Farewell to an RAF Stalwart
After 40 years’ service, the remarkable RAF jet that took the fight to Saddam Hussein has finally been retired
By Con Coughlin
September 23 2019
The sun was starting to set over the glimmering Saudi Arabian desert as the RAF aircrews prepared the Tornado GR1 warplanes for take-off. It was January 1991, and the fleet of Tornados was in the vanguard of the effort to liberate Kuwait following the Iraqi invasion.
This was a long-awaited baptism of fire for the Tornado. From low-level bombing raids to destroying Iraqi airstrips and knocking out military installations, it was in fact the plane’s first combat operation since entering service in the late 1970s. As an officially designated war correspondent with the RAF, I was able to witness first-hand its impressive firepower, as well as the exceptional bravery of the aircrew against a well-armed and resolute opposition.
It is easy to forget that in the opening salvoes of that conflict, success for the allies was by no means guaranteed. The bombing raids involved flying at 200 feet at supersonic speed in the middle of the night – and even though the aircrews did their best to maintain the element of surprise, the Iraqis soon got used to their targets, and before long the RAF was sustaining serious losses.
I recall interviewing one young flight lieutenant shortly after he returned to base following a mission in which a Tornado was shot down. “You do it the first time because you don’t know what you are letting yourself in for,” he told me, matter-of-factly. “But once you have felt what it’s like to have a whole nation trying to kill you, you don’t particularly want to repeat the experience.”
Nevertheless, they bravely continued. The RAF lost a total of eight aircraft during combat operations, and was ordered to conduct future missions from a safer height, where they could not be targeted so easily. By winning its battle honours in Iraq, this was the moment the Tornado really came of age and proved its worth as the mainstay of the RAF’s fleet of fighter aircraft.
Powered by two Rolls-Royce engines, the Tonka, as it affectionately came to be known, was originally conceived at the height of the Cold War to race as fast as possible to a designated target and deliver death and destruction to the enemy
Some of the onboard equipment was more suitable for display in a museum: Aircrews were still using VHS cassettes for missions against Islamic State targets in Syria earlier this year. But pilots also reported that, flying at 400 knots while dodging through trees and fields, the fighter was smooth and quiet to operate.
The prototype version of the aircraft, the Tornado GR1, entered service in 1979. However, for the Falklands War in 1982, military chiefs preferred the more versatile, ship-launched Harrier jump jet.
Having demonstrated its abilities in the Gulf War, the Tornado was deployed almost continuously for the next two decades in all the world’s major conflict zones. For most of the 1990s it was responsible for patrolling the no-fly zones established over northern and southern Iraq at the end of the Gulf war, occasionally engaging in air-toair combat with Iraqi MiGs or attacking Saddam’s ground-based air defences.
It also made decisive contributions to allied interventions in the Balkans in the 1990s, and was crucial to the success of the more recent military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in 2011, the upgraded Tornado GR4 was at the forefront of the aerial campaign against Libya, where its expert delivery of the RAF’s new generation of laser-guided weapons proved to be a decisive factor in the tyrant Colonel Muammar Gadaffi’s demise.
Indeed, the RAF’s battle hardened Tornados were still flying combat missions against Islamic State terrorists right up until they were finally withdrawn from service earlier this year. The last warplane returned to its base at RAF Marnham, Norfolk, in March.To the locals, the Tornado was known as the Norfolk land shark, a reference to the enormous tail fin they occasionally glimpsed passing just above the trees. And, as the final aircraft taxied to her hangar, they knew they would never see her like again.