Per Ardua ad Astra
These four words, taken from Latin, translate into English as “Through Adversity, to the Stars” and are the well known motto of the Royal Air Force. A motto encouraging a spirit of standing strong in the face of unfavourable odds and overcoming them successfully; something the Royal Air Force has done more than once in its long history. Of all the aircraft types which have served the RAF, the Panavia Tornado F.3 exemplified the motto particularly well.
In the main, the world connects the Panavia Tornado name with a respected, hard hitting, low flying, swing wing strike aircraft designed and built by a tri-national consortium consisting of Germany, Great Britain and Italy. While the strike variant of the aircraft did have a protracted and difficult development phase, it was a success upon its entry to service. The Tornado F.3, the dedicated interceptor variant, was rather a different story.
The catalyst for the idea of developing an air defense member of the Tornado family was in the Royal Air Force’s pressing need to replace its ageing English Electric Lightning and McDonnell Douglas Phantom fleets with a modern and much more capable aircraft in the interceptor role. The Cold War was still on and the RAF wanted a more formidable machine to send up in response to the Soviet reconnaissance aircraft which tested British airspace on a routine basis.
The first of many obstacles the Tornado F.3 would have to face came as soon as it was proposed; Great Britain would be on its own to develop the interceptor from the striker. To take a machine intended to satisfy the needs of multiple nations and retailor it to satisfy British specific needs and political imperitives would prove to be very long and rough road indeed.
Approval for development of what was originally named Tornado ADV (Air Defense Variant) was granted in 1976 and the prototype made its first flight in 1979. The most obvious outward difference from the strike version was the ADV’s more refined and slender nose profile to accommodate an air to air intercept radar unit known as the AI.24 Foxhunter; this radar and its own developmental problems would prove to be yet one more obstacle for the Tornado F.3 to face.
Further development led to the Tornado F.2, a stepping stone to the F.3, which first flew in 1984 and saw a very small production run and short service life. The main physical difference between the F.2 and the ADV prototypes was a fuselage extension just behind the cockpit; this lengthened the fuselage enough to allow the aircraft to carry four Skyflash missiles, a British development of the American AIM-7 Sparrow missile, in recesses along the underside of the aircraft.
While the F.2 benefited from reduced drag as a result of the fuselage extension, it suffered from ongoing delays in the Foxhunter radar which lead to the aircraft having their nose sections filled with a block of concrete ballast to keep them balanced. The F.2 also suffered slow acceleration owing to the fact that it used the same engine as the strike variant, an engine optimized for low altitude operations.
In late 1985, after nearly a decade of development, the Tornado F.3 took to the air for the first time. What set the F.3 apart from the F.2 were primarily the engines; the Turbo Union RB.199 Mk 103 which powered the strike version and the F.2 had been developed into the Mk 104 version with a revised afterburner section giving increased thrust and higher altitude performance. The Mk 104 engine required a lengthening of the fuselage behind the wings but resulted in a marked increase in acceleration over the strike and F.2 versions.
The first F.3s entered RAF service in early 1986. They were equipped with the Foxhunter radar; though the radar was usable, it was still temperamental and not fully dependable at the time. It would not be until 1990 that the bulk of the radar’s early problems were resolved; this resulted in both the Lightning and Phantom fleets being kept in service longer than expected and the F.3 accumulating more than its fair share of critics. The radar issues, while eventually resolved, would hang over the aircraft for the bulk of its service life.
It should be mentioned at this point that one of the early problems with the Foxhunter radar was that its producer, GEC-Marconi, was in rather uncharted territory for themelves. The company had a long standing and respected reputation for producing radar equipment, but the Foxhunter was their first attempt at an air intercept radar.
When it came time to upgrade the F.3’s standard armament of AIM-9 Sidewinder and Skyflash missiles to more modern replacements, the radar caused notable problems when it came to fully and successfully integrating the new missiles into the Tornado and it was sometime before the aircraft could use the new weapons to full effectiveness.
In spite of all the obstacles the Tornado F.3 faced in its development and early service life, it did mature into a capable, formidable and respected interceptor which gave the RAF a quarter century of service before it was retired in 2011.
The aircraft saw service with the Italian air force who leased a fleet of them from the RAF from 1995 to 2004 in order to supplement their ageing fleet of obsolete Aeritalia F-104S Starfighter aircraft in the air defense role and bridge the gap until the Eurofighter Typhoon entered service. Italy considered extending the lease on their Tornado F.3 fleet when it became clear that the Typhoon would be delayed, but ultimately decided to replace the F.3 with a leased fleet of Lockheed-Martin F-16 aircraft from American stocks.
The decision of Italy not to continue with the Tornado F.3 was based on the fact that the aircraft would need to be put through an upgrade program to stay effective; the upgrade was economically prohibitive in light of the aircraft being an interim type in Italian service. The American made F-16 Viper completely replaced the remaining F-104S aircraft in Italian service and served the nation from 2004 to 2012.
The last user of the Tornado F.3 was the Royal Saudi Air Force who retired the last of their F.3 fleet during 2014.
All three air arms which used the Tornado F.3 ulitmately replaced the aircraft with the Eurofighter Typhoon
In combat, the Tornado F.3 saw use over Iraq and the former Yugoslavia.
The Tornado F.3 Today and Learning More
There are no remaining airworthy examples of the Tornado F.3 left in the world. Given the complexity of maintaining the variable geometry wings and other aspects of military fast jets, it’s extremely unlikely we will ever see one fly again.
Preserved examples of the Tornado F.3 can be found in museums in Italy, Saudi Arabia and the United kingdom.
This is a link to a brief summary of the F.3 in RAF service.
In book format, you’ll likely do no better on the subject of the Tornado ADV development and service than David Gledhill’s excellent “Tornado F3 in Focus: A Navigator’s Eye on Britain’s Last Interceptor”.
Mr. Gledhill Served in the Royal Air Force as a navigator in both the McDonnell Douglas Phantom and the Tornado ADV variants that came after it. He was one of the first navigators trained on the Tornado F.2 and spent significant time as an instructor navigator on the F.3 as well as doing tours as a navigator in front line Tornado squadrons.
Mr. Gledhill’s involvement with the Tornado goes beyond the cockpit as he was, during non flying tours of duty, intimately involved with many of the upgrades to the F.3 through its service life.
It’s an authoritative volume on the subject from an eminently qualified voice.