Tornado blows in

wed warton - Wing Commander Johnny Moreton and retired test pilot Eric Bucklow
wed warton - Wing Commander Johnny Moreton and retired test pilot Eric Bucklow
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The Tornado is one in a million. And it now has the official RAF badge of honour to prove it. One million flying hours notched up. That’s the equivalent of flying to the sun and back twice or 16,000 times around the world. But with diminishing fleet sizes proposed for the likes of Typhoon – its successor – will we ever see its like again?

It’s a Warton workforce which has put the wow factor into this sleek BAE Systems beast – and you’ve only got to look at this iconic aircraft to appreciate the expertise available here and the fact it’s not just the jets which are the fighters. But today the R word – redundancy –is banned. The RAF – going through cutbacks themselves and looking at just five Typhoon squadrons – are back in town having flown in to help Warton celebrate the million milestone.

Back at base they have their own resident BAE Systems engineers under the ATTAC (Availability Transformation: Tornado Aircraft Contract) to assist. It’s the ultimate after sales service. It has also been assessed that the ATTAC scheme has effectively saved £1.5m on MoD RAF maintenance and other costs. RAF officers are based at Warton too in the design office.

Our star Tornado - the one that clocked up the magic million – is otherwise engaged but we’re seeing the next best thing piloted by Wing Commander Johnny Moreton, has flown in from RAF Lossiemouth.

That’s 300 miles and 25 minutes away. Read it and weep

Lossiemouth is the base of RAF 15th Squadron. Johnny’s predecessors there – the chaps with handlebar moustaches and what-ho ways - would have been familiar with the controls and capabilities of the old Avro Lancasters.

In 1953 they came into the jet age with the Canberras – also built in Warton. In fact, during the Suez Crisis, the 15th dropped more bombs than any other Canberra unit.

The squadron has pretty much distinguished itself with the Tornado too. Johnny did his bit in Kosovo and Libya (then in command of 14th Squadron) and reminds us the Tornado was deployed in Iraq from 1990 to 2008 and has been in Afghanistan since 2009. He recalls the speed of the turnround for Libya – within two days of United Nations clearance.

The heroic Tornado GR4 crews roared off within hours of being given the all clear for the sortie – to blitz Colonel Gaddafi’s air defences... but with all the operational kit put in place by the Warton team, RAF and engineers working side by side.

Now the top guns have resumed their usual role of training the “babies”, as the wing commander puts it, the pilots and other air crew coming through to try the latest tweak on the winning Tornado format.

Johnny says he will be sad to see Tornado go out of service in 2021 when the Typhoon, with which the Tornado worked pretty much in tandem in Libya, takes over the multi purpose operational, support, reconnaissance, air presence role, at medium level, low level or combat high. “The Tornado has been the backbone of the industry and is pretty much up there with anything the Americans or Europeans have. The synergy of the two platforms, Tornado and Typhoon, has been beneficial as well.”

BAE Systems – British Aerospace as was – has been involved in Tornado’s production since day one in the late 1960s. It will remain in service until 2021. It’s a tri-nation work share, the only way high tech aircraft can be afforded, the first test flight in 1974, the first delivered in 1979, the Italians bagging the wings, the Germans centre fuselage, the Brits the front fuselage and tail assembly.

Final assembly and flight testing of all RAF Tornados takes place at Warton and back in the 1990s it was to Warton which RAF Tornados returned for their mid life upgrade which took them from GR1 to GR4 version. All the capability enhancements are made here too.

There’s a Saudi jet parked up within one of the maintenance hangars at the Warton aerodrome.

If the RAF fly the GR4 – and it’s in their hands the millionth flying hour was achieved – the Saudis have the GR3 “and a half”, says production director Martin Parker, who has worked at Warton, man and boy, since 1979 and takes immense pride in the workforce’s achievement.

“The airframe today is much as it was but everything within has been upgraded and kept the continuity of the engineering base here at Warton.”

Watching on is former test pilot Eric Bucklow, 74, of Wrea Green. He first flew the Tornado back in 1974 and reckons he still has the right stuff to take the updated “old girl” for a spin. He’s flown the Vampire, Meteor, Jaguar, Canberra, but the Tornado was the best and brightest of the lot.

“She was the bee’s knees,” he recalls. “It felt utterly exhilarating to fly her. She was the best aeroplane I had flown and still is. She was easy to fly and very solid and built to last – as she has proved. The actual airframe and engines are much the same today. I am not surprised that Tornado has lasted as long as it had.

“We have lot to thank Warton for.”