VIDEO & PICTURES: UK retires last Tornado F3 fighters

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The UK Royal Air Force will stand down its last Panavia Tornado F3-equipped unit on 22 March, with the type having completed a service life spanning 25 years.

Operations with the supersonic interceptor will come to an end with the disbandment of 111 Sqn, which has flown F3s from RAF Leuchars in Scotland since 1990 and been the sole UK unit to operate the type since July 2009.

 
© Craig Hoyle/Flightglobal

The F3's last frontline act, performed on 14 March, was to stand a final period of readiness to fly quick reaction alert (QRA) sorties to defend the northern UK. This task is now the full-time responsibility of 6 Sqn, which has flown Eurofighter Typhoons from Leuchars since last September.

"From the 1980s, the F3 has been the cornerstone of the RAF's air defence capability," says Wg Cdr Mark Gorringe, officer commanding 111 Sqn. In addition to having protected the UK since providing its first period of QRA cover from Coningsby in Lincolnshire in 1986, periods of duty over Bosnia and Iraq also followed.

The aircraft also helped to police the no-fly zones over Iraq between 1999 and 2003, logging over 5,000 flight hours, and provided air defence cover for the Falkland Islands for many years.

 

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Developed from the Tornado GR1 ground-attack aircraft, the air defence variant (ADV) used more powerful Rolls-Royce RB199 turbofan engines, had 600kg (1,320lb) of additional internal fuel and a Foxhunter fire control radar. Problems with the latter led to an early batch of F2-standard aircraft being delivered from 1984 with only ballast in the nose, earning the nickname "Blue Circle".

In all, the RAF took delivery of 152 air defence variant Tornados, which at the height of their use equipped seven frontline squadrons, plus operational conversion and evaluation units. Notably, however, the F3 was never used to fire a shot in anger.

 
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In this March 2010 intercept, 111 Sqn Tornados escorted a Russian air force Tu-160 strategic bomber

Despite the teething problems encountered early in its career, Gorringe says the type's final configuration, which combined the Joint Tactical Information Distribution System with Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM and MBDA ASRAAM air-to-air missiles, made it "a very capable platform".

The RAF's last Tornado F3s will be flown to its Leeming base by 31 March, where they will be broken down - or "harvested" - to provide spares for the service's Tornado GR4 fleet. Four of its remaining aircraft took part in a media day staged at Leuchars on 17 March, performing several formation flypasts.

 
© Craig Hoyle/Flightglobal

In its last days, 111 Sqn's strength had been run down to eight jets and nine pilots. Several of the latter will move on to fly the GR4 and Typhoon, with others to work as instructors at the RAF's Linton-on-Ouse and Valley bases. Some of the unit's navigators have been streamed to work with 39 Sqn, which controls General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted air systems over Afghanistan from Creech AFB, Nevada.

First stood up in 1917, "Treble One" was the first RAF squadron to receive the Hawker Hurricane, and had 14 "aces" in the first and second World Wars. In another historic feat, its pilots performed a formation loop with 22 Hawker Hunters at the 1958 Farnborough air show, flying as the "Black Arrows".

"111 has disbanded three times before and come back," notes Gorringe. "I hope it will be back again."

Hailing the "diligent service" of the unit during Leuchars' two-year transition to the Eurofighter, station commander and air officer commanding Scotland Air Cdre Harry Atkinson says: "The Typhoon must now grow into the backbone to protect the UK and its interests abroad for the decades ahead."

 
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A pair of 111 Sqn Tornado F3s are joined by their replacements: Eurofighter Typhoons from RAF Leuchars-based 6 Sqn

Retirement of the RAF's last F3s leaves Saudi Arabia as the only remaining user of the Tornado ADV. Riyadh is in the process of introducing 72 Eurofighter Typhoons to replace the type.

For more pictures from the last days of the Tornado F3, see Craig Hoyle's image gallery on flightglobal.com/AirSpace