(Image: Shaun Connor; Panavia Tornado prototype XX947 (P.03) getting airborne with a full weapons load)
After the controversial cancellation of the mighty TSR-2 in the 1960s, and the shelving of a plan to buy a derivative of the US-built F-111 medium bomber, the United Kingdom desperately needed of an aircraft that could replace its ageing Avro Vulcans and Blackburn Buccaneers. The solution came in the form of the Multi-Role Combat Aircraft programme (MRCA), whereby the UK teamed up with Germany, Italy and the Netherlands to form Panavia Aircraft GmbH, a multinational company set to design and build a versatile interdictor/strike (IDS) aircraft that would see each nation’s air forces through into the early decades of the 21st century.
Though the Netherlands dropped out, the remaining partners settled on an innovative swing-wing design that would ultimately become the Panavia Tornado. Today, the Tornado is still in service with four nations and, despite its ageing airframe, has evolved into arguably the most capable strike jet of its kind in the world. In the UK, the RAF’s Tornado GR4 remains a potent force, having been heavily upgraded from its early GR1 incarnation and adapted to a range of combat theatres that have kept it at the sharp end for more than 30 years to date.
But like its now-defunct F3 cousin, this respected and feared aircraft wouldn’t be what it is today without a small fleet of Tornado prototypes and pre-production airframes that – along with their highly skilled crews – proved the cutting-edge design and often innovative technologies in a bid to develop Europe’s most successful and respected interdictor/strike jet of the Cold War era and beyond. This article takes a closer look at those Panavia Tornado prototypes and pre-production airframes (focusing on those assigned to the Royal Air Force. For those of the Luftwaffe and Italian Air Force.
Prototype Tornado XX946/P.02
Issued the RAF serial number XX946, P.02 was the second Tornado prototype to be built (after Germany’s D9591) and the first British aircraft in the series. The multirole combat jet first took to the sky on October 30, 1974 with Paul Millett and Pietro Trevisan at the controls, and was used in a range of tests from weapons release and in-flight refueling to spin and stall trials, and flutter testing. Delivered in the red and white paint scheme of its manufacturer Panavia, XX946 was later repainted in the Cold War grey and green camouflage worn by production Tornado GR1s. Unlike the earlier Luftwaffe prototype, Tornado XX946 was fitted with variable engine intake ramps. P.02, which was equipped with less powerful pre-production engines than those fitted on the operational fleet, was retired to ground instructional duties in 1986 before being transferred to the RAF Museum in 1994. Now at RAF Cosford, it’s understood the historic aircraft will ultimately be restored to its original red and white glory (seen here).
Prototype Tornado XX947/P.03
(Image: Shaun Connor; Tornado prototype XX947 fitted with an array of weapons)
The UK’s second Tornado prototype, serial number XX947, first flew on August 5, 1975 with David Eagles and Tim Ferguson at the controls, under the Panavia prototype designation P.03. Unlike its German and British predecessors, P.03 – the first Tornado fitted with dual controls – was delivered in a grey/green camouflage paint scheme closer to that later worn by production Tornado GR1s entering service in the early 1980s, albeit with light grey undersides and high-visibility roundels and fin flashes. Fitted with a production standard radome (unlike P.02), Tornado XX947 was used for spinning, stalling and weight performance trials. The aircraft aquaplaned off the runway at Warton in October 1976 and, as a result, underwent design changes to the main undercarriage attachment points and thrust reverse system to prevent wandering due to the uneven distribution of reversed airflow on landing. Fitted with an anti-spin parachute in 1978, the aircraft was eventually retired to ground instructional duties at RAF Cosford, adopting the maintenance serial 8797M. When prototype Tornado XX947 was put up for disposal, the decommissioned jet was sold to Everett Aero and placed on display at Shoreham in 2003. As of July 2014 P.03 was understood to have returned to Everett’s facility at the former RAF Bentwaters, Suffolk.
Prototype Tornado XX948/P.06
(Image: Shaun Connor; prototype Tornado P.06 at Warton in Lancashire)
Just four months after XX947 first blasted off the runway of Warton Aerodrome near Preston, Lancashire, the third RAF Tornado prototype took to the sky with David Eagles once again in the front seat. Airframe XX948 (P.06) made her maiden flight immediately before Christmas, on December 19, 1975, and was used primarily for weapons clearance trials. As such, Tornado XX948 became the first example of Panavia’s successful strike jet to be fitted with the powerful 27mm Mauser cannon, which would ultimately enter service on the production Tornado GR1 fleet and those machines later selected for the GR4 upgrade. In addition, prototype P.06 boasted a plethora of other features not fitted to its older cousins. As the excellent Tornado-data.com states: “P.06 incorporated numerous modifications including a revised rear fuselage profile that was slimmer than its predecessors and included a fillet at the base of the fin between the engines to adjust the aerodynamic properties of the airframe. Vortex generators were also fitted on the fin.” Like XX947, Tornado XX948 later became a ground instructional airframe at Cosford (as 8879M) before disposal to Everett Aero. The aircraft is now on display at Hermeskeil in Germany.
Prototype Tornado XX950/P.08
(Image: Shaun Connor; Tornado prototype P.08 was lost during trials work in 1979)
Like P.03, Panavia Tornado prototype P.08 was fitted with dual controls in its front and rear cockpits and also suffered an accident during flight testing. But unlike its older counterpart, the aircraft – serial number XX950 – was destroyed in the incident, which sadly claimed the lives of its two crew. First flown on July 17, 1976 by Paul Millett and Ray Woolett, Tornado P.08 appeared in the static park at the Farnborough airshow that same year surrounded by a forceful array of weaponary, as seen in the photograph above. But three years later on June 12, 1979 during weapons release trials, XX950 tragically crashed into the Irish Sea, killing pilot Russ Pengelly and navigator Sqn Ldr J. S. Gray.
Pre-Production Panavia Tornado XZ630/PS12
(Image: David A. Ingham; XZ630, or PS12, the first of two pre-production Tornado IDS built for the RAF)
Former Lightning and Tornado F3 pilot Ian Black states in his excellent RAF Tornado Owners’ Workshop Manual that: “While the first ten aircraft could be considered true prototypes, the first real Tornado for the RAF flew in March 1977 (XZ630) and it was quickly assigned to the A&AEE at RAF Boscombe Down in Wiltshire.” Crewed by Tim Ferguson and Roy Kenward, the aircraft had departed the runway at Warton for the first on March 14, 1977 and later participated in weapons release trials at the Aeroplane & Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE). Pre-production Tornados incorporated a number of refinements over earlier prototypes that would be incorporated onto production aircraft and, after a successful career as a trials aircraft, Panavia Tornado XZ630 (PS12) was retired to ground duties as 8976M and since 2004 has been preserved on the parade ground at RAF Halton.
Pre-Production Panavia Tornado XZ631/PS15
(Image: Steve Tron; pre-production Panavia Tornado XZ631 (PS15), repainted in 2015)
Of all Britain’s prototype and pre-production Tornado airframes, the last one to be delivered – XZ631 (PS15) – enjoyed the longest and arguably most varied career of Panavia’s early development jets. First flown by Jerry Lee and Jim Evans on November 24, 1978, Tornado XZ631 was used in supersonic flutter, in-flight refueling, and weapons handling and clearance trials. It was the first Tornado to incorporate the production-standard rear fuselage and fin mounted fuel tank, the latter a feature of RAF Tornados but not those of the German and Italian air forces. P15, however, didn’t merely serve as a trials aircraft early in the Multi-Role Combat Aircraft programme. The pre-production airframe also became the prototype for the Tornado Mid-Life Update (MLU), which saw around 142 Tornado GR1 jets upgraded to GR4 standard between 1997 and 2003. This technically made XZ631 the first Tornado GR4, and the aircraft was still flying as late as 2004. Retired to the Yorkshire Air Museum at Elvington the following year, PS15 was beginning to look rather tired after years in the open air. But 2015 saw the historic airframe repainted in the modern all-over light grey worn by the remaining Tornado GR4 force today.
Prototype Tornado P.10 (Honourable Mention)
Not all of the UK’s Panavia Tornado prototypes flew. One of them was destined to never take to the air at all, ordered instead for use as a static test article. Photographs of this non-flying airframe (known as P.10 or P.90) have thus far proved elusive, but it nevertheless deserves a mention. If anyone does recall seeing it at Warton back in the late 1970s, or – better still – has a photograph of Tornado P.10, we’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, here’s a summary of the test article’s service career courtesy of Tornado-Data.com:
P.10 was destined never to fly but to be used as a static test airframe. The airframe was extensively instrumented and subject to a great number of trials. The airframe and some of its assemblies were tested to destruction. Many parts are dumped around the Warton site, others were scrapped after the trials.