10 Reasons I loved Flying the Tornado

Faster than any aircraft at extremely low altitudes, the Tornado was a Cold War strike fighter designed to take on the might of the Warsaw Pact in the grimmest of North and Central European weather, day or night. Michael Napier flew this fearsome machine for five years from RAF Bruggen, Germany, and fell in love. Here are 10 Reasons he loved flying the Tornado

10         1755 hrs

No, that’s not the time– it’s the number of hours that I flew the Tornado, starting as a bumbling novice and eventually becoming a Four-ship Leader, Aircrew Checking Officer, Air Combat leader and Air-to-Air Refuelling Instructor. Tornado was a wonderful aeroplane to fly: its complexity gave it an incredible breadth of flexibility while it was still a relatively straightforward machine to fly, enabling the crew to use their efforts to achieve the mission rather than being distracted by the poor handling characteristics or weird quirks that plagued so many other aircraft of the day. In 1755 hours I did pretty much everything that you could do in the Tornado and all in all it was incredibly satisfying to fly such a capable aeroplane and to be able to get the best out of it. I loved it!

9          Steady ride

And so back to low-level. One benefit of sweeping the wings to 45 Wing and of having a fly-by-wire control system was that the aeroplane was as solid as a rock at low-level. OK, we sacrificed some manoeuvrability for comfort, but it did make the aeroplane a pleasure to fly at high speed and low-level (down to 100ft in places) and to do it when other aircraft would have bounced around so much that it would have taken a real toll of the crew in terms of fatigue. It is a paradox that this low-level nuclear bomber should have spent most of its operational career at medium-level, but the place that it was really at home was down in the weeds – where it was designed to be!

8          Comfy Cockpit

In a strange departure from RAF tradition, in which cockpits were designed for hunchback midgets and where instruments and levers were scattered across the cockpit seemingly at random, the Tornado boasted a comfortable, well-designed and ergonomic cockpit. Pretty much everything was where you would expect it to be and was within easy reach. The ejection seat (thank you Martin Baker) was comfortable enough for a typical 1:45 low-level sortie although it was a bit bum-numbing when we moved to medium-level and spent 4 hours or more strapped to it. That’s also when they fitted the HaveQick secure radio on the right console just behind one’s right buttock – an absolute nightmare having to twist round and programme it (and it had to be done pedantically!) like a contortionist. On a 4 hour flight you also had to be a bit of a contortionist to use the pee-bag: first you had to put the safety pins into both ejection seats (command eject meant that one handle fired both seats!) then unstrap… then, having fished out the plastic bag from its place at the rear of the right-hand console (behind the HaveQuick!) and while still flying the aeroplane with one hand (or at least keeping a very careful eye on the autopilot) wriggle to the front edge of the seat – not easy when there is an ejection handle and then a  control column between your legs – and your knees aren’t far from the instrument panel either. [And if you nudge the control column it will disconnect the autopilot!] Then delve into layers of g-suit, flying suit and underwear to fish out the appropriate part of the anatomy and insert into pee bag… and make sure it stays there throughout the next bit, or you end up sitting on a wet seat for the next few hours! Having completed the drill and stowed the full bag, you then reversed all the above steps until you were once again fully strapped into a live ejection seat. But despite those minor drawbacks, the Tornado cockpit was a good place to be!

7          Nav Kit

MoD

Of course, the thing that made Tornado capable of flying itself around using the TFR and of dropping those weapons so accurately was the navigation kit and in those far-off days before GPS took the fun (and uncertainty) out of everything the Tornado nav kit, based primarily on an inertial nav feeding into a computer with a Kalman filter, was THE state-of-the art. If properly aligned the kit was pretty good and it got even better when the nav looked after it and used the radar to ‘fix the kit’ with updates against various pre-surveyed fixpoints. I could say that it was impossible to get lost with the Tornado nav kit, but it is probably truer to observe that you could get lost very accurately with it!

6          Weapons Delivery

Weapon aiming was straightforward – a target bar showed where the target was (or at least where the main computer thought it was), a Bomb Fall Line (BFL) showed the track that the bombs would take when they were dropped and a Continuously Computed Impact Point (CCIP) showed exactly where those bombs would land if dropped at that instant. Fly the BFL through target bar and the computer would release the weapons as the CCIP flew through the target. Direct Hit (DH)! My favourite, though, was the loft delivery… 480kts, 150 ft fly BFL through target bars… Time To Go (TTG) circle unwinds… 3 seconds on the TTG, light the burners, feel the push in you back… at 0 TTG the symbology changes to a dot which moved quickly upwards… capture the dot within the VV symbol in the HUD and track it (a 4g pull) and the computer releases the bomb at exactly the right moment for it to sail through the air for 3 miles and score another DH. Yes, Tornado was pretty impressive at dropping weapons accurately.

5          HUD

How long does it take to get used to flying with a Head Up Display? About 10 seconds, actually! In the Tornado the HUD was our primary reference for instrument flying and it made it very easy to be very accurate. The HUD also gave us the weapon aiming displays, once again enabling us to deliver weapons with great accuracy from low-level. In Velocity Vector (VV) mode the HUD showed you exactly where the aircraft was going and unusually (for the RAF of the day anyway) it was a 1:1 display – in other words the 5° pitch bar sat at 5° pitch in the real world so you had great awareness of your flight path. The only problem was that it was easy to become a “Hudaholic” where you relied upon it totally for everything and didn’t bother to look at anything else. In fact, cruel (and unfair) people have said a Tornado pilot’s lookout consisted of being a nodding dog looking between the HUD and the moving back map display just beneath it. Not true – but the HUD was certainly a wonderful instrument.

4          Reverse Thrust

Most aeroplanes have a problem stopping. Below a certain speed, wings stop working, so you have to be on the runway by then and you have to slow yourself down pretty quickly before the end of the runway. In the case of most fast jet aircraft that involves slowing down 20-odd tons of metal going at 160+ kts and since aircraft brakes are notoriously poor (because they have to be small and light) in most cases back in the 70s and 80s that involved using a parachute, with all the rigmarole that entailed. But not Tornado! No, we had reverse thrust on the engines and with max reverse selected you could stop on a sixpence. So, while other less fortunate mortals had to worry about where to dump their used chute and how they were going to repack it, we just taxied off and back to the Hardened Aircraft Shelter for tea and medals…

3          Reheat

Reheat, afterburner – whatever you want to call it – is a wonderful way to increase your engine power by pouring fuel into the back of a jet engine and setting fire to it. Your thrust increases dramatically – but then your fuel flow goes up in a similarly eye-watering fashion. In most aircraft reheat gives you something like another 30% power, but not the RB199 – that DOUBLED your power! The push in the back was amazing and so was the acceleration as the airspeed indicator span upwards. The downside was, of course, that when you cancelled the burners you lost half your power. We used the burners sparingly (except for loft deliveries – see below), but it was always a great feeling to get that kick in the back.

2          TFR

The Terrain Following Radar was at the heart of the Tornado GR1’s operational capabilities. While other aircraft (except of course the F-111) were unable to fly at night or when low cloud made visual flying impossible, Tornado could still fly at low-level and still hit targets with great accuracy (see later!). At first, sitting in the machine while the autopilot flew you around at 500 ft and 420 kts in cloud through the mountains was an act of faith (or maybe foolhardiness, I don’t know) but when you got used to it, it was an awesome capability. Of course I watched the TFR and autopilot systems like a hawk while TF-ing, but I had learnt to trust them and I got a real sense of satisfaction after completing a night low-level TFR formation sortie – knowing that nothing else (yes I know – except the F-111) could do the same thing.

1          Swing Wings

Variable geometry – or “swing wings” in journalese – was the solution to the problem of how to have benign handling at slow speeds (like in a straight wing aeroplane) yet also have the benefits of a swept wing at high speeds. Simples – make the wings move! All the rage in the 1970s, VG turned out to be an aeronautical dead end and was abandoned in later generations of aircraft, but in fairness it did work very well. In Tornado we took off with the wings fully forward (25° sweep) – a bit like driving a manual transmission car in 1st gear – and passing 350 kts we moved the wingsweep lever back to the detent (2nd gear or 45° sweep). 45 Wing was good for most things, but if you manoeuvred hard or slowed down – lever forward to 25 Wing (change down to 1st gear!). Conversely above about 550 kts into overdrive (67° sweep – or 63° if you were carrying the big 2250 litre underwing fuel tanks). Actually 67 Wing was referred to as “air show wing” as we had little use for it day to day except showing off, but above 550 kts it did make a difference and the Tornado flew beautifully at around 600 kts in 67 Wing! And at the end of a sortie – back to 25 Wing for circuit and landing where this beast of a strike/attack aircraft flew like a docile training aeroplane.

Michael Napier is the author of Tornado Over the Tigris – Recollections of a Fast Jet Pilot– published by Pen & Sword Books, RAF Tornado Units in Combat 1992-2019 – published by Osprey and RAF Tornado Units of Gulf War I – published by Osprey

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