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& Bullets

Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.


With reviews of books that cover these topics


Tornado over the Tigris

Recollections of a fast jet pilot


Michael Napier

Pen & Sword, 2015

This is the memoir of the RAF career of Napier, now an airline pilot. Lest anyone doubts that the life of a fast jet pilot is a sinecure in peacetime, in the first few pages is a dedication to his lost mates, all 27 of them: 20 in flying accidents, and only one in killed in action.


His Air Force career started like many (including me) – gliding with the Air Cadets, then a Flying Scholarship. He pitches his prose at a relatively lay reader, schooling them in RAF acronyms, so that by the end of the book he can move on more briskly – let us say 420 kts. His training was unexceptional (JP5s at Cranwell, rather than JP3s at Linton). There are some good photos in this book, but they are all in black and white, and of dubious quality – the book deserves some colour plates.


Obviously there are some ‘there but for the grace of God’ stories, perhaps the best of which is of his colleague Jules, who nearly shoots himself down on the ranges. Napier soon graduates to his first Tornado squadron and ponders why the Panavia designers decided to festoon all the munitions from the wings rather than have some in an internal bomb bay. He points out the gulf in performance between a clean and dirty Tonka.


Although Napier has the pride of any RAF pilot, particularly a fast jet one, he is sufficiently humble to admit his failings, and where he found any of his training overly-demanding. This is endearing. By the same token, he is straightforward about the failings of the Tornado, particularly in terms of its serviceability. He is writing of the period from 1985 onwards when he joined his first squadron. Disconcerting then to think that, thirty years later, there are still three Tornado squadrons in our depleted strike capability; indeed the Tornado still remains more capable than the Typhoon for some ground attack missions.  


The loss of squadron colleagues in training accidents is an unwelcome rhythm – often mid-airs in the then crowded low flying system over Germany. The highlight of his training year is clearly Red Flag – the mammoth multi-national exercise hosted by the USAF in Nevada. Presumably, in the unlikely event that Corbynistas end up ruling the UK, this is one element of defence spending that will be sacrosanct! Napier’s account is one of the best descriptions of Red Flag I have read. On another exercise, in Canada this time, Napier relates an hilarious tale about his nav mate, Cookie. (Rather preciously I feel, Napier has changed some names to protect the guilty….).


The climax of the book is the author’s participation in the protection of the No Fly Zone following Gulf War 1. He does not hold back in his criticism of the Very Senior US officers leading the enterprise. This makes for dispiriting reading for any national of a country that seems to go to war usually with the US. Napier hints at the antipathy within the Tornado fleet between the recce boys (based at Marham), and the ground attack squadrons such as his own.


His account of the winding-down of RAF Germany, once the sharpest knife in our box, is also dispiriting. But he manages to swing an a la carte last trip before his RAF retirement that encompasses all parts of Tornado flying that he likes best.


Napier is a more natural writer than many of his ilk, and he recounts some great stories. I wish though, he would resist the temptation to revert to the present tense (in an effort to inject added drama) when he recounts a particularly tense sortie. Needless.   Whilst there are a few typos, there are fewer than in the average P&S tome. One final doubt: he writes well about the three dimensional flying world of his working life. Yet there is barely a mention of his social life. A wife is mentioned, but only in passing. He remains therefore a two-dimensional character.

Tpornado GR4
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