Test pilot recalls the thrills of flying the soon-to-be-retired Tornado

Three RAF Tornadoes flying together ahead of the retirement of the workhorse from service
Three RAF Tornadoes flying together ahead of the retirement of the workhorse from service

With its distinctive swing wings and towering tail, the Tornado has been a regular sight in the Lancashire skies since the late 1970s.

Next month the “Tonka” as pilots named it for its toughness, is set to retire from RAF service but it will be missed by thousands in the county who helped build and upgrade it as well as the men who flew it.

Test pilot Dave Eagles with his son Simon pictured in the Eurofighter assembly building at Warton

Test pilot Dave Eagles with his son Simon pictured in the Eurofighter assembly building at Warton

The proud history of aircraft building in Lancashire with Cold War legends such as the Canberra and the Lightning had taken a blow when the cash-strapped Government had scrapped the TSR2 jet fighter.

A pragmatic approach had to be taken and joint projects with allied nations were seen to be best to spread the cost of developing new aircraft such as the Jaguar fighter-bomber.

That approach was deepened with the Tornado with Britain joining Germany and Italy in developing a Multi Role Combat Aircraft that could replace ageing, single-role jets.

In Lancashire, Tornado’s first flight lasted one hour – from Warton airfield with Paul Millett, then chief test pilot, at the controls.

One of the early prototypes of the MRCA later to become Tornado

One of the early prototypes of the MRCA later to become Tornado

He was also at the controls when the first ever prototype made its maiden flight in Manching, West Germany, in August 1974. He said it was “a delight to fly”.

The Panavia MRCA prototypes with their striking white red and black livery was a regular over the Fylde Coast as the team at Warton put the new design through its paces from 1974 onwards.

Designed to have swing wings which could be swept back for supersonic flight or positioned forward for low speed flight, the twin engined aircraft could fill interceptor and bomber roles for both defence and ground attack.

It came into service in 1979 and just missed out on taking part in the Falklands conflict where the Harrier performed so admirably.

An early version of the Tornado in flight

An early version of the Tornado in flight

But the Tornado proved its worth in the Gulf War of 1991, carrying out hundreds of fast, low-level strikes against Saddam Hussein’s army which had invaded Kuwait. It also served in the Balkans wars of the 1990s and the Second Gulf War in 2002 and in Afghanistan and Libya.

The Tornado was continuously upgraded, the last variant, the GR4 had specialist radar that allowed it to fly low in low visibility plus the ability to use a formidable suite of guided bombs and missiles.

It was also sold to Saudi Arabia under the controversial Al-Yamamah arms deal.

The last aircraft built in Warton was in 1998. It was destined for the Saudis and is still in use today.

A Tornado prototype takes in the sights of Blackpool during testing

A Tornado prototype takes in the sights of Blackpool during testing

With a top speed of Mach 1.3 and an expansive range of integrated weaponry including Paveway IV, Tornado GR4 was still on the frontline most recently in Iraq and Syria against ISIS, more than 30 years after its entry in to service.

Steve Debonnaire, Tornado Support Director, BAE Systems - Air, said: “Having been at the heart of developing, producing and bringing Tornado in to service, our people have been at the heart of this aircraft for generations. We have been proud to be part of the team which has supported Tornado, continuously deployed on operations since 1990.

“Now, we look forward to continuing our partnership with the RAF supporting its future frontline fleet of an upgraded Typhoon and F-35 Lightning for decades to come.”

One man who knew the Tornado intimately from its earliest days was test pilot Dave Eagles.

He was the “Project Pilot” for Tornado at BAE Systems at Warton and helped engineers to organise the cockpit layout and see how the aircraft performed in flight.

He said: “It was very straightforward to fly. Very smooth, especially at high speed with the wing fully swept.

“When the wing was swept, about five per cent of its area was tucked away inside the fuselage, so reaction to turbulence was low.

“The actual sweeping of the wing was a bit of an anti-climax! The operation of the system was very simple, the attitude of the aircraft changed to more nose-up, and if you were already at medium to high speed the aircraft would accelerate as the drag reduced.

“In the early days, all the new features were very interesting to investigate.

“The engines were new and initially somewhat underpowered. Many a time we would bring our first prototype back with engine problems – perhaps over temperature – and our super hard working ground crew would work all night to either fix it or change it and it would be ready to go again in the morning.

“We almost had to jump out on flight 18 when we swallowed a large seagull down the starboard intake and the engine caught fire.

“We had a faulty reheat system on the other one so we were in trouble for a while.

“It was our first ‘fly-by-wire’ aircraft and the new control system made the handling and behaviour pretty much the same in all configurations and with all loads and at all speeds. This was a spectacular feature.

“Tornado had many high tech features for its day so it was in many ways unique.

“It had reverse thrust giving very short landings, and an automatic terrain-following system which allowed you to take your hands off the stick at very low altitude, to automatically follow the general ground contours down to as low as 200 feet.

“It was much faster than Jaguar, of course, though not much better than the Lightning.

“And it had a roomy cockpit and excellent performance.

“ I am very sad to see it going out of service, having spent many happy hours in it and seen it develop into a high performing strike aircraft.

“I have also been very proud to see how the RAF have used it in the various trouble-spots around the world, and am glad to see it passing over the torch to Typhoon, another product of collaboration between the European aerospace industry.”