The seeds of the Tornado as we know it today began in December 1968 when the UK’s British Aircraft Coporation (BAC), Italy’s Fiat and West Germany’s Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (MBB) formed a joint industrial company to formally develop a new aircraft.
BAC and MBB had quite different VG designs in progress, the former focussing on a twin-engined aircraft powered by two new technology RB.199 turbofans, while the MBB concept relied on a single General Electric TF30 engine. Compromise was eventually agreed and the layout for a new Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) emerged.
The MRCA authorised for prototyping in 1970 was a two-seat, multi-role aircraft with provision for a range of air-to-air missiles, but when the first prototype completed its maiden flight from Manching on August 14, 1974, it was optimised for air-to-ground work. Nine prototypes and six pre-production aircraft were built, the last of the latter flying almost three years after production had been authorised on March 10, 1976.
By the time the first of the pre-production aircraft flew on February 5, 1977, the MRCA had become Tornado, specifically the Tornado Interdiction Strike (IDS). The initial RAF Tornado variant was the GR.Mk 1, which first arrived with the Trinational Tornado Training Establishment (TTTE) at RAF Cottesmore on July 1, 1980.
The TTTE trained aircrew from all three Panavia nations, using relatively small numbers of dual-control aircraft that retained all the capability of their regular counterparts. The RAF’s first frontline Tornado squadron exchanged Avro Vulcans for Tornados in 1982. Re-forming at RAF Honington on June 1, No. IX (Bomber) Squadron has remained with the aircraft ever since.
Since its introduction to operations in the Gulf War of 1991, there has been little relief from combat operations, with Tornado GR.Mk 1 active in policing and combat missions over the Balkans and Iraq, then back to Iraq in force for Operation Desert Fox in 1998 and Telic, the UK contribution to Operation Iraqi Freedom, in 2003. The GR1 fought alongside the dramatically upgraded Tornado GR.Mk 4 in 2003, the latter bringing true precision capability to the jet and compatibility with the Storm Shadow cruise missile, which 617 Sqn debuted in service during the conflict.
As soon as the GR4 was released from combat over Iraq, it deployed for Operation Herrick, replacing the Harrier in Afghanistan from 2009. Less than two years later, Tornado Force was simultaneously deploying jets to Kandahar and Italy, for Operation Ellamy over Libya in 2011. Employing Paveway IV and Brimstone in both operations, Tornado exercised precision, low-collateral damage weapons options that remain unique to the RAF.
It also employed the Reconnaissance Airborne Pod Tornado (RAPTOR) system and Litening III targeting pod on intelligence-gathering missions. The Tornado had pioneered digital imaging technologies in its GR.Mk 1A version from December 1986. The variant performed exceptional Scud-hunting work during Granby and remained an important tactical reconnaissance asset. Some GR1As were modified to GR.Mk 4A standard, but with the advent of RAPTOR, the reconnaissance capability has since been absorbed into the general Tornado GR4 fleet.The GR.Mk 4 has been subject to a constant series of minor upgrades, gradually enhancing its capability so that the Tornado soon to exit service is very far removed from the jet conceived to meet a multinational requirement during the 1960s.
TORNADO F3 ZE734 PRODUCTS
We want to highlight just how challenging the design and manufacturing process can be for something seemingly so small and simple. Take the Tornado F3 ZE734 as an example. This is a famous aircraft that has been instrumental in battles.
To being the process, we first need to acquire the material and ensure authenticity.
This material needs to be cut, stripped and processed into small chunks of aluminium that can be melted in a crucible to form ingots of Tornado F3 ZE734 aluminium – our “raw material”.
This design then needs to be printed in resin, before an initial casting is taken. Usually this is cast in silver and then manually worked on by a jeweller to achieve a precision finish. We can then move to a test production run in normal aluminium. Once cast and then hand finished/polished we can test the item.
With the Tornado, the thin wings and narrow fuselage made it incredibly difficult to gauge the correct wing thickness. Too thin, the wings break, too thick it just looks wrong and too chunky. However, once this process is completed and we have a usable master, we can go into production and cast cufflinks in genuine aluminium from this iconic aircraft.
This process can literally take months as we need to fit into the schedule of the craftsmen we work with. But the end result is something very special!