My Time on the Fin – An Anonymous Nav’s Tale!

My first encounter with the mighty Tonka was during flying training at RAFC Cranwell when the instructors got a mate to swing by in one on the way back to Germany.

The first impressions were of its size, the cockpit being so much higher than in any of the training aircraft I had flown in by that point, and the fact that there were also many, many more buttons…! It also struck a menacing form with all the under-wing and under-fuselage stores, definitely the most ‘warry’ looking fast jet the RAF has had for some time; it looked purposeful.

Fast forward two and a half years and I am taxiing out in ZA613 for Crew Dive 5 – manned by a student pilot and navigator -from the XV(R) Squadron line at RAF Lossiemouth. Neither of us could quite believe that we had been allowed to sign for this beast nor that we were now about to take it around the highlands of Scotland with no supervision! Needless to say the sortie passed in a blur of scenic valleys and 8 bombs in Tain Range followed by a flawless landing and a less than flawless debrief – fail, try again!

I remained at ‘Lossie’ post the OCU, just missing out on Germany time with my first squadron. It proved a baptism of fire, learning not only how to really operate the aircraft, discovering targeting pods and laser guided weapons but also prepping for my first taste of operations on SOUTHERN WATCH. On my first detachment to Ali Al Salem, I got shot at by missiles and AAA; I had my first ‘war haircut’ and dropped significant amounts of ordnance on several insignificant targets. Throughout, I had the utmost confidence in the jet to keep me safe. No-one can claim that it is the most serviceable of aircraft – far from it – but if you could coax her up in to the air, invariably she would deliver!

One of my trusty steads!

Several more stints in Ali Al Salem and Qatar followed, including guesting on another Squadron for ‘Gulf War 2 – The Sequel’. Throughout, my take-offs equalled my landings (a record that did not last but that is another story!) and I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the jet and being part of the TGRF. Most people will say that they enjoyed their first tour the most, and I certainly did.

Subsequent tours, whilst not quite matching up to my first, bought new experiences, new operations and new challenges – firstly the Qualified Weapons Instructors course and then the experience of North American large scale exercises. I spent time in the world of Operational Test & Evaluation, learning about the defence procurement system and the decisions and compromises that result in the capability delivered to the front line. I learnt much about the aircraft, her systems and weapons and by the time I had moved on I felt confident that the Tornado would continue to grow its capability well into old age. It is a sad fact that aircraft in the RAF reach their peak in terms of capability, crew proficiency and experience right at the point they are retired to be replaced by platforms on the up curve of capability but with long journeys ahead.

More operational tours on ‘The Fin’ followed and included time in Afghanistan, long range missions from RAF Marham to Libya and deployments to Italy to continue the efforts against the Libyan regime. And whilst the Tornado continued to fly, the Squadron numbers were starting to dwindle. I was involved in the drawdown of XIII Sqn as a GR4 entity planning and flying in the last flight of a XIII Squadron-badged Tornadoes. The closing down of a squadron is an emotional and sad event, even more so when it constitutes the start of the end for an aircraft that you have been flying for over 15 years. The Tornado has been the backbone of the RAF’s attack force for over 3 decades and retires having done a fantastic job, flying operations continuously for the last 18 years. Whilst very far from perfect (nothing designed by committee can be) she has stood up to the test of time, constantly evolving and growing her capability.

For me, my fondest memories will always be of the people who operated the Tornado (especially the Juntas on detachment), and of summer evenings flying low level evasion in the Lake District. Tornado GR4 bows out at the top of her game, a great operational aircraft and big shoes for Typhoon to fill!

Refuelling on a trail from AFB Davis-Monthan to CFB Goose Bay

The author of this blog has chosen to remain anonymous.