In the 1960s, many European countries were already working on studies destined to identify a new generation fighter-bomber, which could replace a number of legacy aircraft.
West Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Belgium and Canada created the “F-104 Replacement Group”, whose task was that to study the successor of the F-104G in the attack mission, while the UK has the need to replace its old Camberras and V-bombers. The British, has tried to do this alone, creating the BAC TRS.2, and ambitious project for an extraordinary strike bomber, which however had to be cancelled, due to its complexity and high costs. Other programs cancelled in that period were the BAC P.45, and the Anglo-French Variable Geometry (AFVG). In these projects, the British industry had gained a lot of know-how, especially in the variable geometry wing, in the new turbofan technology, and in new avionics, and this led to invite it to participate in the F-104 Replacement Group. When it was clear the there could be the possibility to join all the requisites, in October 1968 the UK was invited to join the group, that was re-named “Multi Role Aircraft for 1975”. Canadians and Belgians retired in the same period. The only country that completed a deep study about the requisites of the new aircraft was the UK, the document was completed in 1968 and of course influenced a lot the development of the MRA75 project, later called MRCA, adding a C for Combat. The study examined especially the positive and negative aspects of having one or two engines, one or two aircrew members, and fixed or variable geometry wing. The MRCA had to be a multi-role, able to fulfil air-to-ground as well as air-to-air missions; in this view, Germany was the leading country, with a requirement of 600 aircraft, followed by the UK, with 385, and by Italy, with 200. The three countries decided to create a dedicated company to manage the programme: the Panavia consortium, which was then established on 26 March 1969, and located in Germany, near Munich. The Netherlands retired from the program in June 1969, and the Panavia consortium remained formed by only three nations.
Basically, the British from one side, and the Germans and Italians from the other, wanted two different aircraft, one for air interdiction and nuclear attack for the former, another for nuclear attack only, but also air-to-air for the latters. It was then considered the possibility to develop two variants of the same basic project, with as many as possible common features.
Fortunately, this approach was overcome, and on 14 March 1969, it was decided to proceed with one single joint configuration, approved by all the members. One month later, the aircraft was named Panavia Panther. The single-seater for Germany was designated PA100, while the two-seater received the number PA200. For the rest, the configuration was much the same, with variable geometry wing, and twin engines solution. In May 1969 the three nations signed a Memorandum of Understanding which set up the workshare levels, according to the orders to be placed. In 1970, Germany started to abandon the idea of a single seat version, realizing that all the avionics systems and the capabilities of the new aircraft were to require a heavy workload, and so the presence of two crew members. It became then clear that all the three partners were to adopt a common configuration. The MRCA was a big aircraft, optimized for air-to-ground missions. Germany and Italy understood that it was not possible to use it also in the air-to-air role, and started to consider other options, while reducing their requirement. Finally, West Germany selected the McDonnell Douglas F-4F Phantom II as an interim measure, and reduced its request for the MRCA from 600 to 410 aircraft (later reduced again to 324). Italy oriented its choice to another version of the F-104, the F-104S, and reduced its numbers from 200 to 100 units. The UK, on the contrary, remained on its 385 aircraft, all destined since the beginning to attack missions, and became the leading country within the programme. The workshare, however, remained unchanged, with a 42.5% for the German and British industries, and 15% for the Italian industries. In the UK, British Aerospace was the prime contractor, being responsible for the construction of the forward and rear fuselage sections, including fin, rudder and tailerons. In Germany, the leading industry was MBB, which had to provide the central fuselage section, while in Italy the prime contractor was Aeritalia, which had the task to produce the variable geometry wings. All these parts where then moved to reach the three assembly lines: a Turin-Caselle in Italy, at Manching in Germany, and at Warton in Great Britain, where the aircraft of each country had to be completed, checked in flight, and delivered to the local air forces.
The entire programme was led and monitored by the three Governments through the NATO MRCA Management and Production Organisation (NAMMO). In September 1969 it was established the NATO MRCA Management Agency (NAMMA), the body destined to control the programme as prime customer.
Two of the main features of the new aircraft were the wing, and the engine air intakes. The first was, as we have seen, of variable geometry wing, featured by flap and slat lifting system, and by four underwing pylons, destined to carry fuel tanks and other stores, which were able to pivot in order to maintain the correct position during the flight. The intakes were also with a variable geometry of the ramps, able to adapt to low and high speeds, and of horizontal wedge design. That solution was able to grant good performances at high incidence too. The intakes were in high position well ahead of the wing, in order to provide a good airflow to the engines, and good pressure distribution at the engines compressor faces.
About the engines, it was finally decided that they had to be two turbofans developed by the British industry, thanks to the experiences gained by Rolls-Royce and Bristol Siddeley in the previous programmes. The selected project, the RB.199, was – like the aircraft – completely new, but proved to be an excellent choice. However, the selection of another engine, like an American one, probably could have led to the retirement of the UK from the program. Also for the engine a new consortium was created, the Turbo Union, featured by approximately the same workshare as for the airframe: 40% each for Rolls-Royce and MTU, and 20% for FIAT Aviazione. To be noted that works on the engine proceeded at good pace, as the first ground run of the RB.199 took place on 27 September 1971, while the first flight test was conducted on 20 April 1973, using an Avro Vulcan bomber, specifically modified to accommodate an extra engine to the underside. Also in the avionics sector, the UK was in the lead: most of the avionics suite of the MRCA was an evolution of that developed for the TRS.2 project, and was featured by a Terrain Following/Terrain Avoidance (TF/TA) radar, and a robust Electronic Warfare system.
The project was frozen on 26 April 1970, and the full scale development phase started on July 20. The MRCA was really complex, and it was decided to adopt a large series of prototypes and pre-series aircraft, in order to accelerate the test programme, and to spread the work over the three countries. However, other aircraft were involved in the development phase, in particular in the activity on the engine and on the radar. A Vulcan bomber was converted to act as test bed for the RB199 engine, thanks to the installation of a half fuselage under the Vulcan’s fuselage, complete with air intake, and afterburner. The half fuselage included also one Mauser 27mm gun and ammunition, in order to test also live fire action. From 1972 to 1979, this test bed logged some 126 flights, and 286 flying hours. A Mauser gun was also tested in-flight in 1972 using a Lightning F.2A. In the period 1972-1973 also the radar system was tested in-flight, using two Buccaneers transformed by the Marshall industry. Works included the installation of a radar, but also of an inertial navigation system, an autopilot, an Head-Up Display (HUD), and other minor systems and screens destined to the MRCA. The two aircraft worked in this role until 1978-1980.
It was decided that Panavia had to manage the flight test and development phase using 15 aircraft, nine flying prototypes, one for static tests, plus six pre-series aircraft. The flying activity was divided between the industry and military test organizations of the three countries, trying to avoid duplications, and so waste of time and money. The workshare was related to the participation of each country in the programme. Great Britain was to fly four prototypes (P.02, 03, 06 and 08), while West Germany had three (P.01, 04 and 07), and Italy two (P.05 and 09). About the pre-series aircraft, the UK had two (P.12 and 15), Germany three (P.11, 13 and 16), and Italy one (P.14). To this list must be added one static test aircraft, which was designated P.10.
The first prototype to fly was the German P.01 (registered D-9591, military serial 98+04), whose assembly works started at the plant at Ottobrunn in November 1972. In February 1973 it was moved to the German test airbase at Manching, and at that time, the first flight was scheduled for December 1973. However, due to engine problems appeared on the Vulcan test bed, the first flight was delayed for about eight months. At the end, P.01 took-off for the first time on 14 August 1974. In order to balance the fact that the first flight had been given to Germany, pilot of the maiden flight was BAC test pilot Paul Millett. Only one month later, the aircraft received a new name, being officially designated Tornado, a name that spell in the same way (and has the same meaning) in German, British and Italian language.
On 30 October 1974 it was the turn of P.02 (XX946), the first British prototype, to take the air. Each of the test aircraft was scheduled to undergo a specific series of trials. P.02 was tasked to explore and expand the flight envelope in clean configuration. It was found that this aircraft, which was equipped with the very first model of engine, had high consumption rates, and to solve the problem of short endurance, it was decided to introduce the in-flight refuelling probe, and to carry out the in-flight refuelling test, at this early stage, well in advance of what was scheduled at the beginning.
Then, on 5 August 1975, P.03 (XX947) recorded its maiden flight from Warton. It was the first equipped with dual controls, and with a real radome for the radar. It was destined to stall and spin test, and for this it was equipped with a spin recovery parachute, and with an emergency power unit. It was also used for trials with heavy external loads. On 2 September was then the turn of P.04 (98+05), from Manching; this prototype was equipped with the full avionics suite, and was tasked to test the navigation, autopilot and ground mapping capabilities. P.05 (X-586) was the first Italian prototype, and took the air on 5 December 1975, from Turin Caselle. This aircraft was unlucky, as at the end of its sixth flight was damaged at landing, and had to be stopped for about two years. It was tasked to carry out tests on external stores and the integrated weapon systems, and due to the stop, part of these test were re-assigned to P.02. Next came P.06 (XX948), the third British, which had its maiden flight on 19 December 1975. This too was used for tests on armament, stores release, and Mauser gun live fire. Since it received both the 27mm guns, the test equipment (usually fitted in the gun bays) was moved to the rear cockpit, making this aircraft a single seater. This was also the first to incorporate some aerodynamic modifications to the rear fuselage, destined to reduce drag and improve handling. On 30 March 1976 it was the turn of P.07 (98+06), the last German, while on 15 July 1976 took-off P.08 (XX950). These two were completed in about the same configuration, which included the complete weapon system, including the full capability of the TF/TA radar, and were used to trial the effectiveness of the weapon system. The last prototype, the Italian P.09 (X-587) flew on 5 February 1977, and underwent a test programme focussed on the various weapons and external loads. The nine prototypes carried on their test for all the 1970s, and suffered for two fatal crashes: the first (P.08) occurred in June 1979, during a low-level mission over the Irish Sea; the second in May 1980, when P.04 crashed in West Germany during the practise for an air display, and the two on board were killed. The test programme recorded some delays, and the workshare was re-distributed between the remaining seven aircraft.
The prototypes were followed by the six pre-series aircraft. The first flew on 5 February 1977, as P.09, as was P.11 (98+01) a German aircraft, followed by P.12 (XZ630), P.13 (98+02), P.14 (X-588, later MM.7001), P.15 (XZ631), and P.16 (98+03), which was the last, and flew for the first time on 26 March 1979. The pre-series units were used to complete the test programme, and for operational test and evaluation of the various military test units in the three air forces.
In the meantime, production of the first series aircraft had already started, and the first two were rolled out in June 1979, on 5 June the first British (BT.001, serial ZA319), and on 6 June the first German (GT.001, serial 43+01). They were both trainers, with dual controls in the cockpit. The first to fly was the British, on 10 July, followed by the German on 27 July. Italy followed with some delay, and the first Italian series production Tornado (IT.001, serial MM.55000) was rolled out on 1 July 1981.
Recommended - Armour
Versions armed with a 37 mm gun