BL17 FINAL - Page 20

he 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
After 40 years’ service, the remarkable
RAF jet that took the fight to Saddam
Hussein has finally been retired
Journalist and
a u t h o r, a n d
defense editor
for The Daily
Te l e g r a p h
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.
Its initial objective was to
destroy the swarms of Soviet
tanks that were supposed to
sweep across the German plain
in the event of the outbreak of
a conventional conflict between
Moscow and the West. In the
event of a nuclear confrontation
they could be armed with nuclear
weapons to drop a little bucket
of sunshine – to use the military
slang – on enemy targets.
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 battlehardened 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.

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