Flying and fighting in the Tornado


Michael Napier at the controls of a No. 14 Squadron Tornado GR 1. The origins of this unit’s motto are fascinating, and pretty bizarre (take the information on the preceding link with a suitable pinch of salt). Photo: Michael Napier

In the event of war, RAF Tornados based in West Germany would have had to penetrate the formidable air defence system of the Warsaw Pact. Their pilots were among the best in the world, one of them was Michael Napier.

Where did you serve with the RAF? 

I flew Tornado GR1s over the period 1985 to 1994.  I was based at RAF Bruggen in Germany and flew with 14 Squadron 1985-87 and 31 Squadron 1988-90. After a brief spell flying Hawks at the Tactical Weapons Unit at RAF Chivenor, I flew Tornado GR1s again with 14 Squadron (back at Bruggen) 1992-94.

What was your first impression of the Tornado?

Its size and complexity… I had flown the much smaller and simpler Hawk during training, so the Tornado seemed to be a formidably huge and very complicated machine. 

The cockpit was well designed, roomy and relatively comfortable.  The main flying instruments were the Head Up Display (HUD) and the Projected Map Display (PMD) which dominated the front panel. On either side were (left) E-scope (for TFR) and head down flying instruments and (right) Radar Homing Warning Receiver (RHWR) and engine instruments and the Central Warning Panel (CWP).  Throttles, flap and wing-sweep controls were on the left console, while on the right was controls for air conditioning, pressurisation, refuelling etc.  The view out was pretty good, too.

The aircraft flew very comfortably at low-level:  it was fast and and reasonably manoeuvrable and it was steady as a rock in turbulence.  We tended to cruise at 420 knots and accelerate to 480 or 540 for attack runs.

I was very confident in the machine, in our training and in the back-seaters I flew with.

Which weapons did you release/fire from Tornado- and which were notable and why?

I dropped/fired most of them.  Our daily practice weapons for 3kg smoke& flash for laydown/dive and 28lb (later 14kg) for loft and we dropped them almost daily.  We fired the 27-mm cannon quite often (most notable for me being “splash target” firing over the North Sea because we fired high explosive (HE) shells which exploded spectacularly on impact). I dropped numerous 1,000-lb bombs, both concrete inerts and live HE ones (the latter on Exercise Red Flag)… there was a massive thump and jolt as they came of, but the results were not so satisfying as they were inevitably well behind us when they exploded.  I dropped Laser Guided Bombs (Paveway II) over Iraq (similar comment as the previous!).  The most impressive was firing an AIM-9G Sidewinder missile over the Aberporth range – a big “whoosh” and I’ve never ever seen anything move so fast in my life!

What was your most interesting flight in a Tornado?

I honestly can’t answer this question in the space/time available because there were so many interesting flights in 10 years’ worth of flying, and all of them were unique and quite different from each other.  I have written as full an account of my Tornado flying in my book ‘Tornado Over the Tigris – Recollections of a Fast Jet Pilot‘ and you would probably find the answer amongst those pages!

How many hours do you have on type?

1750 hours Tornado GR1.


Which fighter types did you go up against in exercises and which was most challenging? What tactics worked best?

All sorts!  We came across Lightning, Phantom and Tornado F3 in the UK – all well flown, as you would expect from RAF crews.  On the continent our diet was Phantom, F-15, F-16 and CF-18 and again they were all pretty good.  On the Air Combat Range at Decimomannu (Sardinia) we fought with Starfighter (not so hot), F-15 (unbelievably fantastic) and Mirage 2000 (fantastic – and so small they were almost invisible).  In the USA (Exercise Red Flag) we came across the USAF Aggressor F-5s initially and later F16s.  The best tactic for all fighters was to avoid them… using the RHWR to see where they were and go around them.  Staying low and using terrain screening where possible to make it difficult for them to see us (both visually and on radar), holding them on the beam to brake the PD lock.  If needs be we could cover each other with our AIM-9L missiles.  All the tactics worked pretty well – but, as I said, avoid them altogether worked best.

What three words would you use to describe the Tornado GR.1?

Flexible, dependable, accurate.

What kit was it lacking at the time, that you would have like to have seen integrated?

I would have preferred to see a better air-to-air capability, either through the radar and/or data-linking to the AWACs picture: that and possibly a radar missile would have given the Tornado a better self-defence capability.

 How did it compare with other types of the same role?

Very well.  The F-111 could go further, but I think that the Tornado was a more manoeuvrable machine and was more tactically flexible.  F-15E was and is still probably the most potent ground-attack aircraft ever produced – and while Tornado doesn’t quite match up to the F-15E in terms of performance I think it still gives it a pretty good run for its money in terms of overall capability.

What was the USAF opinion of the aircraft?

Initially they were quite dismissive, but I think that they soon revised that opinion and realised that it was a great aircraft with a fantastic tactical capability: I think that all USAF personnel who came across us either at Red Flag or in the Gulf came away pretty impressed.  At one stage the USAF was seriously looking at buying Tornado to replace the F-4G, but in the end it was simpler (and much cheaper) for them to buy F-16 instead!


Michael Napier standing by the muzzle of his aircraft’s 27-mm Mauser cannon. Photo: Michael Napier.

How many combat missions have you flown and where?

My ‘combat’ experience is, in reality, pretty limited.  I was instructing on the Hawk at the Tactical Weapons Unit at Chivenor while the Gulf War was fought, but in my subsequent tour as a Flight Commandeer on 14 Squadron I deployed to Saudi Arabia for Operation Jural in November 1992.  We flew daily medium-level recce sorties over southern Iraq, but in January 1993 things started hotting up and I flew two bombing missions in which we dropped laser-guided bombs on critical nodal points of the Iraqi Air Defence infrastructure.  These were on 13 and 18 January.  On the night of 13 January we were part of a package of over 100 aircraft operating against the command and control centres of the Iraqi Air defence system south of the 32nd Parallel: our targets were a headquarter’s building and a radar control bunker within an air defence complex just south of Al Amarah.  The 18 January sorties was a daylight one against another radar control bunker near An Najaf.  In both cases we flew as a 4-ship with two pairs of aircraft; within each pair one aircraft was the bomber and the other was the designator using the TIALD pod.

How well did your training prepare you for these?

Both extremely well and not so well! We had never even seen LGBs before we got to drop them and had only had the skimpiest of training in terms of practising the co-ordination and geometry of a medium-level co-operatively designated LGB attack – it’s a complex business!  Yet despite that, our basic level of competence, thanks to years of training hard at low-level against a high threat environment, was good enough to be able to fly successful attacks without much in the way of practice. I think that the day-to-day training we had carried out throughout our Tornado flying had given us all the tools we needed to be able pick up a completely new tactic and to make it work first time on operations.

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What was the most demanding mission and why?

They both were demanding for different reasons.  The first was the first time we’d done it and was also at night, which complicates things.  In the end it was a very sound and robust plan and it ran on rails.  The second was more demanding in the target area because our designator could not find the target, due to poor IR returns with the (still experimental) TIALD pod, so we attempted a re-attack which did not work out… however the second pair (with a slightly different sensor in their pod) did find and hit the target – so all targets were hit successfully in the end!

How do you feel during and after a combat mission?

My own feeling after both was one of complete anti-climax; on the first it had run on rails, so there was no excitement to come down from and on the second I was frustrated at not getting my bombs off.  During both missions I found myself very focused on what I was doing – and that I was doing it for real – and I felt emotionally detached.  I certainly felt apprehension on both occasions as we waited to cross the border, but once we were underway there was simply too much to concentrate on… more than anything else there was a determination not to screw up!

Thank you for reading Hush-Kit. Our site is absolutely free and we have no advertisements. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here. At the moment our contributors do not receive any payment but we’re hoping to reward them for their fascinating stories in the future. Have a look at 10 worst British military aircraftSu-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 


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