In this exclusive ‘Farewell Tornado’ feature we hear from some of those who operated the aircraft and worked alongside it during its lengthy service career.
These are – Tornado Tales.
Images as credited.
Tornado – first thoughts on its place in history
When Gareth asked me to write something about Tornado (GR) I thought it would be easy to come up with something entertaining from my life and times on the jet. In the event it proved difficult to find anything to say which others haven’t already said and better than I could (such as in Paul McDonald’ s excellent ‘Winged Warriors’ for example).
So, finally, I thought I’d have a stab at assessing Tornado’s place in the development of RAF tactical offensive air power over the last 40 years or so, illustrated by some bits from my own experience.
My own involvement with the aircraft began with a first flight at the TTTE on 9 January 1984 and finished on 14 November 1991 after three years on 20 Squadron as Tornado was introduced into service in RAF Germany, and then as an instructor / squadron commander back at the TTTE; around 1500 hours flying in total.
The MRCA / Tornado marked a step change in capability for the RAF when it came into service. Swing-wing and fly-by-wire were all new to us. Bear in mind it was designed specifically to carry out low-level nuclear (Strike) and conventional (Attack) missions at high subsonic speeds (the clean aircraft was supersonic at low-level), in any weather and by day or by night. This was a brand new capability for the RAF.
When combined with its state of the art navigation / attack system, the Tornado could define its 3-D position in space much better than Harrier, Jaguar or Buccaneer and therefore could bomb much more accurately than any of its predecessors. The limiting factor for precision conventional attack was that we still only dropped dumb 1000lb or BL755 cluster bombs (it didn’t matter quite so much in the nuclear case!).
When I arrived on 20 Squadron we quickly built up to our full strength of aircraft and aircrew and began training first for the strike role (easier because this was always a single aircraft) and then the attack role (for example, formations conducting offensive counter air missions against airfields etc, or interdiction of lines of communication, like bridges, and so on).
Once, quite early on, I even flew an anti-ship attack with an Italian F-104S Starfighter, only to find it could outpace my Tornado by at least 100 knots – a trifle embarrassing at the time as I had jettisoned fuel to let us go a little faster! These attack missions were all the more complex to plan and execute and, for example, my log book says that in June 1985 I flew 16 times, each time in a formation of between four and 14 aircraft.
As time passed, we got clearance to use more of the aircraft systems – I suppose being able to fire the two excellent Mauser cannons was a highlight – and we began to tackle how we would fly big formations at night or in cloud using the Terrain Following Radar and autopilot. I flew our first trial of this in August 1985. Little by little we cracked it and finally, in 1986, we went to Goose Bay in Canada and flew our first four-ships in cloud and at night – eye watering stuff to start with but we quickly came to trust the aircraft. However, on that first occasion it took almost twice as long to plan as NATO allowed whilst we tracked down some rogue missing seconds in our plan which ensured our deconfliction over the simulated target!
Our rules let the autopilot fly us at 500 feet above the ground for this event. Like many others since, I chose to let the aircraft fly down to 200 feet which meant occasionally, as we dropped into a valley, we came out of cloud and this gave us a moment for a reassuring glance round to see that the other three aircraft were where they were meant to be (funnily enough, also at 200 feet!) before going back into cloud.
Concurrently we began to train for and with next generation weapons, such as the (thankfully) short-lived JP233 runway-denial weapon. Horribly heavy and draggy, even then it was apparent that its use would expose crews to a very high degree of risk attacking a well-defended target. It’s fair to say it wasn’t a popular weapon. The arrival of the Alarm anti–radar missile gave the force its own indigenous capability to get to the target.
However, most significantly, I think, for the future of Tornado, in June 1985 we started practising for low-level attacks using the Laser Guided Bomb, Paveway 1. The target marking was provided by a Pave Spike equipped Buccaneer which flew in formation with us, or by special forces on the ground. I dropped my first live LGBs on Garvie Island (off the top of Scotland) in October that year. I’m pleased to report we hit it. This marked the start of truly precision weaponeering for Tornado.
By now, as the 1980s drew to a close, this was the zenith of the Tornado GR.1 as designed for Cold War operations. These tactics and weapons were what the team took to Gulf War 1 soon after. History shows that even with the skill and bravery of the crews the low-level attack of well-defended airfields using dumb weapons or JP233 was prohibitively expensive in loss of aircraft and lives. Almost at a stroke the Cold War tactics were swept away and I’m glad we never used them in anger in Northern Europe.
And so the Tornado evolved, at first with GR.1 and then the much-improved GR.4, into the predominantly medium-level, stand-off precision attack system it ends its time as; capable of total integration into coalition operations in a way we could only dream of way back then. A weapon system which has been in combat use, in so many theatres, pretty much ever since without (I think I’m right to say) any losses due to enemy action.
However, whilst the capabilities of the aircraft have evolved into something absolutely of the 21st Century, the engine / airframe combination remains largely what it was built for – a low-level platform. The Tornado was never able to get to true high-level – I managed 36,000 feet in a clean jet but it didn’t like it much and it involved unusual wing sweeps to stay there! In a war-fit our jets struggled to get above 25,000 feet and it lacked any of the agility of the current generation at any height. So whilst the inside stayed up to date, the outside remained essentially 1980s.
I suppose many will wonder how “it went”? Well, it was no racing whippet from a standing start (my previous aircraft the Harrier GR.3 was blindingly rapid from 0-250 knots). However, “plug the burners in” at 350 knots and the jet would accelerate very pleasingly to 550 knots and beyond (provided you remembered to swing the wings back from 45 deg to 67).
Thus I see the Tornado GR.1 / GR.4 as being analogous to the current breed of hybrid motor vehicles. They bring a range of innovative technologies to future needs, already better in many ways than what they replace and are an essential step towards the cars we will be driving in 10-20 years. In my view the Tornado fills that gap in a similar way – in its case between Buccaneer and Jaguar and the Typhoon / F-35 era.
It and all its crews – both air and ground (never forget that many lost their lives flying the GR.1 in particular, in both war and peace) have served the Royal Air Force famously – oh and by the way, it was a blast!
Bill Ramsey – ex-Tornado pilot / instructor and the last Vulcan captain
When I arrived on XV(R) Squadron, the Tornado GR.4 OCU, it was the busiest fast jet squadron in the RAF.
The squadron cumulatively achieved over 5,000 hrs flying in 2010, flying up to 24 serials per day. RAF Lossiemouth was a fabulous base to be located at and XV(R) Sqn was a great squadron to be on.
The highlight for myself was serving in 2012 with David Simmonds, Chris Stradling, Bev Thorpe, Rich Parsons and Bryan Parsons in the Tornado Role Demo Team.
It was an enormous privilege to represent the Tornado Force in what proved to be the last year that the Tornado showcased its war-fighting capabilities around the airshow circuit. The Role Demo, based upon a troops in combat scenario in Afghanistan, combined two very low, very fast and very loud aircraft performing a number of air combat manoeuvres, with ground based pyrotechnics and a realistic back-story – and it proved to be incredibly popular with the airshow crowds.
Great memories include the 1,000,000+ spectators over the Bournemouth weekend and the ground interaction with the Essex Dog Display Team at Eastbourne!
However, the most poignant moment of 2012 was the Missing Man flypast at RIAT in memory of Sam, H and Adam, tragically killed in a Tornado accident over the Moray Firth – there was hardly a dry eye in the house.
We will remember them.
Sqn Ldr Doug Smith – formerly XV(R) Squadron Operations and Team Manager for the 2012 Tornado Role Demo
To choose a few words to say about Tornado is very difficult and I honestly don’t really know which few to say, but I do have many memorable moments from my time on the aircraft.
Flying four-ship sorties at night on NVGs (night vision goggles) in the Scottish Highlands using TFR (terrain following radar) has to be the most memorable though.
That feeling when you broke through some bad weather into the clear skies and saw three other aircraft all where they should have been, with the stars twinkling in the night sky and silhouettes of mountains in the distance is something that will hopefully stay with me for a long time.
The other thing that immediately comes to mind was air-to-air refuelling when on operations and carrying a full payload.
It was a fine art to maintain a good position behind the tanker and careful use of the reheat on one engine was crucial!
I’m proud to have served and flown the mighty GR.4 – it’s an amazing and iconic aircraft.
Juliette Williams – former Tornado pilot
I learnt about flying from that…..
I never submitted an article to Wg Cdr Spry* but if I had this would be it …
It was a cold and icy day in Germany at the end of January and all flying had been scrubbed. Except my sortie – flying with the station master for a quick whizz around UK at low level, dropping some practice bombs on the East Coast ranges, if possible, and getting back in time for Burns’ Night – most importantly. The forecast wasn’t great – snow showers etc – but it was legal!
The scene was all set, the dancing lessons had been going on for the previous six weeks – many knew their Highland Reels from their Dashing White Sergeants and the grumpy Scottish flight commander had his address to the Haggis, or Tam O’Shanter, or some other dit, ready to go…………..
The duty auth decided to have a quick look outside the PBF (pilot briefing facility) at the weather and this is when alarm bells started clanging. He slipped over on the ice and damaged his arm and the next time we saw him was with his arm in a bandage saying that he’d be fine! However, the attention getters were cancelled!
My pilot was a very experienced bomber man and had vast experience of flying the Tornado in Norway. Therefore he was used to operating in cold climates, and snow, and after much debate we decided that it would be fine to press, as we had a legal airfield and diversion and would be able to dodge around any showers we met en-route. What could possibly go wrong?
We finished planning, had the out-brief, from a one-armed man, and stepped to the aeroplane. The first part of the sortie was quite uneventful – a medium level practice bombing run on the Dutch coast – but then it was down to low level and we started the route in earnest.
This was all fine – we dodged a few showers, hit a few practice targets (for once!) but didn’t manage to get in to the air weapons ranges. The UK looked beautiful in its blanket of snow and we enjoyed the thrill of low level flying, with the RB199s enjoying the cold air very much! We reached our bingo and pulled out of low-level and started the transit back over the cold North Sea, towards Holland.
As we coasted into Holland we were surprised to see that the blanket of snow had reached that far. As we passed over RNlAF airfields such as Volkel we saw that they too were covered and it was at this stage that we obtained the up-to-date airfield weather.
We had just gone ‘red’ and the forecast had changed somewhat in the less than an hour since we had last received it!
We had the usual discussion about having sufficient fuel to go through any showers, wait for the runway to be cleared of snow and still be able to shoot an approach, or divert if we had to. So all was still well and the attention getters were cancelled again!
But at about this stage we received a message from Clutch Radar (the ATC unit controlling the ‘clutch’ or airfields):
“From your operating authority – YOU ARE TO divert to Cologne / Bonn – acknowledge!”
I stated something along the lines that I thought he WAS our operating authority but both agreed that we would divert anyway! The plan was made and we landed at Koln / Bonn, to give it its correct name.
We landed without incident and taxied in. We found a cuppa and a phone and my nose gunner phoned ops. It wasn’t looking good. The airfield was ‘black’; there were further snow showers forecast and my spider sense was now twitching. I said that I’d go and arrange MT (RAF transport) back to base but my driver said he’d stay in ops and get the transit back home teed up. I admired his optimism!
I arrived back to find my Undercarriage Retraction Officer on the wing of the aeroplane with a broom, sweeping a dusting of snow off the top surfaces and chipping ice away from the leading edge. We had a chat and he said it was fine and that it was usual in Norway – he’d done it many times before. Yet again I cancelled my attention getters.
So we briefed and finally were ready for the off. It was dark by now and Koln / Bonn was fine, the snow clearance team had done a good job, the Fin was mighty and also clear of snow and ice, we had ATC clearance, improved weather en-route, a good diversion that was close to base and clear of snow or any risk of snow. What could possibly go wrong?
Oh yes – the only issue was that our airfield was still ‘black’! However, we had plenty of fuel, a good ‘bona’ div and the operations team were working to clear the airfield.
At this stage it is worth pointing out that a posse of airmen had been chased out of the NAAFI to head to the runway to ‘dig out’ the RHAG (Rotary Hydraulic Arrestor Gear), which was quite essential for us in case of major emergency. I cancelled my attention getters.
We got airborne and went straight into some cloud and it was at this stage that I became disorientated. I knew we were climbing straight ahead and had no turn (or slip) on. I knew I was feeling odd as my head was telling me that we were in a 45 degree turning descent but my instruments told me that we weren’t. We had a chat and I stated how I was feeling but that I knew what the aircraft was actually doing and as I soon got my internal gyros re-aligned, I cancelled my attention getters.
It was at this point that I experienced ‘break-off phenomenon’, which is most odd. You actually disassociate and you can sense being outside, looking in to the cockpit and seeing yourself! Very odd indeed, but again we discussed this and soon I had moved back in from the wingtip and was sitting cosily on my bang seat once again! Throughout all the departure and climb we worked well as a crew and did the usual stuff, but talked a little more than usual. I cancelled my attention getters.
The remainder of the cruise to base was uneventful and we were getting constant updates on the state of the runway. That is, ‘it’s still ‘black’ and we’re working on it’!
We could do nothing else now except wait for the fuel to run out…..and divert…..and get MT back to base!
However, good news! The airfield was now not ‘black’, but there were some showers about. The runway had ‘packed snow’ and the RHAG was operational. A VC10 was just about to shoot an approach.
We had a chat. The plan was to see whether the VC10 got in, have a go ourselves and overshoot to divert if it didn’t work. We had plenty of fuel but agreed we had already used up enough luck for one day. I cancelled my attention getters.
We had a discussion about the arrival at the airfield, how we were going to stop and, more importantly, what we were going to do if anything went wrong. Well, stopping is probably more important but you know what I mean.
The VC10 got in, we waited for it to clear, we shot an approach and saw the runway from a good 4/5 miles out – which gave us plenty of time to survey the snowy scene and numerous ATC and emergency vehicles. We landed.
Rev/rev came up on the pre-armed buckets and the flight engineer went into reverse thrust. At this point most things disappeared as the reverse thrust disturbed a ton of snow and we briefly whited-out. Thrust reverse was cancelled as we slowed down and there was nothing left but to taxi in. We completed the after-landing checks as we left the runway and trundled towards the HAS site, very carefully.
As we approached the site I said something along the lines of ‘that was all very interesting, I think you can buy the first beer tonight’.
He replied that he would. And he did – and I cancelled my attention getters once he had!
So, what did I learn about flying from that?
Many things – but the two main things were:
If you really become uncomfortable with something then it’s okay to raise the point and have your concerns allayed – and make sure they are.
If something is unusual, but you have a good robust plan for the ‘what ifs’, then it’s okay to press on, as long as you have options – and that doesn’t include the use of the Martin Baker get-out-clause!
Bottom line is that I was with a very experienced pilot, who had conducted snowy, icy operations before. I was experienced in operating the Tornado but not in those conditions.
We worked together as a team and it all worked out perfectly fine – because we had plans and contingency plans for anything we could have thought about.
And Burns’ Night was superb, even with the grumpy one doing all the talking and toasting…….
* Wg Cdr Spry was the fictional custodian of the ‘I learnt about flying from that’ column in ‘Air Clues’, the RAF Magazine. The authors of these articles (that were actually very real) learned by their mistakes and lived to tell the tale, while Wg Cdr Spry commented on them and passed on the lessons to be learned!
Martin Wintermeyer – former Tornado Navigator (see Farewell Tornado – Tornado GR.1 Gulf War 1 Part 2)
9/11 and landing gear difficulties
On September 9th 2001 I was transiting one of six GR.4s on a three-leg tanker trail from Nellis AFB to RAF Marham after Red Flag at the end of a North American season. We were staging initially through Bangor, ME, so there was very little chance of anyone going U/S (unserviceable) on that leg and sure enough, the Tristar, VC10 and all six jets made it to Lajes on the 10th.
On the morning of the 11th we learned that the VC10 was U/S due to the possibility of nice weather in the Azores and a serious technical fault – I think the oven was broken.
As it was a relatively short transit back to the UK, the TriStar had enough giveaway to cover the six chicks, and we launched on time. Apart from routing around some formidable thunderstorm cells, the transit was uneventful until the TriStar captain radioed back, asking:
“Do you guys still have long-wave radios? If so, try the BBC World Service – there’s something happening in the USA”.
Although I barely knew what long-wave was, my back-seater [Ady Hargreaves, for the record!] expertly looked up the frequency in his navigator’s treasure trove and tuned us in.
There was almost no chatter for the rest of the trip as we listened to the events in the USA unfold. When we entered the London FIR (Flight Information Region), we were cleared “Direct Marham” and the skies were eerily empty. The sombre atmosphere was punctuated by a few alarmed calls from London Centre on Guard trying to identify an aircraft operating in the south-west of the UK. It turned out to be a Royal Navy helicopter returning to its ship, which greatly calmed the voice on 243.0.
We landed our six-ship at Marham that evening having seen none of the TV images that had been broadcast all day, but we knew the world had changed forever.
For me, my colleagues and those who followed in the Tornado Force, a new era of operations was about to begin.
Pilots who flew the Tornado might remember, when questioned, that to move the landing gear handle, they must first depress forward a small switch or lever on the top of the handle. However, it becomes such a subconscious action that most hardly notice they are doing it, or even that the little switch exists.
When selecting gear up on departure from Nellis AFB for a Red Flag mission in 2006 I had this funny feeling that it felt different but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. Almost literally, it turned out.
Nevertheless, it was a beautiful day, the training range was full of jets and everyone had a blast.
On the standard heavily-sequenced recovery, bingo fuel naturally, my four-ship had routed through APEX and was cleared to join for runway 21L while a four-ship of A-10s was recovering to 21R. We dutifully broke into the circuit in sequence and I went through the pre-landers as normal.
However, when I took hold of the gear handle, the whole thing simply came loose in my hand, apparently disconnected from the internal magic that would command the gear to lower. Now I realised it: there had been no little lever on the top (presumably on the floor of the cockpit by now) and this gear handle was not going to lower the gear despite my fervent waggling of it in its housing.
As my nav reached for the checklist, I looked at the fuel gauge and considered the multitude of other aircraft all on bingo recoveries. I should have consulted with him more than I did before blowing the gear down on the standby system, of course, but I had the reputation of the GR.4 contingent in mind and we thankfully landed in sequence without detonating the recovery choreography.
Anyone else forgotten about that little lever on the top of the gear handle…?
Graeme Bagnall – former Tornado pilot and Flight Commander
An Engineer’s story
I was the Senior Engineer Officer (SEngO) on 31 Squadron, RAF Bruggen, West Germany from Sep 1988 to May 1991.
The squadron was located on the north-west corner of Bruggen’s runway on a site of Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS).
We were a nuclear response squadron with all that that entailed, and in those days we were well equipped and I had an establishment of 13 Tornados, although I actually had 15 since ‘in use reserves’ were allocated to each front line unit. Every Tornado squadron in the fleet had a tail code and ours was Delta.
In the early days of the Tornado the aircraft was very reliable and we could be confident in meeting a flying programme of 6-8 jets in the morning wave, a four-ship and a pair in the afternoon wave and then some night flying if necessary. Bear in mind we usually had 12-13 aircraft on the squadron in those days and they were allocated to us and not part of a ‘central pool’. The concept meant we had pride in our “Delta” aircraft and could achieve much higher serviceability levels than any centralised system.
Early in 1990 we participated in Red Flag at Nellis AFB in Nevada, next to Las Vegas, and it was very useful training for the events that would unfold during the following winter!
At Nellis the Americans had a system whereby there was a red line around the flight line and moving aircraft and equipment over this line was seriously controlled. Gaining permission to take an aircraft off the line and into a hangar could take hours and 31 Squadron, and me in particular, didn’t relate well to that.
One particular Tornado ‘snag’ involved raising a jet up on jacks and doing a quick undercarriage retraction test. I made the decision to jack the aircraft outside and not bother with trying to ‘cross the red line’. So the aircraft was turned into wind (it was breezy) and we commenced jacking.
Now, the engineering chain of command at Red Flag was ‘interesting’ to say the least. The aircraft were flown down to Nellis from Goose Bay in Canada having been loaned to Goose Bay for the summer season by the European Tornado squadrons. In fact, for the 1990 season two of the aircraft were my own from 31 Squadron.
For Red Flag I was the operational SEngO as usual but there was also a Squadron Leader engineer based at Goose Bay who was responsible for the engineering standards of the aircraft at Goose Bay and on Red Flag. For the sake of this story we will call him Sqn Ldr X. There was also a USAF maintenance Colonel in overall charge of base engineering standards. So, for three weeks I am operating my 12 Tornados at ‘war’ and we are playing hard. This also came in very useful the following January!
As it happened, Squadron Leader X saw me jacking the aircraft on the line and suggested we should place the aircraft in a hangar to jack because of the wind speed. Based on my response he left the line! A little while later the USAF colonel came onto the line and asked how things were going and pointed out to me that Squadron Leader X was unhappy with us jacking in the wind speed!
I told him I was happy with the situation but if Squadron Leader X could provide the Colonel with the wind speed limits for jacking, without referring to a manual, I would defer to his judgement. Neither of them came back to me and the job was completed without incident, in less time than it would have taken to obtain permission to move the aircraft, and the ‘war’ continued! What are the wind speed limits for jacking a Tornado…………?
A couple of war stories to end this section. We were the lead squadron in Gulf War 1 (Operation Granby / Desert Storm) for the mud-movers based in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, but had arrived in theatre late and only had a couple of weeks before hostilities commenced.
We were a runway denial squadron and as such used the JP233 weapon. This required us to fly straight and level over an airfield, at low level, to dispense the weapon. It became clear that the Iraq Air Force was in fact not so much of a threat and so JP233 was only used by 31 Squadron on the first day of operations, after which the aircraft were each loaded with eight 1000lb dumb bombs.
This caused issues for the engineers, as twin-store carriers, originally designed for use by Harriers, had to be used. These were not really up to the strain, to the extent that during one very rapid turn-around one of the carriers could not be removed from its pylon. Time was tight and I made the decision to make the aircraft armament system ‘live’ on the ground and explosively eject the carrier from the aircraft. Horse-hair matting and anything else we could find to soften the impact of the carrier’s ejection was placed under the aircraft. The aircraft survived the incident, the carrier did not!
Wing Commander Jerry Witts (my Boss on 31) and I had devised a system for having spare aircraft available for each wave. If eight were planned there would be another four in the same fit manned by standby crews. If a primary crewed out they would rush over to the nearest spare, which was all fired up (one engine) and ready to go. This worked well in the early days of the war, when spares were frequently used. I had devised several “hard” rules as to which unserviceability would still leave the aircraft as ‘war goers’ and which would not.
In particular the ECM (Electronic Counter Measures) system and IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) had to be fully functional before taxi. On one particularly tricky night we had used up all four spare aircraft when I was informed there was to be another crew out due to a BOZ (countermeasures) pod failure. There was no choice; I quickly decided to ask the crew to sit tight and replace the pod. Those who know engineering procedures will appreciate that armament electrical systems can only be worked on when there has been a ‘no volts’ test carried out. Clearly, with engines already running and electrical power fully on, this wasn’t going to happen in this situation, and the face of the SNCO armourer who was tasked with changing the pod was a picture!
I stood right by the armourers as they replaced the pod, providing ‘top cover’. But, I was fully aware that had anything gone wrong I would probably be on a Hercules straight back to Germany – but this was war! In the event nothing did go wrong and the eight-ship departed on time.
I could go on with other tales of life on the front line, at Bruggen, on detachment, at Goose Bay, Red Flag and eventually taking the Tonka to war for the first time, which could fill a book in their own right – perhaps one day!
I have very fond memories of my time on 31 Squadron and attend the Association reunion every year to try and relive those exciting, work hard, play hard days.
Squadron Leader Les Hendry MBE (See Farewell Tornado Gulf War 1 Part 1)
One of the most capable operational aircraft
I started flying the Tornado GR.4 in late 2005 as a student pilot on XV(R) Sqn, the Operational Conversion Unit (OCU).
The lasting first memory of my first flight was how quiet it was inside the cockpit at low level. Every time I’d seen, or more importantly heard, the Tornado it was so loud, however, now I was flying it was surprisingly smooth and quiet.
The sortie was a general handling and low level flight around the highlands of Scotland, the weather was fantastic and I was blown away.
That was the start of nearly 10 years flying the “Mighty Fin” on XIII Sqn, XV(R) Sqn as a Tactics Instructor, and Qualified Weapons Instructor Pilot tours on 31 Sqn and 41(R)Test and Evaluation Squadron.
Over the years the aircraft went through several iterations of software and weapons upgrades including the integration of Dual Mode Seeker Brimstone, ASRAAM, and L16 Tactical Data Links, making it the one of the most capable operational aircraft.
It was a real honour to serve on such a historic aircraft alongside all the amazing aircrew and engineers who kept her airborne.
Frazer Wood – former Tornado pilot
Tornado GR.4 display pilot
The RAF’s solo Tornado GR.1 / GR.4 Display was a regular feature at airshows across the UK, Europe and occasionally even further afield for many years. I had the privilege of being the display pilot for 2003 and 2004 and together with my display navigator and a handpicked team of engineers, we displayed the aircraft over 100 times. In this short article, I will describe the work up process that we went through and give an insight to life as a display pilot.
Selection as the ‘display crew’ was fiercely competitive on XV(R) Squadron, which had the task of providing the RAF Tornado GR.1 / GR.4 Display Team. Prior to selection, pilots and navigators were encouraged to form a potential display crew and typically two or three crews would put themselves up for selection. There were no fixed criteria other than you had to be available throughout the following display season and willing to spend most of the summer weekends away from home.
Officer Commanding XV(R) Squadron, supported by his executive team, would then make the selection based on a number of criteria, which included not only availability, but also flying ability, experience levels and supervisory skills. The nominated crew would be approved by the RAF Lossiemouth Station Commander and then the chosen crew would be informed.
Once selected, the crew would get together with the previous year’s display crew and discuss the intricacies of displaying a Tornado, the lessons they had learnt and where possible, they would act as mentors until the season was well under way.
Designing the sequence for Tornado was relatively simple for us as over the years crews had worked out what worked well and what didn’t; a fast pass and a vertical departure were a given! On the whole, the main variable would be in which order to fly the manoeuvres and how best to link them together. We then went to the simulator and practised the sequence with our mentors, discussed changes and considered the impact of various emergencies so that we understood and practised how we would safely stop the display if such an emergency (such as an engine failure) occurred. The sequence would then be discussed with and agreed by our display supervisor prior to being submitted for formal approval to headquarters.
Once the sequence was approved, the work-up schedule could commence. The work-up began at 5000 feet above ground level, with each sortie debriefed thoroughly with the display supervisor looking at the tapes. The focus at this stage was primarily safety, making sure that manoeuvres were consistent and that the base height was not busted. It also allowed initial gate heights to be generated for looping manoeuvres – a gate height is the height (and speed bracket) at the top of a looping manoeuvre that is required to safely complete the manoeuvre.
Interspersed with the practices would be simulator sorties, which allowed various emergencies at different stages of the display routine to be practised. Once the supervisor was happy that we were competent and safe at a 5000ft base height then we were cleared to 2500 feet. The display practices now moved in to the overhead of the airfield at RAF Lossiemouth, which gave us a line feature to start using (the main runway). The rest of the base had to now start planning around our display practice slots, and of course more ‘experts’ started to watch our display and offer their opinions!
After a few sorties or so, we stepped down to a 1500 foot base, then 1000 foot base, 500 foot base and finally down to our minimum altitude, not below 100 feet! At the final display height, a number of practices were flown using different display lines and included a practice over the sea in preparation for the many seaside shows we would take part in. The culmination of the four month work-up was the Public Display Approval (PDA), where we got to deploy to RAF Coningsby and the Air Officer Commanding Number 1 Group viewed our display and granted approval for us to perform in front of the public. Less than a week later and we were off to our first display, a small show in the local area with a couple of hundred people.
Following this, pretty much every weekend until October we would deploy away from RAF Lossiemouth to support airshows across the UK and Europe. I remember our smallest audience particularly well, as it was a display for Her Majesty the Queen who was visiting RAF Lossiemouth! Our biggest audience would have been one of the seaside shows at Clacton-on-Sea, Eastbourne or Worthing. Across both the 2003 and 2004 seasons, we flew out of the following airfields in support of displays: Lossiemouth, Kinloss, Duxford, Belfast, Lyneham, Liverpool, Culdrose, Fairford, Biggin Hill, Linton-on-Ouse, Newcastle, Blackpool, Prestwick, Southend, Elvington, Radom (Poland), Leuchars, Yeovilton, Coltishall, Bratislava (Czech Republic), Volkel (Netherlands), Kemble, Leeming, Waddington, Koksijde (Belgium), Brize Norton, Teeside, Marham, St Mawgan and Jersey. Overall, more than 100 displays were flown to the public.
We were very fortunate to have three dedicated teams of six groundcrew who would travel to support us at the airfields that we used. Often we would have all three teams away at the same time and getting to some of the airfields by road was much slower than by Tornado! We would always take two aircraft with us, the display ‘primary’ aircraft, which we would fly in and a spare aircraft in case the prime went tech. One of the highlights for the other XV(R) Squadron instructors would be the publishing of the display weekends list, where they would bid to get selected to be the ‘spare’ crew. The spare crew were not cleared to fly the display but they were cleared when necessary to stay with the broken jet on a Monday so we could get back and rested before the next weekend away!
A typical week for the display crew would commence with returning from the previous display weekend on a Monday followed by an afternoon of planning for the following week’s shows. It may also include some time on the desk (acting as the Squadron Duty Authoriser) or possibly an instructional sortie with a student either in the air or in the simulator. Tuesday was a day off, this was often both welcome rest and a mandated requirement from our RAF orders – a maximum of six days working in a row. Most of the time, Wednesday was also a day off, although not always as some weeks we would have a display on a Wednesday afternoon or evening. For major shows, we would typically fly out of Lossiemouth on a Thursday morning so that we could arrive, get briefed and then practice. A number of shows included flying Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Very occasionally, we would not depart Lossiemouth until Friday and in that case we would usually have a normal instructors day on a Thursday, teaching students and taking our share of supervisory roles. A weekend of display flying could be a single flight or a number of transit and display sorties – the record for me in 2003 was nine sorties over a weekend.
The Tornado solo display was a significant task for XV(R) Squadron in terms of flying hours, spares and manpower. With an operationally focused air force, the benefits of showcasing military hardware had to be balanced against the operational and training tasks and the decision to have a display team or not was made at the highest levels and not without careful consideration.
I was fortunate, I got to display the Tornado for two consecutive years, with two great navigators and a fantastic team of engineers in support. The big shows were great, allowing us to showcase the jet against other aircraft from across the air forces of the world. Equally, the small shows were just as rewarding, we were often the main attraction and the public were always so very appreciative of seeing the aircraft display.
I would like to think that we did our part as the Tornado Display Team to show the British taxpayers some of the military equipment they had funded and to inspire the next generation to join the RAF, whatever role they chose to follow.
I am sure that is as true today as it was back in 03-04.
Group Captain Jon Nixon
A pilot’s story
After four years and 900 hours on the Tornado GR.4 my time on the aircraft came to an end on 18 April 2017.
I’d always wanted to fly the Tornado and had pictures of it on the wall when I was growing up, so to be able to fly it was literally a dream come true. It’s not a difficult aircraft to fly but, as with anything of its era, it had a number of quirks that you got to know over the years.
You soon figured out ways to get various systems to kick into life if they weren’t working correctly, and being very much an older era of aircraft you could feel if something wasn’t quite right, or if you had accelerated and forgotten to sweep the wings for example.
I was lucky enough to be on the last deployment to Afghanistan. Although it was very quiet and nothing much was going on by the time we got there it was important to me to have been to the country that essentially shaped a generation in the armed forces.
We did three months operating out of Kandahar before the aeroplanes were bought home. We thought that would be it but then Op Shader started and the next couple of years were very busy. In 2015 I was operating out of Cyprus during some of the most intense fighting. We were constantly up against our maximum flying hours per week for crews so had to manage everyone very carefully. That year I did 330 hours in the Tornado which is the most flying I’ve done in one year by quite a way.
The missions can vary from recce to CAS (close air support) but you could never guarantee that it was going to be a quiet one. I have lost more heartbeats tanking at night over Iraq in bad weather than doing anything else in my flying career. Or maybe I just wasn’t very good at it….
For my last flight I was meant to fly a pair of aircraft, myself leading, but as is the way sometimes with aircraft of this vintage the second aircraft broke so I had to go on my own.
My WSO was ‘Lamby’ – one of my best mates that I essentially went through my entire career with so it was nice to do my final trip with him. Flying with a Nav / WSO (depending on what era you flew the jet) in a fast jet was something that (despite the banter) I wouldn’t have changed. Having an extra pair of eyes and someone to bounce ideas off when it all started getting interesting was one of the major strengths of the Tornado’s flexibility.
Having moved onto the Hawk T.2 I still feel slightly uncomfortable when I fly on my own, not having the reassurance of someone else in the cockpit! Plus when you divert, which you will, you’ve got someone to go to the bar with.
The route on my last trip took us from RAF Marham at low level, passing over Rutland Water and Bruntingthorpe before routing under all the airspace that runs along the spine of the country. Once the other side of the ‘shark infested custard’ we took a route out towards Hereford and then into Wales and towards the high ground.
Once in Wales valley flying was the order of the day and we travelled from south to north and went round the ‘Mach Loop’ twice, then hung a right to fly up Lake Bala then left to ‘Playboy’ and then north west through the A5 pass. We then double backed on ourselves, making our way southwards before pulling up and taking the Lichfield Radar Corridor back to the North Norfolk coast.
Here we did some acceleration runs from 230kts to 550kts, ending with a vertical pull out just to prove the Tornado can still shift!
With that it was back to Marham for an airfield attack and one last landing as the sun was setting.
I will very much miss the Tornado, not just the aircraft but most of all the people that made my first tour so memorable. If I could do it all again I would in an instant.
Flt Lt Ollie Suckling
Thoughts on Tornado after 6000 hours in the cockpit
Having been flying the aircraft for over 31 years, it’s extremely difficult to pick out a single sortie or deployment to highlight my time on the Tornado GR Force. However, I don’t think anyone could forget their first trip in the Tornado. It was a boyhood dream to fly in the Tornado and to finally realise this was a massive thrill.
The sortie was flown with a German Air Force TTTE Instructor and included a medium-level transit, a practise diversion to RAF Brize Norton and some circuits back at RAF Cottesmore. However, the highlight of the sortie was the low-level through Wales, including a ridge-roll over the top of Snowdon and a fantastic view down on to the people and trains on the summit.
Following completion of my Tornado training, I was posted to RAF Bruggen in Germany, where I completed two flying tours. In 1990 and 1991 I was involved in Operation Granby, flying sorties from Muharraq Airport in Bahrain and Dhahran in Saudi Arabia. The sense of fear and excitement of flying my first operational mission is still a strong memory. The fear I felt was less about the danger of flying my first operational mission in a hostile environment, but more about the desire to not screw up. That fear has never really left me.
Following eight years in Germany I was then posted to XV(R) Sqn at RAF Lossiemouth as a Tornado Weapons and Tactics instructor and in 1999 I was lucky enough to be selected to fly the Tornado GR.1 Display. The work up was flown progressively lower as we got comfortable with the aircraft’s performance, the sequence and the gate heights and speeds that we needed to achieve to complete the display safely.
Whilst in the work-up phase I flew a sortie with the Squadron Boss, who was also our Display Supervisor. As we got airborne out of Lossiemouth and turned abeam the aircraft in the climb, he dropped the right wing and looked down on the airfield, approximately 6000 feet below us. As we looked down, he asked “Are you seriously telling me that you two clowns are going to pull through from a loop at this height?”. “No way” I replied, “We’re going to be MUCH lower than this.”
Following five years on XV(R) Sqn I then spent 10 years on the front line at RAF Lossiemouth, with lots of time away deployed on Operations over Iraq and Afghanistan and several detachments in Europe, Canada and America.
In 1995, whilst on a three-week deployment to Canada on Exercise Maple Flag I achieved my 3000th hour on the Tornado. At the presentation of my new badge my Squadron Boss commented that “It isn’t really 3000 hours, it’s just all the same mistakes you made on your first sortie that you’ve repeated 3000 times.”
In 2011 I was posted back to XV(R) Sqn and in 2012 I was asked (!) to volunteer for the position of formation leader for the Tornado GR.4 Role Demonstration. The work up, integration of the commentary and the pyrotechnics was a big challenge but I am very proud of what we achieved and the positive comments we received on social media.
Highlights from the year include displaying at RAF Leuchars in front of my children and it was also a thrill to display at Farnborough, despite the complexities of the airspace. Unbeknown to us at the time, this would turn out to be the last Royal Air Force Tornado display season.
There was a lot of friendly banter between the various display teams and the commentators all made a big deal about the closing speed of their aircraft on the opposition passes. For instance, the Red Arrows frequently mentioned how their aircraft had a crossing speed of around 600 miles an hour during their show. Our commentators were always very keen to mention that on the first pass of the Role Demo, the aircraft passed each other with a closing speed of over 1200 mph. We also regularly thanked the Red Arrows for their role as the ‘Tornado Role Demo warm up act’! It was during this first pass on our display approval sortie in front of the Air Vice Marshal that the Navigator in the second aircraft achieved his 1000th flying hour on the Tornado.
Another memory from that year was when the team were being interviewed for GAR in a hotel in Southport. The interview was going really well until a small boy and his Mum gate-crashed the meeting to ask for some autographs and pictures! We were very fortunate to receive so many similar requests for interviews, autographs and pictures during the year, which just confirmed how well the Role Demo had been received and how much love there was for the Tornado.
The most significant event of 2012 for all of us, and the biggest low of the season, was the loss of two XV(R) Squadron aircraft and three aircrew following a mid-air collision in the Moray Firth. It was agreed that the Role Demo would continue the following weekend at the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford.
The first display of that weekend was flown as a singleton due to an aircraft unserviceability but the Sunday was flown as a pair. After the display had finished we held off to allow the Typhoon to complete its routine and then we flew the recovery to close the show. A ‘Missing-Man’ flypast was flown in honour of our colleagues who had died, with hardly a dry eye in the house. It was a fitting way to remember our friends and to close what had been an awful week.
With the imminent disbandment of the Tornado Force, in March 2017 it was agreed that XV(R) Squadron would stand down. I was privileged to lead the last five-ship formation which included flypasts at Aberdeen, Leuchars, Tain Range and Lossiemouth. It was an emotional day out and just a small insight into the events to come in 2019.
Following completion of my time at Lossiemouth I was once again posted back to the front line at RAF Marham. There then followed a two-year spell of almost constant operations, flying missions over Iraq and Syria from RAF Akrotiri. The sorties tended to be fairly similar for most of the time, but an occasional re-task or requirement to support friendly forces always got the heart rate up.
My last Tornado operational sortie was flown over 28 years after I first crossed the border into Iraq. It was marked by a quick aileron roll as we crossed the border and exited Iraq for the last time.
A massive Tornado highlight for me was the return flight back to the UK. We launched five jets on the Monday and the remaining three left Akrotiri the following day. The weather was not ideal but after nearly 5 ½ hours we landed back at RAF Marham, to be met by family, friends, members of both local and national media and several VIPs.
The sortie was also significant as, after just over four hours in to the transit, and whilst over Southern France in view of the Alps, I became the first person to achieve 6000 flying hours on the Tornado. The event was celebrated with another aileron roll, the standard way to mark a significant event.
This massive total would not have been possible without the help and support of a number of people, including my current Squadron Boss. It is an achievement of which I am massively proud. I have a lot of respect for other members of the Tornado Force and to be the only person to have achieved such a milestone is humbling.
To be involved in the final few weeks of the Tornado Force has been an immense honour and to have flown on the nine-ship formation flypast, in the aircraft that bears my name on the canopy, was a truly proud moment.
My last sortie was flown almost 31 ½ years after my first trip, and culminated in a champagne celebration with close friends and colleagues after we had shut down. I was surprised at the lack of emotion I felt as I climbed out of the aircraft for the last time. I guess it just hasn’t sunk in yet that I will never fly this wonderful aircraft ever again.
In over 31 years, 6011 Tornado flying hours, over 320 operational sorties, nearly 20 operational detachments (not including the numerous exercises and detachments I have supported) I have more wonderful memories than I could possibly write down in one short article. Maybe there is a book to be written sometime in the future.
Thank you Tornado, and thank you to all of the people who have flown, engineered and supported this iconic aircraft.
Flt Lt Chris Stradling
Global Aviation Resource would like to thank everyone who sent in their words and pictures for this exclusive ‘Farewell Tornado’ feature.
We’ll wrap the retirement series up with one final piece – an extensive gallery of the Tornado GR in RAF service which includes more than 400 images.