Why fighter pilots wear a Typhoon Grin
By Thomas Harding, Defence Correspondent
To say that the RAF's new fighter accelerates faster than a Formula 1 car is to sell it very short indeed.
For the first 700ft of take-off, the comparison seems apt, but then 40,000lb of rear thrust put the aircraft into a vertical ascent that feels like being in the Space Shuttle and we soar from Earth to 12,000ft in four seconds flat.
Thomas Harding soared to 12,000ft in four seconds
It might be coming into service late and have cost massively more than it was meant to, but the much maligned Eurofighter - the Typhoon -has certainly arrived.
For manoeuvrability there is no aircraft in the world quite like it, as I discovered when I became the first journalist to fly in an operational Typhoon from RAF Coningsby, Lincolnshire.
The scepticism within military circles and beyond about the Typhoon runs deep. Designed during the Cold War to fight off hordes of Soviet fighters, it has, say many observers, no relevance in today's warfare against small bands of terrorists holed up in mountains or deserts.
That perception began to change yesterday when No 3 Squadron became the first operational unit to be equipped with the Typhoon, although problems surfaced again when a display to mark its introduction was delayed after the aircraft developed a fault with its air-conditioning.
"In terms of capability, Typhoon is a quantum leap over anything we have ever had," said Wg Cdr Al Mackay, who commands 29 Squadron in charge of training the fighter pilots.
"It's in a different league to anything we have ever had before." The Typhoon can travel at more than twice the speed of sound, it can fly at 65,000ft and it accelerates very, very fast.
But its major strength is its manoeuvrability - it can twist, turn and evade like nothing else on the market.
Perhaps that is why pilots who step out of the BAe Systems plane for the first time emerge with the "Typhoon Grin".
From next month, Wg Cdr Lol Bennett will start training a very eager and excitable batch of 16 pilots in No 3 Squadron, which he leads.
By early next year, any rogue airliner that has failed to keep radio contact or whose transponder fails - as happens about once a month over Britain - will very quickly have a Typhoon for company when it joins the Quick Reaction Alert team for home defence.
"I think it's a fabulous airplane, something we can be hugely proud of as a nation," said Wg Cdr Bennett.
"It has been seen as a bit of a white elephant and Cold War relic but we have never had an aircraft that has performed like this. Best thing since the Spitfire."
By early 2008, the unit will develop its air defence capability that will mean it can go anywhere in the world.
With British troops expected still to be deployed in Afghanistan at that time, it is likely the Typhoon will see its first action in the country's mountains and valleys.
Wg Cdr Bennett's unit will be the first of five large Typhoon squadrons who will share between them Britain's order of 232 aircraft.
The criticisms that the Typhoon is outdated even before it enters service will disappear as it is adapted to become a multi-role aircraft.
It will be able to carry heavy bomb loads of two 2,000lb smart bombs, Stormshadow cruise missiles, Brimstone anti-tank weapons, reconnaissance equipment and an array of air-to-air missiles.
The heavy payload will not affect performance, the pilots say, and its ground-attack capability will come into effect at the end of this decade.
If there is one complaint, it is that cost-cutting measures have meant not enough spares - from nuts and bolts to computers - leading to a number of Typhoons being grounded.
Flying the Typhoon is relatively simple. With more than a dozen computers on board, all that the pilot needs to control is the throttle, joystick and undercarriage handle.
Wg Cdr Mackay describes the rudder pedals as "foot rests, unless you are in combat".
One computer has a female voice that cajoles pilots and warns them of dangers.
"If you fly too close to the ground she urgently says 'low, low, low' in an agitated Margaret Thatcher voice and you half expect a handbag coming over the back of the seat to knock your head."
With digital terrain mapping entered into the system, the plane provides life-saving technology telling pilots to "pull up, pull up" if they are heading into a mountain.
At 24,000ft, I find out for myself what it feels like to fly when Wg Cdr Mackay asks me to take the controls. "If you pull back the sheep get smaller, push forwards and sheep get bigger," he says.
Concentrating hard on the "heads up" display, showing our altitude, speed and horizon, I gingerly tilt the joystick. The response is immediate as the plane dips and tilts.
It is extraordinarily easy to fly, even at the hands of a novice. The point is, it frees the pilot for combat and other tasks.
We drop down for a low-level pass over RAF Leeming (which has only Tornados and Jaguars) before screaming along the Hawes Valley in North Yorkshire, telling traffic control we will become invisible to radar. Everything seems to go in slow motion - the traffic on the A1, then a pleasant looking river drifts by. Until that is, Wg Cdr Bennett demonstrates the immense flexibility by turning 180 degrees within a 1,000ft radius at 500mph, 250ft above the ground.
"Look - we're back to where we started at the turn," he said.
As the G-forces dragged my stomach towards my feet and eyes out of their sockets, I muttered an "Oh, really" before concentrating hard on keeping down lunch.