Friday 7 August 2015

Tornado and Other Amazing Old Aircraft

Image result for raf tornado aircraft
Pic:  MoD
The Tornado, we learn, is to have its ISIL-bombing role extended to 2017, some 37 years since the type entered service.  Some of us recall when the Tornado was the MRCA (multi-role combat aircraft), successor to the AFVG (Anglo-French variable geometry), successor to the F-111 in the RAF's plans, successor to the much-lamented TSR-2 ...  and the wags said it stood for must refurbish Canberras again.

Yes, the Canberra, first flight 1949, last served operationally with the RAF in 2006.  That's fifty seven years.

Track back 57 years before 1949, and we are more than a decade before the Wright Brothers did their epic thing.  From their efforts in 1903 it took a mere 43 years for the speed of sound to be broken in level flight.  By the end of the 1950s both Concorde and the forerunner of the SR-71 were on the drawing board.  No pre 1930s aircraft had any serious life beyond the early 1940s (unless you count the Tiger Moth - 1931 - which had '20s antecedents): the main pre-war candidate would be the DC-3, the origins of which were in the DC-1, also 1931.

In short, development in aviation seems to have gone exponential for half a century, then plateaued out dramatically.

Perhaps more to the point, (a) aerodynamics got as far as it needed to in 50-60 years, and (b) it turns out not to be terribly useful to fly at Mach 2.  By contrast, avionics has been where the big advances have come from since the '50s, along with metallurgy; and probably still has a way to go.

So forty-year-old-plus platforms can remain fairly viable, with periodic avionics upgrades.  Airframe metallurgy is the limiting factor.  The B52 is likely to be the all-time champion. Wiki says it will soldier on into its 90s:  I have heard it said they'll probably make their century.  Never raced or rallied, as they say - just thundering on over the horizon, straight and level, not too much stress on the old wing spars. 

What, then of the Tornado?  I quite like the machine, having worked with the RAFG fleet while still a soldier:  the Jaguar was a bit flighty, the Harrier a bit flaky, the Canberra a bit staid.   (I never experienced the Buccaneer; and to my eye it was the F-4 that was the really handsome ship.)  Its latest recce capability is very fine indeed, and Typhoon cannot (yet) compete.

Tornado wasn't quite destined to match Canberra for longevity. Well, it certainly has been raced and rallied! - and honourably so (from the Air Force perspective, that is; we'll ask Chilcot for the broader view): seen a heap more action than anyone on an early conversion course in, say, 1980 would ever have imagined.  Prior to the recent announcement, the plan had been to operate the fleet - currently rather less than 100 strong - in fast-diminishing numbers, cannibalising as spares run out, until they were down to one smallish squadron at the end of this decade or more likely before.  

To run operationally through 2017 actually requires three squadrons, which probably means (does Osborne but realise it) that new spare parts will need to be made.   BAe can perhaps respond - on a cost-plus basis, naturally - or perhaps we buy from the Saudis?  Gp Capt S.Weetabix of this parish will doubtless have a view.  Soldier on!



Bill Quango MP said...

IIRC the Tornado had a rocky start to Gulf war 1. 6 losses out of the coalition's 36 fixed wing combat casualties.
Wasn't it the RAF persisting with low level attack but the US Vietnam lessons keeping them high, away from ground fire?

Due to cost, iirc. 1991 raf didn't have the precision munitions and guidance of the USAF.

You will know better..this is mostly from memory and may be inaccurate.

But Tornado has certainly done an awful lot better since then.

SumoKing said...

Libya really showed that the bomber is dead.

sit a destroyer off the coast and blast the air defences and runways with cruise missiles. Send in drones to finish of anything that has been missed and get apaches or carrier based strike aircraft to swoop about busting any left over tanks.

The typhoon isn't going to be a fighter bomber anytime soon.

Trundling a couple of bombers from bases on another continent on constant costly air to air refueling to linger for 20 mins over the target gets you nowhere.

Lord T said...

Not just in aviation. We have made no advances in 20 years, unless you count making things smaller. Mobile phones, computers, our wages...

Blue Eyes said...

Wasn't the main problem with Concorde the lack of range? And second to that the inefficiency of the thing? It could only carry eight passangers (this is an exaggeration, for those of a sensitive disposition) plus champagne.

If someone had built a Mach 2 craft that could have served the West Coast to Tokyo/Sydney/Beijing then things may have been different. Didn't the Yanks stay out because they wanted Mach 3?

Bill Quango MP said...

Advances in the last 20 years? Sounds like a good idea for a blog post.

andrew said...

It is not so much as the discovery of something.
The interesting moment is when it hits the mass market in a working form.

viz smartphones
Nokia 9000 was really groundbreaking and quite excellent but...

when someone says smartphone most see
an iphone .

Similarly the romans had toilets, running water, aircon, central heating, refrigeration in rome but it did not stick out in the barbarian world.

Blue Eyes said...

Happy to look into that over the weekend, Mr Q. It ought to be a nice short post, because as any fule no, the world has been in steady decline ever since Suez.

Nick Drew said...

Similarly the romans had toilets, running water, aircon, central heating, refrigeration

they also had concrete and underwater construction, which was seriously ahead of its time, and the secret was lost for a millenium

the most amazing thing is that they didn't invent the wheelbarrow (and easily could have), which transforms building-site productivity, a true force-multiplier

of course they had slaves instead ... but no-one wilfully spurns a tech innovation of such utility, certainly not the Romans

Jim said...

The Shackleton had fairly decent career too - 40 years if wikipedia is to be believed. A piston engine plane that only made its debut when jets were already in the ascendency, and survived to the 90s.

Dan said...

To be honest this is ISIL we're talking about, a force that consists of young, semi-literate barbarians, not any sort of modern fighting force. You could probably manufacture Lancaster bombers and up-rate the avionics and bomb-aiming kit and have equal success against them.

The honest fact is this: any time we want rid of ISIL/Islamic State, we can do it, as long as we're not too upset by carpet-bombing large areas with cluster munitions. ISIL do not have an air force, or any real anti-aircraft capability, and they are only really good at outrageous boasting on social media.

Send in some decent Western soldiers to put some backbone into the native troops, back these up with decent air power, light armour and SIGINT and the only problem will be keeping up with the rate of retreat of ISIL troops.

Nick Drew said...

BQ - spot on

Mr Sumo - yup, persistency over target is the new watchword

BE - adverse cost-benefit analysis for all concerned, I should say: never any economies of scale and who needed to pay for a couple of saved hours? also the drinks trolley was ultra-limited, to save weight (it was a bloody amazing experience, though)

ah, the Shackleton! - a great call, Jim
(I once went for a very long flight in a Nimrod, that was pretty amazing too - & relatively comfortable: I am guessing the Shack would have been more like e.g. a Herc, which can be distinctly uncomfortable)

Steven_L said...

sit a destroyer off the coast and blast the air defences and runways with cruise missiles

No, they sat a carrier group off the coast. It probably helps to have the carrier based air force to defend whatever you are launching the cruise missiles with from the enemy air force.

But then one US carrier group is probably superior to almost any other nations navy and air force put together.

Bill Quango MP said...

My Air Force friends were Nimrod pilots.
used to fly from Scotland to Afghanistan each day.

They were furious when restrictions were placed on the aging aircraft after the crash in 2006. As one pilot told me..

"So what if an engine warning light comes on? Half the lights flash on and off all day long..If its flying.. its fine"

"What if an engine really does fail?"

"We have more - We can fly from Kabul to Fort William on 2 engines 'nae bother. Just takes longer and we miss our tea. ..if it gets to one engine we just land somewhere else."

andrew said...

Dan o/t but ...

There was a defense person on R4 (cant remember the program) last week who said ISIL still exists as a fighting force because they are not at the top of anyones list.

- Turkey hate the kurds more, Saudis hate Iran more, Syrians hate the rebels more, Syrian rebels hate the Syrian gove more etc.

However, I think last week's Economist said ISIL are starting to pop up in greater Russia...

Sebastian Weetabix said...

Group Captain! I used to work for a living. (Well, sort of. The blokes did the work, I just signed the forms and bore the heavy responsibility of worrying if the ruddy things would fall out of the sky, a worry assuaged only by gin and tonic.)

Ah, the Shackleton... More rattle than a can of marbles and more noise than a dozen hercules put together, with those contra-rotating props. Rattle your teeth out. But everyone loved it, aircrew being strange people prone to burning pianos when pissed. Rumour has it that after 30+ years in service bits were filched off the gate guardians to keep the Shackletons in the air.

The Tornado is a very fine aircraft (well, the GR versions are - the F3 was a horrifying piece of shit, what with the Blue Circle radar up front went it first went into service). But the problem is metal fatigue. They were "lifed" for 4,000 hours flying time, that is being driven properly, hard, fast and low. One of my old friends tells me the remaining airframes are mostly way over 6-7,000 hours now. That tells you two things: first, how good they are in engineering terms, as more than 50% over the design life is pushing it; secondly, we don't fly them in the way they were designed to be flown anymore (and probably shouldn't either). We had to do the low flying btw, because at the time they entered service it was the only way to penetrate Warsaw Pact defences. Gulf War 1 just showed how dangerous this is. The American way of using smart stand-off weapons is much better, and what with HARM missiles and all the rest of it allowing us to establish complete air superiority we don't need to creep under the radar at nought feet; which is why wishful thinkers & dreamers think we could bring back the Mosquito or Lancaster, forgetting MANPADs would wipe them out.

I daresay BAe have the jigs hidden around somewhere and could make a few bits and bobs for the Tornado fleet at a suitably exorbitant price for the simple shoppers in Whitehall, but once the micro-cracks in the main spars start being major cracks, they're grounded forever, spares or not. That day is not that far off. But the RAF being the way it is, they'll keep flying them until they fall out of the sky, and senior officers will be shocked, SHOCKED, I tell you, and there will be boards of inquiry and some poor Jengo will be court-martialled.

Sebastian Weetabix said...

My favourite daft British aircraft was the Blackburn Beverley. It was like a block of flats with wings. The first time one landed in Australia the pilot proudly announced over the radio "the first landing by a Blackburn Beverley..." The Australian SATCO cut in over the radio: "Jesus Christ, mate. Did you build it yourself?"

CityUnslicker said...

brilliant sign off SW!