Mk 104 engines which were optimised for high altitude use, increased missile carriage capacity (from two to four on the wing pylons) and an automatic wing sweep system. All ADV aircraft from number 19 onwards would be built to this standard.

The F.3 officially entered service in July 1986 and, as deliveries continued, the RAF's long serving fleets of English Electric Lightnings and McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms were retired - in 1988 and 1992 respectively.

Eventually the Tornado F.3 would serve with the following squadrons - many of which were former Lightning / Phantom operators themselves; 5 Squadron at RAF Coningsby, 11 Squadron at RAF Leeming, 23 Squadron at RAF Leeming, 25 Squadron at RAF Leeming, 29 Squadron at RAF Coningsby, 43 Squadron at RAF Leuchars, 56 (Reserve) Squadron at both RAF Coningsby and RAF Leuchars (latterly the F.3 Operational Conversion Unit), 111 Squadron - RAF Leuchars, 229 OCU / 65(R) Squadron at RAF Coningsby (the original Operational Conversion Unit) and 1435 Flight at RAF Mount Pleasant on the Falkland Islands. The first Combat Ready squadron, incidentally, was declared operational in 1987 in the shape of 29 Squadron at RAF Coningsby.

Export success for the ADV was achieved through the UK and Saudi Arabia's memorandum of understanding signed on 26th September 1985. The Al-Yamamah arms deal included the supply of 24 Tornado ADVs along with other aircraft, weapons, radar, spares and a training programme for aircrew. The RSAF subsequently received its first ADV on 9th February 1989 and these aircraft operated until fairly recently, now finding themselves in storage and, as in the UK, replaced by the Eurofighter.

In the early 1990s meanwhile the Italian Air Force was forced to look for an aircraft to bridge the gap between its ageing and almost obsolete Lockheed F-104 Starfighter and the delayed introduction of the Eurofighter in to service. The ADV was selected after a number of aircraft had been considered, including the F-16 Fighting Falcon, and the Italians leased 23 Tornado F.3s from the RAF for a period of 10 years.

The first jet was delivered on 5th July 1995 and by the following year the first batch of deliveries was complete, with the second batch, in which the aircraft were of a slightly higher specification, all delivered by the following year. By 2003, and having decided to lease 34 ex-USAF F-16s as delays to the Eurofighter continued, the Italian Air Force began returning aircraft to the UK with the process completed by December 2007, although one aircraft was retained for display at the Italian Air Force Museum at Vigna di Valle.

In order for the F.3 to be maintained as a viable platform up to it's then planned out of service date of 2010, the MoD announced a Capability Sustainment Programme for the jet in March 1996. This included full integration of ASRAAM and AMRAAM air-to-air missiles; radar upgrades to improve multi-target engagement; improved displays for both pilot and navigator and new weapon management computers. Full integration with AMRAAM however would not actually come until much later and a further upgrade contract.

This mid-life update gave the fleet not only full AMRAAM capability but an updated IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) system and was known as the AOP (AMRAAM Optimisation Programme) with all aircraft modified by September 2006.

In UK service one other main variant would come in to being when, already capable of being armed with both AMRAAM and ASRAAM missiles and of course the Mauser 27mm cannon, a modification which remained undisclosed until 2003 also equipped the Tornado F.3 for the Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) role, allowing it to carry a pair of ALARM missiles. This role was trialled and proven and the aircraft would have been given the designation EF.3 and operated by XI Squadron. It wasn't however ever a fully funded project and eventually it was decided that USAF provision of SEAD capability would be sufficient in any conflict.

The F.3's combat debut came in the first Gulf War of 1991 (see Gulf War 20th - Tornado F.3), with operations to patrol the southern no-fly zones continuing until the second conflict in 2003, when 111(F) deployed under Operation TELIC, with both deployments to Saudi Arabia resulting in operations deep into enemy territory. The F.3 also saw action between 1993 and 1995 during Operation DENY FLIGHT; the enforcement of a United Nations (UN) no-fly zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Tornado F.3 crews have also deployed on many occasions to the Falkland Islands in support of 1435 Flight. The F.3 served at Mount Pleasant for no less than 17 years and with the type by then represented by just one RAF squadron in the UK, 1435 Flight equipped with the Typhoon back in 2009. The four Tornado F.3 airframes were dismantled and returned to RAF Leeming where spares were reclaimed for 111 Sqn and the Tornado GR.4 fleet.

Since 1990 the RAF's Tornado F.3 squadrons have maintained a 24 hour a day, 365 day a year alert covering the entire UK; QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) comprising a vital element of the UK's air defence network ensuring that its shores are properly protected from hostile forces. The final QRA duty for the Tornado F.3 was performed on the 14th March before 6 Squadron and its Typhoons took over the role.

It is important to note that the Tornado F.3's retirement was not as a result of the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) announced last autumn. The beginning of the end was signalled as far back as 2004 when the Defence White Paper, 'Delivering Security in a Changing World' reduced the number of squadrons to just three. This began the RAF's transition to the Typhoon and, from April 2009, the F.3 would equip just one squadron with only twelve aircraft for the last two years of its service.

Rather sadly there are no plans in place to preserve any of the remaining airframes, although one jet has since gone to Boscombe Down to join the others based there and used for testing various weapons systems. Whether these jets will continue to fly is unknown at present.

The final destination for the remaining F.3s is RAF Leeming where they will be harvested for spare parts to support ongoing Tornado GR.4 operations. There is significant commonality between the two variants but 'Reduce to Produce' (the name of the scheme) sadly means a very terminal demise for a proud aircraft that has performed great service; but these are the cruel facts of an aircraft's retirement in difficult economic times.

The official disbandment parade for 111(F) Squadron took place on the 22nd March and there had been some conjuncture as to whether any farewell flypasts would be performed as the aircraft made their way to Leeming. Happily the three-ship which departed RAF Leuchars on the 24th March found time to visit RAF Waddington and, fittingly, RAF Coningsby en-route to North Yorkshire, where two aircraft landed for the final time.

But what now for the Squadron? 111(F) has been resurrected before and OC Mark Gorringe believes it can return again one day. "I hope it's going to come back. 111(F) has disbanded three times before and come back each time so I remain hopeful. Our task for the past few years has been policing the skies and protecting the UK by means of QRA but I'd reflect that the Tornado F.3 has served with distinction across all of the operational theatres in which it has been involved."

Air Commodore Harry Atkinson, whilst reflecting on the past, also looked to the future as he summed up the emotions of the day. "The final members of 111(F) Squadron will be held in high esteem both by myself and all the previous members of the Squadron for conducting their diligent duty all the way to the end with proper conduct and really superb application.

"So, it's a moment to reflect on success. We now look forward to the Typhoons of 6 Squadron standing to, and taking on, the vitally important QRA duty. Typhoon must now become the backbone of the RAF's ability to protect the UK and her interests abroad, wherever they may lie in the decades ahead."

This of course is exactly what the Tornado F.3 has been doing throughout its career and while the aircraft may have never downed an enemy in combat or fired its weapons in anger, the F.3 fleet has been quietly and resolutely protecting the UK for year after year. To all those who served on the force we say 'thank you' - and farewell Tornado F.3.

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