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Tornado jets return to RAF Marham ready to retire

PUBLISHED: 16:04 05 February 2019 | UPDATED: 19:37 05 February 2019

Officer Commanding IX Squadron Wing Commander James Heeps is greeted by his sons Henry, William and George and wife Samantha Picture: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

Officer Commanding IX Squadron Wing Commander James Heeps is greeted by his sons Henry, William and George and wife Samantha Picture: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

The last RAF Tornado jets on active service returned home to their Norfolk base as they prepare to retire.

Officer Commanding IX Squadron Wing Commander James Heeps hugs his son Henry, 6, after piloting the last RAF Tornado GR4 back to their home base at RAF Marham in Norfolk, having completed operations in the Middle East for the final time ahead of the retirement of the aircraft. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA WireOfficer Commanding IX Squadron Wing Commander James Heeps hugs his son Henry, 6, after piloting the last RAF Tornado GR4 back to their home base at RAF Marham in Norfolk, having completed operations in the Middle East for the final time ahead of the retirement of the aircraft. Picture: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

Families and friends of present-day squadron members were on hand to welcome the eight fighter jets back to RAF Marham yesterday afternoon.

The weapons capabilities of the soon-to-retire Tornadoes are now being delivered by RAF Typhoon jets, which will continue to take a leading role in the mission against Daesh in the Middle East.

The Tornado will be officially retired from service at the end of March and will only be used for training purposes over the UK in the intervening period.

Originally named the Tornado GR1 the aircraft’s first use in live operations was during the Gulf War in 1991, when 60 Tornado GR1s were deployed from bases in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Later they were upgraded to the GR4 model, which has been used ever since over the skies of Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

Aircrew of the Tornado GR4, Wing Commander James Heeps, OC 31 Squadron (centre left) and Wing Commander Matt Bressani, OC 9 Squadron (centre right), after landing for the last time at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus. Picture: Cpl Tim Laurence-RAF/PA WireAircrew of the Tornado GR4, Wing Commander James Heeps, OC 31 Squadron (centre left) and Wing Commander Matt Bressani, OC 9 Squadron (centre right), after landing for the last time at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus. Picture: Cpl Tim Laurence-RAF/PA Wire

Asked if the departure of the Tornadoes will leave a gap in the air campaign against Islamic State, Air Vice Marshal Harvey Smyth said: “No, it won’t.”

He continued: “Effectively the capability that the Tornado has brought to bear we have built up our Typhoon force that it can also match that capability.”

He added it was the right time to retire the ageing aircraft which “served the country well” as “there’s only so much more upgrade we can do”.

Air crew of the last three Tornadoes to return included 27-year-old Flight Lieutenant Nathan Shawyer, who was the last ever pilot to be trained for Tornado jet operations by the RAF, and 55-year-old Flight Lieutenant Chris Stradling who has accrued more than 6,000 hours of flying time in the aircraft.

After almost 40 years serving the UK on military operations across the world, the RAF Tornado jets after being retired from service.  Picture: Cpl Tim Laurence-RAF/PA WireAfter almost 40 years serving the UK on military operations across the world, the RAF Tornado jets after being retired from service. Picture: Cpl Tim Laurence-RAF/PA Wire

Mr Stradling, who flew his first Tornado in 1987, said it was a “real emotional day”.

“I’d wanted to join the air force since I was a kid and I’ve had posters of the Tornado on my bedroom wall since probably before it even took to the air so it’s always been an ambition of mine to join the air force and I always wanted to fly Tornado,” he said.

“That was my dream all the way through my training and all of the flight training I did, Tornado was always my first choice.”

Mr Shawyer described it as the “end of an era” and that the final flight from Cyprus to the UK was “a privilege to be part of, a fantastic sortie, an honour”.

Groundcrew marshals the aircrew of the Tornado GR4 for a sortie for the last time at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus.  Picture: Cpl Tim Laurence-RAF/PA WireGroundcrew marshals the aircrew of the Tornado GR4 for a sortie for the last time at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus. Picture: Cpl Tim Laurence-RAF/PA Wire

“When we left Akrotiri there were hundreds of people lining up and there was a real sense of what a big occasion it all was,” he said, adding that there was an “amazing reception” at RAF Marham.

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “It is with a heavy heart, but enormous pride that we bid farewell to the Tornado from operations.

“This truly is the end of an era, having played a vital role in keeping Britain and its allies safe for four decades.

“But, after so long in service, it is only right that we now look to the future.

Hundreds of RAF personnel, family and press turned out to witness the return of the lastTornadoes to land at RAF Marham, Norfolk. Picture: Neil DidsburyHundreds of RAF personnel, family and press turned out to witness the return of the lastTornadoes to land at RAF Marham, Norfolk. Picture: Neil Didsbury

“The combination of our state-of-the-art F-35s and the Typhoon’s new weapons systems will keep us as a world leader in air combat for a generation.”

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