RAF Tornado navigator recalls when his Tonka had a bird strike during a low-level attack mission against Iraqi airfields during Operation Desert Storm. Still it attacked its target successfully.

RAF Tornado navigator recalls when his Tonka had a bird strike during a low-level attack mission against Iraqi airfields during Operation Desert Storm. Still it attacked its target successfully.

By Dario Leone
Jan 18 2024
Sponsored by: Osprey Publishing
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RAF Tornado strike aircraft dueing Operation Desert Storm

When the Gulf Crisis of 1990 was triggered by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the RAF responded by sending Tornado F3 fighters to Saudi Arabia to help defend the country against further aggression. These aircraft were followed by the deployment of Tornado GR1 strike/attack aircraft to Bahrain. Eventually three wings of Tornado GR1s were established in Bahrain, Tabuk and Dhahran, as well as a detachment of Tornado GR1A reconnaissance aircraft. At the start of hostilities in January 1991, the Tornado GR1 wings carried out night-low-level attacks against Iraqi Main Operating Bases using the JP233 runway denial weapon.

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Attack mission against Iraqi airfields

As told by Michael Napier in his book RAF Tornado Units of Gulf War I, at Bahrain, the evening wave of Jan. 17 consisted of two four ships manned by crews from the Marham squadrons. They were tasked against the airfields at Shaibah, near Basra, and Al Jarrah, on the outskirts of Al Kut. The mission against Shaibah was led by Sqn Ldrs J Taylor and G E Thwaites. This formation attacked its target successfully, but unfortunately soon after making its attack, the No 3 aircraft, flown by Wg Cdr T N C Elsdon and Flt Lt R M Collier, hit the ground and both crew members were killed.

The second four ship was led by Flt Lts G T W Beet and S Osborne. The No 3 aircraft had to return to Bahrain after the first AAR bracket when it suffered a ground mapping radar (GMR) failure, leaving only three aircraft to press on to Al Jarrah. Shortly after crossing the border, the No 4 aircraft, flown by Flg Off N J W Ingle and Flt Lt P McKernan, was locked up and fired on by a Roland SAM. The pilot saw the missile in time to defeat it by manoeuvring and employing chaff.

Thanks to the efforts of the SEAD aircraft, the target was visible from about 30 miles away because of all the tracer from the AAA, which was firing blindly. As they approached the target area, the No 4 aircraft accelerated to the attack speed of 540 knots. Flt Lt McKernan described what happened next;

A loud “BANG”

‘About two and a half miles from the target there was a loud “BANG” from the port wing and the aircraft, which Nige was now flying manually, pitched up to about 600 ft. I asked if he had any captions on his Central Warning Panel. He said “no”, and I suggested that we get back down to a more comfortable height. It was very unnerving. I could busy myself with the radar and RHWR, but Nige had no such distractions, and I didn’t envy him watching the orange glow turn into individual lines of tracer. As we crossed the airfield boundary, we both pressed our commit buttons, thus allowing the aircraft computer to commence dispensing the munitions at the right moment.

A RAF Tornado GR1 crew had a bird strike during a low-level attack mission against Iraqi airfields during Operation Desert Storm. Still they attacked their target successfully.

‘Although we had been given some idea of what the next few seconds were going to be like, we were surprised by the effect of the JP233 system ejecting its munitions. It was like riding over a cobbled street in a cart with wooden wheels. The bang that accompanied the automatic jettison of the empty dispensers was a considerable surprise, despite the warnings we had received. Leaving the target was like going off stage – we left the glow and ran into a wall of darkness. The AAA continued behind us until we lost sight of it.’

Tornado bird strike during Operation Desert Storm

After an uneventful transit to the border, the crew climbed to rendezvous with the post strike tanker. ‘In all the excitement’, continued McKernan, ‘we had completely forgotten about the impact on our port wing just prior to the target. When Nige selected 25 degrees wing sweep, the aircraft became unstable, so he swept them back and we refuelled without much trouble with the wings swept at 45 degrees.’ After landing using just mid flap and without slats, the crew discovered that they had hit a large stork. As McKernan later commented, ‘in the excitement of going to war, we had quite forgotten the everyday risk of a bird strike’.

RAF Tornado Units of Gulf War I is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

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Photo credit: Crown Copyright


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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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