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RAF Panavia Tornado GR4 Retirement – Pride and Achievement In Equal Measure By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.








While continuing to stand in readiness to deploy right up until the official 31st March 2019 ‘Out-of-Service Date’ (OSD) has been reached, this coming Thursday the 14th March will see the final official sortie of a Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 being made over RAF Marham – a base that this superb military fast jet aircraft has been associated for most of the 37 years that it has served the Royal Air Force.  

Clearly there will be a mix of joy tinged with sadness at RAF Marham on Thursday as not only will this day witness the last official flypast of a Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 aircraft but also the Tornado GR Force Disbandment Parade, a Gala Dinner and importantly in the minds of those who will be there, it marks the end of an era of a story that began exactly 50 years ago in March 1969. 

The planned events due to occur on Thursday together with the superb nine-ship display that took place over RAF Marham and RAF Cranwell a couple of weeks ago, the various three-ship flypasts over RAF bases all over the country and that at some point, Tornado squadrons or those who flew the aircraft during its 37 year long career with the RAF have been previously associated, together with the Hangar Party at RAF Marham and enthusiast events laid on at RAF Marham by Station Commander, Group Captain Ian [CAB] Townsend, combine to mark a very fitting end to UK service of what all of us who have been associated with Tornado recognise to have been a remarkable fast jet capability.

Although I have written a separate article marking the pending retirement of RAF Tornado GR4 aircraft capability for the Royal Aeronautical Society ‘Aerospace’ Magazine and that is due to be published in the April edition, it would be remiss of me not to write one final ‘Commentary’ on RAF Tornado GR4 capability.

Before moving on may I take the opportunity here of recognising the vast amount of work that has been put in by all those at RAF Marham, including members of 1X(B) and 31 Squadrons, who have been responsible for conducting some remarkable flying displays over the past couple of weeks. To have achieved all this whilst continuing the Tornado training schedule right up to the end on a base that is itself going through considerable change as it moves to become the UK’s primary F-35 Lightning ll base is deserving of considerable praise. Thank you to all concerned.  

For me personally and having had the great pleasure of flying a total of nine back seat Tornado GR flights over the past twenty years, retirement of the last 15 Panavia Tornado GR4 aircraft from the RAF inventory over the next three weeks really does mark the end of an era.

In regard of my professional work as an analyst and indeed, prior to this, I recall back in the 1970’s observing industry aspects what was then known as the Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) development. Thus and having personally known so many of those who flew the aircraft in RAF service as either as pilots or navigators, it is bound to be with a tinge of sadness that I will observe the final phase that leads up to retirement of RAF Panavia Tornado capability on the 31st March – a date that I might add, also happens to mark my own 70th birthday. 

As the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier said little over a week ago following his final flight of an aircraft over RAF Lossiemouth that had been the mainstay of his own flying career in the RAF and I might add, to the delight of many in attendance who witnessed the subsequent and now traditional hosing down of the pilots of the two separate Tornado GR4 aircraft (CAS being one and the other being RAF Marham Station Commander) after what for both would be the last RAF fast jet aircraft that each would ever have the pleasure of flying:

“This is a very significant moment for me personally but more importantly, a very significant moment for the RAF after 37 years of frontline service – that’s nearly 40% of the RAF’s history with just this one aircraft” adding “adding that it has done such a fantastic job in operations around the world continuously deployed for over 28 years – this is a huge part of our history and we shall always reflect back with a huge amount of pride and sense of achievement”

For the record, RAF Panavia Tornado GR1 capability was first deployed in the 1990/1 Gulf War. Since then, according to Flight Global, the Tornado Force has deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Libya and Syria with GR1/GR4 capability serving in the ground-attack/air to ground role and the F-3 air defence variant (ADV) providing a mix of UK air defence, Falkland Islands and being deployed to various theatres enforcing “no-fly zones” over countries such as Iraq until the type was retired in 2011 being replaced by Typhoon.

When looking back at what this remarkable RAF capability has achieved I am reminded of the fine words from Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery – “if we lose the war in the air we lose the war and we lose it quickly”. Tornado has done everything that has been asked of it and more. With its unique suit of complex weapons together with the air-to-air refuelling capability Tornado GR4 in RAF service has provided the nation with a remarkably rapid and hugely flexible crisis response tool.   

Developing a complex set of air power capabilities that would fit the requirements of the three participating nations within the Panavia partnership would require various compromises to be made. That was achieved and I would sum up what all the partners got in Tornado by reminding that ‘Quality is never built as a result of an accident. It is always a result of intelligent effort. There must be a will to succeed to produce the superior thing’. That is what the Panavia Tornado development achieved and for all I believe and what the Royal Air Force has so ably been able to deploy over the past 37 years.     

Powered by two Turbo-Union RB.199 Mk 103turbofan engines each rated at 16,000lbs with afterburning and that had been produced by a consortium formed of Fiat Avio, MTU and Rolls-Royce, Tornado was itself a partnership programme between the UK, Italy and West Germany known as Panavia and that combined the leading companies of each three participating nations – each then being the legacy companies of what today we know as BAE Systems, Leonardo and Airbus.

Key to Tornado performance was its variable geometry wing configurations that allowed for excellent low speed handling characteristics combined with supersonic performance. In its final GR4 guise RAF Tornado aircraft carried the MBDA Dual Mode Seeker Brimstone air-to-surface and Storm Shadow cruise missiles for precision strike, Raytheon Systems Paveway ll, lll and IV series GPS Laser-guided bombs along with ASRAAM for self-defence, Rafael Litening III targeting pod, BOZ countermeasures pods, this added up to remarkable suite of complex weapon capability.  

This is not the end of Tornado as the type continues in service with the air forces of Germany, Italy and Saudi Arabia. But in terms of continuous deployment suffice to say that no other user of Panavia Tornado capability can compare with what Royal Air Force GR1/GR4 has achieved in service with the Royal Air Force over the past 37 years of service.

To the many RAF Squadrons, Pilots, Navigators, Engineers, Technicians and those in industry such as BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Cobham, MBDA, Raytheon and many others that have so brilliant supported Tornado service with the RAF over the past 37 years allow me to say on your behalf, thank you to all concerned for what you have all done in support or have been able to directly achieve with this brilliant Royal Air Force capability.

Now, over to Royal Air Force Typhoon capability for the future.

CHW (London – 10th March 2019)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS 

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon



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