“I pushed as hard as I could and hit the front stops with the column as a fire breathing FGR.2 screamed past me in full reheat calling “Fox 3″ – the terminology for a guns kills. I’d just been shot in the face by a Phantom as I was pretty much in a vertical dive!” Ian Black former Phantom and Tornado F.3 pilot
The RAF Phantom fleet was ultimately replaced by the Panavia Tornado F.3 in the early 1990s. Not only was Ian Black privileged to fly both types – he’s one of the few people to have dogfighted against an RAF Phantom in an RAF Tornado. In the following article, which contains excerpts from an extensive piece titled Phantom vs Tornado appeared on Key Publishing special publication British Phantoms, he explains how he fared…
In the post Cold War era training no longer looked at an exclusively Soviet threat but considered the possibility that any air force around the globe might be a threat.
With the end of the Phantom force imminent, crews were keen to use up every scrap of airframe fatigue left on the old jets. Groundcrew at 56(F) Sqn were quick to strip the aircraft down to a clean wing configuration and the unit’s aircrew were even keener to indulge in some ‘proper’ combat. The Tornado F.3 normally flew in a clean wing so both jets were now in a similar fit – and soon the opportunity presented itself for the two jets to go head-to-head during some serious training.
At the time, I was based at RAF Leeming with 11(F) Sqn and our Tornado F.3s were all in the capable post-Gulf War modification state. The opportunity now existed for both squadrons to dream up scenarios where each side could use their aircraft to replicate various possible adversaries.
The Phantom and Tornado F.3 bore almost identical weapon loads and in terms of capability were reasonably evenly matched. As most Tornado crews had previously flown the Phantom they had a distinct advantage in that we were acutely aware of the F-4’s strengths and limitations. Against the Phantom the F.3 was in a different league. Although often maligned, the Air Defence Tornado was actually reasonably agile below 10,000ft (3,048m) and it had variable geometry wing sweep affording it both excellent high-speed performance and low speed manoeuvrability. In forward sweep it could hold its own against a Hawk at low-level – and its two Turbo Union RB199 engines in full reheat and manoeuvre flap made up for most eventualities!
Sadly, the FGR.2 never adopted the leading edge slats that most later F-4s had and the so-called ‘hard wing’ Phantom was not great at turning – despite what you saw at airshows!
Prior to each mission the lead crews would have a telephone conversation to see how they would like the sortie to pan-out. The trip could either consist of each type being flown in its intended role – or the more complex scenario where one would play the ‘aggressor.’ The Phantom FGR.2 was not dissimilar in performance to the Soviet Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-23 Flogger, however ordinary squadron pilots were not trained to the same level as USAF Aggressor pilots.
It takes a huge amount of discipline to try to fly your aircraft to replicate a different type – let alone try to utilise the weapons systems to replicate Soviet missiles such as the Atoll or Aphid missiles. To that end, crews would normally brief missions as ‘full up’ – with the F.3 and FGR.2 flying with a full weapon fit of four BAe Skyflash missiles, four Sidewinder missiles and a gun, with the option of chaff or flares.
This crews would optimise their war tactics so that the primary weapon of engagement would be the Skyflash. On the Phantom, this had a maximum range at altitude of 20 miles (32km) but the scenario could be made more complex by altering the rules of engagement. A positive hostile identification from the Phantom would mean that he would have to obtain visual contact with the target and identify it as hostile prior to missile release – realistically this would be around 10 miles (16km) from an F-4, even with its optical sight. This was probably too late to avoid a missile shot from the F.3. The Phantom crews would therefore develop highly complex manoeuvres to get into a visual firing position and hope they remained unseen on the Tornado.
With so much fatigue life available the Phantoms could turn tightly without fear of pulling too hard and using up excess airframe hours. Therefore the Phantom boys’ preferred choice of scenario was to limit each crew to using just ‘Heaters’ (Sidewinders), which in turn led to tactics altering as crews now needed to be in visual contact with each other before shooting. It was almost the sport of kings!
This now meant getting four Phantoms and four Tornados in a very small piece of sky. Trying to engineer a ‘turning fight’, each formation would brief their tactics to arrive at the ‘merge’ as fast as possible to avoid any head-on shots but keep the engines as cool as possible. This was essential to avoid the opposition achieving a pre merge head on shot.
Both aircraft were relatively easy to spot in a fight and the red tail fins on the 56 Sqn ‘Firebirds’ Phantoms certainly helped in that respect.
In terms of self-defence the RAF was slow to adopt the use of infrared decoys and as a cost saving measure rarely used them in training. The Phantom FGR.2 adopted a retrospective system of chaff and flare dispensers behind the Sidewinder launch platforms.
Having started with a ‘Four vs Four Heaters Only’ sortie, the next progression would have been a ‘Four vs Four Guns Only’ contest – simulating both types armed with a single gun. However, after some close shaves this was never attempted – as trying to get eight aircraft within 350 yards (320m) of each other to shoot the gun was deemed too dangerous!
Our training area for these final combats was over the Wash just off the North Norfolk coast; an area that allowed us to go supersonic whilst over the sea.
Each formation would brief around two hours prior to take-off and allow 30 minutes to walk to the aircraft and get airborne. Both types could be airborne during wartime in around five minutes but in peacetime things were done at a more leisurely pace.
The brief would cover every aspect of the sortie including the safety aspects – eight high performance fighters in a small space of sky needed careful briefing as the potential for loss of control or mid-air collisions was high.
Limiting our respective weapon loads to just Sidewinders meant the maximum range to achieve a kill would be around 5 miles (8km) and the minimum down to just half a mile (0.8km). This meant there would be lots of close in fights – or ‘knife fights in telephone boxes’ in fighter pilot parlance.
A crucial part of the brief would be how we would maintain realism by performing ‘kill removal.’ With both types working different radio frequencies, kills would be passed by ground control interceptors (GCI) to allow the ‘dead’ to be removed from the fight. The fight would continue until the leader on either side called ‘knock it off’ – before regrouping for another fight. With both types flying clean wing (without wing tanks) we would be lucky to get two or three engagements done per sortie.
So, having described the types’ respective strengths and weaknesses how did the combat turn out?
From a pilot’s perspective the Phantom gave few indications as to its energy levels, something that was vital in the visual engagement. Conversely, the Tornado displayed several visual clues that gave away its energy, most notably its wing sweep position. Above 4G the Tornado also tended to leave distinct vapour trails and the selecting and deselecting of reheat caused a purging of fuel lines and a telltale puff of vapour.
As expected, the Tornado formations had a much better air picture prior to the merge – this despite the F-4 crews trying to perform aggressive manoeuvres prior to the merge to destroy our situational awareness.
Once engaged it was perhaps the biggest ‘fur ball’ I’ve witnessed – the Phantom crews were extremely confident with their mounts, despite their handling limitations and the fact that FGR.2 pilots had to use large amounts of rudder to turn the aircraft while simultaneously being careful not to turn and pull whilst loaded at low speed for fear of the aircraft `departing’ from controlled flight.
The second and final merge was more memorable. Flying in an ‘extended card’ formation as the lead element we started a rapid descent 10 miles (16km) ahead of the Phantoms. In turn, they remained as two units and began engaging our rear element.
With the F.3’s excellent cockpit displays we were able to communicate within the formation and knew they were now some 5 miles (8km) south of the fight and we were able to fly in and pick off two FGR.2s from behind.
Sadly, by this point, they had already called two shots on Tornados 3 and 4 – so now it was a down to a classic two vs two dogfight.
The dead guys ‘bugged out’ and held away from the area as we continued the fight, trying to drag the Phantoms down low and use our superior turn performance. The latter worked well for the first 360 degrees of turn and as I climbed back to 10,000ft (3,048m) to regain energy I could see my wingman was engaged with a single Phantom in a neutral fight. We were now split into two separate one vs one engagements and trying to keep-a mental picture of where we all were whilst trying to survive. By the time I reached 10,000ft (3,048m) my adversary was still at 5,000ft (1,524m) over the sea. I could see he was in full reheat and gaining speed.
Sometimes in aviation you have one of those ‘time freeze’ moments and split seconds of combat stay with you forever. Assuming I was in a good position I rolled my F.3 onto the FGR.2 and started to pull as hard as I could – he did the reverse and pulled hard up into me – I could see him through my Head Up display – a luxury the F-4 didn’t have – and tried to get a Sidewinder shot at him face on.
I knew I was too close and the missile wouldn’t have time to arm – a big mistake as I wasted valuable seconds trying to get my missile kill whilst the F-4 grew bigger in my windscreen I was now in the vertical (downwards!) accelerating as he was in the vertical heading straight up! Then the penny dropped that we were now pretty much on a collision course and I could see the Phantom pilot wasn’t going to give in…
I pushed as hard as I could and hit the front stops with the column as a fire breathing FGR.2 screamed past me in full reheat calling “Fox 3” – the terminology for a guns kills. It was a gutsy move – I’d just been shot in the face by a Phantom as I was pretty much in a vertical dive!
Out of fuel, I called a ‘knock it off’ and we returned to base. That day, July 15, 1992, I’d tried for too long to get a missile kill whilst the Phantom pilot was hell bent on getting his kill by any means – there was still life in the old dog yet…