Past Talks : November 2022

“Tornado Combat Operations” by Michael Napier

As a boy, Michael Napier had an ambition to be a pilot in the RAF, which he duly fulfilled and was rewarded with a posting to fly the Tornado GR1 at RAF Brüggen in Germany. He then spent a large part of his RAF career exclusively flying the Tornado on a variety of operations, which he very much enjoyed. Today he has shared with us an abundance of his recollections and some superb film – much of which he referred to as his home movies. It certainly made many of the events very alive and real for us to witness.

The Tornado was created as a multi-role aircraft, which entered service in 1979. Prior to that the RAF needed a successor to the Canberra, Vulcan, etc., which resulted in the development of the TSR2 strike attack aircraft, sadly cancelled in 1965. Other nations were also looking to their future needs and variable-geometry (swing wing) proposals were being looked upon favourably, to enable both manoeuvrability and high speed operations. Before long, several countries shared their requirements and formed the MRCA (Multi-Role Combat Aircraft) group. Ultimately, Britain, Germany and Italy worked together to develop an aircraft that would meet the diverse requirements of each, hence the Tornado. The first flight was in 1974 and manufacture continued until 1998.

For Michael, the Tornado operations at RAF Brüggen ranged from training for nuclear strike to ground strike on enemy airfields and similar installations. Training was primarily over Germany, but it also included time spent on a large live Armament Practice Range at Decimomaru in Sardinia. Another highlight was to attend the Red Flag warfare exercises at the Nellis Ranges in the USA. The Red Flag training was based on very realistic scenarios including a full size replica enemy airfield at Tolicha Peak, near Nellis, which incorporated missile systems (via cameras), plus of course, ‘enemy’ aircraft flown by American crews, but copying precisely the tactics used behind the Iron Curtain.

At this point Michael showed one of his super ‘amateur’ films taken during a Red Flag exercise. The film started during the take off phase and took us through the Nellis Range to the target airfield, all at a height of no more than 150ft, and a speed of around 440kts. Flying behind the low hills to avoid the radar was a bonus for Michael and a thrill for us. In all Michael attended a Red Flag event on four occasions, by which time some of the excitement and previously unknown elements had become routine to the pilots.

The Cold War ended in 1989 and so did the concentrated effort to train for the Soviet foe. Instead, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and redirected the West’s interests to the Middle East, including three Wings of Tornados. New techniques and tactics were required for this scenario. All missions in the Gulf required air to air refuelling which had to be learnt and become a familiar habit. In the early days hard (unguided) bombs were used along with minelets, which blew nasty big holes in runways. The Tornados also used ALARM missiles (Air-Launched Anti-Radar Missile) which were dropped on a parachute to enable the missile time to search for radar ground signals, onto which they could ‘home’ before gadding off to destroy them.

While all this was happening, Michael was initially busy elsewhere having been posted to RAF Chivenor as an instructor, to pass on his knowledge to other pilots while flying the BAe Hawk trainer.

Tornados were also used for reconnaissance missions, for which they carried an electronics pod to gather information and pictures. It was quickly evident that runways on desert airfields could be extremely long and numerous, making bombing them ineffective. The answer? Bomb the short taxiways from the hard aircraft shelters to the main runway instead. Just box the enemy aircraft in on the ground. However, for accuracy the hard unguided bombs used required low-level attacks, which resulted in four Tornados being lost to ground fire. Something had to change, but medium-level bombing with the hard bombs was much less accurate.

The introduction of laser-guided bombs using the Blackburn Buccaneer to pinpoint the target for the Tornados, revolutionised accuracy. In addition, Thermal Imaging (TILE) pods enabled any bombing to be carried out 24 hours a day, regardless of weather conditions. Times had changed.

The Gulf War ended in 1991, but peace did not reign. In 1992 Michael went to the Middle East along with his Tornado colleagues, to monitor the ‘no fly zone’ set up in the Gulf to curtail Iraqi activities against the Kurds, etc.. Once again the transit times of 45 to 60 minutes for the Tornados from their base to the Iraq border were long for the Tornado. This necessitated them carrying two 250 gallon drop tanks, plus being topped up by air to air refuelling, during which 9 tons of fuel could be delivered.

The two RB199 engines were powerful and when afterburners were used, could double the power available (unlike its competitors), but it also drank the fuel prodigiously. Another rather novel feature was that it inherited reverse thrust units (again unlike its competitors at the time). Another of Michael’s splendid ‘home movies’ took us through a typical operation, including air to air refuelling from Victor tankers – which Michael says were very good and stable to formate on – through to landing and watching the clam shell thrust reversers in operation. All most enlightening and thrilling to watch from close on hand.

In 1993 Iraq tried to take back its airfields and specific Iraqi targets were identified for the Tornados to attack, including a quite small HQ building alongside neighbouring buildings. The precision laser-guided bombing was evident on the film shown.

Likewise in 1998 Iraq failed to comply with the United Nations no fly zone so the Tornados were busy yet again. It is worth noting that for every hour flown, the Tornado required 5 hours maintenance time.

By 1999 the focus for activity had changed to the Balkan war that had broken out. Tornados operated from their UK bases and flew 1,200 miles out to Serbia. After the 4 hour flight time, it was discovered that the TILE and laser-guided weapons had frozen up and were unusable! They were designed to endure flights up to 1½hours, not 4 hours! Oops.

Meanwhile, the Iraq conflict beckoned again.

Around this time all the Tornados were upgraded from GR1 to GR4 and among the many enhancements were GPS guided bombs for those occasions when laser-guidance could not be used. Also Storm Shadow missiles could be dropped, enabling the weapon to be launched 30 miles away from the target, to find its own way their (fire and forget).

Increasingly Tornados were called upon to give the Army ground support, for which purpose they carried pods with upgraded technology to match the needs. Tornados finally left Iraq in 2009, having been there since 1992.

In between, the West became involved in the Afghanistan problems, such that in 2003 Tornados took on a number of roles and as we all know, events intensified requiring the presence of many more Tornados between 2006 and 2009, again to provide ground support for the Army.

The Brimstone missile came into its own in Afghanistan where its active radar homing signal provided great accuracy even against moving targets. Its effectiveness was enhanced by adding laser-guidance, making it dual mode and capable of spotting and specifically hitting high priority targets, without causing collateral damage.

The Middle Eastern conflicts brought with them the need stretch the legs of the Tornado to reach its targets. In 2011 when the fighting took place in Libya, the Tornados flew operations direct from their home base at RAF Marham. For the ground support operations in Syria, the Tornados operated out of Cyprus.

When the new Typhoon aircraft entered RAF service, they often operated as a pair with a Tornado until such time as the Typhoons were fully kitted out with service-proven pods and weapons fits.

By 2014 a relative calm existed in previously unsettled and disruptive areas familiar to the Tornado. After many years of good service, the UK decided it was time to retire its fleet of Tornados. That said, they have still not been retired by other air forces.

Tornado production commenced in 1979 and ceased in 1998 during which 990 were built for various customers.

During the Q&A session following the main talk, Michael was asked how the variable wing sweep happened, was it computerised? The answer was no, it was manually operated via a cockpit lever, but computers compensated for the altered flight characteristics – as they did for all the various pods and weapons carried, which easily resulted in asymmetric drag.

Another questioner asked Michael how well the Tornado did its job and how difficult was it to fly? To which Michael expressed great satisfaction in all respects. It was not as manoeuvrable as a fighter, but it achieved all the tasks it was designed for and called upon to undertake, and the cockpit was logical, comfortable, with good outside visibility.

Thank you Michael Napier for a very lively and interesting talk based on first hand experience of Tornado operations. Do make sure you join us for these superb talks in the FAAM auditorium at Yeovilton, or in your armchair at home via Zoom (it is so easy to do, ask us).