FlyPast’s Jamie Ewan reports from the Boscombe Down Aviation Collection as it unveiled another hugely important airframe to its growing fleet – Tornado GR.1 ZA319
“It’s effectively the one led the way for all the others that entered RAF service," beams John Sharpe, project director of the Boscombe Down Aviation Collection (BDAC), as we walk through the collection’s hangar at Old Sarum – just to the northeast of Salisbury. It’s a warm afternoon on March 17, 2023, and the forecast rain has already passed and is quickly disappearing into the distance. The brutish lines of a Panavia Tornado GR.1 come into view. Adorned in its original Dark Green and Dark Sea Grey wrapround camouflage, it looks as if it has just rolled off the assembly line.
But it isn’t any Tornado GR.1 – it’s BT001, the first production example… the one that led to the RAF flying the Tornado for nearly 40 years. During that time, Tornado was continuously deployed on operations across the world for almost 30 years from 1990. John adds: “Just four years ago, this very same jet was slated to be scrapped. That is until the RAF Heritage Organisation realised what was in store for this truly historic airframe.”
Fast forward to March 17 this year – ZA319 has been returned to ‘her’ former glory, and is ready to be unveiled to invited guests. These include Wg Cdr Erica Ferguson, the RAF’s Heritage Lead, and Gp Capt Roger Beazley who flew chase for the first flight of XX946. The latter, the first of four British prototypes, was flown by test pilot Paul Millet on October 30, 1974. Roger went on to fly the type while serving with the Empire Test Pilot School at nearby Boscombe Down. Also present at the unveiling was Gp Capt Ron Burrows, the first British officer to fly the type – he was involved in its Multi Role Combat Aircraft development phase, later becoming a project test pilot on the type. Both Roger and Ron are volunteers at BDAC.
Rolled out by British Aerospace (now BAE Systems) at its Warton facility in Lancashire on June 5, 1979, ZA319/BT001 was built and fitted out as a ‘twin stick’ trainer variant, but could still carry out the type’s intended interdiction/strike role. Taking to the air for the first time on July 10, it was delivered to the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE) at Boscombe Down on November 15 for pre-service flight trials.
Remaining there for six months, ZA319 joined the Tri-National Tornado Training Establishment (TTTE) at RAF Cottesmore in Rutland and was assigned the code ‘B-11’. Used to train aircrew from the RAF, Luftwaffe, Marineflieger and Italian Air Force, the airframe remained at Cottesmore until June 1997, when it was transferred to XV (Reserve) Squadron at Lossiemouth in Scotland and allocated the code ‘TAV’.
By then, the RAF Tornado GR.1 fleet was undergoing extensive remanufacturing to GR.4 standard. However, ZA319 was not deemed suitable for upgrade and was subsequently delivered to RAF St Athan in South Wales, initially for storage, on September 3, 2001. It was pressed into service as a ground instructional airframe and later assigned the Maintenance Serial ‘9315M’ before being selected for preservation. Assigned to ‘gate guard’ duties at the Tri-Services Defence Logistics Establishment’s MOD Bicester home in Oxfordshire, the airframe was moved there in December 2002.
During its two decades on site it was painted overall Medium Sea Grey, the scheme in which the type saw out its RAF service. In mid-2019, it was revealed that ZA319 was to be scrapped. Met by staunch opposition, the decision was put on hold in late July that year with the comment: “All aspects of this matter have now been moved to Air Command with the Staff Officer Grade 1 Heritage being appointed as Air Command's lead. The RAF is currently considering a number of options for the future of the aircraft.” After more than a year of deliberation, ZA319 was thankfully saved.
John comments: “Here at the Boscombe Down Aviation Collection, our mission is to tell the story of Boscombe Down, and explain its place in the history of both flight and flight testing. We became aware of the aircraft and its relevance as a result of the work of the RAF Heritage Organisation. They decided the airframe should be saved and that the BDAC should be its rightful home.”
With a team from the Boscombe Down-based Joint Aircraft Recovery and Transportation Squadron delivering the jet to BDAC’s hangars on November 4, 2021, work soon commenced to clean and repaint ZA319 when the jet was moved indoors some two weeks later.
“It was in reasonably good condition, despite the fact that it’d stood outside for all those years. We wanted to bring it back to the state it was all those years ago when it first went into Boscombe Down,” notes John. Speaking during the event, Wg Cdr Ferguson stated: “This is a successful story of rescue and teamwork for one of our historic aircraft – it now looks spectacular compared to how it looked after 20 years at Bicester. It took a lot of hard work to convince the powers-that-be that we don’t only have to give aircraft to national museums to save the RAF’s story – there are people with the skillset to conserve and restore aircraft across the country.
“But there was really only one organisation with the skills, enthusiasm, motivation and drive to truly bring this aircraft back to life. It’s not very often that we set eyes on an aircraft that was the very first in the Royal Air Force – one that went on to be so significant during its near 40 years of service. It is very special that ‘she’ is here and preserved so well today – especially when a small part of the MOD had come up with a rather ridiculous plan to scrap her!”
“As an aviation collection, we are still relative newcomers to the world of heritage aviation,” considers John. “Nevertheless, in the short time of our existence we have built a reputation for the quality of our product. Further, our technical director Ron Fulton and his team of engineers are receiving wide acclaim for their restorations – and I think this will only further that.
“I’m conscious that RAF Heritage did take a leap of faith when they made ZA319 available to BDAC. I want to thank them and their teams and everyone involved for their work and support that led to ZA319 standing here now. I hope you feel the decision to bring the jet here has been vindicated.” Looking over the jet myself, I think that’s been proven beyond doubt.