RAF Tornado formation tribute
Welcome to this latest edition of Aerodrome and our regular delve into the fascinating world of aeroplanes and the historic aviation scene in the UK. As far as subject matter for this latest blog is concerned, there really could only be one aircraft taking centre stage and that is the soon to be retired Royal Air Force Panavia Tornado, an aircraft which has been in service longer than some of our readers have been alive and certainly for most of the lives of us slightly older enthusiasts. In the previous edition of Aerodrome, we included two pictures of a Tornado three ship formation flypast kindly supplied by reader Steve Kimpton, as he went to Duxford to catch a final glimpse of the aircraft as it completed three days of nationwide flypasts in its farewell tour. Clearly a sad and poignant occasion for many British enthusiasts, the situation was made all the more depressing by the fact that like many, I was unable to pay my own aviation respects to an aircraft which played quite a significant role in my early life, due to work commitments and that perhaps I had missed my opportunity. Thankfully, for once, circumstances dictated that I would actually get one final opportunity to see the ‘Mighty Fin’ in RAF service and experience a day which will live long in my memory. In this latest edition of Aerodrome, join me as I took my place amongst thousands of enthusiasts clinging to the perimeter fence at RAF Marham, hoping that the good old British weather would not spoil what promised to be a historic day in British military aviation.
The RAF’s post war strike warrior
With 37 years of front-line RAF service behind it, the Panavia Tornado is on the verge of retirement, but will be remembered as one of the most effective strike jets of the post war era
For an aircraft which has provided several nations with an effective strike, interdiction and reconnaissance platform (and also air defence, in the case of the ADV variant) for almost forty years and earned an unrivalled combat reputation during this time, the Panavia Tornado was forced to endure something of a challenging beginning. A collaborative project involving Britain, Germany and Italy, the MRCA (Multi Role Combat Aircraft) was a highly advanced, twin engined, variable geometry wing design, which was intended to replace a number of older aircraft types in each nation’s respective air forces, whilst also providing them with a world leading combat aircraft. Hoping that the economies of scale and international collaboration would produce an aircraft which would be the envy of the world, having multiple nations involved in a project of this complexity was always going to have its difficulties, particularly in deciding production influence, differing design requirements and the political stability of each nation throughout the project, not to mention the huge costs associated with the development of new aircraft. What the consortium could call upon was the wealth of research knowledge gained through both the Concorde and TSR.2 projects, with much of the technology developed in support of these ground-breaking aircraft eventually finding its way into Tornado. Indeed, with its ability to perform high speed, low level interdictor strike missions using state of the art terrain-following radar and flyby wire controls, the Tornado would go on to perform many of the roles initially earmarked for the ill-fated TSR-2 project. Designed to strike fast and hard, whilst avoiding radar detection, the Tornado would have delivered its ordnance accurately on target, before the enemy knew they were under attack.
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Tornado was its variable geometry, or swing wing. During the 60s and 70s, a number of the world’s most capable military aircraft incorporated the ability to move their wings during various phases of flight, forward for slow speed manoeuvring and swept back for efficient high speed flight. Although this innovation was clearly developed to give aircraft a tactical advantage from an operational perspective, it also undoubtedly produced some of the most interesting post war combat aircraft, with the US introducing the General Dynamics F-111 and Grumman Tomcat and the Soviet Union following suit with their MiG 23 and 27 designs. With the MRCA promising to take this technology to even greater levels of effectiveness and with hundreds of aircraft destined for future service with the Royal Air Force, it is no wonder that British aviation enthusiasts watched these developments with interest and with the cancellation of TSR.2 still in painful recent memory for many, they wondered if this latest project would actually get off the ground?
Although the TSR-2 project was famously cancelled, much of the technology developed for this aircraft would find its way into Tornado, which was designed to perform a similar role
For a young man fascinated by aviation and with a determination that his O level studies would lead him to a career in the Royal Air Force, it was the Panavia Tornado which provided the impetus for my visit to the RAF Careers office in my home town and a self-inflicted removal from what was a very enjoyable, if rather sheltered home life and upbringing. Following the successful completion of an in-branch aptitude test, my first trip away from home without my parents was to attend the Officer and Aircrew Selection Centre at RAF Biggin Hill, where I realised rather quickly that I would be very much out of my comfort zone over the next three days. Pitting my wits against an ever more challenging set of situations and coming up against candidates who all seemed much older and much more prepared than I was, I actually negotiated the experience rather well, although came away being classed as unfit for aircrew selection, due to medical reasons (I suffered terribly that year with hay fever). Offered other trades which I now hugely regret not pursuing, my dream of flying the Tornado led me to the Commanding Officer’s office and discussing how unjust this situation was – they were in danger of losing the best damn pilot the Air Force had ever trained! I was given the opportunity to be re-tested in twelve month’s time, however, the hay fever continued to be a problem and my life soon took me down a different path. Nevertheless, the introduction of the Tornado was still a significant development during my formative years, unfortunately for me, as an enthusiast rather than a trainee fast jet pilot.
As an aviation enthusiast of some years standing, I count myself extremely fortunate to have been in attendance at the final flying tributes of several of the RAF’s most significant post war jets, before they are consigned to museums across the country, gate guardian duties, or the ignominy of meeting the scrapman’s torch. These have included such magnificent machines as the McDonnell Douglas Phantom, British Aerospace Harrier, and the Tornado F.3 and whilst these were undoubtedly sombre affairs and certainly not remembered with particular fondness, at least I can say that I was there and have the pictures to prove it. The imminent retirement of the Tornado GR.4 strike variant of the aircraft is perhaps the most poignant service withdrawal of them all for me and signifies not only the end of an aircraft which has to be regarded as one of the world’s most successful combat jets of the past 40 years, but also one which I grew up with as a young man. Charting its development on TV and in journals when very young, seeing pictures of the prototype aircraft flying when I was ten and dreaming of flying one in my teens, I have witnessed the service introduction of this exceptional aircraft and seen it go to war on several occasions, acting as flying peacekeeper in others, but all the time representing the Royal Air Force with distinction. Indeed, only last month, the final eight Tornados which had been on overseas deployment at RAF Akrotiri and engaged on operations in the Middle East, arrived back at Marham, bringing to an end almost 29 years of continuous active service for a jet which has developed and been upgraded over the years and is now arguably more capable than it has ever been.
What we had all come to see – one of the Tornados which had only recently returned to Marham from RAF Akrotiri and operations on the Middle East
Even though I have a great affinity with the Tornado, I feared that I had missed my opportunity to pay my personal post retirement respects to the aircraft, as I was unable to be present at one of the many locations overflown during last month’s 'Tornado Farewell Flypast'. This challenging undertaking was intended to allow as many people as possible to see the Tornado flying one last time and saw a formation of three jets flying 3 different routes on three consecutive days, taking in no fewer than 37 locations around the country, significant in the fact that this number was equivalent to 37 years of front-line Royal Air Force service for the Tornado. In scenes reminiscent of the final tour of Avro Vulcan XH558, tens of thousands of people ensured they were in position either at one of the published flypast locations, or at some point along the aircraft’s intended route, just to witness a single pass and to wave the Tornado a sad farewell. Indeed, at this point, I would like to congratulate the media team at RAF Marham for the exceptional work they have done over the past few weeks in keeping everyone informed about their plans and allowing those who were not in a position to be at one of the flypast locations to still feel involved with proceedings. Posting regular updates which kept enthusiasts and the general public informed and engaged, this not only allowed people to share in what must be a significant occasion in their own service careers, but also gave those interested a fascinating insight behind the scenes at an operational RAF airbase, as they planned for what were extremely high profile events. Drawing everyone’s attention to the aircraft serviceability and weather issues which could have a bearing on the day’s proceedings, this was something of a return to the day’s of my youth, when the RAF tried extremely hard to forge strong links with local communities and the public they served, seeing public support as a vital component in their continued operations. Without doubt the most effective RAF use of social media I have ever seen, the Marham team have shown how it should be done and set the bar extremely high for their colleagues to follow.
Indeed, it was this exceptional social media presence, in conjunction with discussions with an enthusiast friend which alerted me to the possibility of a much more robust Tornado tribute event, planned to take place at the end of February and only weeks before the Tornados out of service date. With the possibility of a nine-ship formation flypast and all aircraft taking part paying their own final respects to their home base at RAF Marham, this was the Tornado event I had been hoping for and barring disasters, I simply had to try and be there. Scheduled to take place on Thursday 28th February, Britain had been basking in some unseasonably good weather in the week prior to this date, but as most aviation enthusiasts will attest, if there was going to be a deterioration in conditions, you could guarantee that it would occur on the day you least wanted it to – flypast day. Despite a forecast for dark skies, a cold wind and the possibility of a shower or two, it was a 3am rise for 3.30 departure and a long journey down to Norfolk, not knowing if it would all be in vain, but hoping to be present at an extremely memorable aviation occasion – optimism will always win the day, as far as the aviation enthusiast is concerned.
Armed with a set of appropriate sat nav coordinates and the information that a local farmer had graciously allowed enthusiasts to park on a section of his land which was adjacent to the south-eastern edge of the airfield, I set off in the dark, a little concerned as to whether I would actually find the vantage point I was hoping for. Finally arriving in the Marham area at around 7am and having frustratingly travelled up and down the A1122 a couple of times trying to locate the entrance to the viewing field, I finally spotted some bright blue cord and recently erected wooden stakes and decided to try my luck. As I made my way down a dirt track, it didn’t take me long to realise that I was in the right place – even though I thought I had set off early enough to ensure I had my pick of photographic locations, it appeared as if I was a little late to the party, as there were already hundreds of cars parked in the field. Uncertainly was immediately replaced by a sense of urgency, as the pressure was now on to find a suitable spot. This event had clearly attracted enthusiasts from far and wide, some of whom I later discover had slept in their cars overnight – now that really is dedication. Everyone was here to hopefully witness something rather significant in the history of British aviation and a grand farewell for an aircraft which has to be regarded as one of the RAF’s most successful jets – the mighty Tonka.
Although everyone gathered around the perimeter fence at Marham were clearly determined to obtain their own record of the day’s proceedings, it was a good natured gathering of like-minded individuals and most of us chatted the hours away with fellow enthusiasts who had been afflicted with the same aviation infatuation as themselves. Thanks to the exceptional social media information released by RAF Marham, we all knew that we were in for a long wait. The published flypast at nearby RAF Cranwell was due to take place at 15:15, so the aircraft taking part would presumably begin launching some time before 3pm. After the early morning mist had cleared, the day brightened up significantly and we were all hoping that perhaps the day’s activities might actually be brought forward to take advantage of these brighter conditions, especially as a weather front was forecast to move in at almost exactly the same time as the Tornados were due to take off. After so much effort by a great many people, the British weather could once again prove to be a party pooper on the day and seriously curtail the planned activities.
The first Tornado we saw on the day really brought home the magnitude of the situation before us. ZA449 was dragged past us on its way to the hangars on the other side of the airfield and appeared to have already been subjected to the ‘Reduce to Produce’ programme
As the sun finally broke through the clouds, we could all see movement off to our right, behind the control tower and coming from the east HAS area, which was home to the RAF’s last remaining Tornados. A single aircraft was being towed down the taxiway towards us and we were all wondering if this was going to be positioned in front of us, as a backdrop to the day and allowing for some detailed reference pictures to be taken whilst the sun was out. Unfortunately, that did not prove to be the case and even though it was dragged right past us, it continued on across the main runway towards the main hangar complex on the opposite side of the airfield. Rather distressingly, it also appeared as if this aircraft had been subjected to the harvesting of the ‘Reduce to Produce’ programme, releasing part to enable the rest of the Tornado fleet to keep flying and illustrated both the impending withdrawal of the Tornado from RAF service and the uncertain future awaiting many of the remaining airframes.
Out with the old and in with the new
RAF Marham’s is now home to the latest combat aircraft to join the Royal Air Force, the awesome F-35B Lightning II. While we patiently waited, several of these new strike jets could be seen on the far side of the airfield
As we all waited patiently for our first sight of an RAF Tornado, we were entertained sporadically by the sound of aircraft performing manoeuvres above the cloud base and out of our view. We certainly managed to see a couple of Hawk jets during the morning and discussions amongst the ranks determined that the other slightly noisier engines were either RAF Typhoons, or F-15 Eagles of the USAF performing climbs and turns high above the airfield. On the opposite side of the base to where we had set up camp, the more observant amongst us (or rather those with the longest lenses) could see that a number of Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II jets were out on the hardstand, clearly being readied for flight. Sure enough, throughout the remainder of the morning and into the afternoon, several F-35s took to the air on their latest training sorties and although clearly not their primary concern, kept everyone entertained as we waited for the Tornado action to begin. Performing missed approaches and showcasing some of the low speed capabilities of this fifth generation strike fighter, the sight of these aircraft produced something of a fascinating aviation dichotomy for everyone at Marham - the RAF’s latest strike aircraft operating from the same airfield that the old flying warhorse Tornado was about to bow out from. Despite the awesome capabilities of the new Lightning, it was definitely playing second fiddle to its illustrious predecessor on the day, as we were all gathered to see Tornados and no matter how much noise it made, the F-35 could not steal the limelight from the real aviation star of RAF Marham.
Watching you, watching me. Station Commander Group Captain Ian ‘Cab’ Townsend seemed impressed by the number of enthusiasts who had turned up at Marham and just had to take a snap of his own
As we all waited with ever increasing excitement, two members of the Marham Media Team drove down to the boundary fence and started to walk along its length, chatting with enthusiasts and handing out complimentary photographs featuring the three recently painted commemorative Tornados, taken on an official air to air sortie – another really nice touch by the people at Marham. This was followed a little later by the appearance of a much more illustrious aviation personality (sorry ladies) in the form of the base Station Commander Group Captain Ian ‘Cab’ Townsend, a man who had become rather familiar to enthusiasts over recent weeks. His excellent official social media posts had been keeping everyone informed about all things Tornado in these final few weeks and providing up to date details of flypast events and where you might be able to see them. Group Captain Townsend took command of RAF Marham on 1st August 2017, having originally joined the Royal Air Force in 1992. During his career, he has flown such aviation classics as the Harrier, until its retirement in 2010, before moving on to the Eurofighter Typhoon. On taking the position at Marham, he also had the opportunity to add the Tornado GR.4 to his list of aircraft types flown and only made his last Tornado trip during the final leg of its three day FINale tour on 21st February. He has done a fantastic job in ensuring that his base and its personnel will be remembered as being responsible for arranging a fitting tribute to the legacy of the Tornado strike jet, during these final few weeks of its RAF career.
Also walking along the fence line chatting with the massed ranks of enthusiasts, he kindly provided us all with an update on the days flying activities, reassuring everyone that the weather would not prevent the aircraft from launching. The nine ship formation would definitely be taking place, even if we could only hear it as it passed overhead, due to the low cloud-base. All the jets were fuelled up and ready to go and the crews had been briefed for what was actually a rather complex sortie – he also confirmed that an additional two Tornados would be launching, to provide the main formation with weather information as they prepared to perform their flying tribute. That made eleven serviceable Tornados destined for take-off, out of a remaining RAF inventory which could not be more than around 15 aircraft – an exceptional effort by everyone at Marham and surely the last time such a large number of Tornados would be seen in British skies at the same time. We were definitely set to experience a truly historic afternoon of flying.
An internet sensation. Group Captain Townsend had become familiar to a great many people over the past few weeks, with his informative posts on the official RAF Marham facebook page and he was in great demand during his afternoon walkabout
During his impromptu meet and greet, I was fortunate enough to spend a few minutes chatting with the Group Captain, as he made his way along the line of enthusiasts and just as one of the F-35Bs took off noisily on its latest sortie. I asked if he would be going on to fly this impressive new jet, following the withdrawal of the Tornado and he told me that he was not – he said he was too old for all that. We then got on to discussing how the F-35 just didn’t have the same character as the venerable old Tornado and how the enthusiast has yet to truly embrace it in RAF service. Certainly on a day like today, we were all only interested in Marham’s Cold War warrior and not this shiny new kid on the block. Whilst clearly having a great affection for the Tornado himself, he did introduce a little service pragmatism into the conversation and stated that previous projects such as the F-15 Eagle and even our own Typhoon were initially castigated for their overall project costs, yet both have gone on to become extremely successful combat aircraft. He finished by saying, “You will all be back here in 40 year’s time to mark the service withdrawal of the Lightning II”. Rather distressingly, he ended this profound statement by looking up at our group and adding, “Well, perhaps with your Zimmer Frames”! Seeing as he was providing us with such a memorable day, I was prepared to let that one slip. Before he moved on, I thanked him for the excellent base social media coverage over recent weeks and wished him well for the afternoon’s historic sortie.
A fitting final Tornado tribute
With the skies now much darker (as was forecast) the first Tornado jets appeared and made their way down the taxiway, towards the massed ranks of their enthusiast supporters
As 3pm approached and the skies darkened depressingly (predictably as forecast), we began to hear the sound of jet engines coming from the HAS area behind the control tower - it was clear that our long wait was almost over and the show was on! Eventually, the first of the Tornados came slowly into view, emerging gracefully from behind the trees and trundling down the taxyway towards us. Allowing everyone to have the best possible opportunity to see the jets and take the prized photographs we had all been hoping for, each aircraft in turn passed along the length of the fence line, heading towards the 01 end of the runway, before backtracking its entire length and lining up for take-off at its Narborough end. Eleven jets made their way past us, including three of the specially presented Tornados which were so popular with enthusiasts – the recently fully camouflaged ZG752, which commemorates 37 years of RAF service, ZD716 the 31 Squadron ‘Gold Star’ jet and ZG771 with its RAF Marham centenary tail. Unfortunately, RAF No.XI(B) Squadron’s ‘Bat tail’ must have been unserviceable on the day, which was a disappointment, but cannot be helped. Taking off in two groups, the aircraft blasted into the grey skies in typical Tornado style, with afterburner flames shooting from the rear of the aircraft, doing their utmost to increase the temperature around Marham, with the grey skies only serving to make this look even more spectacular. Once airborne, the aircraft would have transited to a holding point until all the jets had taken off and the diamond nine formation could begin to take shape.
First past the post, No. 31 Squadron’s beautifully presented ‘Gold Star’ jet ZD716 had the honour of leading this magnificent Tornado tribute
Perhaps the most popular aircraft on the day was ZG752 and its recently applied wrap-round camouflage scheme, commemorating 37 years of RAF Tornado service. The mighty Tonka definitely looks at its finest when wearing camouflage
The main reason for performing this striking Tornado formation display was to serve as a memorable tribute at the graduation ceremony taking place at nearby RAF Cranwell and those who had successfully completed the Queen’s Squadron Initial Officer Training Course. In what must have been a real treat for those gathered at Cranwell, the formation passed over the iconic Collage Hall at exactly 15:15, their allotted time, despite the deteriorating weather conditions. Although this was the official reason for the sortie, Marham was also about to benefit from a series of flypasts and our much anticipated treat was about to happen. Following the completion of their official formalities, the formation headed back to Marham and thousands of excited enthusiasts, each one with a lens trained skyward and scouring the sky for a first glimpse of their arrival. In just a matter of minutes, the impressive formation came in to view, approaching from the far side of the airfield and keeping these hugely powerful strike jets in a perfect diamond shape. They proceeded to perform three impeccable sweeping formation passes, one coming from our right hand side and showing the top surfaces of the aircraft, in skies which whilst proving challenging for the photographers, certainly added some lighting drama to the occasion. After three memorable passes, the formation began to break into sections for landing, with each one returning overhead and breaking into the circuit for landing, giving us one final demonstration of the Tornados trademark wing-sweep as they did. Approaching the airfield at relatively high speed and with the wings swept fully back, as each aircraft broke formation and into the pattern, their wings gracefully moved forwards in preparation for recovery, as if waving a final goodbye to their loyal devotees.
Once all the jets had safely landed back at Marham, the official RAF photographers had their moment, with all the aircraft lining up on the runway, before turning slightly to their left and affording them a unique view of the aircraft which had just taken part in the formation flypast. They were also in position to take a spectacular series of pictures, which will definitely serve as a fitting tribute to these final RAF Tornados in the years to come. Once released from this final official duty for the day, each aircraft once again made its way along the perimeter track and passed the massed ranks of their appreciative enthusiast audience, who were all torn between giving the crews a huge round of applause or making sure we all grabbed the final few pictures of what had turned out to be a truly memorable day. As the final aircraft made its way to the east HAS area and back into the care of its ground crew, the sound of jet engines finally subsided and the enthusiasts began talking again, all certain that we had been part of something very special indeed and a day most of us would never forget – one final date with the RAF’s ‘Mighty Fin’.
This final selection of images is intended as a record of this magnificent event, beginning with the aircraft taxying past the enthusiasts gathered on the perimeter fence and ending with the final aircraft heading back to their HAS area.
A scene which will soon be consigned to the aviation history books – an RAF Tornado GR.4 taxying past the control tower at RAF Marham
Another of the aircraft to benefit from a special commemorative scheme, this time Tornado GR.4 ZG771 and its ‘100 years of Marham’ tail
For such an auspicious occasion, the aircraft taxied along the length of the perimeter fence and back-tracked the entire length of the runway to ensure the enthusiasts all got a good view
Blast off – when has the Tornado ever let a little inclement weather prevent a sortie from taking place?
Through the mist, the crowds caught their first glimpse of the Tornado nine ship and what a sight it was
Second formation pass from our right saw the aircraft performing a top surface sweep across the length of the airfield
Dramatic skies for a dramatic occasion. Although the conditions proved difficult for photography, this formation silhouette is a fine record of the day
This interesting picture shows the diamond nine formation in company with a Hawk camera ship
As the aircraft taxied back past the crowds at the end of the formation display, most enthusiasts did not know whether to give a round of applause, or continue taking their prized pictures
The end of a magnificent occasion, the final aircraft make their way back to the HAS area. Was this the last time that eleven RAF Tornados were seen in the air at the same time?
The sun setting on a glorious service career. The RAF Tornado will be sorely missed by the enthusiast, but those who went on this historic day will attest that RAF Marham did the Tornado proud
As I gathered my things and prepared for the long trip back home, I knew that I had been extremely fortunate to see such an aviation spectacle, but at the same time, a little sad that an aircraft which had been a part of my life for so long was now finally due to retire, after a long and illustrious service career. The airmen and personnel at RAF Marham had done the Tornado proud and served up such an aviation treat that many who were lucky enough to be present on the day, will hold as one of their most cherished aviation memories for many years to come. With their excellent social media postings and the sheer scale of this final tribute, they certainly allowed this famous old warhorse to retire with honour and at the same time show its direct replacement, which was watching from the other side of the airfield, what a tough act it has to follow. We were all very lucky to have seen this magnificent diamond nine formation tribute, which was performed in accordance with the finest traditions of the Royal Air Force, knowing that we had probably also seen the last time that eleven RAF Tornados were in the air at the same time – it was quite an honour.
As for what remains of the Tornados RAF service, it may still be possible to see one in the skies above Marham over the next few weeks, as training flights may still be scheduled during this time, before the aircraft is officially retired at the end of March. A potential final flight is scheduled for the official disbandment parade at the base on 14th March, however, the days of the RAF’s most successful strike jet are now very much numbered. If this formation flypast event does prove to be the swan song of the RAF’s Tornado fleet as expected, everyone involved should be extremely proud of the part they played in delivering a fitting tribute to 37 years of magnificent service for this most impressive aircraft. Their efforts will ultimately be remembered as a glorious chapter in the history of British aviation and one which put a smile on the faces of a great many people, in what was ostensively something of a sombre occasion. Rather than an aviation wake, this was a celebration, Tornado style! As Marham looks towards its future and the awesome capabilities of the F-35 Lightning II, the base paid a dignified tribute to its longest serving aviation resident, as it is finally relieved of its duties and a sedate retirement at Museums up and down the country. To everyone involved in arranging and executing this spectacular Tornado finale, congratulations and thank you.
A final look back at the glorious service history of the RAF Tornado, as the aircraft finally heads for a well-earned retirement
I am afraid that is all we have for you in this latest Tonkatastic edition of Aerodrome, but we will be back as usual in two weeks’ time with more aviation related content for your enjoyment. As always, if you have any ideas for a future edition of Aerodrome, or if you would like to supply a feature of your own which will be of interest to our worldwide aviation readership, please send your suggestions to our regular contact e-mail address at email@example.com, where we will be delighted to hear from you.
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