Tornado: Last salute from a winged wonder

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It dated back no further than Margaret Thatcher yet it could trace its roots all the way to Sir Barnes Wallis.

The architect of the wartime “Dambusters” raids over the Ruhr had been among the first to experiment with aircraft whose wings could be spread out in flight to make them as manoeuvrable as they were fast.

Three RAF Tornados fly past the Tornado train near Leeming Bar in Yorkshire during their farewell tour.

Three RAF Tornados fly past the Tornado train near Leeming Bar in Yorkshire during their farewell tour.

Yesterday, 500ft above North Yorkshire, they closed a chapter in the book he had begun.

The three RAF Tornados that flew in formation in a farewell salute to the county were the last of the line. The aircraft had been in service since 1979, when Mrs Thatcher came to office. They were not used in the Falklands War of 1982 but four were deployed there in 1992.

By then they had seen action in the first Gulf War, when 60 Tornado GR1s were launched from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Two years later, the upgraded GR4 model was introduced and has been used ever since in the skies over Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

But by the end of next month it will be officially retired. Its role will be taken over by Typhoons, with new weapons systems.

The Tornadoes had been due to go in 2015 but their retirement was put back so they could aid the operation in the Middle East.

Yesterday’s flypast, at 360 knots or 414mph, was the last Yorkshire would see of what aviation enthusiasts have taken to calling the Tonka.

The event was designed as “ a superb celebration of Tornado and those who have supported her across the country”, Captain Ian ‘Cab’ Townsend, station commander at her home base, RAF Marham, in Norfolk, had said.

The route – picking out places that had contributed to Tornado’s story over the years – took in the bases at Leeming, Topcliffe and Linton-on-Ouse, north of York, where Tornados from 25 Squadron had been based for 19 years until 2008. The “finale flypast” will continue today and tomorrow over the south of England, Wales and Scotland.

Wing Commander James Heeps, officer in charge of IX(B) Squadron, said it was “a sad occasion” because after next month, the Tornado would not fly again. It will be used in the meantime for training purposes.

But he added: “It is a great privilege to be part of a national event that allows the public to say farewell to a brilliant aircraft that has been the cornerstone of our operations for so many years.”

Wing Commander Matt Bressani, in charge of 31 Squadron, the other remaining Tornado formation, said the response to the flypast was a mark of “what a special place this aircraft has in the nation’s heart”.

The Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, said it was “with a heavy heart, but enormous pride” that the nation bade farewell to the Tornado.

“This truly is the end of an era, having played a vital role in keeping Britain and its allies safe for four decades,” he said. “But, after so long in service, it is only right that we look to the future.”