The Last Tornado Student


2017-03-22 By Flight Lt. Nathan Shawyer

The tranquil Saturday afternoon of 17th September 2005 was transformed in seconds.

Aged 14 at my local airshow, Yeovilton, I was introduced to the Tornado GR4 up close for the first time. Stood alongside my Dad, I watched in awe as the two RB199s powered up into afterburner and launched the angry-looking jet thundering down the runway.

The ground was still shaking as the pilot kept the aircraft low after rotate, down the length of the runway before aggressively back-sticking the jet into the skies.

“Awesome!” I tried to shout over the noise.

The memory stays with me – little did I know that just over 10 years later, I would have the incredible honour of being selected as the RAF’s last ever Tornado GR4 pilot.

To promote the Tornado’s phenomenal service over the past 38 years would be to state the obvious.

Having seen continual operations since the Gulf War of 1991 (some quick maths confirms that yes indeed – this was before I was born), the aircraft has adapted to the modern requirements of today’s Air Force whilst maintaining its staggering combat record.

Having spent the core of its life enjoying low level operations, tactics have since evolved into the medium level.

The introduction of smart weaponry may have revolutionised Air-Ground operations, however, the Tornado GR4 through successive upgrades has coped admirably and is still the aircraft of choice in this environment.

This shift in doctrine is reflected in the course syllabus on XV(R) Squadron.

Whilst there is still (thankfully) plenty of time at low level – shows of force, co-ordinating pairs attacks and utilising the incredible Terrain Following Radar, the relevance of Operation: Shader has driven the need to understand and employ roles such as Close Air Support more effectively.

Recognising an ever-more muddled ground picture whilst using the Litening III pod to prosecute accurate, timely and effective attacks has become a training necessity for XV(R) Squadron, with students now graduating ‘Combat Ready’ for the frontline squadrons at RAF Marham.

Whilst there is an understandably serious undertone to the training at RAF Lossiemouth, I cannot shake the enjoyment and thrill that comes with flying the Tornado GR4 – and the immense privilege that comes with knowing I’m the last in a long line to revel in it.

On a claggy winters morning, bursting through the cloud tops, sweeping the wings back and rolling to arrest our rate of climb is enough to put a smile on anyone’s face, even on a Monday.

This satisfaction is enhanced further by having a Navigator – it’s refreshing having somebody along for the ride that isn’t nibbing or criticizing as has been the case for my last few years of flying training!

With effective crew resource management, two heads are most definitely better than one, particularly in a dynamic environment working close to mental capacity.

This teamwork is something I feel the RAF will miss once the Tornado finally bows out in 2019.

As my time on XV(R) Squadron comes to an end, I look forward to my first tour as a junior pilot on the mighty 31 Squadron.

Unfortunately my unique situation does mean that I will be an eternal ‘junior pilot’ with no fresh students behind me to take my place! As I have alluded to above, the enormous honour that comes with this title has not escaped my attention.

Many thousands of aircrew have trained, served and fought on the Tornado force and their dedication is testament to the strength of the GR4 today.

As the drawdown begins over the coming few years, I hope that I myself can participate in an airshow flypast which will stir the emotions of the next generation of RAF aircrew.

Editor’s Note: I am writing from RAF Lossiemouth.  

During my current visit to the RAF base, I had a chance to read the most recent (February/March 2017) Lossie Lighthouse, the Magazine of RAF Lossiemouth.

My visit started on March 19, 2017, and the Friday before was the last flight of Tornados at Lossie prior to going to the final operational base of Marham.

The plane will be put out of service in 2019.

We will have a piece on the Friday ceremony soon, but in the latest issue of the Lossie Lighthouse was a very interesting piece called the last Tornado student written by Flight Lt. Nathan Shawyer, then of Lossie and now a pilot with 31 Squadron at Marham.

The Tornados remain extensively engaged in overseas operations right to the end.

The slideshow highlights Tornados at Lossie and the photos are credited to the RAF.  And the article is credited to the Lossie Lighthouse and is republished with their permission.

For earlier articles on Tornados at RAF Lossiemouth, see the following:

Leveraging the Legacy of the Tornado: The Perspective of Wing Commander Paul Froome

Also, see

Training the Final Tornado Weapons Instructors: Shaping a Way Ahead

Visiting RAF Lossiemouth: “MacRobert’s Reply” and Tornado Thunder