As I begin writing this feature, there is a little over two months remaining of the Panavia Tornado’s long illustrious operational career with the Royal Air Force (RAF), spanning almost 40 years. However, on 31 March 2019, the variable-sweep wing multi-role strike aircraft will fly straight from active combat duty into the history books, leaving the Eurofighter Typhoon FGR.4 and Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II to take its place.

The RAF Tornado, or “Tonka” as it is famously nicknamed in the UK, was introduced into RAF service on 5 June 1979 and the air arm has since seen roughly 385 aircraft of variants serving multiple operational roles, distinctively ground attack and air interception. But as the sun begins to set on this venerable aircraft’s career, RAF Tornado GR.4’s are still proving their worth contributing to Operation Shader in the Middle East. The Tornado truly is ‘going out fighting!’


The Tornado’s inception dates as far back as the 1960s, with the variable-geometry wing design being studied by aeronautical engineers. The aim was to improve an straight-winged aircraft’s manoeuvrability and efficient cruise, whilst enabling the speed of swept-wing aircraft.

At this time, the RAF had just scrapped the famed BAC TSR-2 programme and cancelled an order for a fleet of 50 US-made General Dynamics F-111K low-level strike and reconnaissance aircraft. Though, the air arm was still looking for a viable replacement for its Avro Vulcan strategic bomber and Blackburn Buccaneer strike aircraft fleets.

Panavia Tornado GR.4 [Reg: ZG750 “Pinky”] of the Royal Air Force’s 12(B) Squadron on static display at RIAT 2017. Image – Khalem Chapman ©.

In 1968, the UK joined Belgium, Canada, Italy, the Netherlands and West Germany in their already established Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) programme. The countries were looking to replace their Lockheed F-104 Starfighter fleets. Belgium and Canada both dropped out of the programme at an early stage, with Belgium being offered the Dassault Mirage V from France; and Canada because of political reasons. The Netherlands pulled out of the programme in 1970, citing that MRCA would produce an aircraft too complicated for its requirements. This left Italy, West Germany and the UK in the programme and these countries would go on to operate the Tornado operationally.

Despite being dubbed the Panavia MRCA throughout its development, it was debated whether the aircraft should be single-seat or twin-seat, with West Germany favouring the former and the UK favouring the latter. The aircraft was briefly known as the Panavia Panther, but when it was decided that the two-seat version would be produced, the name Tornado stuck with it.


The Panavia Tornado first took to the skies on 14 August 1974 at Manching, Germany piloted by Paul Millett. The aircraft had a rather easy development with only minor design modifications needing to be made.

The timing of the aircraft’s development saw designers incorporate newer technologies into aircraft, things that are now commonplace in most commercial and military jet aircraft. This included the introduction of the autopilot and more sophisticated stability augmentation systems.

In July 1976, the first production contract for Batch 1 aircraft was placed, with the RAF receiving its first Tornado on 5 June 1979. The German Air Force received its first aircraft on 6 June 1979 and the Italian Air Force received its first Tornado on 25 September 1981.

The flypast to celebrate the 35th Anniversary of the Tri-National Tornado Training Establishment (TTTE) at RIAT 2015. Image – Khalem Chapman ©.

The Tri-National Tornado Training Establishment (TTTE)

The Tri-National Tornado Training Establishment was a specialised multinational Tornado training unit which operated from RAF Cottesmore in Rutland, England. The unit operated from 29 January 1981 to 31 March 1999 – fun fact, the date the RAF retires the remainder of its Tornado fleet will be the 20th Anniversary since the TTTE ceased operations.

The three initial operators of the Tornado – Italy, the UK and West Germany were all part of the TTTE. Pilots and aircrew who deployed on to this unit typically spent 4 weeks of ground training followed by 9 weeks of intense flight training.

Following the end of the Cold War, each country began making developments to their individual Tornado fleets, meaning a joint training operation (the TTTE) was becoming obsolete, thus it was disbanded in 1999.

At the Royal International Air Tattoo 2015, the three partner nations came together to fly a formation pass to celebrate the TTTE and the personnel involved.

RAF Tornado Variants

The RAF has operated numerous variants of Tornado aircraft over its long service. The air arm has operated both the Tornado Air Defence Variant (ADV), which acted as a long-range interceptor; and the Tornado Interdictor/ Strike (IDS) variant, which acts as a low-level penetrator for ground attack and strike missions.

Panavia Tornado GR.4 [Reg: ZG750 “Pinky”] of the Royal Air Force’s 12(B) Squadron on static display at RIAT 2017. Image – Khalem Chapman ©.

Despite the ADV sharing 80% of its total parts commonality with the IDS, the former was much quicker and had improved RB.199 Mk.104 engines. It’s fuselage was longer and it had a larger fuel capacity. With regards to systems, the ADV sacrificed a cannon to enable the addition of a retractable in-flight refuelling probe and the aircraft was equipped with the AI.24 Foxhunter radar. Both types of Tornado had the ability of supersonic flight – having a top speed of Mach 2.2 (2,400km/h or 1,490mph). The aircraft’s maximum range varied between the two types, with the ADV having an increased range available on combat missions than the IDS. The ADV had a maximum operational range of 1,853km (1,151 miles), whereas the IDS has a maximum operational range of 1,390km (870 miles). Both aircraft variants were able to operate up to 50,000ft (15,240m).

In total, the Tornado has served under 8 different designations with the RAF, through various upgrades and the inclusion of more modern equipment for the aircraft to fulfil its full potential during its service.

In RAF service the Tornado ADV was given the ‘F’ designations, whereas Tornado IDS aircraft were given ‘GR’ designations. These were given respective to the aircraft types individual role. More details on each individual RAF variant are below.

Panavia Tornado F.2/ F.2A

The first designation given to RAF Tornado ADV’s was the F.2 and served as an all-weather long-range interceptor. The ‘F’ designation is an abbreviation of the aircraft’s fighter role. The twin-seat aircraft was powered by two Turbo-Union RB.199-34R Mk.103 turbofan engines. The F.2 was the initial production ADV to serve with the RAF. In total, 18 aircraft were built. The first aircraft was delivered to the RAF in 1985. In essence, the Tornado F.2 served as an interim platform prior to the introduction of the upgraded F.3 variant.

With regards to the Panavia Tornado F.2A, a single Tornado F.2 was converted to this designation prior to the introduction of the Tornado F.3 variant. The F.2A shared characteristics with the F.3, apart from the engine upgrade. The single aircraft was upgraded by QinetiQ for unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) trials at MoD Boscombe Down and was known as the Tornado Integrated Avionics Research Aircraft (TIARA).

Panavia Tornado F.3/ EF.3

A former-RAF Panavia Tornado F.3 [Reg: ZE340 ‘GO’]. The aircraft was formerly operated by 43 Squadron (nicknamed “the Fighting Cocks”). This airframe is now used by students at the Defence School of Aeronautical Engineering (DSAE) at RAF Cosford, Shropshire. ZE340 was seen pictured here at the RAF Cosford Airshow 2018. Image – Khalem Chapman ©.

The Tornado F.3 was the second designation given to RAF Tornado ADVs and was more successful than its predecessor. In total, 171 Tornado F.3s were built for the Royal Air Force and the Royal Saudi Air Force, with the Italian Air Force leasing the type from the RAF. The RAF operated 147 of these over the course of the variant’s operational life. Both air arms have since retired the type, with the RAF ceasing operations with the F.3 in 2011.

The Tornado F.3 was a much more improved version of the F.2. The F.3 was powered by the newer RB.199-34R Mk.104 engines, along with avionics upgrades and it also had automatic wing sweep control. In terms of weaponry, according to Global Security’s website: “The Tornado F.3 is optimised for long-range interception, for which it carries four Skyflash radar-guided missiles and four AIM 9-L Sidewinder infra-red homing air-to-air missiles, plus an internally-mounted 27mm Mauser cannon.” The F.3 was also able to operate alongside the RAF’s Boeing E-3D Sentry AEW.1 Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft and other allied fighter aircraft with the installation of the Joint Tactical Information Distribution System. This allowed the fighter to use information gathered by other aircraft sensors to move onto their targets. According to Air Force Technology, later modifications to the F.3 enabled it to be equipped with “AIM-20 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, a Raytheon IFF 4810 SIFF (successor identification friend or foe) system and Honeywell laser inertial navigation system.”

Two Panavia Tornado F.3s of 1435 Flight based at Mount Pleasant, patrolling the skies over the Falkland Islands. MoD Crown Copyright (2007).

The Panavia Tornado F.3 first saw its British combat debut in 1991, during the first Gulf War and has since been involved with; Operation Deny Flight (1993-1995) – being used as escort fighters over Bosnia; Operation Allied Force (1999) – flying combat air patrols over the former state of Yugoslavia and; Operation Telic (2003) – as part of the UK’s contribution to the US-led Invasion of Iraq, they ceased combat operations that same year, due to the threat of airborne attacks being significantly reduced. It is noted, however, that conflict with Tornado F.3s were actively avoided by Iraqi pilots during the first Gulf War due to their long-range missile capabilities.

Prior to Operation Telic (the UK military’s operation during the 2003 Gulf War), a small number of Tornado F.3s were modified to be able to perform the Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) role. This modification enabled the F.3 to be equipped with the Air Launched Anti-Radiation Missile (ALARM). Aircraft that underwent this upgrade were unofficially dubbed the Tornado EF.3. Despite the modification, the aircraft were not reportedly deployed during the conflict.

Tornado F.3s served the RAF from 1986 until 2011, when it was phased out and replaced by the Eurofighter Typhoon. The Typhoon currently serves in the air interception role which was formerly the task of the Tornado F.3.

A Typhoon F2 fighter aircraft (top) from 11 Squadron, RAF Coningsby in close formation with a Tornado F3 aircraft formerly from the same Squadron. Tornados first flew with this historic Squadron in 1988. In Oct 2005 the Squadron was disbanded but reformed again at RAF Coningsby on 29 Mar 07 as the RAF’s second frontline Typhoon squadron. As the multi-role lead squadron, it spearheads the development of Typhoon’s air-to-surface capability, which was ready for deployed operations by the summer of 2008. MoD Crown Copyright (2007).

Panavia Tornado GR.1/ GR.1A/GR.1B

Upon entering service with the RAF, the Panavia Tornado IDS variant was given the GR.1 designation. The ‘GR’ designation is an abbreviation of ground attack/ reconnaissance. First deliveries from a initial total of 228 GR.1 aircraft to the RAF took place on 5 June 1979, with the type entering operational service in the early 1980s.

Panavia Tornado GR.1 [Reg: ZA320 ‘TAW’] on static display at the RAF Cosford Airshow 2017. The aircraft is used for training DSAE students at RAF Cosford. Image – Khalem Chapman ©.

Panavia Tornado GR variants are used by the RAF in low-level, deep penetration missions and were able to be deployed in any weather condition, day or night – being used heavily in Close Air Support (CAS) missions. The aircraft’s armament was very large; unlike its counterpart it had two 25mm cannons, along with a wide range of iron bombs, laser-guided bombs and cluster bombs. The latter has now since been prohibited due to its danger to civilians as it releases bomblets over such a wide area.

The GR.1 made its combat debut during Operation Granby, alongside its interceptor counterpart. Reportedly, 60 Tornado GR.1’s were deployed as part of the operation, with the aircraft famously repainted in the Granby “desert pink” camouflage. The RAF maintained a presence in the Middle East with their Tornado GR.1 fleet following the first Gulf War, being based out of Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait. From that they participated in Operation Southern Watch and Operation Provide Comfort.

Some Tornado GR.1 aircraft were modified to provide additional reconnaissance roles. The modified aircraft were given the GR.1A designation. The website Air Force Technology states that the GR.1A provided “real-time reconnaissance, with facilities for in-flight review of reconnaissance data, recording for post-flight analysis and instant ground access to recorded imagery.” Adding that this was done via “three internally mounted infrared sensors linked to a video recording system, providing 24-hour, horizon-to-horizon surveillance coverage.”

In 1994, 26 Tornado GR.1s were modified to carry the BAe Dynamics (now MBDA) Sea Eagle medium weight sea-skimming anti-ship missile, of which four could be carried by the aircraft. The modified aircraft were given the Tornado GR.1B designation. These aircraft were based at RAF Lossiemouth, Scotland – replacing the Blackburn Buccaneer in the RAF’s maritime strike role.

A Victor of 55 Squadron refuelling a Tornado GR1 and Buccaneer S2 on their way to a target during Operation Granby. MoD Crown Copyright (1991).

In March 1993, the Royal Air Force initiated a mid-life upgrade (MLU) project for their Tornado GR.1 fleet, which re-designated them to Tornado GR.4/ GR.4A standard. The GR.1 would operate alongside its upgraded counterpart for years to come following the projects inception.

In 1999, RAF Tornado GR.1s were active in the Kosovo War, operating from both RAF Bruggen in Germany and Solenzara Air Base on the French island of Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea. The conflict saw the introduction of the Enhanced Paveway smart-bombs and the AGM-65 Maverick missiles. Following the war, the Tornado GR.1/ GR.1A was phased out as the GR.4/ GR.4A fleet began to grow, with the final GR.1/ GR.1A converted to GR.4/ GR.4A standard being returned to the RAF in June 2003.

Panavia Tornado GR.4/ GR.4A

Panavia Tornado GR.4 [Reg: ZA601 ‘066’] seen here the RAF Scampton Airshow 2017 with the Rafael Litening III targeting pod equipped. ZA601 was the first Tornado GR.1 delivered to 617 Squadron (nicknamed “the Dambusters”) in 1982. Image – Khalem Chapman ©

The Tornado GR.4/ GR.4 variant is the RAF’s current and only operational variant of Tornado and will remain in the UK air arm’s operational inventory until its retirement on 31st March. In total, 142 Tornado GR.1/ GR.1As were upgraded to GR.4/ GR.4A standard, with upgrades starting on GR.1/ GR.1A aircraft in 1996.

The British government envisaged the GR.4/ GR.4A upgrade as far back as 1984, as the Ministry of Defence (MoD) began studying the MLU for the Tornado. Upgrades on the type enabled the platform to operate better at medium-altitude combat roles, following lessons learnt from GR.1 operations during the Gulf War.

The Tornado GR.4/ GR.4A was given operational clearance in 2001 and later worked alongside its predecessor during the first few months of Operation Telic. The GR.4/ GR.4A dramatically increased the precision capability of the type, being equipped with the (then) new Storm Shadow low-observable air-launched cruise missile developed by MBDA. Combat operations with the GR.4/ GR.4A began with the famous 617 Squadron, nicknamed “the Dambusters” after Operation Chastise over the Ruhr valley in 1943. RAF Tornado GR.4’s also debuted the Brimstone anti-armour missile during Operation Telic after it received its Initial Operational Capability (IOC) in 2005. The RAF continued with Tornado GR.4/ GR.4A operations over Iraq until the air arm withdrew in 2009.

A flypast celebrating the history of 617 Squadron “the Dambusters” took place at RIAT 2018, involving the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s (BBMF) Avro Lancaster B.I, a Panavia Tornado GR.4, and the squadron’s latest combat aircraft, the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II. Image – Khalem Chapman ©.

The Royal Air Force kept the specialist reconnaissance-roled GR.1As, upgrading them to GR.4A standard. The aircraft were operated by II Squadron (nicknamed “Shiney Two”) and 13 Squadron (nicknamed “the Stabbed Cats”). During the GR.4s tenure, the Reconnaissance Airborne Pod Tornado (or RAPTOR pod) was introduced, alongside the Rafael Litening III targeting pod. The RAPTOR pod, as described by Air Force Technology, houses a “DB-110 reconnaissance system with CCD day sensor and mid-wave indium infrared sensor” which “provides real-time day and night targeting with a range of 72km (electro-optic) and 36km (infrared).” Following the introduction of the RAPTOR pod, GR.4A platforms became less needed as the capability given by the pod could be equipped to any Tornado aircraft.

Panavia Tornado GR.4 [Reg: ZA459 ‘025’] bearing a special scheme to celebrate the centenary of IX(B) Squadron, seen here prior to departing RAF Fairford after RIAT 2015. Image – Khalem Chapman ©.

The platform was immediately re-tasked to support coalition forces in Afghanistan as part of Operation Herrick. In doing so, it replaced the RAF’s BAe Systems Harrier GR.7/ GR.9 force that had been deployed there since 2004. The transition saw the introduction of Raytheon’s Paveway IV laser-guided bombs. The RAF’s Tornado GR.4 fleet operated as part of Operation Herrick until the RAF withdrew from Afghanistan in December 2014.

Panavia Tornado GR.4 [Reg: ZA612 ‘074’] of 15(R) Squadron on take-off from RAF Fairford after appearing at RIAT 2016. Image – Khalem Chapman ©.

In 2010, the UK government initiated a Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), which is considered by some to be a dark time for the UK military. The 2010 SDSR saw many cuts made and made the future of the UK’s Tornado fleet bleak. Following the review’s publication, the Tornado fleet was retained at the loss of the UK’s Harrier fleet. However, it was announced that the Tornado GR.4/ GR.4A would be slowly phased out of service, with its previous out of service date being brought forward from its planned date of 2025 to 2019. With its role being taken over by RAF Eurofighter Typhoon FGR.4 and Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II fleets.

In 2011, the RAF deployed roughly 16 Tornado GR.4s on Operation Ellamy, joining the Typhoon as part of the UK’s military involvement with coalition forces over Libya. The operation was short lived, ending in the same year as it began. The RAF began to draw down its total number of front-line Tornado GR.4 squadrons, as per the 2010 SDSR.

Following the rise of ISIS in Iraq in 2014, the RAF again deployed the Tornado GR.4 to aid coalition forces against the threat. The ongoing Operation Shader was green lit and Tornado GR.4s conducted the RAF’s first armed mission three days later. The operation has since spread to Syria and Libya.

The remaining RAF Tornado aircraft will cease all RAF operations and flying by 31st March 2019, a date which is fast approaching. The aircraft’s role will be taken over by the RAF’s newest fighter aircraft, the fifth-generation stealth multi-role Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) fighter, the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II, which will enable the RAF to further its aerial combat and strike capability and will once again give the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm a fighter asset, deployable from its new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers. The type gained its IOC for land-based operations earlier this month and is scheduled to gain its maritime IOC by the end of 2020.

The two F-35’s pictured are marked up in UK and United States livery alongside an RAF Tornado GR4 from 31 Sqn RAF Marham which will eventually be replaced by the UK’s newest and most exciting front line fighting jet. MoD Crown Copyright (2016).

The F-35B will not solely take over the Tornado’s role though, as the Centurion-standard Typhoons have also attained their IOC. The £425 million (GDP) Centurion upgrade has enabled the Typhoon to be equipped with both Storm Shadow and Brimstone, weapons which previously could only be deployed by Tornado aircraft. The upgrade also added advanced software to the Typhoon along with integrating MBDA’s new Meteor active radar-guided beyond-visual-range air-to-air (BVRAAM) missile.


41(R) Test and Evaluation Squadron’s specially painted “Seek and Destroy” Eurofighter Typhoon FGR.4 [Reg: ZK315] flanked by a pair of RAF Marham-based Tornado GR.4s at the RAF Scampton Airshow 2017. Image – Khalem Chapman ©.

Over its lengthy service with the RAF, roughly 385 Tornado aircraft of different variants have been in active service. As of 1 January 2019, just 19 aircraft remained in service, with three specially painted aircraft still active to celebrate the type near 40 years of service. Whilst many aircraft have been sent to RAF Leeming, North Yorkshire, to be made into cuff links or to be stripped for parts under the RAF’s Reduce to Produce (RTP) programme, the RAF are still employing the aircraft and its capabilities on Operation Shader, proving the type is still a valuable asset and keeping it fighting until the end and its role is superseded by the new Centurion-standard Typhoons, the F-35B Lightning II fleets and is looking ahead with Project Tempest, the RAF’s planned replacement for the Typhoon platform, which will one day supplement an established RAF/ Royal Navy F-35B fleet.

Panavia Tornado GR.4 [Reg: ZA607 ‘EB-X’] of 41(R) Test and Evaluation Squadron and a Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II from 617 Squadron “the Dambusters” breaking away from the crowdline at RIAT 2018. Image – Khalem Chapman ©.

The type recently underwent its last low-level UK flight through the famed Mach Loop, a famous area for aviation photographers and enthusiasts to catch low flying military aircraft. The aviation community are reflecting on this hugely successful and beloved aircraft, sharing images and stories on social media and the RAF are preparing the platform’s farewell celebrations. Although the type is scheduled to remain in service with the German, Italian and Saudi Arabian air forces for the foreseeable future, the Tornado in RAF service will always be remembered and reflected on as a success story, not just for the UK military but for UK industry too. As with older UK types, such as the Avro Vulcan and English Electric Lightning, future generations will unfortunately not have the opportunity to hear the roar of a pair of RAF Tornados perform a high performance take-off, an experience which truly is memorable.

By Khalem Chapman [26/01/2019]
Featured Image: Panavia Tornado GR.4 [Reg: ZG750 “Pinky”] of the Royal Air Force’s 12(B) Squadron on static display at RIAT 2017. Image – Khalem Chapman ©.