'It’s about existing amidst adversity': Q&A with Tornado author, John Nichol

John Nichol, author of Tornado
An Italian Tornado flying over Iraq during the Gulf War | Wikipedia | CC BY 4.0

Former Tornado Navigator John Nichol tells the incredible story of the RAF Tornado force during the First Gulf War in 1991 in his new book Tornado: In the Eye of the Storm.

In 1990, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion and occupation of neighbouring Kuwait, setting in motion a chain of events that had unimaginable political, military and personal repercussions, which still reverberate around the globe today.

On active duty during the first Gulf War in 1991, John's Tornado bomber was shot down during a mission over Iraq. Captured, tortured and held as a prisoner of war, John was paraded on television, provoking worldwide condemnation and leaving one of the most enduring images of the conflict.

Tornado is the story of the aircrew at the heart of Operation Desert Storm, almost none of whom had any prior experience of armed combat. It is the story of the Tornado’s missions, of those who did not return - and of the families who watched and waited as one of the most complex conflicts in recent history unfolded live on television. It is a story of untold fear and suffering, and astounding courage in the face of hitherto unimaginable adversity.

1. In your previous two books Lancaster and Spitfire, you wrote about two WW2 aircraft. What was it like writing about the Tornado, a modern plane you have first-hand experience with?

Very different – I personally knew all the people involved as close friends and so there was an even greater sense than usual to ensure I did their stories justice.

2. What makes the Tornado such an iconic warplane?

It did exactly what it said on the tin – it was designed to fly low, fast and under enemy radar systems to strike hard and fast at targets. It served for over 40 years in the RAF and was a proven battle winner.

3. As a navigator, what was it like flying in a Tornado?

As a Tornado navigator the job was about ensure the jet and the formation was on in the right place at the right time to hit the target. That involved navigation, weapon systems, defensive aids and many other functions. It was an incredible job – flying a Tornado at around 600MPH and 50 feet above the desert was an amazing experience.

4. Almost none of the aircrew had armed combat experience before taking part in the Gulf War, that must have been very daunting?

It was daunting but also exciting – we had trained to do the job and now we were going to do it for real. We had great trust in our own skills, the skills of those around us, and of course, great trust in the Tornado that many of us had been flying for years.

5. What goes through your mind when you’re about to take off, potentially going into combat?

Some fear and trepidation. Also some excitement as you are about to do the job for real. But most of that quickly dissipates as you concentrate on the job you have trained to do.

6. You were shot down during a mission over Iraq. How did you survive that?

It’s not really about resilience – it’s about existing amidst adversity. There was little we could do to alter our fate so we had to simply take what was thrown at us and hope and pray for the best. Control had been taken out of our hands.

7. Looking back what are your feelings about the Gulf War and your experiences there?

It was a just war to liberate occupied Kuwait in 1991 – and the military performed the task exactly as planned. Successfully. Although my personal contribution was somewhat negligible, I was proud to have been involved. The fact there was so much post-conflict chaos was down to politicians rather than the military

8. What did you enjoy most about writing this book?

Talking to my friends of 30 years and their families about shared experiences – none of us had really done this before and it was emotional at times but certainly enlightening!

9. What do you hope readers will get from it?

I hope they will be excited by the story and perhaps amazed at what went on back then. And an understanding of what it is like to go to war for both the military personnel and their families waiting at home.

10. You’ve now written about three iconic British warplanes, are there any other aircraft you would like to write about?

I’m working on the next book now and it’s not about a single aircraft. It’s still very much an aviation book but a bit of a departure from my previous work. It’s still under wraps until next year!

Tornado is available to buy in all good book shops.