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As the key air defense for half a dozen nations in Europe and the Middle East, the Eurofighter Typhoon will have to rise to multi-role occasions. (Roel Reijne)

Europe’s Typhoon Fighter

For the first time since World War II, fighters are stationed at RAF Northolt.

The Typhoon shared missions with the Tornado, which, in the early days of the operation, commuted from the U.K. to strike Libyan targets. (The squadron later moved to Italy.) Tornados usually carried 500-pound Paveway IV guided bombs; the aptly named Brimstone, which can decapitate an armored column; and the longer-range Storm Shadow missile, capable of taking out anti-aircraft and command-and-control bunkers more than 100 miles away. Typhoons carried air-to-air missiles in case Libyan jets challenged them, and, although new to ground-attack, lugged the heavier ordnance. “We started off with two 1,000-pound smart bombs,” Attridge said, “then four, moving to six.”

Tornados attacked small and moving targets that required maximum precision, while Typhoons applied their Enhanced Paveways to larger targets, like the regime’s sprawling compounds. “We’d take off, an hour to refueling, then to Libya,” said Attridge. “Six, seven, as much as nine hours,” while Typhoon ground support and maintenance crews were working double that. “Tornado-Typhoon combinations, 24 hours a day,” he said. “We didn’t stop for six months.”

The RAF has an unconventional option: to pair different aircraft types until the Tornados finally retire, toward the end of this decade. By then, the Typhoon will have fully matured as a ground attack platform, with its own laser and infrared targeting systems (in Libya it had relied part of the time on the Tornado’s), as well as Brimstone, Storm Shadow, and Meteor, a beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile still in development. “One Typhoon doing the same job as two aircraft, an air defense and an air-to-surface Tornado,” said Attridge. “It’s the most capable aircraft we’ve ever had.”

Although the Typhoon has flown air-defense duty for years, it may be best known for its star turn on the BBC’s popular “Top Gear” program. In October 2007, the show pitted a Typhoon against a Bugatti Veyron—a £60 million (about $94 million) airplane against a £1 million ($1.6 million) automobile—in a two-mile race, horizontal for the car, vertical for the Typhoon. The aerial footage of the Typhoon’s vertical climb, its balletic reverse a mile above the ground, and the dive back toward the runway at RAF Coningsby (to win by about two seconds) was a study in easy grace. (You can watch video of the race on YouTube: Search Bugatti Veyron vs. Eurofighter.)

“Easy” is a term you hear a lot from Typhoon pilots. Attridge said, partly in jest, that the airplane “was disappointingly easy to fly...once you get over that awe from the fact that you’re flying such an expensive machine, cruising along at 40,000 feet at the speed of sound.”

At Warton Aerodrome, Mark Bowman, BAE’s chief test pilot on the Typhoon, said, “Flying the Typhoon is easier than flying a Cessna 150.” We talked in the flight operations office at Warton while outside, Typhoons rehearsed for an airshow in Malaysia.

Bowman served three tours in the AV8 Harrier in the late 1980s and ’90s, and was the chief Harrier test pilot for the RAF. It is said that a pilot’s favorite airplane is the one he or she is currently flying, but Bowman spoke more highly of the Harrier, which he liked for its versatility, than of the Typhoon. If he has a sentimental favorite, it may be the old Hawker Hunter. Still, “if you’re looking at performance and potential,” he began, then paused and gave what is known as the Typhoon Grin.

The other quality Typhoon pilots talk about a lot is “carefree handling.” Almost every airplane will, at some combination of angle of attack, speed, and trim, stall—depart, as they say. But, so far at least, the Typhoon’s departure, if there is one, remains its secret. “Nothing you can do to depart it,” said Attridge. “The Typhoon is very precise, not a jerky airplane, not like you’re flying along on the edge of a knife. The engine response is as precise as on Hornets, which you need for carrier operations. You feel attached to it.”

“At low speed,” Bowman explained, any recovery moves are “all done automatically. The aircraft gives an audio warning to the pilot. If the pilot chooses to do nothing, the aircraft will take control, perform a recovery maneuver, throttle up to military power…finish the recovery, and give itself back to the pilot.” At the high-speed end, the airplane cues the pilot when it begins to touch the corners of its large performance envelope. But departures, said Bowman, “are not something we’d expect to encounter.”

Flying the Tornado in mock combat exercises, Attridge said, he was often “glad when it was over.” No longer. He has flown the Typhoon in exercises against the Mirage 2000, F-15, Su-30 Mk.2, and F-16, none of which “caused any problem for the jet in a visual fight.” One civilian observer at Warton, familiar with the Typhoon’s capabilities, was less kind. Beating F-16s in a Typhoon, he told me, was about as challenging as “clubbing seals.” The Typhoon also reportedly was able to get a radar lock on the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor—the top U.S. fighter—in a 2006 exercise at Naval Air Station China Lake, according to International Air Power Review magazine.

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