“The most perfect aircraft that I can imagine!” “No plane has ever been designed to be able to do the same things!” “It is absolutely incredible!”
These are but a few examples of the numerous quotes by pilots praising the Tornado, the outstanding multi-role combat aircraft whose first test flight took place over 40 years ago back in 1974. In spite of the respectable age of its airframe, the Tornado, with its enhanced capabilities, still forms the backbone of Europe’s air defence today. Having continued well into the 21st century, this success story is beyond what anyone at the time could have imagined.
To learn more about this miracle of engineering, we travelled to Munich, Germany. There we found exactly the right man to tell us more about the Tornado as well as Panavia Aircraft GmbH, the management company behind the Tornado project.
Image courtesy of Panavia.
Towards a Unified Europe
When it comes to the Tornado, few people have seen more than the current Panavia Managing Director Dr Welf-Werner Degel. He has been involved in pretty much everything Tornado-related one could possibly hope for – at least on land.
“When I entered the project in 1986, a new variant of the Tornado was currently under development,” Degel recalls. “That gave me the opportunity to learn about all the individual phases related to the aircraft: first the development and production, and then later the upgrade and in-service support phases. You really have to be lucky for that to happen to you, because in the military aerospace industry the cycles are so long.”
Originally, the Tornado was the result of an ambitious tri-national programme launched in 1969. It was led by Panavia and backed by the combined strengths of three partner nations: West Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom.
According to Dr Degel, founding a management company such as Panavia was unprecedented in Europe.
“Panavia put together all the skills and capabilities of these different countries,” he says. “As you can imagine, bringing it all together in a standardized way was an enormous challenge, each country having its own set of systems, standards, laws, languages, and so on.”
Such a tri-national consortium was also unique at the time. It was not insignificant, either, as it is often considered a pilot venture on the path towards the then-distant dream of a unified Europe, or what is today known as the European Union. That is partly why the efforts were backed by great support, both political and industrial, and the project could turn out as successful as it did. Later, the Tornado project became somewhat of a blueprint for a large number of other multi-national projects undertaken in various fields.
In February, Industrial PRIME met with Dr Degel at the Panavia headquarters in Germany. He started working for the Tornado project in 1986, and immediately discovered how exciting the industry was.
Developing According to the Threat
The Tornado was originally developed for a Cold War scenario. In principle, the objective was to be able to counter any attack from the Warsaw Pact. The requirements for the new aircraft to be developed were extremely demanding – after all, it was going to be used against a powerful enemy with a strong air force.
“It was to be an aircraft that would combine all the capabilities of the existing air force fleets in one single airframe,” says Degel. “It would be a multi-role combat aircraft capable of all-weather, low-level, high-speed penetration into enemy territory.”
Unsurprisingly, the challenge was enormous. A great amount of brand-new technology and techniques were involved in the design of the aircraft, including variable geometry wings, digital systems, and the use of titanium as material. All-weather day and night capability, stability and low fuel consumption in low-level flying were among the requirements required, as were ambitious starting and landing distances as short as eight hundred meters.
Ten years after the design work began, the first Tornado was introduced into service in 1979. The rest is history. However, the result turning out to be so perfect did not mean that the masterpiece could, should, or would not be developed even further.
When the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended in 1989, the threat transformed. The great power in the East was no longer the main concern. Instead, the remaining scenarios were now related to individual threats from individual areas. And as the threat changed, the Tornado and the business of Panavia were going to have to adapt as well.
“The first thing that happened was that the air forces involved dramatically reduced the size of their fleets,” Degel recalls. “Germany, for instance, went from more than three hundred Tornados to a mere eighty-five. Naturally, this affected the business and operations of Panavia, not to mention our supplier industry.”
The size of the business shrank, then, but thankfully positive effects were also to follow, as upgrades to the Tornado were going to be necessary owing to the recent geopolitical changes.
The aircraft was now going to be used in precision missions rather than massed counter attack or defensive roles. Since the original capability of low-level flying was no longer deemed a priority, it was necessary to develop the Tornado into a medium-level attack aircraft.
“New weapons and new technology had to be integrated,” says Degel. “This had a positive effect on both Panavia and the industry connected to the production of the Tornado.”
Originally, only European companies were used in the Tornado project, the objective being to support the development of the European military aerospace industry. Even today, more than 90 % of the aircraft is still produced with European knowhow, involving more than two hundred main suppliers and partner companies.
In 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and the Tornado was employed in combat for the first time. The medium-level aircraft was now capable of precision attacks with guided weapons, while its reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities had been enhanced. Since then, Tornados have been used in conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen, and latterly against IS in Syria.
The twin-engined Tornado is capable of reaching a maximum speed of 2.2 Mach, the equivalent of 2,400 km/h. (Image courtesy of Dr Stefan Petersen/German Air Force)
The Story Continues
Altogether three versions of the Tornado were developed. The last of the total 992 aircraft produced left the factory in 1998.
Up until today, the Tornado has been in constant use by the air forces of Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom. The Tornado is also still used by the Royal Saudi Air Force, which is the only export operator of the Tornado in addition to the three original partner nations.
Out of the original 992 produced, over three hundred Tornados are in service today. As amazing as it sounds, the Tornado is still at the top of its class today. The work on the classic has never ceased, and it is going to continue even further.
“Upgrades and modernization programmes have been planned up until 2025 and beyond,” says Degel. “For as long as it is in the air, we are going to ensure that the Tornado remains one of the most powerful and versatile aircraft in the world.”
The original requirement for the Tornado was that it would be able to serve 4,000 flying hours. With an estimated 200 hours per year, that would mean approximately 20 years of service. However, as the aircraft turned out to remain competitive in its class and widely used, there came a time when a decision was made to extend the flying hours to 8,000. And it seems that’s not even it.
“The Germans are planning to fly the Tornado even longer than the other air forces,” Degel reveals. “That’s why we are now considering giving it a qualification of even up to 11,000 hours. That is not uncommon, but it is not very common either!”
According to current plans, then, it is quite possible that the Tornado saga will continue well into the 2030s, perhaps all the way until 2040. By that time, seventy years will have passed from the day the work on its development began. It will finally have been replaced by a next-generation weapons system, currently under consideration for development in Europe. It will finally be time for its retirement after a long life well served.
In university, Dr Degel studied physics, but he never could have imagined that he would end up working in the military aerospace industry.
However, when German aerospace manufacturer MBB was recruiting talents from a variety of fields to join the development of the Electronic Combat and Reconnaissance (ECR) variant of the Tornado, his friends convinced him to give it a go and apply.
“I went to the interview and got the job,” Degel recounts. “I thought, ok, I can try it out, and if I don’t like it after a couple of years, I can easily change to another company and profession.”
Seems there was no need for that?
“Yes, here I am still today!” Degel laughs. “I never considered changing, not even for a second. Once I was in, it was all so exciting, and as my responsibilities grew, I got to learn more and more about the aircraft and the whole industry. It is such a complex business that you can be sure that every day is going to be exciting!”
Text and images of Dr Degel by Industrial PRIME
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