Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Tornado Visit

Due to the recent announcement of the RAF's last flight of a Tornado as they retire, I felt it would be a good time for a Tornado related story. 

In the second half of 1990 the Gulf War broke out. The war would be won by the Allies, but many people missed one important point. The Allies won mainly because they fought the war exactly like they had planned to fight the Soviets in Europe. The NATO members had trained extensively together, and so when the Allies had to fight a large Soviet equipped enemy, they simply reverted to their training.
One of the training exercises was named Red Flag, it is run several times a year in the United States, with the sole aim to provide full scale training for aircrews from across NATO. In April 1990, as usual a Red Flag exercise was held, during which the RAF's Tornado's would play their usual role of airfield destruction.

On this particular scenario, the fourth in the exercise, the Tornado's would be leading a strike package to hit a dummy airfield. The lead Tornado, with the squadron code FG, was flown by an extremely experienced pair of aircrew, for example the navigator had been trained and served on Vulcan bombers, and had some 440 hours on the Tornado. The opening part of the sortie went according to plan, and the Tornado crew were soon at their holding point orbiting and awaiting for all the other strike packages to get into place.
Gratuitous Tornado shot!
While in their holding pattern they noticed a problem. Fuel was not transferring from FG's wing tanks to their fuselage ones. This could be a serious problem, in under three minutes the entire might of the Allies air forces would swing into action. Fighters to keep enemy aircraft suppressed, electronic warfare aircraft to hinder enemy radars and Wild Weasels to suppress enemy air defences. Literally hundreds of planes from across NATO would be in action to deliver the Tornado's to their target.
Then in the detailed debrief of the mission the strike leader would be aborting. The Tornado crew began to carry out their checklist of fixes for the fault, and it seemed to both crew that the problem had been solved. Then the show began.

One of the RAF's main missions during any war with the Soviet Union, and a mission they would fly against the Iraqi air force, was the destruction of enemy airfields. For this the Tornado would approach at low level, a skill that the RAF trained extensively for. There are stories from the Iraq war of RAF planes leaving skid marks in sand dunes as they were flying so low, or of RAF strike packages flying so low they would often fly underneath the other air forces planes. When the RAF Tornado's switched to carrying radar seeking missiles, they would often be flying below the planes they were protecting and when you launch an anti-radar missile the first part of the flight profile would be to climb, so the planes above the Tornado Wild Weasels would see missiles climbing towards them...
A RAF Jaguar pulling up slightly, over a Iraqi air base, underneath you can see a MIG-23, and an Iraqi who just got the shock of his life!
Either way at low level the Tornado's would be able to get into position, then attack the heavily defended airfield. One weapon used for these attacks was the Hunting JP233, an utterly unique weapon that consisted of two pods mounted under the fuselage of the Tornado. These pods would dispense mines and cratering charges as the Tornado flew along the length of the airfield’s runway. The cratering charge would render the runway unusable by aircraft, and the mines would prevent repair work being carried out.
This did mean that the Tornado would be flying straight and level, in one of the most concentrated areas of AA weapons, lit up like a Christmas tree for several seconds, an utterly scary thought for any pilot.
Because of this risk, and that each JP233 was only effective at destroying runways, Tornado's also trained to toss bombs at targets. It was this later tactic that FG was utilising to attack their dummy target
On their way out from their strike, the crew of FG noticed that the fuel issue they had thought fixed, had indeed continued. Calculations quickly showed they were too short of fuel to reach their home base. They were even short of fuel to reach one of the emergency divert airfields at Indian Springs. There was one airfield they could reach though, it went by the name of Tonopah.

Tonopah is home to one of the US's top secret research establishments called the 'Skunk Works'. It was also home to the Constant Peg Program, which flew and tested captured Soviet planes. At the time the latest super top-secret USAF plane at the airfield was the ultra top-secret F-117 stealth 'fighter'. It should be noted that the RAF aircrew were fully aware of the nature and existence of the F-117, as the information had been briefed out the year previously, indeed there was even an RAF Tornado pilot flying with the F-117 program. Which makes what happened next all the more peculiar.

When the crew of FG declared an emergency, and that they were diverting to Tonopah, they were questioned for some time about 'why they had to go there', 'what was wrong with their plane', 'why couldn't head to Indian Springs', and the like. Eventually the crew said they had two options, Tonopah or ejecting to let the Tornado crash.

After they landed, they were ordered to park up and shut down but not to leave the aircraft. Shortly afterwards their plane was surrounded by vehicles and armed guards. The crew of FG were taken to an enclosed room and interrogated for several hours, by both military and civilian personnel. When the navigator asked for a toilet break, he was escorted by a guard who remained with him inside the toilet.

Eventually the crew were informed that they would be returned to their base, but the Tornado had been confiscated and they would be told when they could retrieve it. The crew were hooded and driven to Tonopah's perimeter and then returned to their base.
The day after the crew were flown back to Tonopah, escorted to Tornado FG, and told they had 40 minutes to get airborne and clear the area. As they arrived at the aircraft, they found that it had been serviced by the ground crew at Tonopah, who had also, rather cheekily painted a F-117 on the tail, and inside the cockpit was a ticket for parking illegally on a US military base. The crew, and FG, returned to their home base without further incident.

"Was I a good Bomber?"

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