The pilot in the lead Panavia Tornado GR4, his wingman tucked close in beside, was flying high on adrenalin as the jets skimmed low over the smooth surface of the blue sea. The coast of Afghanistan loomed on the horizon and he eased back the stick and felt the fighter-bomber enter a climb. Both pilots engaged the fly by wire active terrain radar just before the Tornados rocketed over the coast at well over five hundred knots. The fighters levelled off, hugging the contours of the desert landscape, the Brimstone, Paveway and Litening counter-insurgency weapons hung in targeting pods under their wings bristling with the very latest of cutting edge technology.
The lead pilot, flying his first combat mission in one of the most versatile fighters flying with the Royal Air Force, realised at that moment he had achieved his dream of joining a very select band of men. As a young lad, he had watched films featuring fighter aces in combat during the World Wars. How they had attacked their unsuspecting targets from out of the sun, or pulling high-g turns to get on their opponents tail and performing Immelmann turns to line themselves up for another attack. He had become smitten with the world of flying and studying hard had achieved his ambition by being accepted for a commission as a pilot officer in the RAF. During flight training, he took to flying the slow training aircraft easily and later excelled at piloting the fast jets, achieving a higher than average pilot rating. Flying was in his blood as his paternal grandfather, whom he had never known, had been a top scoring fighter ace during the Battle of Britain.
Earlier, the Tornados had taken off from the Al Udeid RAF base in Qatar. They were part of the RAF’s operational role in the joint International Security Force and priority targets were Taliban military and communications facilities, which, according to the latest intelligence reports, were playing host to the terrorist training camps of Al-Qaida in Afghanistan. The jackpot would be to find and take out the camp where Osman bin Laden was hiding.
Behind the pilot in the lead Tornado, called Tonkas by their crews, sat the weapons systems officer in the rear seat and regarded by the rest of the squadron as a boffin. He had an intimate knowledge of the aircraft’s radar and defensive systems having operated them for many years. As a result, they had nicknamed him Brains after the resident technical genius who operated the rescue vehicles in the popular TV series Thunderbirds. The jet’s ground crew had affectionately named the Tornado Thunderbird one, after the swing-wing hypersonic rocket plane in the series. The name stood out resplendent on the Tornado’s nose, painted in bright red paint with the legend Thunderbirds are go in yellow underneath.
As the jet hurtled low over the desert, Brains recalled the highly trained pilots he had flown with during his long career in the RAF. However, he knew the young pilot sitting up front was that rare phenomenon, a natural born, seat of the pants flyer. During low-level training sorties in the Welsh mountains, he had tossed Brains around in his seat, his harness restraining him during the most demanding of the negative-g manoeuvres. The pilot had flown the Tornado to the very limit of its flight envelope, its wing tips clearing by scant inches the solid rock walls lining the ravines. Brains should have reported him for breaking many of the rules governing low flying, but every time he flew with him, he felt calm and safe in this young pilot’s hands. The pilot’s superb flying skills had earned him the handle Falcon and Brains had decided that should he ever have to go to war, it was with this guy that he would want to fly.