Memories of the Mighty Fin – A Pilot’s View!

A childhood dream for many, come true for the few.

Already battle proven in Operation Granby, Tornado formed the backbone of the RAF attack capability when I stepped forward with shiny new wings. The long path of training to get to the Tri-national Tornado Training Establishment (TTTE) at RAF Cottesmore focused on single seat operations of a fast jet, and the first experiences in early Tornado training sorties – crewed with my German Air Force student navigator – proved that sometimes 1+1 does not equal 3 as the famous RAF Tornado recruiting advert used to claim, but that in certain situations 1+1 = 0.75! However, with experience and dedicated study, the synergy of operating a 2-seater fast jet soon became apparent as the role became more demanding than screeching around Wales with a map and stop watch, pointing the Hawk T Mk 1A bomb sight at one end of a bridge or another whilst being wings level, on speed and on time.

The National Tornado OCU on XV(R) Sqn at RAF Lossiemouth really ramped up the learning curve, surrounded by some very tall granite, very low cloud and challenging cross winds. Flying at low level through the Highlands provided much excitement. The Tornado GR required constant attention to get the best out of her. Into a turn in a tight valley, manoeuvre slats selected down, check the speed and sweep the wings forward to really tuck into the turn, roll out, wings back to 45 degrees, manoeuvre slats up and check the dead wing for threats whilst easing the power back to avoid getting early. In those days pre-cockpit video every fix, initial point, offset and target had to be filmed – manually. Approaching each feature, as part of the checks, starting the cameras, making sure they ran, and if need be, swapping out the film cartridge in-cockpit for a fresh one – no film, no hit, and a failed trip. Pre-GPS days, accuracy to +/- 6 seconds required accurate planning, constant monitoring of the various sensors, and regular updates to the navigation kit, without ‘lunching’ the kit and introducing even greater errors. Oh how we pilots laughed as we took a perfectly good Phase One mark provided by the navigator on the radar and ‘refined’ it with Phase 2 AGR. Oh how the navigators sighed as they rejected the usually significant errors introduced by the pilots……but to what end? In these days of dumb bombs and traditional air-to-ground targets, the focus was on hitting the target day or night, in any weather whilst avoiding radar threats at low level.

On to the front line, and a slight change of focus as each squadron ‘specialised’ in additional attack and counter-air roles such as maritime, suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD), or in the case of Shiny II(AC), tactical reconnaissance. I vividly remember chanting ‘an hour of recce a day keeps the recce leader away’ with my first-tourist navigator as we entered the Reconnaissance Intelligence Cell to spend many hours looking at 35mm slides in a dark room. The aim was to learn how to identify anything of military significance from masts, radio transmitters, tanks, airfields, bridges, artillery control vehicles, aircraft, industrial facilities, missile systems, radars etc, and use this to ultimately beat the squadron execs in the weekly recce test. With in-built sensors optimised for 200 feet above ground level at 600 knots the GR-1A provided awesome fun for the recce crews, nosing around the UK and Europe finding ‘stuff’ and reporting it to fellow Tornado GR-1s in an attack package, or sometimes reporting back for real life tasking, often body searches, to help search parties find lost souls.

Medium Level Air, Policing – a new era

All of the ‘GR’ jets (when we had more than one type) spent time in the skies above Iraq, monitoring defences and policing the skies to the north and south of the country. It provided a wonderful chance to see the desolate beauty of the desert, marshes, mountains, and vibrant agriculture along the 2 mighty rivers. Working with coalition partners we conducted medium-level reconnaissance to monitor the military activity of Saddam’s regime. For over a decade this provided a relatively low cost option that avoided ‘boots on the ground’ in country following Gulf War 1. Flights lasting over 4 hours were made more bearable by having a mate to work with, banter with, pass treats back and forth to between cockpits – we also quizzed each other on ‘in-theatre’ general knowledge.

Fresh life for the Mighty Fin – GR-4

Gradually, the cockpits started to change, bringing with them bigger and better digital displays which replaced the old film maps, swathes of green light across the cockpit, a view out the front at night with the Forward Looking Infra-Red, and views as far as the neck could twist with night vision goggles. Smarter weapons, target pods with better resolution, and the roles of close air support (CAS) and strike coordination and reconnaissance (SCAR) added to the skill set. Manually flying at low level in the dark was a step up in skills and capability; terrain following radar and autopilot for poor visibility and weather, supplemented by night vision googles for a new dynamic manoeuvres to prosecute a broader range of targets and evade the latest threats at night. Without doubt the most demanding sorties for crews were the low level evasion sorties at night, the equivalent of trying to play squash on a dark court whilst looking through two toilet roll tubes!

Operation TELIC – Gulf War 2

As some of the upgraded capabilities arrived, the versatility of the jet really came into play over the skies of Iraq, moving from the air policing role to participating in strategic attack, air interdiction, suppression of enemy air defences, CAS, SCAR and Non-Traditional Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (NTISR), including the use of the laser designation pod and Reconnaissance Airborne Pod for Tornado (RAPTOR). This pod provided excellent resolution from its EO/IR sensors but also used up additional heartbeats when evading threats due its size and aerodynamic limits. Working in traditional 4-ships, pairs, and often as part of a coalition formation, the crews worked through heavy defences of surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery to operate at medium level day and night, down to 100 feet in shows of force and during SCUD hunting missions. One mission I took part in required an airfield to be closed. It sat under the protection of at least two active threats and I recall sitting plugged into an RAF air refuelling tanker with two US Navy F-14Bs sitting on the wing waiting for their fuel, with our supporting F-16 CJs in the tanker track above. Our 4-ship of GR-4s released twelve 1000lb GPS guided weapons, closing the airfield without loss of life on the ground, before returning safely home.

Once ‘boots on the ground’ made it to their operating locations we changed role to close air support – often having an effect through just being there – providing re-assurance that we were available to strike in support of the troops. Flying these missions enabled us to develop a real connection with the troops on the ground, albeit through radio and, later on, video. To hear rounds incoming on the radio, and stop the attack through our actions brought a real sense of purpose. These flights were often lengthy, and anyone who holds a romantic and glamorous vision of the modern fighter pilot and navigator would have their illusions shattered if they saw a crew pour themselves out of a Tornado cockpit after over 8 hours in 50 degrees of heat, holding a bag of golden liquid…! Glamour it is not – sweaty and chafing it is. However, despite these long missions in extremes of heat the Mighty Fin rarely let us down. Lost an engine? No problem, fly to the diversion on the other one. Unable to refuel in the air? Land somewhere friendly, get some gas and bring it home.

Without doubt, the reliability of the aircraft in these harsh conditions owed much to the ground-crew who worked tirelessly to keep the fleet airborne, or in some cases enjoy a C-130 ride to a remote part of the theatre to fix a problem in short order. Their working conditions pushed the limits of people and equipment, including the threat of rocket attacks in the early weeks which came from across the very close border. Their sense of pride in keeping the Mighty Fin operational was clear and they have continued to do so in the most demanding of conditions ever since.

Coalition tanking at dusk over the Middle East

Operation HERRICK

As Operation TELIC came to an end for the Tornado, the force found themselves in Afghanistan, supporting national and coalition troops and protecting civilians. Being based in-country provided the ability for a new sport – ground-based close air support or GCAS. Crew relationships entered a whole new level as 4 aircrew sat in a room at extreme readiness, poised to launch at the sound of a claxon. However, the complexity of the Tornado required constant revision of systems knowledge, from hydraulics to weapons, countermeasures to survival equipment, electrics to fuel. Keeping up to speed with the technical and emergency procedures, as well as the operational procedures meant the 6 hours on GCAS passed quicker than imagined. However, when needed, the dash to the aircraft and rapid start saw crews racing down the runway to support troops in contact often before the exact location had been radioed in. The range, speed and therefore reach of the Tornado, its well-oiled partnership of pilot and navigator, and the flexibility of the weapon-load aboard all combined to mean that any part of the country and any target was within reach, and radio contact with British troops was usually established within minutes.

Almost entirely utilised in the CAS and NTISR roles, the Tornado was sometimes a handful at medium level, fully laden off the tanker, but provided hours of cover to supplement the growing number of Unmanned Air Vehicles with the added advantage of greater speed to get to the fight. I remember once providing support for a convoy of over 100 trucks on a mountain road at night. The lead truck suffered a puncture and the entire convoy had to wait for the wheel to be changed (a significant task given the heavy load of the truck). We were able to monitor their position and look for threats, and clear the route to their deployed operating base over 100 miles down the valley. Due to the mountainous terrain, we often found ourselves at low level over the mountain tops trying to position the sensors to look at a particular location. The navigation kit, sensors and teamwork in the cockpit ensured safe coverage of this particular operation to reassure the people stuck in the convoy, even though the airframe and engines were never designed to operate in this environment at this altitude.

Operation ELLAMY and SHADER

Taking the Mighty Fin to its last operation days, it is worth mentioning Operation ELLAMY. Once again the Tornado demonstrated its reliability and flexibility by carrying out operations deep inside Libya flying direct from the UK. The missions often approached eight hours and involved striking at a full range of targets. On Operation SHADER, the Mighty Fin once again found itself patrolling familiar skies, supporting a coalition effort to reduce the threat in the region. The tenacity of the engineers to keep operations running from wherever they were launched, and the professionalism of the crews, meant that the Tornado remained operationally relevant to its retirement date 40 years into its service.

Coalition jets tanking in the Middle East

Goodbye trusty stead

And so, as the Mighty Fin era draws to a close I look back with very fond memories on the people, the places and the jet. Whether racing around at 100 feet and 600 knots in Canada, or helping troops on a cold dark mountain pass in Afghanistan, whether the right way up, or upside down, in the front, or in the back, the Tornado was truly an awesome workhorse. I salute all who flew, maintained and supported this wonderfully adaptable aircraft.

The author of this blog has chosen to remain anonymous.