panavia-tornado-zd844-rtp-scrap (Image: Jonathan Irwin Photography; the gutted hulk of Tornado ZD844 in a scrap yard prior to recycling)

Over the past year or so Urban Ghosts has documented the slow demise of the Panavia Tornado GR4, as airframes at the limits of their service lives are stripped for parts (a process known as RTP – reduced to produce) to keep the remaining fleet flying until its planned out of service date in 2019. Following completion of the RTP process, the donor airframe is reduced to an empty, hollow carcass that looks more like a boat’s hull than the fuselage of one of the world’s most formidable strike jets.

But unlike the decommissioned hulks of early Tornado trainers, and redundant Tornado GR1Bs and F2s, which were dumped for scrap at RAF St Athan in the early 2000s, I’d not until now witnessed the disposal of the upgraded GR4s that had been dismantled for spares at RAF Leeming in Yorkshire. A naive and somewhat wishful image had formed in my mind of a hangar full of empty Tornado GR4 fuselages, carefully stored on large shelves, their useful components removed and stockpiled for delivery to RAF Marham or Lossiemouth when required. Silly, perhaps. And, not surprisingly, that vision didn’t quite mirror reality. The above image created by Jonathan Irwin Photography shows the mortal remains of Tornado GR4 ZD844 – a veteran of the first Gulf War – which was sent to Leeming for RTP in May 2015 and was seen in a scrap yard just two months later.

Clearly, this doesn’t bode well for other withdrawn GR4s. Ironically, much of Tornado ZD844 probably still exists (from canopy and radome to wings and tail, engines, undercarriage and everything beneath the surface) in one form or another. But without this barely-recognisable fuselage shell, the chance of one day putting the jet back together again is nil. Fortunately a number of early Tornado GR1s survive as ground instructional airframes and a handful have been sold to private owners. Time will tell how many of those still on RAF charge – and indeed the GR4s still flying – become available to museums when the type is finally retired. With history as our guide, the majority will be scrapped.

A Brief History of Panavia Tornado ZD844

panavia-tornado-gr4-zd844 (Image: PaulC7001; Panavia Tornado ZD844 during a low level training sortie in 2012)

Panavia Tornado ZD844 first flew in March 1985 and was delivered to the RAF the following month. The strike jet was one of several RAF Bruggen-based Tornados dispatched to Tabuk airfield in Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Granby, the name given to British military operations during 1991 Gulf War. Painted desert pink and adorned with wartime nose art, ZD844 used its Thermal Imaging Airborne Laser Designator (TIALD) pod to ensure that guided weapons dropped by other NATO jets struck their ground targets with lethal accuracy.

Despite its ignominious fate, the end of Tornado ZD844 almost came 21 years earlier, in August 1994, when the aircraft collided with another Tornado, ZA397, en route from Goose Bay in Canada to the UK. The planes were flying in a four-ship formation behind a tanker aircraft when the collision occurred, causing the crew of ZA397 to successfully eject from their stricken jet. ZD844, however, limped to the nearest airfield for an emergency landing and was subsequently repaired.

The aircraft was later converted to GR4 standard during the Tornado mid-life upgrade programme, receiving the code 107, which was latterly worn on its tail fin. The aircraft was destined to remain in RAF service for 30 years before being disposed of for scrap, its fate unfortunate considering its Gulf War history.

As photographer Jonathan Irwin wrote on Flickr: “To conclude it may look like a piece of metal waiting to be scrapped but dig a bit deeper as I have done and it had quite an interesting life while serving the RAF for over 30 years.”

Related – Multi-Role Combat Aircraft: Panavia Tornado Prototypes & Pre-Production Aircraft of the RAF