The soldier’s voice requesting air support burst onto the radio in my cockpit.
‘Dragon’ — my call sign — ‘are you visual with three Isis fighters running to the east? They pose an imminent threat. We need a strike on these targets immediately. How long will it take you to set up?’
‘About 60 seconds,’ I replied as with the lightest touch on the controls I eased my Typhoon jet fighter — the RAF’s newest supersonic combat aircraft — into a left turn, staying high over the advancing Isis forces.
The soldier’s voice came back on, rushed, pressing. He was a joint terminal attack controller (JTAC), our eyes on the ground, a specialist trained in coordinating air support. ‘Dragon cleared to engage,’ he sang out.
It was spring 2016 and for more than a year the world had looked on in horror as terrorists in convoys of pickup trucks crossed Iraq and Syria, killing everyone who stood in their path.
Flying ace Mike Sutton (above) was commanding officer of the RAF’s 1 (Fighter) Squadron in 2016, and saw action over the badlands of Islamic State
They had seized an area of territory the size of France, killing tens of thousands, taken control of Mosul, a cosmopolitan city of two million, and planted their black flags over what they called the Islamic State.
Isis gunmen and suicide bombers had also crept into Europe. In November 2015, 130 people were butchered and another 416 injured on the streets of Paris in the worst violence seen in France since World War II.
The West had decided to take action and the RAF’s 1 (Fighter) Squadron — of which I was commanding officer — had been dispatched to the Middle East.
And now, flying from our base in Cyprus, we were in the thick of the action over the badlands of Islamic State.
Ever since I was 16 I had dreamt of being a pilot, after the captain of an airliner bringing me home from a holiday in France invited me onto the flight deck.
I remember gazing out along the line of the wing and beyond to the horizon.
‘The relaxed handling of a Typhoon allowed the pilot to concentrate on fighting – and in the world of air combat, where a battle can be won or lost in a fraction of a second, this marginal gain was a total game-changer,’ said Sutton. (Above, a Typhoon pilot before take-off)
And I could see the big murmuring engine, the silver-white glow of the wing tip edging up and down in the evening air as the sun slid into the dark waves of the Atlantic. I was hooked. I told my dad: ‘I’m going to become a pilot.’
It became an obsession. At home my eyes always turned skywards to watch the Hercules transport aircraft flying into nearby RAF Lyneham and the Chinooks thumping over my school at low level on their way to Salisbury Plain.
It was mind-blowing, terrifying and hugely appealing. And now, 20 or so years later, here I was, leading my own squadron into battle in the most modern, most powerful multi-role jet in the world, one I felt emotionally connected to and trusted with my life.
The Typhoon is a beauty of an aircraft, balanced with fine lines and carved like a postmodern sculpture. It was brilliantly designed and intuitive, making it easy to fly after just a few sessions in the simulator.
Climbing into the cockpit felt as if you were entering the space age. The layout was simple, almost sterile, with all the information the pilot needed on the head- up display and three-colour TV screens.
With its two massive Rolls-Royce engines, its thrust and manoeuvrability were beyond anything I had ever imagined possible.
At any altitude, engaging the afterburners caused an acceleration that felt like a kick in the back. From take-off, it took you almost vertically skywards.
‘It was spring 2016 and for more than a year the world had looked on in horror as terrorists in convoys of pickup trucks crossed Iraq and Syria, killing everyone who stood in their path.’ Pictured, militant Islamist fighters in Syria’s Raqqa province
It could reach a top speed of Mach 1.8, almost twice the speed of sound, and would climb at more than 10,000 ft a minute. It had totally carefree handling.
You could snap the control column back as hard as you liked at any speed and it would be impossible to overstress the airframe.
It was impossible to stall, spin or lose control. If you slowed down too much, a warning voice that sounded like Judi Dench playing M in the Bond films would rebuke you through the headset: ‘Slow speed, recover . . . slow speed, recover.’
Judi always had the last word. If you ignored her and persisted to the point where a normal jet would spin out of control, she would simply remark, ‘Override’, and an autopilot system would momentarily engage, advance the throttles, lower the nose, and hand the jet back to you at a safe airspeed a couple of seconds later.
A loaded Glock… and the spectre of torture
Being shot down or ejecting over hostile territory were everpresent anxieties in the back of my mind.
I imagined all pilots thought about how they might use the Glock pistols we were issued if the worst happened. I know I had.
News reports talk about hero pilots steering away from populated areas before ejecting. But, more often than not, where the aircraft crashes is merely chance.
Ejections are often the last-gasp option. On operations over Iraq and Syria, an ejection into the hands of Isis risked brutality.
Pilots would attempt to escape and evade, coping with whatever injuries.
Search-and-rescue teams would be called into action, but time would always be in short supply.
For me, the conduct-after-capture course lingers in my memory like an old scar: seven days and sleepless nights of escape and evasion training on Bodmin Moor, hunted by Royal Marines with blackened faces and night vision equipment.
Everyone gets caught.
You then spend four hours in stress positions, being grilled by interrogators who shout inches from your face.
The experience was exhausting, but you knew you were in a phoney cell somewhere in Cornwall and a recovery night out in Newquay was imminent.
Psychological training like this would be of some help against a conventional enemy, but the brutality carried out by Isis had shifted the paradigm and weighed heavily in the back of our minds.
The relaxed handling of a Typhoon allowed the pilot to concentrate on fighting — and in the world of air combat, where a battle can be won or lost in a fraction of a second, this marginal gain was a total game-changer.
Its armaments were formidable — a cannon loaded with armour-piercing 27 mm shells, four 500 lb precision bombs, long-range radar-guided missiles and short-range infrared heat-seeking missiles.
Even so, it was not impregnable, nor risk-free. Out there in the desert, the enemy were armed with infrared guided missiles procured on the black market with stolen oil money.
We would stay out of the range of small arms, but no aircraft can fly high enough to avoid all the different types of surface-to-air missile.
From my cockpit I trained the targeting camera onto the desert below, where a frenzied and fast moving battle was raging on the outskirts of Ramadi, to the west of Baghdad.
It was hot with the sun burning down, and it must have been deafening for the troops on the ground as large calibre rounds sailed through the air and exploded in mushrooms of rock dust that sailed off in yellow- tinted streamers.
I could clearly see a trench line running east to west, from which Isis soldiers were attacking Iraqi troops, running along it, climbing out, letting off rounds of gunfire, and returning again to the trench or darting forward towards the city.
Others were in open fields, with rocket-propelled grenade launchers over their shoulders, moving towards Baghdad.
Fighters were advancing or retreating in ways that defied logic, as if there were no overall command, just a general order for a mass attack.
Our job, in this mayhem, was to place high-explosive weapons — released at high speed and high altitude — into precise, bullseye locations.
If we didn’t get these attacks inch perfect, we could easily kill the Iraqi friendlies whose lives we were there to protect.
We had to keep emotions under control as we tried to work out who was who.
On the screen I could see the three Isis fighters race across a field. They separated. Two ran to the north and set up a new firing position.
The third continued along an irrigation channel, stooped with rifle in hand, then threw himself down against a bank of earth and opened fire on the friendlies once more from a different angle.
We needed to split the Typhoon formation and strike both groups. I glanced across at my wingman, Nick Callinswood, known as Cal. He was about a mile away and slightly high, his jet appearing like a grey dart against the chalky blue sky.
‘Dragon 2, are you visual with the individual who just broke from the three?’
‘Affirm,’ Cal answered.
‘Your target. We’ll prosecute simultaneously.’
Using a home-on-laser weapon, I slewed the camera to put the target in the cross-hairs, then pressed down hard with my thumb on the red weapon release button. I felt a small thud through the airframe as a laser-guided bomb was unleashed into the airflow.
I heard Cal release, too, moments later. We struck both targets. The earth erupted. The three fighters were killed outright. Their motionless bodies were clearly visible.
My breathing raced in the oxygen mask. God, I’ve just killed someone again. How can this be allowed? How on earth did I end up doing this?
They were killing us all over Europe. Now here we are killing them all over the Middle East. It all seemed terribly wrong, a huge failure of humankind. I felt no satisfaction; I was just numb.
‘The Typhoon [file image] is a beauty of an aircraft, balanced with fine lines and carved like a postmodern sculpture. It was brilliantly designed and intuitive, making it easy to fly after just a few sessions in the simulator,’ said Mike Sutton
At one level, I was simply doing the job I had signed on to do. When applying for Cranwell, the RAF’s college for officers, I had told the two starched officers who interviewed me that I wanted to join the RAF because I was patriotic, that I wanted to serve my country.
But, now here on the front line, it was all so relentless and all-consuming, as if we were machines.
Just act and react, scan the systems and defensive computers, fly the jet, avoid the clouds, monitor the weapons, slew the cameras, assess the fuel burn, watch for the restricted airspace, track the enemy, ensure the rules of engagement are met, keep communicating with the JTAC, keep monitoring for collateral damage, work out where I need to be in one minute, guess what could catch me out the next.
But there was no time to dwell further. There never is. Beneath us, the fighting raged on. The attack controller was straight back on the line to me. ‘Dragon. Confirm you have the 27 mm today?’ He was referring to the cannon loaded with armour- piercing 27 mm shells.
‘Affirm. We have 27 mm.’
‘Roger that,’ he replied. ‘I’ve got a gun target for you. Enemy fighters hidden in a scrappy bush pinning down friendly troops. Standby for the talk-on.’
A gun target! We were almost clean out of bombs but such was the severity of the situation on the ground that the commanders of the operation wanted to resort to strafing the ground with fast jet cannon fire.
It would be the first operational use of the Typhoon’s gun, and a first for me, too. My throat was dry and sweat was streaming down my neck. Strafing was always risky because it meant going in really low, right on top of the enemy.
In order to fire with accuracy, I’d have to dive right into the mix, at risk from every single weapon on the ground. No aircraft has protection against bullets from high calibre rifles, not even the Typhoon.
What if it all went wrong? My heart quickened. Ejecting in these circumstances was a horrific prospect. I could feel the fully-loaded Glock pistol in a holster resting snugly against my chest, though I wasn’t sure what good this would be if I had to parachute into hostile territory.
The last airman captured by the jihadis had been shoved in a cage and burned alive in front of a baying mob, the video of his murder uploaded for the world to see on the internet. I might not come out of this alive.
This thought and a thousand others reeled through my mind and were instantly wiped like raindrops from a windscreen.
Complete and absolute focus was required. I was calm as I considered the task ahead. The cannon was fixed to the airframe, so during a strafe attack, you need to line up the aircraft itself and physically aim the 27 mm rounds at the mark.
Iraqi forces fire artillery shells towards the nearby village of Zalhafa from their position on the outskirts of the village of al-Khuwayn, south of Mosul, after recapturing it from Islamic State jihadists in October, 2016
Fly at 500 mph, descend at thousands of feet per minute, and squeeze the trigger at the precise time to hit the target.
If I fired too early, the rounds would scatter during the flight and likely miss. If I fired too late, I would potentially fly right into the fragmentation from the bullets, or worse, into the ground.
The gunsight showed a single dot, which had to be placed on the target. If the sight was just a millimetre away from the target, the bullets would miss by hundreds of feet.
I would get one chance only. My intention was to fire the supersonic rounds in a long burst of two to three seconds.
So I threw the Typhoon into a right turn to line up for the attack, turning my head as far as I could over my shoulder to keep sight of the target — but, as I flew away, it turned from a sizeable bush to a tiny speck vanishing to almost nothing.
To make things even more tricky, it stood in an indistinguishable scrub in miles of open desert. The potential to lose sight of that exact piece of undergrowth or confuse it with another was huge. I took mental snapshots of the surrounding features.
Things happen fast in a jet. After 20 seconds, I turned and made the target out in the distance. Ten seconds to go. Adrenaline was coursing through my veins.
From the ground, the jet would have been heard as nothing more than a faint rumble, masked by the noise of the ongoing battle. If the Isis fighters had spotted me at this stage, I would have appeared as nothing more than an indistinct dot high in the sky, several miles off and flying away from them.
This gave me the edge I needed to make the attack a complete surprise.
With a flick of the wrist, I overbanked the Typhoon onto the line of attack. I pulled the nose down through the horizon, settling into a 30-degree dive, and rolled the wings to level.
I brought the throttles back to idle, to keep the engine noise low. I wanted to arrive silently out of the sun. The speed was building. I would be on them from three miles away in less than 30 seconds.
My heart felt like it was going to burst through my flying suit. Sweat stung my eyes. Do. Not. Screw. This. Up. 400 knots. Five seconds to go. 450 knots. Speed increasing.
All my effort, all my concentration, all my focus was on that aiming point. I rested the index finger of my right hand on the trigger. Three seconds to go. Almost 500 knots.
The whole airframe pulsed as I started to fire. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. The 27 mm rounds were in the air travelling at 4,000 ft per second.
The ground was rising up fast around my ears. The aircraft ground proximity warning was screaming.
Instantaneously I released the trigger, pulled back on the stick and started climbing at 30 degrees nose up.
At this moment I was at my most vulnerable and felt very alone. If the Isis fighters hadn’t seen me approach, they would definitely see me now, just a few hundred feet above them.
I sent out infrared countermeasures to decoy any missiles and, with the ground falling away fast, I slammed the throttles forward.
The Rolls-Royce engines kicked to life with a roar that bounced across the flat desert landscape, propelling the jet skywards like a rocket. Through 10,000 ft, through 15,000 ft and climbing. I levelled off and breathed again.
The controller came on the radio. ‘Dragon. Looks like we’ve had some effect, but some rounds went slightly long. Need an immediate re-attack.’
‘Roger.’ I still had one laser-guided bomb left in the armoury. I circled straight back, keeping the cross-hairs fixed on the target, and released.
Thirty seconds later, the weapon slammed precisely into the stretch of bushes and left nothing but a plume of smoke and a deep scar in the landscape. The Isis firing stopped. I headed back towards base.
An hour later, I caught the first glimpse of the hazy Mediterranean sea-line and the beginning of a pale sunset. I consciously relaxed my shoulders and stretched as much as the limited space would allow.
The tension eased. It had been one hell of a day. We had walked to the jets at 0800 that morning. It was now approaching 1600. In those eight hours I had barely paused for breath.
We had been right in the thick of it, and had caused one hell of a lot of casualties.
Yes , what we had done had saved the lives of many of the Iraqi soldiers on the ground, but later, in hindsight, I would dwell on the extreme violence we’d left in our wake.
We were completely focused on delivering precise air support in highly complex scenarios with ruthless, professional efficiency. But where was my empathy? Where was my compassion?
It seemed I had constructed a hard shell around me. When there were casualties, I would routinely report ‘2 enemy KIA’ with no more emotion than I would have written a shopping list.
Maybe the detachment was a necessity, a form of self-defence. We pilots of fighter planes put up emotional walls to protect ourselves from the reality of the operation.
But at some point, I thought, the feelings we harboured would come bursting out and those walls would need to come down.
The constant flip-flop between wartime and peacetime every 12 hours was draining and I was beginning to feel fatigued in a way that was different from the tired feeling you get behind the eyes after a restless night.
This weariness went much deeper. One day, I told myself, our mission would be finished. The relentless cycle of sorties would be over.
But not yet. Just 36 hours later I was back in the air over Iraq, my life once again on the line.
Adapted from Typhoon: The Inside Story Of An RAF Fighter Squadron At War by Mike Sutton, published by Michael Joseph on November 25 at £20. © 2021 Mike Sutton. To order a copy for £18 (offer valid until December 1, 2021; UK P &P free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0203 176 2937.