Copyright © 2012 Paul McDonald
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This sortie was flown in Tornado GR1 ZD848 on 4 December 1987. The crew were Squadron Leader Paul McDonald (pilot) and Flight Lieutenant Jeremy Payne (navigator).

After a short break following Red Flag, routine training began once more. On 4 December, I flew a 1v1 (one versus one) air combat sortie in a training area to the east of Bruggen. For these sorties, which I loved, we operated above 5000 feet practicing pure air-to-air combat trying to achieve a missile kill, a Fox 2, or a gun’s kill, a Fox 3, against the other aircraft. We did not have the capability to fire a head-on shot, a Fox 1. I was flying with Jerry who was now both a 4-ship leader and an air combat leader; these were unusual qualifications for a first-tourist navigator. The other aircraft was flown by the Boss and the outgoing Exec. The Boss was a very capable aviator and weaponeer and I relished the prospect of flying against him.


To commence the fight both aircraft would fly line abreast about 800 yards apart. The leader would then call ‘Outwards call for combat go.’ Each aircraft would then turn 90 degrees away from the other and run out for about seven or eight miles. The leader would then call ‘Inwards turn.’ As soon as one navigator picked up the opponent on radar, he would call ‘Contact” and then once one crew saw the other aircraft the call would be ‘Visual.’ From that moment the game was on, it became a pure flying exercise often using maximum G with both crew straining against the high G forces despite the constantly inflating then deflating anti-g suits as you tried your hardest to keep the other aircraft in view and manoeuvre into a position to claim a kill.

The Boss was very good, but we were well matched, and after we had crossed one another three or four times neither one of us had gained any significant advantage. This simply encouraged me to try even harder and I pulled up into the vertical with full reheat, then it was full back-stick, full taileron and rudder to attempt a sharp low speed turn. In most fast-jets at the time such control inputs would guarantee that the aircraft would ‘depart’, in other words enter a spin. A spin in a fast-jet normally only had one outcome and because the rate of descent in a spin could be so high, a minimum abandonment height of 10,000 feet was stipulated. But as our Tornados were fitted with SPILS, Spin Prevention Incidence Limiting System, this prevented the aircraft from spinning. The clever SPILS computer ensured that the aircraft would perform the best possible manoeuvre to match, or sometimes despite, the pilot’s demands. It was a great system. Except that at the worst possible moment, when I had all the controls at maximum deflection, in other words with full pro-spin control, and with very little speed and very high power, the SPILS failed!


According to our bible, the Tornado Aircrew Manual, in the event of a SPILS failure the system would gradually fade out over a period of about eight seconds. This was more than enough time for me to centralise the controls before use of the system was lost altogether. It didn’t quite work out that way.  

At the time I was looking behind us when the ‘lyre bird’, the audio warning, sounded. The attention getters were flashing red which was serious (they only flashed red for a fire, oxygen failure or SPILS failure; all other lesser emergencies were accompanied by amber attention getters). I looked at the central warning panel and saw the red SPILS caption but I was not unduly alarmed. But within a fraction of a second, long before I could centralise the controls, the aircraft departed from controlled flight. It entered a very rapid uncontrollable roll which normally preceded a fully developed spin.


There was a startled exclamation from Jerry as I centralised the controls. Then luckily the roll stopped and I was able to recover the aircraft. The Boss, manoeuvring hard to try and get behind me, saw what happened. He could see that our aircraft had departed and, as we were at 10000 feet, he already had his thumb poised on the transmit button to order us to eject. Luckily we recovered before he transmitted.


I reset the SPILS and was all for getting on with the fight but the Boss wisely made the call of ‘knock it off’. As we headed home a couple of things occurred to me which began to worry me. First the accident data recorder would have to be ‘pulled’ to analyse what had happened. This would show whether I had exceeded any of the aircraft’s limits during the fight; if I had maybe that had caused or contributed to the SPILS failure. Had I? I wasn’t sure, but I was well aware that I had been flying the aircraft hard, very close to the limits. There was one other thing, perhaps even worse: the cockpit voice recorder. Every word said on the radio and every word spoken on the intercom between Jerry and I would have been recorded. Every one of my utterances would be there for everyone to hear and I think that I had said rather a lot of unflattering things about our ‘opponents’. My language may well have verged on the ‘colourful’ too. The tape recording would have to be pulled too, and listened too, by the Boss.


During the debrief, the Boss mentioned that the Accident Data Recorder would have to be pulled. He was concerned about how much Alpha (angle of attack) I had been pulling when the SPILS failed. The angle of attack is the angle between the wing and the airflow and by pulling the maximum Alpha you can achieve the best possible turning performance. Alpha was measured and shown in units with the limit in the configuration that we were in being 21. I told the Boss that I would have been very close to the limit but I had not intentionally or knowingly exceeded it. Then it was a matter of waiting.  

A couple of hours later the engineers reported that the Alpha at the point of SPILS failure was 20.9! Well judged? Or was I lucky? Now it remained to be seen how the Boss would react when he played back the Cockpit Voice Recorder.  

Later that afternoon he came into my office, walked up to my desk, placed something in front of me and walked out again without saying a word. It was the one and only copy of the tape from the Cockpit Voice Recorder. Had he listened to it?  I have no idea. I destroyed it; it was never mentioned again.

Copyright © 2012 Paul McDonald