ZA404: Another Tornado GR4 ‘Reduced to Produce’

tornado-za404-rtp (Image: Ryan Douglas, reproduced with permission. Tornado GR4A ZA404)

The above image by photographer Ryan Douglas perfectly illustrates the Panavia Tornado GR4, afterburners blazing, roaring down the runway at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland. Although the photo was taken this year, the machine, ZA404, retains an earlier dark grey paint scheme and black radome no longer worn by the majority of operational Tornados. With the famous 617 “Dambusters” Squadron insignia emblazoned on its fin top, the strike jet accelerates to takeoff speed before climbing out over the Moray Firth. But by the time this photograph was taken, ZA404’s flying days were numbered.

Along with sister Tornado ZA412, 404 was a regular sight on the flight line at airshows across the UK during the 2013 season. But as the RAF Leuchars event on September 7 marked the last air display of the year, ZA404 was less than one month away from being reduced to produce (RTP) – which amounts to being stripped of all useful components and scrapped. And with more and more Tornado GR4 airframes being taken out of service as the fleet winds down over the next few years, the majority will end their days at RAF Leeming as donors to keep the last squadrons airworthy until the introduction of the Joint Strike Fighter.

Panavia Tornado ZA404 in Pictures

tornado-za404-rtp-2 (Image: Jarco Hage, reproduced with permission)

ZA404 first flew on January 6, 1983, making it 30-years-old on its retirement last month. Despite its ageing airframe, the Tornado has been heavily upgraded over the years, integrating cutting-edge avionics that ensure it remains one of the most lethal strike jets in the world. But as individual aircraft reach the end of their fatigue lives and airframe hours, they’re unceremoniously grounded and cannibalised to keep less tired jets in the air.

tornado-za404-rtp-3 (Image: Brian Hodgson, reproduced with permission)

Tail-coded “013”, ZA404 passes through the Machynlleth Loop – or Mach loop – in west-central Wales, a series of valleys used for fast jet low-level training. This Tornado is actually a GR4A reconnaissance variant, differentiated externally from its GR4 counterpart by a sideways-looking infrared surveillance system in place of the original Mauser cannon.

tornado-za404-rtp-4 (Image: Brian Hodgson, reproduced with permission)

Prior to ending its days on 617 Squadron, ZA404 flew with No. II (AC) Squadron at RAF Marham in Norfolk. It is seen above in II Sqn markings, with the 013 code that it retained until retirement.

tornado-za404-rtp-5 (Image: Nigel Paine (website:, reproduced with permission)

Back at Lossiemouth, the GR4A (an upgrade of the original GR1A recce Tornado) sits poised in its hardened aircraft shelter (HAS). While some Tornados on the base, such as those of 15 (Reserve) Squadron, operate from a conventional flight line, 617’s jets are housed within an HAS complex that sees one machine allocated to each shelter.

tornado-za404-rtp-6 (Image: NTGpictures, reproduced with permission)

Above, ZA404 (left) roars down the runway at RAF Waddington during the July 2013 airshow. Alongside is ZA412, a Tornado of similar age to 404 (just two months younger) that remains in service today. Both jets comprised the main Tornado presence on this year’s airshow circuit. ZA412, with its commemorative tail fin marking 70 years since Operation Chastise – the famous Dambusters raid of World War Two – looks virtually identical to ZA404, but is actually a GR4T twin-stick trainer.

tornado-za404-rtp-7 (Image: Alex Ferguson, reproduced with permission)

But when the summer airshows came to an end, so too did the operational career of ZA404. The Tornado made its final flight to RAF Leeming on October 1, and sits quietly on the ramp, devoid of heavy external stores, awaiting deactivation and spares recovery. Once all usable parts have been removed, 404’s gaunt body shell of will be dumped out on the grass to await its final journey to a local scrapyard. Click here to track which GR4 airframes remain serviceable and those awaiting RTP.

We’re also keeping track of another Tornado airframe – ZD790 – which was the preferred mount of iconic pilot ‘Pablo’ Mason during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Known as “Debbie” during that time, and boasting some impressive nose art, the jet became a longtime Lossiemouth resident before recently (we believe) moving south to Marham. Follow Pablo Mason on Twitter @PabloThePilot.

Update: Unfortunately ZD790/099 (“Debbie”) was flown to Leeming for RTP in November 2016.

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