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Tornado times

Mick Britton looks at the display career of the Vulcan's successor, the Tornado GR. Pictures by the author and Gary Parsons

GR greats

The original GR1 mark of Tornado was a familiar sight at British airshows long before the Air Defence Variant, the current F3, came on the scene. One was certainly present at the Queen's Silver Jubilee Review of the RAF at Finningley in 1977 and although a demonstration aircraft, this and others displayed at most of the large shows such as Farnborough, Finningley and the International Air Tattoo for several years before entering RAF service in 1982. It has therefore had a much longer display career than the F3 and, with the retirement of the latter now fast approaching, it seems almost certain to remain a fixture of the airshow scene long after all the F3s have been recycled into 'Tango' cans.

Because it had been around for so long before entering RAF service, the GR1 hardly burst onto the airshow scene, but effected a seamless transition with the RAF display crews taking over from the Panavia demonstration team. The display aircraft were one year wearing strange test markings including the tri-national roundels and the next appearing in standard RAF tactical camouflage and markings. The first came not from the Tri-national Tornado Training Establishment (TTTE) at Cottesmore, but the Tornado Weapons Conversion Unit (TWCU) at Honington in Suffolk, which was up and running within a very short time of the type's service entry, performing the display task until well into the nineties, although sister Honington-based squadrons sometimes stepped forward on occasion.

At first the aircraft appeared in standard unit markings, consisting of the TCWU badge of a sword pointing upwards through a crown with crossed arrows on the fin (derived from the Coat of Arms of the nearby town of Bury St. Edmunds). In time the unit was given the nameplate of 45(R) Squadron, one of the RAF's more illustrious units with a long record of overseas service, reflected in the badge of a flying camel which soon appeared on the noses of its aircraft flanked by fighter bars of red diamonds on a blue background. In 1990 the two nominated display aircraft each received a special paint scheme of a bold red/white/blue fin flash featuring enlarged versions of the TCWU badge referred to above. During that year it shared the display duty with Marham's 27 Squadron, two of whose aircraft I witnessed displaying that year; on one occasion (at Leicester) it was their 75th Anniversary aircraft ZA564/JK.

In 1991, following what had become the fashion, the unit celebrated the 75th Anniversary of 45 Squadron by turning out ZA606 in a most colourful paint scheme consisting of blue spine and fin bearing the flying camel in a white diamond. This was certainly one of the most dramatic schemes of the many that appeared that year. Then in 1993 there was a changing of the guard for the first time with Marham being awarded the honour of providing the official display aircraft and in particular II(AC) Squadron. However, whilst this was the first and only time that a recce GR1A was used, it was for all that just a standard squadron aircraft although the variation was appreciated. Another squadron's markings adorned the display Tornado GR1 in 1994, those of XV(R) Squadron which had succeeded 45 Squadron as the shadow identity of the TCWU. This was not just any squadron aircraft either but the flagship 'MacRoberts Reply' that commemorates the Short Stirling presentation aircraft operated by the squadron during the war, paid for by Lady MacRoberts after losing all three of her sons on active service. This carried the MacRoberts family crest on the nose and was also the first GR1 to be displayed in an all grey scheme, later to become standard.

Black Beauty

In 1995 the baton was passed to the TTTE at Cottesmore, which had not provided the display Tornado since its introduction to RAF service. It rose to the occasion in style rolling out ZA560/B59 in a special all-black scheme, probably owing something to the 16 Squadron 75th Anniversary scheme a few years previously. However, according to Cottesmore's '95 Community Day Programme, it was designed by Grahame Watts of the Station's Graphics Section in consultation with the CO and the display crew of Flt Lts Mike Allton and the late Mike Harland. The scheme incorporated the TTTE emblem below the cockpit, the flags of the component three nations on the top of the fin with the shield of Rutland below. A most informative programme article provided an insight into the effort involved in producing a special paint scheme for the display aircraft, which employed an eight man team that according to my maths took 152 man/days to complete the painting task. 'After five days of rubbing down and masking, two coats of black epoxide primer were applied. Over the next two days the aircraft was wet flatted down and then the flexible polyurethane black gloss finish was applied'. The size of the task and the short timescale allocated also occasioned the involvement of other RAF bases, St Athan producing the standard markings and Stafford designing and producing the Rutland shield and TTTE emblem. Suffice to say the result was well worth the effort but I think it can be assumed that in today's over stretched RAF such a project would be considered a gross misuse of resources!

For the next two years Cottesmore retained the display tasking, although the all black machine was replaced by one in the new all grey scheme ZA321/B58, flown by Flt Lt Mark Baverstock (the first Tornado GR1 pilot to enjoy the role for consecutive seasons). Again the Cottesmore Community Day Programme of 1997 provided another interesting insight into the support effort, focusing this time on the ground crew - this revealed that the display aircraft was supported by two four-man teams covering the four main aircraft engineering trades (Airframes, Propulsion, Avionics and Electrical), each tasked for alternate months of the airshow season. They would have a hectic schedule as the GR1 was due to appear at thirty shows, including several foreign ones in Denmark, Belgium and Holland. However, this marked the end of Cottesmore's reign as Tornado GR1 champions because the TTTE was disbanded in early 1999, and so the display mantle fell again upon the shoulders of XV(R) Squadron as Tornado OCU with the upgraded GR4. None of its display aircraft were to appear in a special scheme until 2005 when, to celebrate the Squadron's 90th Anniversary, two display ships received replicas of the 75th Anniversary scheme of 1990 consisting of a red and blue spine and fin flash. 2006 was the last time a Tornado appeared on the display circuit because last year the RAF display planners introduced the Role Demonstration that includes several GR4s and F3s. As long as this showcase remains the central plank of Air Command's display effort we will not see either mark of Tornado performing an aerobatic display.

 

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