ZA370: Last Granby Tornado GR4A Reconnaissance Jet Retired (RTP)

Tornado GR4A ZA370, a dedicated reconnaissance variant of the Tornado that flew operational missions during the first Gulf War (1991), is pictured in the Mach Loop, Wales, in 2015.(Image: Howard Sinclair. Recce Tornado GR4A ZA370)

Several weeks ago, on 12 December 2017, ZA370/004, understood to be one of only two remaining Panavia Tornado GR4A reconnaissance jets in service, made her final flight to RAF Leeming in North Yorkshire to be reduced to produce (RTP). The RTP process sees all useful spare parts removed from the airframe before the empty hulk is scrapped. The GR4A (an updated version of the original GR1A) was the dedicated reconnaissance version of the RAF’s workhorse Tornado strike jet, and is perhaps best known for its role seeking out Iraqi Scud missiles during the 1991 Gulf War.

During the 1980s the UK ordered 30 Tornado GR1As, which were based at RAF Marham in Norfolk. Of these, 16 were new-build airframes and 14 were GR1 conversions. Externally similar, the GR1A’s most notable difference from its GR1 counterpart was the deletion of the twin Mauser cannon from the forward fuselage. This was replaced by the Tornado Infrared Reconnaissance System (TIRRS), which included Sideways Looking Infra Red (SLIR) sensors on each side of the forward fuselage to capture oblique images.

Operation Granby veteran Tornado GR4A ZA370 - the last dedicated reconnaissance Tonka from the 1991 Gulf War left in service - made her final flight to RAF Leeming in North Yorshire for RTP (scrapping) in December 2017.(Image: Howard Sinclair. Op Granby veteran ZA370 made her final flight in December 2017)

During Operation Granby, the UK military’s contribution to the first Gulf War, ZA370 (coded A) and other Tornado GR1As flew perilous missions from Dhahran in Saudi Arabia deep into enemy territory in search of Iraqi missile sites. These dangerous sorties earned the jets and their crews the respect of NATO allies and proved invaluable to coalition efforts to counter Saddam Hussein’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait.

Tornado ZA370 first flew on 18 August 1982 and was delivered to the Royal Air Force the following month. In 2001, as part of the Mid-Life Update (MLU) programme, the airframe was converted from GR1A to GR4A standard at BAE Warton. But as ongoing upgrades were rolled out in the years since the MLU, a dedicated reconnaissance version of the Tornado was no longer needed. The introduction of the RAPTOR reconnaissance pod meant all  Tornado GR4s could fulfil the recce role. GR4As were thus no longer deployed to conflict zones due to their lack of guns. The variant did however fly on in the training role.

ZA370’s withdrawal marked the retirement of the last Tornado GR4A to have participated in Operation Granby. (Only one other GR4A remains in service at the time of writing: ZG707/119, which was built in 1989.) The last Tornado GR4s are set for retirement in 2019. And though most Tornados sent to Leeming to date have been scrapped, a handful of withdrawn machines (including GR4T ZG750 aka “Pinky”, below) are still in storage at the North Yorkshire base, awaiting their turn in the RTP queue (or hopefully a reprieve).

Panavia Tornado GR4T "Pinky" commemorates Operation Granby of 1991.(Image: Steve Tron. Check out the campaign to save “Pinky” here)

Only one production Tornado GR4 (ZA452/021) has so far been saved thanks to Coventry’s Midland Air Museum. Most other surviving Tonkas (excluding a handful of F2/F3 interceptors and the current fleet) are pre-production/prototype airframes, early TTTE jets or GR1B anti-shipping variants. Some are gate guards or museum pieces. Others are used for ground instructional purposes. It’s unclear how many retired airframes are tucked away inside Leeming’s hardened aircraft shelters awaiting disposal, or how many, if any at all, will be saved for preservation or ground instruction.

There’s no doubt, however, that the RAF’s dedicated Tornado GR1A/GR4A reconnaissance force played a crucial role in conflicts like Operation Desert Storm. This important aspect of British aviation history could be reflected in the preservation of one or two of these jets. As the last surviving example of a recce Tornado to have participated in Operation Granby, ZA370 is an obvious choice. Meanwhile, ZG707, the sole remaining GR4A in service, is also an important airframe, having flown missions in 2003 during Operation Telic, sporting the nose artwork “B.A.B.S.”

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