Military Aviation History

FEB 07 2011
Military Aviation >> History > Gulf War 20th: Tornado F.3

The heat was hot....unbelievably hot…. The heavy canopy raised slowly to allow a sirocco wind of furnace like temperature to scorch the small area of flesh between my mask and my helmet. I had been warned by a former RSAF Lightning pilot who told me it would be like stepping into an oven. The Saudi heat was dry but brutal. Unstrapping from my seat it was now abundantly clear the events of the past three weeks had gone from dream to reality.

August 10th 1990: transit from RAF Leeming to the USAF base at Alconbury for a weekend away on static display without a care in the world. I'd been on the Tornado F.3 a couple of years, had nearly 500 hours on type and life was pretty good. There was plenty of flying, all pretty operational stuff and all geared at Cold War tactics repelling the Russian Air Force from attacking England’s green and pleasant land; standard stuff for an Air Defence pilot in the early 1990s.

I didn't really give a second thought to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and in fact I had to get my atlas out to see where it was. However, events unraveled quickly and my mind soon became focused when the rumour spread that 5 Squadron was leaving RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus and heading for the war zone. Things looked pretty serious.

Squadrons quite frankly were not prepared to go directly from Gunnery Camp into conflict. More importantly still, the aircraft was some years away from being operationally capable; it was operational but still had a seriously long way to go before it could be considered a war-goer.

It was quickly apparent that the weekend jaunt to Alconbury was going to be shortened as we cut short our trip and returned north. The RAF moved at lightning speed, hatching a plan to leave the less capable 5 Squadron aircraft at their forward deployment base in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and to try and get more capable replacements deployed before any conflict took place.

At the time RAF Leeming was the largest base operating the Air Defence Tornado. Three squadrons worth of F.3s made up the Leeming Wing and it was quickly decided to take the cream of the wing and form a cohesive unit made up of 11, 23 and 25 Squadrons.

The speed at which things happened was breathtaking, in fact it's hard to recall all the events that took place in those precious few weeks in August 1990. Whilst deliveries of airframes to the Leeming Wing were complete, the newest machines were in the process of equipping the wing some way further north at RAF Leuchars. With two squadrons on the base in 43 and 111, they had pretty much the most up to date aircraft, and so it was decided they would relinquish their new acquisitions and send them south.

The Leeming Wing was operating the Foxhunter radar to "z" list standard whilst the latest version was know as Stage 1 - a big improvement over the z list.

Pretty soon Leeming became a hive of activity as aircraft arrived from around the UK to be pushed into the 11 Squadron hangar and modified to war standard. All the niceties that crews had wanted suddenly became necessities. With ground crews working around the clock aircraft were stripped of unit markings, taken apart and rebuilt with new radars, better self defence capabilities and liberal brushes of radar absorbent paint.

The list of modifications read like a boy’s Christmas wish list. In the front seat we gained a new stick top based on the US F/A-18. This gave us a much better HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick) capability with improvements to the visual target acquisition modes. A big bonus was also the increased performance of the Rolls Royce RB199 engines, something we would definitely need in the desert heat. In the back seat improvements to the RHWR (Radar Homing Warning Receiver) were made with the suite optimised to the threats expected in theatre. Perhaps the greatest simple fix to the airframe was the addition of the AIM-9M infra red missiles. This was a big improvement over the standard AIM-9L we normally carried, offering greater discrimination against targets dropping flares.

Whilst the ground crews worked round the clock, pilots and navigators had their work cut out adapting to what the perceived threat might be. Little was know of the capabilities of the Iraqi air force, despite the fact we had trained many of their pilots on the Hawk at RAF Valley. The intelligence we could find told us they operated a mixture of Soviet and French hardware.

The perceived threat to the F.3 was predominately the Mirage F-1, MiG-23 and MiG-29, and, of greater concern, the MiG-25 Foxbat. Whilst the MiG-29 was the most agile fighter, the MiG-25 would most likely be the first aircraft the F.3 would encounter, and its high Mach 2.0+ speed and ability to maintain altitudes of 70,000 feet posed a serious potential threat.

A plan was being hatched to get 18 aircraft up to "Gulf" standard and deployed to theatre by the end of August. It was a tall order with just two weeks to ramp up our training to a "war" standard.

Pretty soon we were doing air combat down to a base height of 2000 feet as opposed to peacetime rules of 5000 feet; the risk level was getting greater. The Tornado F.3, whilst powerful, is not the most agile aircraft in the world and extreme care needed to be taken when committing nose low in the vertical.

While the Tornado GR.1 force had enjoyed the capability to drop chaff and flares for some time, it was all new to the F.3 force. Finally we were fitted with Tracor AN/ALE 40 flare dispensers. These had been ingeniously scabbed on to the rear engine doors. For once we could now engage in realistic peacetime training.

With our two weeks of training complete it was time to deploy to RSAF Dhahran. Setting off from RAF Leeming, I travelled out in style as a passenger courtesy of a nice shiny transport command VC.10 to RAF Akrotiri. Here we met the advance party and collected our newly modified jets.

After a quick night stop and a few too many brandy sours it was time to push south. At some unsociable hour I strapped myself into F.3 ZE962, devoid of unit markings but in full war fit and now simply coded DI.

As we left Akrotiri and headed south the full enormity of what we were doing sunk in. Overflying Egypt and the pyramids the sky soon blackened as wave upon wave of C-5, C-141 and C-130 transports lumbered towards Saudi Arabia.

None of the 4 ship had been to the Middle East before and our arrival soon put things in perspective. The airfield was vast, in fact so vast it was like a small county with runways that were several miles apart and hundreds of hardened shelters blending into the pinky-orange sand.

With our big 2250 litre tanks empty, we managed to pull a lowly 4G into the circuit. Turning finals I could see an enormous royal palace, looking like a scene from Disney World. With the gear and flap down I pulled the laced jet round finals. My left hand pushed the throttles fully forward but something didn't feel right. Again I check the flaps were down and that the gear was showing three greens. The penny dropped! It was +45 degrees C and I was flying a fully laden war fit Tornado - I was simply running out of energy - time to ease the pull.

On the ground amongst all the confusion we somehow managed to reach our sun shelters and our own ground crew. I have never seen so many aircraft in one place at one time, literally hundreds of fighters; F-15s, Tornados, Hawks, A-4 s and F/A-18s were scattered around this sprawling base.

Climbing out of the cockpit we headed straight for 29 Squadron RSAF operations and signed in our aircraft. With no time to debrief it was straight into a meeting of all the British aircrews to get updated on the current situation. There was a huge amount to take in and 24 hours was all we had to prepare. Endless briefings, security passes, finding accommodation, making maps, preparing flying clothing, CSAR briefs. By day two it was actually a relief to get airborne.

To simplify the airspace the area south of the Iraqi border had been divided into squares each with a number and letter. These would be our CAP (Combat Air Patrol) points or kill boxes. My first mission was CAP in K2.

Integrating with the coalition forces was the key to our success. All our aircraft had been equipped with standard ‘Have Quick’ secure radios. Theses needed a signal known as a ‘Mickey’ to synchronise each set so that all the scrambled messages could be deciphered by each fighter.

Our routes to and from CAP also had to be co-ordinated with the base defenses and now, more than ever, it was vital to be squawking the correct IFF Code.

Our first sortie was demanding to say the least, working with American AWACS, trying not to get lost, trying not to get shot down, all the while keeping an eye on the radar for any Iraqi defectors. At this stage our rules of engagement were pretty strict. The last thing anyone wanted to do was fire a missile at an aircraft that hadn't crossed the border and escalate the conflict into full war. We were also extremely careful not to engage any friendlies; a blue on blue would not have been good. Despite AWACS having the big picture and every aircraft being "fragged" it was easy to make mistakes - even in 1990 it was still hard to shoot BVR (Beyond Visual Range) based on IFF and AWACS alone.

With the situation still tense we were flying CAP on a daily basis. Sortie lengths were around four hours by day or night with tanking a prerequisite. Fortunately, due to our limited medium to high level performance, we were allowed to CAP at low altitude. At least low down the F.3 excelled, and soon it was pretty easy to fly below 100 feet and still keep a good look out - it was unlikely the Iraqi Air Force would be down that low and we soon felt comfortable.

As the month of September dragged on we continued to fly CAP 24 hrs a day and night. With such a massive build up of forces the Iraqis perceived plan of pushing on through Kuwait never materialised.

With the imminent threat subsiding, it was decided we should start training flights in order to keep us honed in all our skills. This posed new challenges to the engineers as we needed to fly the aircraft clean or at least in a configuration closer to what one might expect should we engage any adversary. Soon we were flying sorties clean for combat or with the smaller 1500 litre tanks for fighter affiliation.

With so many aircraft deployed in theatre we were soon mounting increasingly complex missions. Flying with and against aircraft from a multitude of countries provided us with exceptional training. We were launching missions of 60+ aircraft involving perhaps up to 10 different types but, whilst the training was good for the pilots, it placed a huge strain on the engineers. With only 18 aircraft it was a balancing act to achieve this training while also fulfilling our obligation to mount CAP 24 hours a day.

As September became October the threat level continued to drop and the emphasis changed from repelling an Iraqi invasion to preparing for a strike across the border and the liberation of Kuwait. By early November crews were flying 40 hrs per month with a mixture of day and night CAP and day training.

With the weather deteriorating rapidly as winter arrived, it was decided that the Leeming Wing would return to the UK to be replaced by Leuchars Wing and crews from RAF Coningsby who had been training back in the UK. It was pretty clear by this stage that the big push would be in the New Year should all diplomatic solutions fail.

In the end it was crews from 43 and 29 Squadrons who were in theatre when the war commenced but even then they saw little action.

Overall it was a tremendous experience both on a personal level and from an RAF view point. Not since the Falklands War had the RAF been used in anger - certainly we had been training in a blinkered style for a threat from the East. Perhaps the biggest lesson learnt was the need to react to a global threat.

Certainly it proved as well that flying aircraft in service that are not fully mission capable is a false economy. The amount of work needed to prepare the F.3 for war, and in a short space of time, was huge.

However, it did allow the RAF to finally operate the F.3 in the role for which it was intended and to modify it to a standard that would have otherwise taken years to achieve; indeed had the Gulf War not happened some of these essential modifications may have never been implemented.

Although the F.3 has never fired a shot in and anger and with it now reaching the twilight of its career, it should always be remembered as a capable fighter that lacked development in its early years.

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