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The Royal Aircraft Establishment at Bedford

Tornado ZA 326

Tornado ZA326 was the ninth production aircraft in the UK and assembly was completed in July 1980.

During acceptance testing fire, caused by a fuel spill during engine testing, caused damage to the aircraft. When delivered the aircraft was essentially Batch 1 due to the time elapsed until delivery and financial constraints to raise it to date standard.

In engineering and equipment terms a unique aircraft was produced. As this standard would have been difficult for the RAF to manage it was allocated for research to RAE Bedford.

ZA326 was delivered to RAE Bedford from BAE Warton by Sqd Ldr Ed Strongman and Flt Lt Daz James on 26 May 1983. The aircraft with a group of Aircraft Dept engineers is shown below.

A MODAS recording system and a full set of sensors was fitted to the aircraft providing a high quality flight data recording system for post flight analysis purposes suitable for a range of flight test programmes.

The aircraft was acquired from MoD initially to support the assessment and development of the Terrain Following Radar system. The system performance and safety had been reviewed by a specialised scientific team prior to the aircraft delivery. The team produced several products that needed to be tested in flight. They were subsequently introduced to the aircraft fleet to improve performance and safety.

The MODAS system allowed recording of the radar data at its transmission rate and provided the means to understand the radar functionality particularly under anomalous conditions. Flight performance could be checked against predictions from mathematical modelling, a key research requirement at the time.

The increased understanding of the TFR system resulted in solutions for counter-counter-measures and weather conditions, especially rain and the spurious radar reflections. The acquired knowledge allowed robust algorithmic development, some of which, like the Clearance Range Ahead Monitor, found their way into the fleet production equipment.

The two main programmes to which XW750 contributed were firstly what was known as the UK Economic Cat III programme in the period 1975 – 1980 and secondly the developments which led to the passive terrain-following system and the CO2 Laser Radar (CLARA) between 1983-2003. The passive terrain-following system and CLARA continued further development with Tornado ZA326.

This success led on to developments in terrain-referenced navigation which introduced covert techniques for guidance and control and a multi-mode laser radar for the purpose of cable and obstacle detection. This CO2 Laser Radar, or CLARA, was developed with industry and jointly with the French. It demonstrated a highly effective method for obstacle detection. It is mounted in a pod attached to the centre fuselage pylon in the photograph opposite.

Other programmes included all-weather approach, stores and weapons carriage research, aerodynamic flow-field measurement and speech recognition with direct voice input equipment as applied to a military aircraft under high g.

The approach modes of the Tornado GR Mk 1 automatic and flight director system had not been cleared for Service use in 1983 and early flight trials with ZA 326 confirmed that the standard flight path approach performance was unacceptable in terms of azimuth performance. The early equipment standard was the source of the issue. The AFDS performance in elevation was confirmed to support Cat 2 type operations.

For the stores and weapons research two special rigs were available for stores carriage and release work, one traversing the pylon and one fixed, each of which carried airflow-sensing heads used to measure air flow speed and direction around the pylon stations. This work provided an understanding of the complex air flow around the store location and provided evidence to the flight clearance authority.

The speech recogniser led, with industry, to the evaluation of a flight-worthy recogniser, ASR 1000, which was subsequently evaluated.

Following the closure of Thurleigh airfield in March 1994 the aircraft operated from Boscombe Down until December 2005.

The purpose of this programme was to provide an airfield recovery technique for use in all weather conditions, but without the complexity and cost to the operator of a full airworthy automatic landing system. The premise was that, if the aircraft was delivered accurately to the airfield by a reliable guidance system, a decision by the pilot at a height of 50ft for landing in runway visual range conditions of 200m was considered realistic. However the regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, was not receptive to authorising manual landings in Cat III weather conditions so the research focused on a simpler implementation of the full system. This extension to the SEP6, together with the use of a MonoHUD to provide the pilot with critical information, offered an effective application.

Where is it now?

The aircraft is now in new ownership at the South Wales Aviation Museum.

Progress with the restoration of ZA326 can be found at https://ptpg.org/tornado-za326/.

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