15% DISCOUNT

Panavia Tornado

The £40million jet that laid claim to the title of most expensive Tonka in history

IT was February 2019 when RAF Marham welcomed home eight Tornadoes from Akrotiri, signalling the end of 40 years of military service for a jet designed and built by a tri-national consortium.

The Tonkas in question had been integral to Operation Shader, the UK’s part in the military intervention against ISIL (Islamic State) in Iraq and Syria, providing reconnaissance and carrying out air strikes – the campaign seen as the most intense flying mission the RAF had undertaken in 25 years.

Their return marked the completion of overseas duties for the jet, with a farewell tour that covered 35 military stations – among them Lossiemouth and Anglesey – following later that month, and ending with a flypast of nine Tornadoes over Marham and Cranwell.

9 Tornado GR4's taking part in the 9-Ship farewell flypast over RAF Marham

(9 Tornado GR4's taking part in the 9-Ship farewell flypast over RAF Marham - 📸 Steve Lynes)


The last two Tornado squadrons at the disbandment parade at Marham were IX (B) Squadron and 31 Squadron – IX (B) being the world’s first operational Tonka unit back in 1982, three years after the first full production Tornado GR1 had flown from Warton, the assembly and testing HQ for BAE Systems on the Lancashire coast.

The Tornado project had begun in the late 1960s when four nations – the UK, Italy, West Germany and the Netherlands – agreed the formation of the Panavia company with an HQ in Bavaria and the aim to produce an aircraft capable of carrying out tactical strike, reconnaissance, air defence and maritime roles.

During the Cold War the Tornado was seen by the RAF as the jet to replace the English Electric Lightning, capable of delivering conventional and nuclear weapons on the invading forces of the Warsaw Pact, and with the ability to operate from short or battle-damaged runways.

In 1970 the Netherlands pulled out of the project claiming the proposals were too complicated and technical for their needs, the final jet production plans leaving the UK and West Germany with a 42.5% stake in the workload, with Italy taking the other 15%.

The front fuselage and tail assembly was assigned to UK firm BAC, now BAE Systems, the centre fuselage produced in Germany and the wings in Italy. A separate company, Turbo-Union, was formed in June 1970 to develop the engines: 40% Rolls-Royce, 40% MTU in Germany, and 20% Fiat – the jet’s maximum speed was Mach 2.2: 1500mph at 30,000 feet and 921mph at sea level, with a range of 860 miles.

Tornado F.3 ZG753 of 111 (Fighter) Squadron

(Tornado F.3 ZG753 of 111 (Fighter) Squadron - 📸 Chris Lofting)

The first prototype flew in Germany in August 1974 with the first aircraft delivered to the RAF and the German Air Force in June 1979. The Tornado evolved through three major production models: the IDS (InterDictor/Strike), ECR (Electronic Combat/Reconnaissance) for countering enemy air defences, and the ADV (Air Defence Variant), the dedicated interceptor of the group.

All three were two-seat jets, with the variable-wing nature of the design allowing for adjustments in-flight from an angle of 25° to 67° – the more swept back the wings (decreasing the angle) the lower the area exposed, so drag was reduced which was conducive to performing high-speed, low-level operations.

Tornado GR1 ZA491 of 20 Squadron in the "desert pink" used for Operation Granby at RAF Brize Norton, September 1991

(Tornado GR1 ZA491 of 20 Squadron in the "desert pink" used for Operation Granby at RAF Brize Norton, September 1991📸 Mike Freer)

This low-level flight was key to the jet’s role in the first Gulf War as part of Operation Granby, the Tonka’s combat debut. There were 49 GR1s (IDS) deployed to bases in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, with a further 18 F3s (ADVs) providing air cover. The GR1s targeted military airfields across Iraq, with a total of six lost in the conflict, one of those producing what was, for many, the seminal moment of the conflict.

Pilot John Peters and navigator John Nichol were carrying out an ultra-low level daylight mission on the Ar Rumaylah Southwest Air Base when they were hit by a SAM SA-14, the missile igniting one of the Tornado’s sidewinders. Despite both men successfully ejecting, they were captured by Iraqi forces, tortured, and paraded on TV for the world to see. At the end of the conflict both men were released and returned to service, but 14 of their RAF colleagues weren’t so lucky.

A total of 12 Tornado and two Jaguar crew were killed in the build up to, and operations involved with Operation Granby, with the 30th anniversary last year marked by two Tonka veterans, Mal Craghill and Martin Wintermeyer, setting off on a 670-mile charity bike tour of the UK, visiting the graves of the aircrew who died.

Following the first Gulf War, the upgraded GR4s made their operational debuts patrolling Iraq’s southern airspace from Kuwait, Operation Southern Watch, with the Tornado platform also deployed during the Bosnian War, in Kosovo, and back in Iraq in 2003 for Operation Telic. In 2009 several GR4s arrived in Afghanistan to replace the Harrier, a transfer that somewhat ironically mirrored the outcome of the Defence Review initiated by the new coalition government a year later.

The Tornado force appeared at severe risk of being mothballed before defence chiefs instead decided to retire the Harrier and keep the Tonkas. In 2011 they were back in action enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya, and carrying out bombing raids inside the country. The strike missions from Marham were described by then Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, as “the longest range bombing mission conducted by the RAF since the Falklands conflict,” flying 3,000 miles and requiring refuelling on four occasions.

Tornado GR4s arrive back in the UK at RAF Marham having completed almost 40 years serving the UK on military operations across the world.

(Tornado GR4s arrive back in the UK at RAF Marham having completed almost 40 years serving the UK on military operations across the world - 📸 MOD)

One of their last duties on ‘home’ ground was a flight over London in 2018 to mark 100 years of the RAF, with the Tornado GR4 officially retired from duty on April 1, 2019.

The German and Italian Air Forces still operate their Tornadoes but both are expected to replace their fleets in the next few years; the only export market of the jet was Saudi Arabia, their military still utilising the excellence of the design for combat operations.

Other Articles You May Also Enjoy

101 Squadron
101 Squadron
No. 101 Squadron pays tribute to one of its most famous sons
Read More
Tempest Project Gathers Pace
Tempest Project Gathers Pace
Tempest project gathers pace as Defence Chiefs sign official treaty
Read More
RAF in Oxfordshire Part Two
RAF in Oxfordshire Part Two
RAF in Oxfordshire part two K-W
Read More
RAF in Oxfordshire Part One
RAF in Oxfordshire Part One
A hotbed of aircraft activity from pre-WWI to the present day, Oxfordshire remains a key location for RAF operations
Read More
83 Squadron
83 Squadron
Missing crew members from No. 83 Squadron finally found as Lancaster bomber is recovered
Read More
Gloster Javelin
Gloster Javelin
The short-lived jet that was the last to bear the famous Gloster name
Read More
RAF in Hertfordshire
RAF in Hertfordshire
For a county that skirts the northern sector of England’s capital city, Hertfordshire could be described as being a litt
Read More
RAF Leeming
RAF Leeming
Leeming still key to the nation’s air defences more than 80 years after its first squadrons arrived
Read More

Leave a comment