“Tornado Over the Tigris”

Tornado Over the Tigris
By: Michael Napier
Pen and Sword Books (2015)

The Panavia Tornado needs little introduction, the product of a trinational consortium put together to create a multirole flying machine that would play a vital role in forming the backbone of NATO’s strike and reconnaissance needs in Europe through the 1980s and 1990s, the Tornado has carved out a respectable place for itself in aviation history.

“Tornado Over the Tigris” was written by Michael Napier as a retrospective to his 13 year fast jet flying career in the Royal Air Force. The bulk of his carreer was spent piloting the Tornado Gr.1 variant from RAF Bruggen in the former West Germany. This tale follows his RAF Career from his basic flight training in the late 1970s to his last Tornado flight and retirement from the RAF shortly after the end of the Cold War.

This book is a very accessible read which makes just enough reference to the technical aspects of flying and maintaining the Tornado to effectively bring across the complexities of the machine without getting bogged down in dry technobabble. It’s a volume that is as much about the people that worked around the machine as it is about the machine itself. It’s a quite human story told with a level of humility and wit that makes it engaging and gives it great charm.

Throughout the course of the book, Mr. Napier emphasises the critical importance trust and personal familiarity play in creating an effective military unit, how important good people skills are when working in a multinational team and how filled with risk the military fast jet crew’s lives are even in the most routine aspects of their duties once the aircraft is aloft. At the start of the book, he takes time to list the names of Tornado pilots and navigators he personally knew who did not survive their time in service, either through combat or accidents, and dedicates the book to them.

The book starts as the typical story of a young man who is captivated by military fast jets in his childhood and sets himself the goal of one day flying them himself. Through diligence at school and determination, he achieves that goal. In this section, he gives the reader a good picture of what life in flight training school was like and what the various aicraft he learned to fly on were like.

The core of the book starts when the Author graduates from training on the Tornado and is assigned to his first operational unit, 14 “Crusader” Squadron, at the RAF station at Bruggen near the Dutch/German border. Most of the story happens at Bruggen and in the skies of the former West Germany.

I would say the book really shines in this part as it gives the reader a view of a period of RAF activities that is now firmly in the past. Following the end of the Cold War and the reunification of Germany, RAF bases and assets in the country were gradually reduced through the 1990s. The last of the RAF’s permanent presence in Germany ended in the early 2000s. This part gives the reader a window into the realities that a NATO fast jet pilot stationed in West Germany, the de facto front line of the Cold War in Europe, lived with daily. The primary reality was that any alarm calling them to action there could very well be the real thing rather than a drill.

We get a break from Tornado action when the author is assigned to RAF Chivenor, a former RAF station in the south west of England, where he trained to become a qualified instructor pilot. In this section, we get a good look at the Hawk advanced jet trainer as well as the much more relaxed atmosphere to be found on a training base in the UK at the time versus RAF Bruggen.

From Chivenor, we are returned to Bruggen for the author’s second tour on the Tornado. This time he is assigned to 31 “Goldstars” squadron and gives us a good look at how different the internal atmospheres of different squadrons can be as well as the trials and tribulations of reaquainting himself with friends from his first Tornado tour, getting accepted by existing members of his new squadron as well as carrying an elevated level of experience and authority than he had on his first tour.

Along the way, Napier takes the reader along on various exercises such as weapons camps in Canada and Italy as well as multiple trips to the famous Red Flag exercise in America. These parts of the book show well the many challenges of working with other militaries towards a common goal.

Also detailed is a period the author spent based in the Middle East in the early 1990s as part of a detachment to control airspace in Iraq. In this section of the book the author brings across well the gravity he was hit with when, for the first time in his career, he saw live bombs mounted on his aircraft and knew he would be taking them into a real combat zone to drop “in anger”.

The author also uses his time in the Middle East to underline how important it is to have absolute trust and knowledge of the people you are working with in a military unit. As the Tornado is flown by a crew of two, the trust between the pilot and navigator is paramount. The difficulties the established roster of the detachment had in adjusting to the arrival of two new crews was very enlightening. While the new crews were certainly qualified on the Tornado, they were total strangers as people to the existing personnel and their integration into the unit was not without interpersonal friction.

The book concludes with a very descriptive detailing of the author’s final flight in a Tornado in which he flies the length of Great Britain at low altitude. It’s a quite satisfying end to the book.

This book is written with a minimum of ego and it’s clear how acutely aware the author is of how privileged he was to be able to achieve a dream that many have, yet a rare few realise.

I can recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of the Tornado and would like a solid look at operations with it that goes light on the technical end of things, or for anyone who just likes a good military flying memoir.

This link will take you to the book’s page on the publisher’s website.

This link will take you to the book’s spot on the author’s website.