RAF Fighter Pilot describes how confident he felt facing Russian fighters

Former- RAF Tornado F3 pilot interview

The prospect of facing the most potent Russian fighters in a sluggish converted bomber was a sobering prospect, but as former Tornado F3 pilot Jon Dunn explains, there were reasons to be confident.

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Did Tornado F3 crews think it was likely they would have faced Soviet/Russian escort fighters in the event of war? And if so, how do they feel about the possibility?

Quite likely. Not too worried about it really, our situational awareness and weapons were generally better. So long as the rules of engagement were there to allow a Beyond Visual Range engagement – which in a shooting war there would be.  The tactics, doctrine and surveillance assets along with our C3I (Command, Control, Communications and Information) would give us the ability to effectively engage a threat at range and negate the superior manoeuvrability of the modern fighter threat. But, as Uncle Joe says ‘Quantity has a quality all of its own’.

Is this in AMRAAM days? As I understand in Sky Flash times you would have likely be outraged by enhanced range R-27s

Well to a certain extent both, but you are right. The trick was the Situational Awareness – and with the radar coverage and Joint Tactical Information Distribution System (JTIDS), even Skyflash could make you pretty potent. But you would have had to be careful.  The AA-10 series had a few fairly potent models which made engaging them a non trivial task.

 Were you more wary of MiG-31s or Su-27s?

Su-27s, has they had more fuel. Longer range. More endurance. It is the whole weapons system that you have to consider and that includes sensors, weapons, airframes, aircrew and support.  Often the AA-10 (R-27)was the longest range weapon there if coupled to an AA-12 (R-77) threat it made for a concerning potential.  However, if that is coupled to an aircraft with a poor radar or operated by aircrew who were unaware of the Radar Warner or a radar Warner that wasn’t accurate enough then the whole system is less potent.

What are your thoughts on the air war in Ukraine from the perspective of someone who trained against the Russian threat?

The air war in Ukraine is far more complex than old style Soviet aircraft coming across the North Sea.  There is the combined element with artillery operations and a potent surface to air missile threat.  

Does part of you wish to be there? 

Yes.  As an Air Defender who served while Iraq and Afghanistan were absorbing the bulk of the UK Military focus it was dispiriting to be sitting at home or in the Falklands on QRA because there was no air threat.

If you had to choose the ten best fighter (or fighter interceptors) currently in service how would you rank them and why?

10? Chuffing hell!

  1. F-22 has to be the top of the tree, the bench mark for what everyone wants to beat.  The SA provided by the sensor suite and the weapons systems are unparalleled 

2. F-15 because of its longevity and it actually has a proven track record.

3. Su-27 because of its payload, you can’t beat being able to take a lot of rockets places

4. F-16 because of the ubiquity and flexibility 

5. Typhoon is pretty old-school now, but when armed with Meteor and ASRAAM it is pretty potent.

6. F-35, because for a bomber it is still pretty potent

7. F-18.. well who wouldn’t want all that alpha?

8. Gripen because the Swedes always made lovely aircraft 

9. Rafale because the French have always made good aircraft and coupled them with potent weapons

10. J-20 because the Chinese are missing and I don’t know much about it

What was your relationship like with your pilot/Nav in the F3? Were aircrew paired or did they fly with different people? Did any not get on with each other? We tended to be paired for big exercises or Ops but generally you just flew with anyone.  Mostly people got on, though there were a few who were difficult to work with and typically everyone found the same people hard to work with. 

Complete this phrase…two-seat aircraft are better than single-seat aircraft because… there is somebody to talk to.

Does an aircraft in a museum seem ‘alive’ to you? How do you feel seeing an F3 in a museum? 

I get a bit choked up seeing them in museums.  I loved flying it and will always be proud of having done so.  Was it a good aircraft for the job it was supposed to be doing? No, but it was what it was.  I took my children to East Fortune and was opening panels showing them the gun and other bits and pieces, I am fairly certain the museum were less than happy with me.

Tell me something I don’t know about the F3

Mostly we taxied with the wings swept. That meant there was better clearance.  At Leeming, there was a very narrow exit to the 25 Sqn Hardened Air Shelter site and you had to swing the wings forward quite close to the runway.  My friend taxied out for a night sortie and they decided that they would skip the first two of the pre take-off checks and complete the rest while waiting inside the HAS site (wings 25 degrees sweep, flaps take off). They then got a bit of a rushed take-off clearance and tried to take off with the wings swept. At 169 knots Bill pulled the stick back and not much happened.  Rapidly running out of runway and too fast to stop he looked around and slammed the wings forward and popped the flap. He said it didn’t half leap airborne at over 200 knots as the flaps bit, and the piano keys at the far end slipped under the nose.

Which do you find more attractive, the F3 or the Typhoon, and why? 

Typhoon, does the job it was designed to do. Not a bomber turned into a fighter.

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What was the most challenging opponent you faced in exercises, why?  

Swiss F-18s because we turned up thinking they were still flying Hunters and F-5s so got quite a shock when they were F-18-equipped and bloody good

What did the F3 force think of F-15s and vice versa?

Most F3 guys simply wanted to have an F-15, be that a C model or an E model, as both were just superb.  I don’t think the F-15 guys thought about us but if they did they probably wondered why we were trying to do an Air Defence job with a bomber.

Describe your most memorable flight/mission? 

Flying to Red Flag, Azores to Bermuda.  Diverted to Halifax in January.  We landed on a snow covered runway and very nearly ejected because when we used thrust reverse we disappeared in our own little ‘white out’.  

Which aircraft would you most like to fly, and why? F-35.  The sensor fusions, the power, hovering, stealth, weapons – all sorts of reasons.  Just a really sweet ride.

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  1. Duker

    How come the pilot mentions ‘the weapons system’ which is the radar , sensors , missiles, crew , fuel load etc when referring to the opposition forces , but then negates that when talking about his own plane as a converted bomber. The F3 didnt have the same radar and sensors , had proper BVR and short range missiles, 2 crew and more internal fuel than the bomber version so was a completely different weapons system.
    the F16 was of course designed as a bomber too and still is its main role.
    Clearly the only feature below par for the F3 was the engines and a mid life refit with EJ2000 would have done that. [13,500 dry , 20,000 AB each compared with 9500/16000 with original engine]

  2. Randolph Bentley

    The ADV ( Air Defense Variant ) of the Tornado was not a converted bomber, given that It came off the production line distinctly different from its two other siblings.

  3. Pete Montero

    I loved reading this. Not an airman, just have always loved planes. It’s great to hear what an airman thinks of these planes, especially with all of the narrative that the F22 is destined to have a relatively short life, while the F15 lives on… politics or are they significantly different enough that it’s apples vs. oranges, and one is better suited to a long life in operation than the other?

    Also, have to ask where A10 is on this list… I know that it’s a very different kind of plane and function, but it seems that Warthog pilots seem to LOVE their horse.

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