The Panavia Tornado formed the backbone of the RAF for nearly 40 years of continuous front-line service. Originally designed during the Cold War to carry nuclear weapons, the Tornado served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya fielding laser-guided strategic weapons. Wherever the RAF was used, Tornados were on the front line.

In this episode of Duxford in Depth, events and experiences coordinator Liam Shaw takes us through the distinguished history of the Tornado from our GR1 'Foxy Killer' which flew more missions than any other RAF Tornado during Operation Granby in 1991, to our GR4 which served in Operation Ellamy in 2011 enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya. We take a look at the technology that made the Tornado one of the most advanced ground attack aircraft of its time and hear first-hand from the people that designed and flew it.

Why the Tornado flew for 40 years

Behind me is a Tornado GR4. It's an aircraft that formed the backbone of the Royal Air Force in various variants for nearly 40 years of continuous frontline service. When this was originally designed during the Cold War its main role would have been out over the plains of Germany had the Russians attacked potentially using nuclear weapons. By the time the GR4 was in service, it was fielding strategic weapons that could be dropped with precision. Be it in the Gulf War of 1991 through to final actions leading up to the type's retirement in March 2019. Wherever the RAF were used tornadoes would have been on the front line.

Roland Beaumont, Director of test flying at British Aircraft Corporation: "The Tornado IDS was designed as a specific one-task low-level strike aeroplane with the additional capability of elaborate advanced reconnaissance. Therefore its philosophy was of high wing loadings, tough structural strength, very fast low level, and nobody worries too much about what goes on with the altitude."

So in the mid-1970s, the idea was that we needed a new aircraft to be able to act as a bomber. At the time we had aircraft like the Vulcan still in service, huge great big very obvious aeroplane. We needed something quicker, we needed something more versatile. The UK government by themselves weren't in a position to just go ahead and design their own aeroplane as we had done in the decades before. So Britain, along with a number of other nations, formed a consortium that would become known as Panavia. Belgium, Holland and Canada at one point were involved in the program. But it was only Great Britain, Germany and Italy that actually saw a Tornado go into production the other partners had dropped out.

Roland Beaumont, Director of test flying at British Aircraft Corporation: "The whole policy of the program whether it was right or wrong was appeasement rather than confrontation. I think that probably is the only way you can do it in international collaboration. Having said all that, the Tornado was worked through. It had its difficulties in development, but it turned out to be a brilliant operational aeroplane."

Richard Fairclough, Design engineer at British Aircraft Corporation: "The overall organization and management of the Tornado project did learn an awful lot from TSR-2 and they were all lessons of what not to do, not so much what to do but what not to do, we're all fed into Tornado. That project went surprisingly well considering that it was three nations and three companies all totally different in background and culture."

So the GR4 is the second main variant of the Tornado. The GR1 came first and was upgraded as a midlife update with increased avionics and better kit to allow it to fight into a new age. There was an F3 version. That was a fighter version that only the RAF flew. The GR stands for ground attack and reconnaissance and the RAF name pretty much all of their aircraft in a similar way. They are operated in quite a number of conflicts in the sort of the modern era. They were used over Afghanistan, they were used as our one was during Operation Ellamy which was to enforce the no-fly zone over Libya and they were used at various other sorts of flashpoints often deploying forwards, in the case during Operation Ellamy, to bases in Italy. The gr4 as I say really did push the RAF's airpower right through to its retirement in March 2019.

The cutting edge of the RAF's front line to the year 2000 and beyond will be provided by the Tornado strike attack aircraft. Capable of carrying conventional or nuclear weapons, Tornado can strike far and wide throughout Europe from very low-level. The Tornado is the first RAF aircraft to be fully designed for the complex age of electronic warfare enabling it to jam or deceive enemy defences.

So we're now in Airspace at Duxford with our Tornado GR1 aircraft. Our GR1 here has quite an illustrious history which we'll have a look at in a second, but it is now painted in a fairly standard grey colour. Before it wore what was called 'desert pink' when it went to war during the Gulf War Operation Granby in 1991. It acquired the later grey scheme here, after the Gulf War when it was modified to GR1B standard which had a maritime strike capability. The Tornado GR1 when it entered service had been envisaged to carry nuclear weapons for use against soviet block forces. Those weapons adapted over the years from free-fall, to more sophisticated weapons, but during the Gulf War this particular aircraft was named Foxy Killer and it flew the highest amount of bombing missions by any RAF Tornado in that conflict. The majority of the missions it carried out involved dropping freefall weapons or laser-guided munitions, but it started out that conflict by operating and using the JP 233 runway denial weapon. This huge weapon Tornado could carry a pair of these and they were designed to deny the use of a runway to enemy forces by cratering the runway surface and spilling out anti-personnel mines to restrict the clear up and repair organization and operations.

Much like the aircraft, itself the engine were also a conglomerate mostly produced at Rolls-Royce, but they did involve the manufacturers from Germany and Italy. They created a company, Turbo Union, and created the RB-199. The engines were able to carry the Tornado at very fast speeds. In the case of the GR, at low-level it'd be unlikely to exceed supersonic speeds, but the fighter variant adopted by the RAF as the F3 eventually was capable of up to Mach 2.2. Because of the power of the engines as I say tornado needed a very big fin to control the aircraft and the size of the fin above us led to one of its nicknames 'The Mighty Finn' or depending on who you spoke to. because of its base being RAF Mahram in Norfolk, it gained the name 'The Norfolk Land Shark'

Paul Millet, Chief test pilot at British Aerospace: "The biggest new thing was fly-by-wire. It was a big step in the dark controlling aircraft purely by electronics. The first European aircraft which had a fly-by-wire system. When you want to go to high speed you sweep the wings back. That reduces the frontal area and you can go much faster, it also improves the gust response at low level. It is an extremely good low-level attack without any doubt at all. With the wings fully swept you can charge along at quite high speeds and not feel a thing. For takeoff and landing, you need to have the wings out and so you can bring it in pretty slowly."

The big difference with Tornado over other variable-geometry aircraft such as the American F-14 tomcat or F-111 is that on the wings of Tornado there are hardpoints and those hardpoints are attached mechanically so as the wing sweeps back the pylons rotate as well which means that the weapons we're looking straight down the nose of here remain faced into the direction of flight whatever degree of sweep back is put on.

The GR4 continued to carry a huge range of weapons but the big difference was the weapons that was being carried on the GR4 were a lot more sophisticated. On our Tornado just here we have a Brimstone launcher. This is one of the last weapons that Tornado would have been equipped to carry as it came out of service. This particular example is a replica as the RAF are still very much using these in service. They're developed from the hellfire missile most associated probably with use on the Apache attack helicopter, but it gave the tornado a capability to hit individual targets such as individual armour or soft-skinned vehicles with each of the missiles. Most of the Tornado's offensive armament would have been carried on pylons underneath the centre line. As we go up underneath the wing Tornado carries on the hardpoints on the wing a fuel tank. The fuel tank increases Tornado's range without the reliance or the need for too much air-to-air refuelling and on the fuel tank pod is the place where they mount the defensive weapon. Early versions had a Sidewinder, on Tornado GR4 we had ASRAAM, the Advanced Short-Range Air-to-Air Missile. They were only for defence, they weren't a fighter aircraft, but it did give the Tornado some form of self-defence capability. Likewise, on the outer pod we find the BOZ pod which deployed chaff or flare to put off a potential missile shot coming at the aircraft.

So the Tornado throughout its life always had a crew of two. Throughout its life in the RAF they would have had a pilot who sits in the front, he flies the aircraft he gets it to where it needs to go, and he's supported in the back by a navigator. Now the RAF maintained the term navigator whereas really the navigation was done beforehand lots of map reading and otherwise was actually in early versions on a cassette plugged straight into the cockpit. But the navigator adapts to really become a Weapon System Operator so along with the pilot that's the role that they predominantly take on.

John Waite, Chief Designer Panavia Tornado: "He said 'Right well we've got to get rid of some of this fuel we can either dump it or we can have some fun'. So we whipped up into the Yorkshire Dales and he said 'Now I'll show you the terrain-following [radar].' We picked the Dales going across them and he stuck it into hard ride at something like 400 knots with a 100 feet clearance. All it was was rocks, heather, rocks, heather, rocks, heather, sky. Rocks, heather, rocks... That's all I could see in front and he was sat there in the front cockpit with his hands on his head! So I mean this was Tornado at its best it really was."

In March 2019 the Royal Air Force said goodbye to the Tornado. After nearly 40 years frontline action the Tornado's life had come to an end. They've been replaced in front line service with the Royal Air Force by aircraft like variants of the Eurofighter Typhoon, but such was the affinity that the RAF had and the public perception of the aircraft that a number of special performances were put on to save farewell to this aircraft. Here at Duxford, we were very fortunate for the RAF's 100th anniversary in 2018 during our air show an example of a Tornado flew alongside the RAF's Lancaster and the brand new variant of the F-35 basically representing 617 squadron through the ages.

With the winding down of the Tornado fleet in the Royal Air Force aircraft and airframes began to be retired, one of which was our aircraft here. Following its final flight, it was delivered to Duxford by road bringing our collection right up to date with an example of something that served the RAF on the front line for over 40 years and also it displays a weapon fit which is actually not too dissimilar from aircraft that are still operating on the front line today.

Thanks ever so much for taking the time to watch this video, we hope you've liked it and enjoyed it! Please take the time to take a look and subscribe to the Imperial War Museum's youtube channel.

Watch more

Emily Charles stands in front of an F-111 at IWM Duxford
IWM Duxford

F-111 Aardvark | The Flying Pig

In this episode of Duxford in Depth, IWM Curator Emily Charles looks at the development, design, and service history of the F-111 Aardvark. She explores what the aircraft represented during its service, an example of the Military-Industrial Complex that Dwight D Eisenhower warned against and as a symbol of America's interventionalist role in the post-Cold War world. She also looks at the service history of this particular F-111 which flew in the Gulf War as part of the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing before arriving at IWM Duxford in 1993.

Vulcan video still
IWM Duxford

The history of the Avro Vulcan Bomber

In this video, events and experiences coordinator Liam Shaw takes us through the extraordinary history and technological achievements of the Avro Vulcan. We go into the cockpit and hear first-hand from the people who flew this unique machine throughout its long and remarkable history.

Mosquito video thumbnail

De Havilland Mosquito: The Wooden Wonder

De Havilland Mosquitoes were the among the first multi-role combat aircraft: they could be turned to anything and excelled at everything. In this video, our Duxford expert tells us how this little wooden bomber came into action and became one of the most versatile and popular aircraft of the Second World War.

Visit Duxford

IWM Duxford Showcase

IWM Duxford

Visit Imperial War Museum Duxford for a huge day out. See Spitfires take to the skies from the airfield where they first flew, get up close to gigantic aircraft and walk in the footsteps of the men and women who served here.

The Avro Vulcan at IWM Duxford
Activities and Experiences

In the Cockpit: Avro Vulcan

IWM Duxford
Selected Dates

View of inside of AirSpace exhibit
Permanent Display


IWM Duxford