Flying & Fighting in the Panavia Tornado GR4A: Interview with Tornado pilot Mandy Hickson

A potent low-level specialist, the Tornado GR series served the Royal Air Force for 40 years, 28 years of which it was active in combat. We talked to Mandy Hickson about her experiences of flying the last British recce variant of the ‘Mighty Fin’, the GR4A, including her wartime missions over Iraq.

What were first impressions of the Tornado?

“My first impressions of the Tornado were that it seemed huge. Having come from flying the Hawk where some had described it as a large Tonka toy, the Tornado stood proud. It does what it says on the tin. It looks like a war-going machine with a fantastic capability and that’s exactly what it was.”

Describe the GR4 in three words…
“Formidable, capable, lethal.”

Mandy Hickson, motivational speaker

What was the best thing about the GR4?
“The best thing about the GR4 was the terrain following radar (TFR) capability. I remember an exercise that we were on in the USA, Red Flag, and we were night flying. One evening the weather proved to be out of limits for all the other aircraft, but the Tornados carried out a successful night mission. We dropped our weapons with a direct hit on target and we had not seen much of the surrounding area for the whole flight. You plug in the autopilot, nudge the aircraft down from 1000ft in increments until you get to the required height. Set the rad alt bug* 10% below and off you go. You monitor all the instruments, especially the E-Scope so that you can see what is coming up in front of you. The chat between the pilot and the navigator (or Weapons System Operator in todays terminology!) was clipped and professional. Not a time for banter.

*This ‘bugs’ you if your radar altimeter sees you dropping below a certain height

“An American aircraft carrier was on an exercise off the south coast, with an exclusion zone around the ship. A small civilian aircraft was flying directly toward the ship. The Americans believed that it was a terrorist as they were now on the highest state of alert. We heard that they were loading live weapons to shoot this aircraft down.”

..and the worst?
“The worst thing was the manoeuvrability.”

What was your most notable mission?
“I was flying across the Atlantic returning from Exercise Red Flag. We were in close formation with the tanker as we had been doing air-to-air refuelling. They told us that we needed to take some spacing so that they could use their HF radio. We separated away, but when we were called back in we heard that America has shut their airspace down. We had no idea what had happened. The date was September 11th. In the military you are always taught to control the controllables. We might not have had an understanding of what was happening but we did very quickly realise that if an entire continent has shut its airspace, then all the aircraft would be diverted or turned back. We were in thick cloud and had a huge risk of a midair collision. We started to scan the airspace in front of us to clear our pathway and as we approached the United Kingdom the clouds started to break. It was then that we heard another chilling radio call. An American aircraft carrier was on an exercise off the south coast, with an exclusion zone around the ship. A small civilian aircraft was flying directly toward the ship. The Americans believed that it was a terrorist as they were now on the highest state of alert. We heard that they were loading live weapons to shoot this aircraft down. The aircraft was oblivious and was not responding to attempted radio contact. We were tasked to intercept the aircraft, but enroute we finally managed to make contact and the aircraft diverted their flightpath. They had a matter of minutes before they would have been shot down. When we landed, we were signing the jets back in, when we turned and saw the twin towers collapsing on a small television in the engineers’ crew room. It was one of the most memorable moments of my life.”

How did you feel the GR4 compared to the F-15E?
“Let’s be honest, its not as capable, apart from having a better range, I think that’s the only category on aircraft Top Trumps that the Tornado would win!”

A US Air Force (USAF) F-15E Strike Eagle, 391st Fighter Squadron (FS), Mountain Home Air Force Base (AFB), Idaho (ID), leads a formation of two Royal Air Force (RAF) GR4 Tornadoes, No. 617th Squadron, RAF Lossiemouth, United Kingdom (UK), and two F-16CG-40D Fighting Falcons, 510th Fighter Squadron, Aviano Air Base (AB), Italy (ITA). The airframes and crews deployed to the area in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM.

Would you have rather the RAF had had F-15Es?
“It’s a tricky question as emotionally I loved flying the GR4, however it would have been fantastic to fly the F15. Would it have been a better investment for the UK, rather than buying the Tornado? Probably!”

Most memorable occasion was whilst trying to have a wee over Iraq with my navigator quietly calling out surface-to-air missile threats in the background.”

How effective was the GR4 as a recce platform?
“The GR4A was an excellent recce platform. That was originally our primary role on II(AC) Sqn. I was involved in the RAPTOR (Reconnaissance Airborne Pod TORnado) trials and at the time it was one of the most advanced reconnaissance sensors in the world. It hugely increased the effectiveness of the GR4 in the reconnaissance role, with the ability to download real-time, long-range, off-set images to ground stations during a mission. The stand-off range of the sensors allowed us to stay clear of threats (surface to air missiles or AAA sites) and therefore minimised our exposure time.”

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How good were you at the recce mission?
“I really enjoyed the challenge of recce missions although I did not enjoy learning all the categories of different pieces of equipment or structures… for example flying over an electrical pylon you would have to report that it was a self supporting steel lattice structure with eight satellite dishes orientated east to west direction. Bit of a mouthful!”

Are there any ergonomic issues for a female fighter pilot?
“There are the obvious size issues but these apply regardless of gender. The one challenge that we never managed to overcome was that of relieving yourself in the air on long sorties. The Tornado can stay airborne for about eight hours and yes you might well need to go to the toilet in that time. For a woman that presents huge difficulties. For men they have a small plastic bag with a dehydrated sponge in it that they can wee into. For a woman you have to completely strip down which involves taking off all of your kit. This leads to a ridiculous situation, akin to wrestling a bear in a cupboard! Most memorable occasion was whilst trying to have a wee over Iraq with my navigator quietly calling out surface-to-air missile threats in the background. I had decided that the only option I had was to wee into a drinking bottle that I had with me. Unfortunately it was full at the time, so I had to drink all the water first which then only made the situation 10 times worse after I never managed to successfully complete the task!

What was your first combat mission like?
“My first combat mission was a complete eye-opener. I went into work and was a little surprised to find I had been selected to carry out a bombing mission. My eyes were wider than saucers apparently throughout the briefing. We did not actually end up dropping on that occasion as our target was not visible but it was a great wake-up call to operations in a theatre of war.”

What was your most memorable mission?
“I was on the last sortie for the detachment and was heading home the following day. Just as we were about to recover back to base we were engaged by a surface to air missile, in a heatseeking mode. We put out the flares as countermeasures and successfully evaded the missile. We were then tasked to deliver our weapons on a pre-designated target. We were running out of fuel though and first had to go and find an air-to-air tanker in Saudi Arabia. It was now the early hours of the morning, pitch black and the weather was poor. When we got to the Tanker our British tanker was un-serviceable and had been replaced by an American KC-135. I had no clearance to tank from this and had never done it before. I had two attempts before I had to divert back to base on my minimum fuel state. My number two and three were successful and went back into Iraq successfully delivering their weapons. It was an incredibly complex mission and as I was leading the formation I learnt more about decision-making and pressure under the most stressful of conditions that night.”

At the time of its retirement did you think the GR4 was survivable in a modern peer-peer war?
“If you think that the Tornado had its first flight in 1974 and was delivered into service in 1979 then it’s amazing that it had survived as long as it had. With all the upgrades it made it a very viable platform but I believe it’s time had come.”

Crewed recce platforms…do they offer any advantage over remotely piloted aircraft?
“Emotionally I would love to say that I believe they do but I can also see the huge benefits of unmanned aerial vehicles. The fact that you do not have to risk life by placing aircrew into a theatre of war and that one person can operate numerous remote aircraft at the same time from a different country is a huge advantage.”

How fast can a GR4 can at low level…what is the fastest you got?
“I think the textbook says it can exceed Mach 1.3. The fastest I ever went was Mac 1.1. At low-level over the UK you are limited because of the sound pollution, so you normally fly at 420 kts, accelerating to 500 kts occasionally.”

Is it true that the GR4 was slower than the GR1, if so why?
“Never heard that, I don’t believe so. I can’t imagine it getting to M2!”

Rate the Tornado in the following categories
Instantaneous turn: average
Sustained turn: average
Acceleration: good
Energy preservation: good
Climb rate: not as good as many of the more modern jets
Recce effectiveness: very good
Combat effectiveness: poor
Cockpit ergonomics: good

During DACT or training missions against fighter aircraft which type was the most challenging? We did’t do much DACT

What were the most and least reliable systems?
“Some of the nav systems were unreliable (INS). As the jet became older the groundcrew had to work increasingly harder to maintain serviceability levels, there did an incredible job.”

What are your thoughts about the Tornado retirement from the RAF?
“It was the end of an era and I am so proud to have played my part in its incredible history. It played a vital role in keeping Britain and its allies safe for four decades.”

Former Tornado GR4 fast jet pilot with RAF, now a Motivational Speaker. Author ‘An Officer, not a Gentleman’.

Bing Chandler is a former Lynx Observer and current Wildcat Air Safety Officer. If you want a Sea Vixen t-shirt he can fix you up.

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6 comments

  1. Duker

    The Tornado dates from the same time as the F15, but for some reason only the Tornado was seen as out date by 2018 or so. Its a very british thing to consider their military equipment as not as good as US from the same time.
    First production F15E strike aircraft the equivalent to the GR4 was delivered in 1988 , the standard F15 is even older.

  2. Jim

    The Panavia Tornado would have been an outstanding aircraft if only the plane had not been saddled with
    archaic swing-wing tech. A Tornado (theoretically) equipped with wings like the Su-27 and armed with the
    Meteor A2A missile could very very easily make mincemeat out of the vaunted F-15/F-15E types.

    • Duker

      Swing wing isnt archaic… its still the most efficient when you want good airfield performance and good low level performance….terrain following is mentioned, with the wings swept back. USAF just expects long concrete runways
      The F15E has moderate low level and was a lower capability than the F-111 it replaced

  3. Pingback: The Tornado is gone: was it the right aircraft for the RAF? | Hush-Kit
  4. Pingback: The Tornado is gone: was it the right aircraft for the RAF? – Aerospace
  5. Pingback: The Tornado is gone: was it the right aircraft for the RAF? – My Blog

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