RAF Cold War Heavy Metal: F-4 Phantom II & Tornado ADV navigator shares all


The RAF’s most advanced interceptor in the 1980s and ’90s was the Tornado Air Defence Variant. In creating a ‘fighter’ based on a bomber, the programme went against received wisdom. The result was a deeply controversial interceptor. The initial model was the F2 which entered service in 1985, this was followed by the F3 (all images in this article: Copyright David Gledhill)

During the Cold War, Britain’s greatest fear was an attack from the Soviet Union. The communist superpower was equipped with a vast armada of heavy bombers capable of delivering nuclear armageddon to the United Kingdom hundreds of times over. Against this potential annihilation stood a force of RAF interceptors. In charge of the weapon systems of these supersonic guardians was a team of highly-trained Navigators. Hush-Kit spoke to former RAF Navigator David Gledhill to find out more.  

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The Tornado F2 has a very bad reputation – would you have been confident to take it to war?

David Gledhill: “The initial operational standard of F2 delivered into service deserved its poor reputation, was under-developed and inadequately tested. There were many issues shortly after delivery including operational clearances. The F2 was not declared to NATO until 31 December 1986 and at that time its capability was marginal. It was, however, a very effective weapons platform from the outset and the missiles and gun performed well.

The Foxhunter radar was delivered late and for some months F2s operated carrying a ballast in the nose in lieu of the radar. It simply did not work effectively. There were problems with poor target tracking in track-while-scan mode and the software design and interface with the navigator who controlled the radar was poor adding significantly to the workload. For many years the navigator had to make up for equipment and software deficiencies using work around procedures. The fact it only carried two Sidewinders was quickly rectified with delivery of the F3.”


Was the Tornado inferior to the F-4 Phantom* in any respects?

“The F2 and, subsequently, the F3 was generally better that the Phantom in most areas, (including performance, avionics and weapons) apart from the the high level subsonic performance, particularly when heavily loaded with weapons and fuel tanks. The big issue was that most of the improvements in the early years were not a quantum improvement and it lagged its peers. It took about 10 years to field a weapon system standard which met the original specification but by then the F3 had earned a poor reputation. Its reputation was, undoubtedly, worse than its capability for most of its service life.”

*HK:The F-4 was an older American design that entered RAF service in 1969


 How did the Phantom compare to the Tornado in terms of:

A. Acceleration

B. Sustained turns

C. Instantaneous turns

D. High altitude performance

“The Tornado was perhaps a little slower to accelerate initially but rapidly overtook the Phantom and had a much higher top speed at all levels. This was an area in which the F3 excelled. It was cleared by the manufacturer to 850 knots/Mach 1.2 at low level and once there could hold supersonic in cold power. Sadly this was limited to 750 knots in service. At height with the wings fully swept it was very slippery and Mach 2 was easily achievable in a clean aircraft. To achieve a good sustained turn rate the wings had to be fully forward in the 25 degree sweep position. Turn rate was helped by the use of slats and flaps. It also benefitted from the spin prevention system and carefree throttle handling which prevented the pilot from exceeding the design limits and made it almost impossible to lose control. With the wings swept the aircraft needed a good deal of G to give a good, sustained turn which had a negative effect of the fatigue life of the airframe. Anyone who watched a Tornado F3 aerobatic sequence would have seen the instantaneous turn performance. During my brief “aeros” career I flew with Paul Brown who demonstrated the minimum radius turn immediately after takeoff. Flown at 250 knots, the jet easily stayed inside the airfield boundary hanging on the power. Sadly such a manoeuvre was not very useful tactically as, flying at 250 knots in a threat environment was ill advised. It was the Tornado’s performance at height which let it down. Above 25,000 feet carrying tanks and electronic warfare equipment it struggled and reheat was needed for most manoeuvres. Replacement EJ200 engines were considered to solve the issues but never installed due to funding constraints.”

Which aircraft have you ‘fought’ in training exercises, and of these which were the most formidable fighters?

“I came across most of the latest generation fighters over the years with the exception of the F-14 and the Soviet fighters. I flew in an F-16A of the Royal Netherlands Air Force which was a remarkable aircraft, albeit at that time only armed with stern hemisphere Sidewinders. The F-15C would have to be top of my list but I know that the Su-27 Flanker would have been a formidable opponent and is extremely capable in all corners of the envelope. That said, western avionics, particularly in the data link era would, hopefully, have redressed that balance. Nowadays, the F-22 is in a league of its own but with emerging fighters such as PAK FA in Russia and the Chengdu J-20 in China, that dominance may be challenged.”


 Do you believe the ADV the right choice for the UK? what would have been better?

“I think it fair to say that most aircrew in the early ’80s would have preferred other fighter types to F3 but the mantra was that the weapon system would make up for airframe deficiencies. That clearly did not happen, at least not at first. The logical choice for the UK scenario would have been an F-14D as it was designed for exactly the same mission, namely to defend an aircraft carrier (which is how the UK was often jokingly referred to). A two seat F-15 would also have been eminently suitable. The logic of the early 80s was that two seat operations were still the optimum solution as avionics systems were diverse and integration was immature. The current standard seen in the F-15C simply did not exist in those days. The F-16 and F-18 were evaluated and rejected.”

How capable was the F3 at the end of its career, how did it compare with its peers? 

“The Stage 3 standard which retired from service in 2011 was light years ahead of that of the F2. At its demise, the F3 was armed with the C-5 standard AMRAAM and ASRAAM missiles, a capable Foxhunter which had automatic track-while-scan, JTIDS data link, secure radios, better identification systems and capable electronic warfare equipment including a radar homing and warning receiver, towed radar decoy, chaff and flares and a Phimat chaff pod. The situation awareness enjoyed by the crews was, arguably, better than even the latest generation American platforms. Regrettably, it still lacked the performance when carrying its role equipment particularly carrying 2250 litre tanks in the upper air but with improved situation awareness and long range weapons, the crew should not have been drawn into the visual arena.”

Do you believe that two seats are better than one for a modern fighter? 

“Having flown a Typhoon before I retired I am confident that modern design, integration and technology can be handled by one person. Current systems are a generation or more ahead of that in the F3. It is always preferable to have two sets of eyes in a close combat environment but today that should be a last ditch emergency. The battle should be fought beyond visual range. A single pilot can now cope with air defence operations in all but the highest workload environments in my opinion.”

What is the greatest myth or misunderstanding of the F3? 

“Undoubtedly, that the aircraft which emerged in the mid 90s had not improved over the early variants. By 1994 when “Stage 2” radar was introduced it came of age. It continued to improve and could have been even better with more investment. If it had been employed against an aggressive opponent, the results would undoubtedly have been surprising as it is unwise to under estimate an opponent. The standard which retired was one of the most capable fighters in the world and, with further enhancements would have been extremely effective.”


Which variant of the Phantom did you fly? What were the various merits of the different British Phantom variants?

“I flew the FGR2 almost exclusively during my four tours. With its pulse-Doppler radar and Sparrow/Skyflash missiles it had a look-down, shoot-down capability against targets at extremely low level and could engage targets up to 70,000 feet. Although unreliable at first, it was a hugely capable radar for its generation. Having never served at Leuchars, I only ever flew the FG1 on one occasion and was unimpressed. Although the radar was similar, it lacked the inertial navigation system, the high frequency radio and the battery for internal starting. I felt sorry for Leuchars based crews operating many miles from the UK shores without adequate navigation kit. Although I never flew the F-4J, I flew about 10 sorties in the Luftwaffe’s F-4F as a NATO evaluator. At that time it was equipped with a pulse radar which was much less capable than the British Phantom and useless at low level. It also had only stern hemisphere Sidewinders so had limited capability. It was eventually upgraded with the AN/APG65 radar from the F-18, AMRAAM, AIM-9L and digital avionics and became one of the most effective Phantoms ever fielded. To its final days it always smoked like a chimney and that was never a good thing entering a visual fight as it advertised your position to an enemy.”

What is your lasting memory of the Phantom?

“The Phantom had charisma. Even now, most crews who flew the aircraft have a lasting affection which will never fade. It was rugged, capable and dependable and what more could anyone ask. As I always say you could love the Phantom, hate the Phantom but you could never ignore the Phantom.”

How many missiles do you think it would have taken to down a Tu-95?

That is hard to say. The Sparrow or Skyflash with its larger warhead would have been preferable to the Sidewinder. A kill always depended on striking a vulnerable area such as engines or control surfaces or causing damage to flight control systems. It would be possible to cause lethal damage with one shot but might have needed more. The ‘Bear’ was a large rugged aircraft and would probably have survived minor damage, but the Phantom had eight missiles and a gun. Happily the Cold War never turned hot.

Would a F3 have had the speed to catch a Tu-160? 

Without a doubt. The F3 could travel extremely quickly in a straight line. With an excellent “snap-up” capability the Skyflash would have been able to engage a Blackjack at any of its operational heights. A supersonic target was not much more demanding than a subsonic target other than the fact that things happened rather quickly. With a Mach 2 dash capability it might even have been possible to run one down even if the head-on engagement failed.

WTM QRA 3 (1).jpg

Would this have been the hardest aircraft to intercept?

“The hardest engagements were high speed, low level targets employing jamming, tactics and terrain to avoid detection and engagement.”

Akrotiri 4 (1).jpg

This 56 Sqn Phantom is at RAF Akrotiri. It is fitted with an external gun pod.

 How easy was it to get lost over the North Sea?

“Almost impossible. Precise navigation, other than maintaining the combat air patrol position, was rarely needed and area navigation was often good enough. It only became important when recovering to base, hopefully, with sufficient fuel. That said, quick reaction alert crews operating well north of Scotland with marginal weather at base or at the diversions were keenly interested in an accurate position. Overland was an entirely different proposition.”

What equipment would you have like to have seen integrated onto the F3?

“The air combat performance in the visual arena would have been transformed by fitting a helmet mounted sight allowing the crew to target weapons quicker and more effectively. The impressive off-boresight capability of ASRAAM could not be fully exploited by the weapon system. Internal electronic warfare equipment such as that developed for Typhoon would have mitigated some of the performance penalties of carrying external stores. The F3 would also have benefitted from a missile warning system. All this technology was available but was not affordable within a cash-strapped MOD budget.”

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LEU QRA 2.jpg

How do interceptor crews feel about the prospect of shooting down a hijacked airliner? Was this eventuality trained for in the 1980s?

“I can safely say it was every crew’s worst nightmare. There were clear procedures to follow and, given the correct authentication, it would have been the crew’s duty to carry them out. That would not have made it any easier. We trained regularly when holding Quick Reaction Alert and Battle Flight and one of the drills was “intervention” when we would pull alongside, try to establish contact, give visual interception signals and shepherd a rogue aircraft to a diversion airfield. One of the main tasks in Germany was to investigate any incursions into the Air Defence Interception Zone or ADIZ. Often light aircraft would stray too close to the Inner German Border and our role was to lead them away to safety.”

 What were favourite and least favourite missions/flights?

“My least favourite flight was a Basic Radar Sortie Number One as an instructor on the Operational Conversion Unit when it was cold and wet and you were soaking before the canopy was even closed. Invariably, that would be followed by an instrument departure through thousands of feet of thick cloud following the leader on radar. The best sorties were undoubtedly a four- ship tactical mission over land in Germany against Jaguars or Harriers or other Phantoms and it sometimes seemed that World War 3 had, indeed, broken out.”

How much variation was there in the F3 fleet – were certain airframes better than others?

“The F3 was much better than the Phantom in this aspect. The Phantoms were built in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War. They seemed to be almost hand-built and engineering tolerances were ‘relaxed‘. Some airframes didn’t fly straight and, certainly, leaked. There was, undoubtedly, a difference in the performance of the radars, particularly in Germany. One airframe on 92 Squadron did not have a fully serviceable radar for its entire time on the Squadron. It was so marked that it was chosen as the test bed for the radar reliability trial. The F3 was vastly improved and I was never really conscious of any differences between airframes. The obvious difference was that in both aircraft, the rear cockpit in a ‘twin sticker’ had a different layout so demanded different routines when operating the kit.”

What advice would you give to today’s fighter crews?

“Times change and I would never presume to set my own experiences against modern challenges. There are a few old truisms that are still valid, however. -It’s the one you don’t see that gets you-  and -You fight like you train-.”

Although a within visual range fight is best avoided, how would you have fought the following…

A. A Su-27 in an F3 (and how confident would you feel of surviving)?

“The ‘Flanker’ was a very capable airframe with a good radar, an integrated infra-red search and track system, helmet mounted sight and capable weapons. Its turning performance was as good as the F-15 if not slightly better, although the avionics and combat modes were more traditional. The F3 was out-ranged by the longer range AA-10C Alamo missile when carrying Skyflash and that balance was only redressed by the fielding of AMRAAM. Without a helmet mounted sight, the F3 would have been killed inside a single turn by a well flown Flanker as, aerodynamically, it was out-performed at all levels.”

B. MiG-23 in an F-4 or F3 ?

“We gave the MiG-23 more credit than, perhaps, it deserved during the Cold War. Although it was a swing wing design, its turning performance was the same as the Phantom and inferior to the F3. The wings could not be moved under G so tactically it was limited. The weapon system and early generation weapons such as the AA-7 Apex and AA-8 Aphid were also less capable and the radar did not have true look-down, shoot-down capability. Furthermore, Soviet pilots were not well trained in air combat skills. All in, I would have been confident that a British crew with a serviceable weapons system in either a Phantom or an F3 would beat the average Flogger if employing normal tactics.”

C. How would an F-4 ‘fight’ a EE Lightning?

“The Lightning was an agile performer at all heights but suffered from an obsolete radar, limited capability missiles and a lack of fuel. The key would be to make best use of beyond visual range weapons, ideally, to achieve a kill before the merge. The Lightning emitted less smoke which meant a Phantom would often be seen before seeing the Lightning. Once visual a Lightning had the edge over a Phantom but was probably on equal footing with an F3 except at high level where the Lightning was superior. Pilots would use the vertical to keep a Lightning at bay until the opportunity for a forward hemisphere shot, either Skyflash or AIM-9L presented itself. In the days before those missiles were fielded, a stalemate was more likely. If the fight was prolonged, the Lightning would rapidly run out of fuel and be looking for a disengagement, at which time it would be vulnerable. Because of the limitations of both Firestreak and Red Top, a Lightning pilot would have to position close to the “6 o’clock” in order to take a shot. Tactically aware crews should have been able to fend off an attack long enough to run the Lightning short of fuel.”

D. How would an F-4 ‘fight’ a Harrier?

“The Harrier only ever carried the AIM-9G/L missile. Without beyond visual range weapons the Harrier pilot would be forced to adopt defensive tactics prior to the merge. Once visual a Harrier was extremely agile with good visibility from the cockpit. With an AIM-9L it had a slight advantage over the Phantom post merge. The Phantom crew would seek to generate a minimum separation pass and disengage allowing them to re-enter the fight, ideally having locked up and fired a Skyflash on re-entry. The legendary ‘viffing’ (vectoring in forward flight, or using the jet nozzle as ‘brakes’) was a useful technique to force a Phantom pilot to fly through leaving him vulnerable in the resulting ‘scissors’. It was ill advised in a multi aircraft engagement, however, as it left the Harrier pilot vulnerable to other fighters as it lost all the speed which was hard to recover.”

The Mighty Stage 3 ‘Pomcat’ 

 What was your involvement with the F3 upgrade- and why are RAF upgrades generally so slow? 

“I was the MOD desk officer responsible for fast-jet electronic warfare programmes in Operational Requirements in MOD. I proposed the original plan for the Gulf War modifications to the Tornado F3 and worked closely during the early months with the F3 Operational Evaluation Unit to modify the prototype aircraft. On a subsequent tour I was the sponsor in MOD for all airworthiness aspects of the Tornado F3 weapon system and avionics and saw many key modifications into service in concert with the operational requirements staff. Modification programmes are slow because each change has to be designed and integrated into the overall aircraft system by the manufacturer before entering an extensive testing cycle. These aspects are discussed extensively in Tornado F3 In Focus and my new book Operational Testing – Honing the Edge.”

David Gledhill joined the Royal Air Force as a Navigator in 1973. After training, he flew the F-4 Phantom on squadrons in the UK, the Falklands and West Germany. He was one of the first aircrew to fly the F2 and F3 Air Defence Variant of the Tornado on its acceptance into service and served for many years as an instructor on the Operational Conversion Units of both the Phantom and the Tornado. He commanded the Tornado Fighter unit in the Falkland Islands and has worked extensively with the Armed Forces of most NATO nations including two tours of duty in the USA. He has published a number of factual titles through Fonthill Media including “The Phantom In Focus”, “Fighters Over The Falklands” and “Tornado F3 In Focus”. He has also published a series of novels in the Phantom Air Combat series; “Defector”, “Provocation”, “Deception” and “Maverick” which follow the exploits of a fictional Phantom fighter crew. He is about to publish a new book called “Operational Test -Honing the Edge” and has a sequel to his Phantom book called “Snapshot – The Wildenrath Phantom Years” in draft. His next novel “Infiltration” will pit his fighter crew against a Soviet naval task force operating off Scotland. You can find the full details of his books on his website or him on Twitter @davegledhill1.

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  1. RocketRobin

    Armageddon: the last battle between good and evil before the Day of Judgment?
    I didn’t know it also meant, “The Sword of Michael will resolve any conflicts with the United Kingdom (of God?)”
    It sucks to be non-British.
    As a Frostback, I’m both non-British and un-American. According to current propaganda, one of the two is the chosen people (apparently some believe in added filters after the general population wins the contest).
    Man, I’m so going to burn in Hell when I die.
    My motto: do all the good you can do now, because, according to current information (just throwing it out there), you lose that that option in Hell.

  2. Francesco Ganzetti

    I think that Tornado’s more proper role was low level deep strike bomber towards s300 batteries around Moscow, even if real nuclear deterrent were nato submarines overhelming in quantity,reliability and effectivness russain ones..It is not a mistery that”red october hunt” novel and then movie was based on fact that russian subamrines were detectable from nato buoies system more then 500km far, and were constatly tracked: no chance single russian warplane could reach great britain after a massive nuclear strike operated by nato submarines : seas have been always dominated by anglo saxons countries, britain first then USA; russian knew very well that all their submarines were tracked by western buoies since mid seventies…

  3. Francesco Ganzetti

    “Red october Hunt” then was a about dreaming of phantom russian submarines, since few real ones were constantly tracked …Only submarines can grant an effective and resolutive first nuclear strike; lets rememebr that soviet union collapsed also because the partially false Regan’s star wars project, promising to intercept russian ballistic missiles…Obviosuly we don’t know now which are USA’s real capabilities of conduct satellites and missile interception both from ground missiles and offensive satellites…Laser is anideal weapon to be installed on satellites, at least for disabling hostile satellites, since attack cannot be tracked and reported as an “incident”

  4. Alex

    The interviewee is, I believe, substantially incorrect about the MiG-23. While Soviet designers initially had difficulty producing an adequate radar fit for the Flogger (paralleling the U.K’s own, later difficulties with the ‘Foxhunter’), the RP-23 Sapfir-23 equipment in the mature MiG-23ML/MLD variants was a full-on “look-down shoot-down” system. The look-down shoot-down capability made the MiG-23 the PVO’s star asset until the arrival of the Su-27, with the Flogger being preferred to the more numerous, but less sophisticated Su-15.
    Also, it goes unnoted that late model MiG-23MLDs – in service by the time the RAF was still struggling with the Tornado F.2 – could also be fitted with the formidable R-73 / AA-10 Alamo IR homing missile, in lieu of the earlier R-60 / AA-8 Aphid.

  5. Phil Keeble

    Excellent article jam packed with loads of interest and authoritative facts. Dave Gledhill is at the forefront of Aviation literature as an author and I don’t think there is anyone better in today’s market. His articles and books are the definitive source for RAF Cold War information.

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