Reach for the sky - Whitham's Tornado ride

Whitham reduced to a whimpering pile of vomit and fear after one hour in the back seat of a Tornado GR4 fighter-bomber

It all goes back to Whit's wicked 3rd place at the Brands Hatch round of World Supersport last August. Pumped-up and at the bar at Brands that night, Jim is approached by a chap called Paul Flinn. Flinny's a bit of a fan and is stoked to have seen Jim do so well.

The two get chatting about bike racing (obviously) and then the topic of conversation moves on to aircraft. "I've got my own little plane I bazz about in, and I love it," says Whitham. Spookily enough - isn't it always the way - turns out Flinny used to fly fast jets for the RAF. "What would you say if I could fix a flight for you in the back of a Tornado?" asks Flinny. Well, what would you say if someone threw you that particular curve-ball? No? Don't think so...

And so it was that a motley selection of civilians (er, us) passed through the high-security gates of RAF Lossiemouth in the furthest reaches of Scotland a few days before Christmas. Whitham was due to fly with the legendary 617 Squadron, who were responsible for the Dams Raid in 1943, although they have since graduated from their Lancaster bombers to GR1 and GR4 Tornados. Nicknamed 'The Mighty Fin' the Tornado is positively vicious up-close in the flesh. For starters, it's huge. I mean, these things are bloody vast.

Fully laden with laser-guided bombs and assorted killing devices it's 27 tons of titanium, composites and exotic steel, and nestling underneath this lethal exterior are two galloping great Turbo-Union turbofan engines which burn 2.7 gallons of jet fuel a second on full re-heat and max-out at 1,450mph. The Tornado is designed primarily to tear along 250 feet above the ground at 600mph, deliver its bombs before the rag 'eds on the ground know what's hit them, then blaze home dodging the muck and bullets. It's a very serious machine.

Our hosts on-base are Tornado pilots Jez Holmes (CBR400) and Martin Colley (Aprilia RS250). Any flight crew in the RAF is automatically an officer, which just goes to show what a posh bunch they are. Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to have a bastard-difficult degree from a toff university to make flight crew. Whitham and myself come to a very quick conclusion that these RAF lads are, in fact, little more than intelligent nutters.

There has to be a genuinely mad element inside all of them to do what they do. But unlike the rest of us who just went around paraphrasing any number of cheesey lines for six months after seeing Top Gun, these guys had the presence of mind to think 'I'm gonna do that'. And so they did. All it takes is a bit of application in your early twenties, and five years later (so long as your arms aren't too short, your legs aren't too long, you have a brain which can process 27 mental problems in .02 of a second and can drop a laser-guided bomb through a letter box) you can be flying the baddest warjet in the RAF. Which is a pretty cool job.

Now going for a ride in the back seat of a Tornado isn't - oddly enough - as simple as hopping on the back of your mate's R1 and going for a burn. You're taking the place of the navigator, who would normally be sat there telling the pilot all sorts of useful information like the presence of a mountain he's about to fly into or the fact that there's a missile locked-on to your aircraft. So any civilian invited into the back for a ride has to undergo a complete RAF medical and sit through an hour-long briefing with the pilot. This consists largely of repeated warnings from the pilot to "not get curious and press anything at all in the cockpit unless I tell you to. Especially don't press anything red or pull any handles painted with a yellow and black zig-zag and with the word 'Eject' written on them." Jim Whitham, normally a loud and irreverent chap, is unusually quiet and attentive.

After the briefing all the crews are shipped out to the apron and their waiting aircraft. It takes a while to fasten Whitham into the back seat of his Tornado. If you're not used to being strapped to a rocket-powered ejector seat, which is sat atop a jet-propelled monstrosity, it doesn't all come naturally. The navigator warms-up the FLIR and TFR systems while Whitham and an engineer busy themselves with the six-point harness, plumbing Jim into the oxygen and communication systems. The pilot - a top lad called John - goes through all his pre-flight checks, the engineers scurry around taking things off and switching things on, everyone is instructed clear of the Tornado, and John hits the starter button. Here's Jim Whitham himself for his first-hand experience of a Tornado jet on full throttle...

"Tell you what, I went into this all the brave man, 'I won't be sick, I've got my own little plane' and all that. Fook me. You simply don't realise what these fooking nutters do for a job. Until you've actually been there, you cannot have any concept of what their bodies are putting up with. However extreme you think it's going to be be, multiply it by 10, and you might be approaching the level of lunacy these blokes operate at.

"After all you blokes cleared out, we taxy down to the runway and it's dead quiet in the cockpit, all nice and cosy. Then you're sat on the runway and he hits the afterburners, but it's nothing like as quick as a fast bike. Any bike would murder a Tornado 0-100mph, but all the fast bikes and fast cars you've ever been in start running out of puff above 160mph, in the higher gears. In a Tornado, it's completely the opposite. Starts off dead slow, and the faster it goes, the more it accelerates. It's got to get 20-odd tons of metal moving, but by the time it hits 150mph it just goes fookin' bananas! And it keeps going and going and going - it's bloody relentless.

Tornado GR4 Spex:

Price: £30,000,000 (should get you one)

Top Speed: 1,450mph (Mach 2.2)Top speed with external stores: 690mph (Mach 0.92)
Engines: 2 x Turbo-Union RB199 Mk103 engines

Max power:
32,000lb of thrust on reheat
Dry power - 8,000lb, Reheat - 16,000lb each
Turn performance: +7g to -1.5g Min height 100 feet, Max ceiling 50,000 feet

Interesting point:
Each engine is held in place by one bolt and two pins!

Fuel Economy:
Low level cruise - 1.2kg fuel per second
Max reheat - 10kg fuel per second

Length: 16.70m
Wing span swept: 8.60m
Wing span unswept: 13.90m
Height: 5.95m
Dry weight (no external stores): 14,000kg
Max take-off weight: 28,000kg


Unguided 1,000lb bombs, retarded or freefall, Cluster bomb, 27mm cannon, Air Launched Anti Radiation Missile (ALARM), 1,000lb/ 2,000lb UK Laser-Guided Bombs, TIALD pod (for designatiang LGBs from low or high level), Sidewinder air-to-air missile

Flight Systems:

Ring laser gyro Inertial Nav system with GPS Weapon Aiming Computer, Ground Mapping Radar, Terrain Following Radar, Forward looking Infra-Red Head-up display, Self defence suite including chaff, flares and radar jamming, Night Vision Goggles

"We only got to 1,000ft after taking off, which is bloody low anyway, and stayed there for about 10 seconds to clear some minimum airspace thing, and then John says 'right, that's it, we've cleared the airspace - we can go down now.' And I thought, 'fook me, we're going down.' Wham! There we are, doing 600mph 250 feet above the ground. The g-force gets you, but in a different way to what you might be used to. Every bit of little g you've pulled in a fairground ride, or taking-off on an airliner, you only pull it for a couple of seconds max. On that thing - fook me.

You're forced right back into your seat for 10 seconds, 20 seconds even as it carves huge turns out of the sky. For about a half-hour I were batting it out manfully, but then I started to feel sick and it were the negative g that got me. You'd be heading towards a huge mountain, go up and over it, but then when you get over the top instead of just letting it drift back down, he shoves the stick forward and your seat belts are holding you in tight, but your stomach is literally being shoved into your throat.

"So I started feeling a bit sick and I thought 'I can't believe you, you fooking poof!' So I got my sick bag ready, and as soon as I took my eye off the horizon and looked around the cockpit, that were it. I puked my guts out. The pilot were dead good, he said 'do you want me to level out and take it easy?' And I was like 'no mate - you carry on! I can still be sick and enjoy it!' So I was alright after that for another 20 minutes, and that's when I flew it - I flew a bleedin' Tornado! So I was on the stick, and it's dead light on the controls. I thought it was going to be heavy, but the response is instant to react. So much inertia - if you turn it on its side, it doesn't turn but keeps ploughing straight ahead, you have to pull back on the stick so hard just to make it turn.

"Then we do an acceleration test. So he says 'right, we're doing 480 knots, I'll whack the airbrakes on and we'll see how it slows down to about 250kts, then we'll fire the afterburners and swing the wings back and see how quick it gets back up to 600kts.' Fook me if it doesn't stop as good as it starts! It don't half slow down, so then he's like 'right, we're in slow flight, we've got the wings forward, 250kts, I'll light the!' Boooom! Off it bloody goes! And I'm saying 'fooking hell, how good is that?' And he says 'oh aye, they're dead good for running away from people, these are!'

"The corners are hideous. They turn right upside-down, hit full throttle and sling the thing towards the ground! It's just unreal. The g-pants stop you from passing out, but you can't really open your eyes properly - it's that strong. And they're doing this to themselves on every turn! We only pulled 5g maximum, but it went on forever. Apparently the pilots can train themselves by tensing their stomach muscles and controlling their breathing to be able to sustain 8gs without blacking out, but I cannot even imagine that.

"At one stage we're ripping up Loch Ness, 200ft above the water at 500kts, and it is totally unreal - the sensation as the ground goes past is proper fast. Fast fast, if you understand me. I was switching on my screen between the Forward Looking Infra-Red and navigation modes. The FLIR is quite good, but I couldn't really work out what was coming up. That was part of my problem, I reckon. If you could see properly ahead what were coming up, I reckon you'd be able to brace yourself better for it. Well, that's my excuse.

"Anyway, when we get back to the base at Lossiemouth an hour later (having done a full lap of Scotland), he says to the controller in the tower 'alright if I do a low pass and then a pull-up?' And the ATC controller says 'affirm' so we're heading towards the runway God-knows how quick - I were bloody ill by this stage - and we're at 1,000ft and he says 'I'm going to pull the stick back, light the re-heat, and go to 10,000ft.' Another booooomm! It took five seconds - FIVE fooking seconds - to climb from 1,000 to 10,000 feet! We had the camera in the cockpit pointing back towards me and the airfield, and we got this picture of me looking so ill. And it really wasn't funny at the time.

"If I'm honest, there were times when it were genuinely frightening. I knew at all times that I was in completely safe hands - he were totally calm throughout, and at no stage did I think he were trying to show off or anything. Nothing like that, the pilot was in total control. But one thing he did say frightened me a bit. When we did the briefing, he were telling me this and that and I was like 'yeah, yeah. Let's just get going!'

But when we're coming in to land, he says 'there's a couple of things that weren't in the briefing that I've got to tell you now for your own safety.' And I'm thinking, yes? He says 'if this thing goes off the runway, and I know I can't hold it on the runway, I'm going to eject. You're better off punching out and floating back down to the ground than trying to control this thing across bumpy ground and having it tip over. So if I say eject, fucking eject. I won't say it messing it about - the first time I say it, I want you to get out of this thing. Try and tuck your arms and legs in, but you won't remember much about it.'

And then you start to think, 'fook me, he's saying that. And I suppose it could happen.' And that's when it comes home - if something did go wrong with this huge piece of kit, you're in big fookin' bother. Everything happens so fast that if you don't react in 0.01 of a second, you're squashed. The reactions of these blokes are bloody unbelievable.

"In the end, the only thing I was really good at was not being sick all over the actual cockpit! I managed to get every little bit of puke into my MOD sickbags. Right at the end, he asked if I wanted to do some aerobatics over the airfield after we'd done the 10,000ft pull-up. And I've got to be honest, I just said 'err, actually I'd prefer it if we just landed.' That was me admitting defeat! I tried to maintain my dignity when I got out of the cockpit after landing, but I was really feeling very unwell. Felt like a complete twat as I handed over the sickbags when the canopy came up.

"These Tornado pilots are intelligent madmen. You couldn't do it unless you had a higher-than-average intelligence and a definite feel for stuff, but they are having a right giggle, you know they are. Even on our flight he were getting dead excited, but only in a controlled manner. They realise that it wouldn't look too cool if they trashed £30 million quid's-worth of jet. When people see a bike racer like Max Biaggi, they see a man who has worked very hard to get to the top of his job, trains hard and focuses 100% on the job in hand. And these blokes are the same. They obviously have an inherent skill at flying airplanes, but it's more than that. They must love aviation to do this job, and like bike racers there has to be a bit of them that is genuinely mad.

"But I'll tell you what, the only way you can get anything even a quarter-close to the adrenalin-thumping thrill of being in a fast jet, that feeling of being only just in control of a fast machine, is on a motorcycle. That's why so many pilots are into bikes. You can't get it in cars because you have to spend 200 grand to get a car that goes that fast. It's a control thing, I guess, that feeling that things can get out of control, and it's only your input that's keeping the thing IN control.

"To be honest, the whole experience was absolutely unreal. I cannot believe that there are machines that can do this, and that - even more incredibly - there are people whose job it is to control these machines. Everything that you ever even considered remotely fast is just so pathetically slow it's not funny. When he turns it, until he throws in the back stick and your g-pants inflate, it's more like you're sat still with this massive artificial horizon moving around above you.  Nothing I have ever done or ever will do could match this for sheer madness. You just get this over-riding impression: how big and frightening is this thing? You felt completely on a death-ride, like you were strapped to a rocket that could never stop and barely be controlled.

Best part? The first 20 minutes before I started feeling ill. I was giggling like a child

Worst part? The last pull-up over the airfield. The over-riding feeling by then was 'I don't feel at all well and I want to get off.' I seriously considered ejecting just to get out of the plane.

Anyways, next time I get to be the one administering the arse-kicking when I take Jez Holmes on the back of an R1 with me round Donington. Mind you, knowing these fly-boys the faster it gets the more he'll like it. Total madness..."