RAF Tornado at RIAT 2002

As soon as the Tornado flying displays started, the other photographers I was with put their cameras away!   Presumably this is because it's such a frequent performer at British airshows.   However, this was the first time I'd seen one in the flesh, so I happily snapped dozens and dozens of shots.

The Tornado started life as a joint venture between Canada and several European countries, eventually thinning out to Britain, Germany and Italy.   A new company called Panavia was set up to reflect this international partnership.

The intention was to produce a two-man, multi-role aircraft for use in a European war between the Western European NATO alliance and the communist Warsaw Pact countries.

Planning started in 1968, the first prototype flew in 1974 and it entered service with the Royal Air Force in 1980.

The Tornado's two after-burning jet engines, seen in action here, allow it to reach a maximum speed of mach 2.2 (2335 km/h or 1450 mph).   It was the first fighter built with fly-by-wire technology and was designed with terrain following radar for fast, low-altitude flight so it could avoid radar detection and then drop a bomb load of up to 18,000 pounds.

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The aircraft you see here is the specialized long-range fighter version of the Tornado called the ADV or "air defence variant", as opposed to the "IDS" or "interdictorn strike" variant which is specialized as a strike aircraft.   The Tornado ADV is armed with up to four short-range sidewinder missiles on wing pylons, four medium-range skyflash missiles under the fuselage, and one or two 27mm cannons mounted on either side of the fuselage.   You can see one of these cannons just above the nosewheel of this plane, and you can also see the aerial fueling probe in its extended position, to the right of the nose.

A "variable geometry" swing-wing arrangement was adopted, here you can see the wings in their fully-backward position during a high speed pass.

Here are the wings in their fully forward position.   You can see the four skyflash missile locations recessed into the bottom of the fuselage, together with the four rails on the wings for sidewinder missiles, together with two pylons for extra fuel tanks.   This clearly identifies this aircraft as an interceptor or fighter, rather than the fighter/bomber or reconnaisance versions.

Swing wings are a very complex technology to get right, and add a considerable amount of weight to the plane for the motors to move the wings.   The designers decided to go with this troublesome technology because it allows the plane to take off and land at lower speeds than a swept wing plane, while still permitting the high speed performance of such an aircraft.   These factors were considered important for a plane which might have to take off from runways damaged by enemy missiles or bombs.

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Saudi Arabia is the only country to buy the Tornado apart from the original three European partners.   The Saudis received the first of their 96 aircraft in 1986.

During the 1990 Gulf War against Iraq, six Tornadoes were lost as a result of enemy action or mechanical failure.   Although this caused a political uproar in Britain, most experts consider this a normal consequence of operating such high performance aircraft at very low altitudes in hostile territory.

The thrust reversers visible at the rear allow the plane to land on the same damage-shortened runways it took off from, but they produce a characteristic sooty patch on the tail from the hot gases which are directed forwards.

Tornado displays might be dull for British enthusiasts, but in America they're an extraordinarily rare sight.   However the German Air Force contingent at Holloman air force base in New Mexico put on a display which might make even a British fan take notice, including a simulated buddy-refuelling display.