Past Talks : March 2022

TSR-2 Grandfather of Tornadoby Group Captain JockHeron, OBE

It was a great delight to welcome back Group Captain (Rtd) Jock Heron after a gap of around two years, when he spoke to us to compare his experiences flying the Thunderchief, the Lightning and the Mirage III. That was a good evening talk – and so it was again this evening.

Throughout his career Jock has gathered a remarkable breadth of experience beyond actually flying aircraft and the subject of tonight’s talk centred around his involvement in the introduction of the MRCA Tornado (Multi-RoleCombat Aircraft) into service.

As we have heard before, there are four dimensions to an aircraft: span, length, height and politics.  TSR-2 through to Tornado are knee-deep in the latter element in particular and Jock is not shy about making known his views on this and any other aspect of what makes a good aircraft.

Following WW2, both main political parties (Conservative and Labour) in Britain were constantly and prominently at loggerheads – more so than we have seen for a long time. The aircraft industry was made up from a large number of manufacturers (whose names have now entirely disappeared), all eager to receive orders from the Ministry of Defence. The RAF strength lay in the V-bombers: Valiant, Victor and Vulcan and fighter aircraft to protect them.

Many projects for new generation replacement aircraft were on the drawing board and expectations were high, until .. Conservative Defence Minister Duncan Sandys announced the 1957 Defence Review. In his judgement, future defence will be missile based, therefore:

Cancel all RAF manned aircraft, excepting the English Electric P1 Lightning and the TSR-2 (intended as a Canberra replacement) and the Buccaneer for the RN.
Disband 20 squadrons
Disband all Auxiliary squadrons and units
End National Service by 1962
Etc., etc.

It came as a shock. However, in 1957 OR 339 (Operational Requirement) was issued for what became TSR-2. It was ambitious and in reality too demanding, specifying STOL capability (Short Take-Off and Landing), Mach 2 speed at high altitude and Mach 1.2 at sea level, and yet more.

At that time, other NATO countries had low-altitude Strike/Attack aircraft such as the F105 Thunderchief, the F104G Starfighter, the Mirage IIIE, while the RAF had nothing comparable. Hence the origin of OR339. Several concepts were proposed, but those of Vickers Supermarine  and English Electric were similar and in consequence both companies were selected to work together to produce one aircraft. English Electric was responsible for the rear section, while Vickers was responsible for the front section. The engines were to be two Rolls Royce Olympus and all instrumentation was still analogue. If it sounds like a typically British compromise, it was and it led to inevitable prolonged, expensive chaos. The most extraordinary aspect is that the TSR-2 aircraft did emerge and the first flight took place in September 1964. A total of 24 test flights were made. There is no doubt that it performed well and the potential was very promising indeed. The fact that the project was too ambitious, chaotically managed and costs over-ran the budget became irrelevant following a General Election when Labour beat the incumbent Conservatives. New Defence Minister Denis Healey wasted no time at all in achieving his ambition to cancel the TSR-2 project in 1965 – eight years of planning and development wasted. Ah, the rationale of politics!

So, what now then? It was apparent that the UK had poor strategic ambition. A subsequent Governmental report recommended international collaboration, which is all well and good, but it also resulted in the dissipation of the depth of UK expertise and knowledge in aircraft design, development and manufacture. The outcome was an order being placed by the MoD for 40 F111K aircraft, which was to be an Anglicised version of the F111, plus an agreement to collaborate with the French manufacturer Dassault on the development of the AFVG (Anglo French Variable Geometry – swing wing) project. Dassault very quickly became unhappy with the set-up of the collaboration and it was cancelled in 1967. Around the same time, the order for the F111K was also cancelled. The RAF plans were in complete disarray, again.

Meanwhile, English Electric had developed its own project, the UKVG, which was designed to meet the requirement for STOL, high speed and low-level operations. The Government though, still  continued to mull over options from most of the European manufacturers, plus a re-developed TSR-2, or even a re-developed Buccaneer, right through to the American F15, via the Saab Viggen (with twin engines).

Eventually a project called the MRCA (Multi-Role Combat Aircraft), very similar in appearance to the UKVG, was agreed upon, to be undertaken by Panavia a German company established by the three partner states of UK, Germany and Italy. In addition Canada, Belgium and the Netherlands expressed interest, but ultimately each backed out.

In simple terms it was proposed that the MRCA should have the range of a Buccaneer, the acceleration of the Lightning, the manoeuvrability of the Hunter and the runway needs of the Jet Provost. Novel, if I grasped it correctly.

The project was set out in a practical fashion by fully considering:

– The military requirements

– Industrial aspirations

– Nato standards

– Number of aircraft to be built

– Budgets

Political judgement

Our speaker, Gp Cpt Jock Heron was appointed to the development team and became deeply involved in the debate over aircrew requirements for what was to become the Tornado.

The two engines were to be the Turbo-Union RB199, which was a joint venture between Rolls Royce, MTU and Aeritalia and the resulting engine is claimed to have been highly successful, although the Tornado is the only aircraft to have used it.

The project headquarters were based in Manching, Germany, where the first flight took place in 1974 under the control of a British test pilot. Initially Germany planned to order 600 aircraft, the UK 385 and Italy 200. In the end Germany actually bought 324, the UK 384 and Italy 100.

The specified performance details that I noted from Jocks illustration are: STOL take-off run of 2,500ft to clear a 50ft obstacle; payload 4 x 1,000lb bombs; landing roll 1,500ft; range of action 250 nautical miles; speed Mach 1 at sea level.

In the opinion of Jock Heron the Tornado GR1/4 was an outstandingly good aircraft for ground attack, interdiction and strike. The F3 variant was designed as a fighter for air defence and was around 3ft longer to carry more fuel and more avionics. The Marconi/Ferranti Foxhunter radar combined with Skyflash missiles provided a formidable capability and deadly combination, particularly when handled by experienced crew. The F3 also incorporated a flight control computer to optimise the wing sweep for best performance.

Not only was Tornado a very good aircraft, but it pleased Jock immensely with its big, clear vision canopy, as opposed to the previous practise of hiding navigators/second crew members in a blackhole.

It has to be said that the swing-wing concept did result in an aircraft much heavier than originally anticipated, however the outcome was a flexible and capable aircraft.

The Tornado time-line started in 1968 with the political approach and concluded in 2019 with its retirement, after 37 years of valuable service.

The final comment from Jock was that once again politicians have now left the UK in the position of having no airborne tactical nuclear option. It is back in the care of the Polarissubmarines yet again, until the penny drops. 

Thank you GpCpt Jock Heron for a very informed and interesting evening – and thank you to the back-room boys for making it happen, live in the FAA Museum Auditorium and on Zoom.