The new F-35, pretender to the English Electric Lightning’s throne – Tornado’s cousin and another abuser of physics – may have the kit, but Tornado had the pedigree.
Hugh, taking a day off and travelling from Swindon to pay his respects, saw his first Tornado as a boy aged six in the Lake District. You saw nothing then, Bang! it was over your head, he says, fingers in your ears stuff, happy times.
She was daubed with shiny baubles over the years – thermal imagers, laser designators, clever things designed by cool, detached minds – so that, by the end, she was more ‘Trigger’s broom’ than the original designer’s vision. But underneath, unchanged over her four decades of service, Tornado was the same beast: forged in fire, when metal was cut to hurt and the only right angle was exactly that.
At low level, trees and fields disappearing underneath her stubby little wings in a smudgy green blur, pilots said Tornado was smooth and quiet; a comfortable office.
Sure, the high bypass ratio engines meant she could be a bit asthmatic at medium to high levels when loaded up with weapons, but that was all the more reason to get them off the rails, sweep the variable geometry wings back to 67 degrees and race home clinging to the safety of the valleys, afterburner blazing.
The older, but no less bold, pilots would talk of their ‘primary lines’: the individual routes they were tasked to fly from Germany into the Soviet Union, carrying conventional bombs to wipe out the SA-5 missile sites, waiting to ambush the bigger Nato airborne control planes.
Or, before the role was given to the Navy’s submarines, they could be armed with nuclear weapons, ready to drop a little bucket of sunshine, as the saying went.
Crews practised flying towards targets in the expectation of being dazzled by nuclear bursts erupting to left and right. We faced east and that was where we were going, says the Navigator flying on the last sortie. His map would be annotated with notes saying things like ‘don’t look right for five miles’ as they came abeam targets for their squadron mates.
In later years the fight got more precise and Tornado came to be thought of more as flying artillery than a dumb bomber. With new weapons like Brimstone and Paveway IV it was not a question of how many aircraft it would take to drop a bridge, but how many bridges could be dropped by one aircraft.
Troops in contact in Afghanistan were reassured when they had a Tornado on the end of the radio. Other nationalities had ‘red lines’ which restricted their use, long after legal and moral considerations had been met.
But the RAF, barrelling in at 400 knots, would take the mission, record the nine-line brief from the soldier on the ground, then release the appropriate weapon. Insurgents came to understand that they were targets and if they drove a vehicle, by day or night, and a Tornado was nearby, they were gone.
The noise from the two Rolls Royce engines was like nothing on earth. Trevor, from Downham Market, visiting the final flypast and adding to his 4,000 photos he already had of Tornado, said the noise doesn’t bother him, he loves it, although his wife has never got used to it.
The engineers, too, loved her foibles. They might say she was a needy aircraft and the younger ones would express surprise at the use of VHS cassettes in the aircraft to record voice and cockpit screens – in 2019!
But while they might grumble about leaky hydraulic seals after a week in a cold hangar, there would be tears in the eyes by the end of the day, and not just because of the wind whipping across East Anglia.
And then she was off. The last Tornado to drop bombs, ZA463, the last of the Tonkas, the last Norfolk land shark, so named for the enormous tail fin that was often glimpsed by locals flashing just over tree-top height, taxied and lifted for the final sortie.
Three passes over the base, low, aggressive, wings swept back; the noise hitting your chest after the grey blur has blasted over at 100 feet. Car alarms wailing.
Then a vertical climb on afterburners; the supreme expression of power in the skies, and a bank lit by the last sunset, leaving just a contrail, heading east.
Source: The Telegraph