To commence our ‘Farewell Tornado’ coverage, we recently re-published the first part of our Tornado GR.1 Gulf War series, which originally appeared on GAR in 2011. As promised, and just as it appeared on the site eight years ago, here is part two.
It’s Saturday morning at the Forest of Arden Hotel and the 20th anniversary gathering of those based at Dhahran for the Gulf War commenced the previous evening when many of the 140 or so attendees arrived for their get together.
If you read last week’s piece you’ll know what a privilege it was for me to attend this event for a few hours and the fact that I did so was largely down to Flt Lt Martin Wintermeyer. Martin will be well known to regular GAR readers from his role as 2010 Tucano Display Manager and WSO (Weapons System Officer) instructor with 76(R) Squadron at RAF Linton-on-Ouse. Before all that though he was a Tornado GR.1 navigator and, like everyone else at the event, was deployed to Dhahran two decades ago, flying numerous operational sorties during the conflict.
Arriving fairly early on the Saturday morning, I located Martin as he finished breakfast and we were joined in the restaurant by Mike Stanway, another familiar face from his work around the airshow circuit on flying control committees at the likes of Cosford, Jersey and Windermere.
Mike’s Gulf War story is a little different. A Tornado GR.1A pilot, he was one of a very small number of crews which deployed to fly reconnaissance missions during the campaign, a very dissimilar experience from those who flew strike sorties against targets in Iraq. With copious amounts of coffee close at hand, I switched on the recorder and, throwing a few questions in along the way, let the reminiscence commence.
In late 1990 Martin Wintermeyer was, rather confusingly, flying with 14 Squadron but had been seconded to a 9 Squadron four-ship and eventually actually deployed with the 31 Squadron led detachment, arriving at Dhahran about two weeks before Desert Storm began!
“14 Squadron was the lead unit and deployed first to Bahrain with the most experienced crews who spent weeks and weeks honing themselves to operational readiness, only to be told that they were going home before the start of hostilities, to be replaced by XV Squadron in Bahrain with 31 Squadron deploying to Dhahran just before kick off!” Martin tells me.
Mike meanwhile was based at RAF Honington with 13 Squadron when the invasion took place and explains that they were split in to an A team and a B team with one group, consisting of just four crews, deployed for the dedicated recce role and the others using the new TIALD pod as discussed in last week’s feature.
“We started working up with the recce kit in the UK and to be honest it took quite a long time to get it going. I remember one day we arrived at work ready to deploy only to be met by the Boss (Glenn Torpy – later Chief of the Air Staff) who told us that it didn’t work properly yet so we wouldn’t be going anywhere!”
So it was off back home for Mike and his colleagues who, around two weeks later, did make it out to Dhahran, arriving just hours after the air war commenced.
“It was three or four days before they could get us in to the frag as all the plans had already been put together so we flew a few training sorties to the south while we were waiting to go for real.”
Dhahran worked well for the Tornado and its crews, of that everyone I spoke to seems to be in agreement, despite being described to me by various people as being just dust, dirt and portacabins! “Everything was set up by the time we arrived,” says Mike, “loads of tents and temporary buildings but they were all linked together with corridors so it was pretty good, a bit like being on exercise actually.”
One extraordinary fact confirmed by Martin and Mike was that there wasn’t even any suitable kit available for the desert – it didn’t even exist. A tailor nearby to Dhahran actually made the crews’ flying suits and everything from photocopiers to cars had to be borrowed or hired. At one point some of the recce kit which had gone missing in transit was found at Tabuk being used as a coffee table, complete with a rug as a make-shift table cloth! The crews even had name badges made for their flying suits – in Arabic. “They could have said anything,” Mike laughs.
Operating in the desert, as we know, was something completely new, but how did Mike find it from a flying perspective?
“I did one daytime training sortie over the desert and I just couldn’t get the aircraft down low, it was so difficult to judge the height. That was the one attempt I made and all you could really do was fly at whatever height was most comfortable. It’s no use being uncomfortable; you have to be at a height where you are still happy to manoeuvre the aircraft.”
“Our daytime work-up was more extensive,” says Martin, “and my pilot and I had a technique which was for him to fly lower and lower until I stopped talking, then we were low enough! We basically had a height where we were both happy and we stuck to that when necessary.”
This wasn’t an issue when it came to the operational recce sorties of course. The Tornado’s TFR (Terrain Following Radar) was an exceptional piece of kit so flying at low level at night wasn’t a problem; crews just relied on the kit they were using.
Martin had already seen action by the time Mike arrived at Dhahran although his sortie on the very first night is still the cause of some regret, the aircraft going unserviceable en route and forcing them to return to base.
“We tried everything to get it sorted out, even waiting until after we had tanked before realising that it wasn’t going to happen; we couldn’t proceed to the target without our TFR or radalt (radar altimeter) so we had to turn back for Dhahran. From that point onwards I think we were completely silent in the aircraft until Gordon called three-greens on approach; what was there to say?”
Martin and his pilot Gordon therefore became one of the few crews to land with a live JP233 still attached to their aircraft, as usually the canisters were jettisoned following weapons delivery; and they didn’t then get another chance to drop the weapon in anger.
“Jerry Witts was waiting for us when we landed and he told us not to worry, knowing how devastated we were at having to turn back; he said it was getting airborne that was the brave thing. That was great leadership and I’ll never forget it.”
Mike explains that when the recce crews finally found themselves on the frag they flew line searches and while ‘Scud hunting’ might have made for good journalism that was about it.
“They kept sending us out to look for them (Scud missiles) but really it was a waste of time. If you did find them, by the time a strike package went back they were gone and as we flew unarmed recce there was nothing we could do to put them out of action.
“The first couple of nights we flew with Sidewinders but, operating at night, there was no chance of us using them so we decided they were just drag and we took them off after that. We were, to use the classic phrase, ‘alone, unarmed and unafraid’. Well, two out of three wasn’t bad I suppose!”
The recce jets flew as pairs, usually covering two missions with two aircraft assigned to each. The GR.1As would fly around two minutes apart to try and avoid the classic scenario where the first jet wakes the enemy up and the following jet is then left vulnerable to enemy fire. We’ll never know for sure but it may have been this which saw Flt Lts Rupert Clark and Steve Hicks tragically fall victim to enemy fire on the 14th February 1991 as the eighth aircraft in an eight-ship formation, their Tornado being hit by two SA-2 missiles. Both crewmen ejected but sadly Steve Hicks was killed while Clark was taken prisoner.
“I remember saying to people that we weren’t very happy flying as number four of four on one mission and being asked to think of a better way of doing it,” Martin recalls. “We were forced to admit that there was no better way of doing it – but we still weren’t happy!”
“Leaving a two minute gap was long enough for the enemy to have woken up and then to have relaxed again,” adds Mike, “and I saw more flak in the mirrors than I did up ahead or around me.”
Flying at 500 knots probably helped too with the Tornado’s wings swept back at 67 degrees and the TFR locked on to a hard-ride setting at 200′ which helped hug the contours of land more closely.
“It just floated along,” Mike says, “you let it run at whatever speed the fuel flow you had chosen gave you, with the second jet doing the same thing a few minutes behind. We were doing exactly what the aircraft was designed to do.”
While recce continued at low level for the duration of the conflict the other Tornado GR.1s of course didn’t and Martin is happy to admit that it took some time to make the transition.
‘Suddenly we found ourselves flying at 20,000’. The aircraft wasn’t that happy up there with a full weapon load and we had to fool the radar in to thinking that we were at low level as it wasn’t even set up for anything else.
“It was certainly a turning point for the Royal Air Force in terms of our tactics. We went from training to fly as pairs or fours at low level with JP233 to take out airfields, to flying at medium altitude with laser designation. This was also the first move to becoming an expeditionary force and we knew that we had to be able to deploy anywhere and not just operate from the sanctuary of our HAS (hardened aircraft shelter) sites.”
“One reason for that was that the coalition put a lot of holes in Iraqi HAS sites”, agrees Mike, “you had to ask what use they were after that!”
“We were just doing our job really,” says Mike, “it turned out that there was nothing particularly tricky about it.
“It was scary and it was the lack of knowledge that made it worse. We didn’t really know if the place was going to be littered with missiles or not. For all we knew it might have been the last thing we did but once you got in to it and realised what the threats were then it was okay. Most of the Iraqi missiles were actually fired blind; they didn’t want to switch their radars on as they knew they would get a HARM (High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile) through the roof!”
“My expectation was that I might not come home from the conflict,” admits Martin, “I do remember one particular moment of doubt on my first sortie, driving out to the aircraft I thought to myself, there’s no turning back now, I can’t get out of this!”
“It was actually quite benign really,” Mike adds as Martin nods in agreement, “once you’d hit the tanker and checked on the timings and completed your fence checks (checks to be completed before going ‘sausage side’) it was actually quite settled and yes, just like doing the training. Getting that first mission out of the way was important though.”
There is one last point in which I find Martin and Mike in complete agreement. They didn’t do what they did for their country, they didn’t go ‘over the top’ for themselves – they did it for their mates, their colleagues, the guys on the ground and the guys flying with them.
“There was one mantra, says Mike, “I must not screw up…or at least get caught screwing up!”
More ‘Farewell Tornado’ coverage is coming soon.