Op Shader

What it's like flying Typhoon fighters on RAF's 'relentless' mission against IS

In an interview with the BFBS Sitrep podcast, former pilot Mike Sutton shares his experiences of flying on Operation Shader.

A former Royal Air Force pilot has given an extraordinary account of the "relentless" nature of flying Typhoon fighter jets during the UK's mission against so-called Islamic State (IS).

Speaking to the BFBS Sitrep podcast, Mike Sutton revealed what it's like flying missions over Iraq and Syria as part of Operation Shader and how he engaged the enemy with his aircraft's gun to save lives on the ground after all his missiles and bombs were used.

Mr Sutton, who has written a book, 'Typhoon: The Inside Story of an RAF Fighter Squadron at War', also explained how there were "a few close shaves", including how he avoided another military aircraft at night by "inches".

'There was always something going on'

"Often you'd be on the ground, not knowing what the day had in store," Mr Sutton told the podcast.

"Occasionally, there was a pre-planned target where you could look at that the day before, go and fly the mission, conduct the strike and then fly home, but most of the time you were just on-call and some days you were called into action as soon as you crossed the border.

"JTAC [Joint Terminal Attack Control] would be screaming on the radio 'we need help over here, right now' and you'd rush over, perhaps conduct a strike straight away and there'd be another JTAC calling, you'd be a couple hundred of miles away, racing up there, perhaps going via the tanker to fill up with fuel again.

"It was just this relentless kind of support until you ran out of weapons.

Watch: Explained – the Paveway IV bomb, the RAF's go-to weapon.

"So you'd get through all eight Paveways on both jets and that would happen quite regularly."

Mr Sutton also said that sometimes it could be "quite quiet" but the fighter pilots, based at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, were still needed for tasks such as reconnaissance or overwatch and that every day was "very different".

"There was always something going on, you never just sat in the aeroplane and did nothing, you were always used, but there were peaks and trough to the, sort of, level of intensity of the sorties. 

"Where you would go would completely vary, every day was very different," he added.

"You'd sit on the runway, often at night, surrounded by thunderstorms, knowing you had about eight hours in the cockpit ahead somewhere over Iraq or Syria but you didn't really know where you'd be going.

"Because you have a limited amount of aircraft in the sky, and they needed to flex and to go to where they were most needed at the time.

Watch: The RAF's Middle East operations commander told Forces News in September that Op Shader had developed into a "cat and mouse game".

"So you'd check in, cross the border, you'd fill up with fuel from an air-to-air refueller and then you'd check in with the command and control aircraft that was up in the sky.

"And they would tell you where you were needed and you'd just hustle over there as quickly as you could, and talk to the JTACs, who are the specialist soldiers on the ground who are trained at controlling airstrikes.

"You'd look at the best weapon for the strike and how you're going to go about doing that, minimising collateral damage and absolutely making sure that there was going to be no harm to friendlies. 

"The final decision is normally made by the JTAC, so he'll give you the clearance to strike and on receipt of that clearance, you can go ahead."

Mr Sutton explained how "a huge range of complex emotions go through your head" when operating in such high-risk areas.

"You're very aware of the risk that's involved, you're an aircraft on your own and there are surface-to-air missiles around.

"Your wingman normally is looking out beneath the aircraft to make sure that you're defending yourself against that risk."

But, he said the "overriding emotion" is "that you just want to get this done as quickly and as professionally as you can".

RAF Typhoon during an Op Shader sortie in May 2021
RAF Typhoon during an Op Shader sortie in May 2021 (Picture: MOD).

Mr Sutton spoke about how Typhoons would often be called in when there was "a clear and huge risk" to friendly forces on the ground, with time of the essence.

"If we didn't get the weapons down quickly, then there was an immediate risk of loss of life from friendly troops."

Firing without missiles or bombs

"It was a capability that we trained for and could use," Mr Sutton said, reflecting on the time he had to use his aircraft's machine-gun after using all its missiles and bombs.

"It was JTAC's decision – he just said there was a target, they were pinning down some friendly soldiers and they requested the gun.

"And so that was the requirement.

"[I] got visual with the target and rolled the aircraft down, accelerated so that the whole thing would happen quite quickly, tried to come out of the sun and then fired a burst with the 27 mil onto that target and then recovered the aircraft quickly and climbed back up to height again and got the camera back pointing on the ground."

Watch: Cockpit footage from inside Typhoon aircraft.

'A few close shaves'

Flying in such hostile areas means there are always dangers around.

Mr Sutton told BFBS Sitrep that there were "a few close shaves throughout the deployment".

He described the strafe attack he conducted as "pretty risky" while also recalling one pilot being shot at by a surface-to-air missile.

"[The pilot] had to deploy countermeasures and watch this thing sail behind him."

Mr Sutton also discussed the time he was "locked up" by a radar-guided surface-to-air missile and the moment he missed an RAF Voyager tanker by "inches" at night.

"I had a very close call at night with a Voyager air-to-air refuelling aircraft where we were both in the same piece of sky at the same time.

"And I flew past the wings of this thing, missing it by inches and had to get out of the airspace pretty quickly after that."

You can listen to Mr Sutton's interview on the latest BFBS Sitrep podcast here or wherever you get your podcasts.