Of course, some Eurofighter partners were more equal than others, depending on the size of their orders. BAE Systems (formerly British Aerospace) and Cassidian Germany (now part of EADS, the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company) each own 33 percent of Eurofighter. Italy’s Alenia Aeromacchi owns 21, and Cassidian Spain, 13.
The prototype was towed out of the assembly hall at Warton Aerodrome, near Preston in the English northwest, in October 1985. After a year of tweaking, it finally flew, and BAE test pilot David Eagles took the airplane supersonic. Painted white with black trim, the prototype gave its first public performance at the 1986 Farnborough Air Show, where the French also demonstrated Dassault’s new fighter, Rafale.
At Farnborough a decade later, the British government, having built and tested a small fleet of prototypes, committed to full production of the Eurofighter, bringing along Germany, Italy, and Spain. There would be three contracts, or tranches, coordinated through the NATO Eurofighter Tornado Management Agency (NETMA). The first Eurofighters would begin as interceptors, but over time mature into multi-role combat jets, flown by the air forces of the four partners—and, their principals hoped, of other countries as well.
Now the vast Eurofighter supply chain rumbled into motion. Around the clock, transports began depositing canards and a fuselage section from somewhere, and picking up a wing or cockpit section or engine to drop somewhere else. It was a constant shuffle of components that, in immaculately clean, brightly lit, and tidy final-assembly halls in Britain, Germany, Italy, and Spain, turned into airplanes.
Two years later, in 1998, Britain’s secretary of state for defense floated the idea of giving the new fighter, then called Eurofighter 2000, a name with a bit more sparkle: Typhoon. It evoked the square-jawed British fighter-bomber of World War II—a brother of the Hawker Hurricane and, to a German ear, a former enemy aircraft. It took four more years, but the partners finally agreed, and what they believed was the warplane of the new century became the Eurofighter Typhoon. It started out fighting side by side with the Tornado, but gradually took over some of the older airplane’s duties. By the end of the first decade, the RAF had five Typhoon squadrons operating at bases in Coningsby and Leuchars.
In early 2011, inspired by successful uprisings in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, rebels in Libya began to challenge the regime of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, and the regime fought back. Alarmed by the prospect of a civilian slaughter and refugees streaming into Italy, the United Nations Security Council issued resolutions in March urging the protection of Libya’s citizens by any means possible, except troops on the ground. Under a U.S.-coordinated no-fly zone over Libya, strikes by U.S., British, and French warplanes and ship-launched cruise missiles began to erase Libya’s fixed air defenses. In late March, the coalition was put under NATO command, and an air force from 11 NATO member countries and three non-members (Qatar, Sweden, and the United Arab Emirates) began an aerial campaign to reduce Libya’s military to rubble.
The British effort was called Operation Ellamy (a meaningless term from a code-name-generating computer program). For the Typhoon and its crews, it was an unexpected, but welcome, call to arms. Now the Typhoon would show the world what it could do.
At its peak, Ellamy put 32 British aircraft into the conflict, including six Typhoons led by Wing Commander Jez Attridge, a big, fit 42-year-old now serving as capability manager for the RAF Typhoon fleet. We talked last October, on Ellamy’s final day, at the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall.
Attridge had flown Tornados out of the RAF’s Leuchars air base in Fife, and, assigned to the U.S. Marines for three years, became carrier-qualified in the F/A-18, which he described as “a great stepping stone to the Typhoon.” When the RAF attacked Libya, Attridge was commanding the Typhoon squadron that struck.
That an air superiority fighter could be flown off to a war where it would do mainly ground attack was a testament to its versatility. “We took the airplane to that theater without any changes whatever,” said Attridge, adding that, in the field, the crew made some software changes to reprogram cockpit displays. Once it became clear that there would not be much airborne prey over Libya, the Typhoon’s evolution into a multi-role aircraft was accelerated. “It went to multi-role in a weekend,” Attridge said.