I heard the voice of the soldier requesting air assistance and it rang through my radio. 

‘Dragon’ — my call sign — ‘are you visual with three Isis fighters running to the east? These terrorists are a serious threat. These targets are a threat and we need to strike immediately. What time will you take to get this up and running?

‘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.

His voice was rushed and urgent. Our eyes were fixed on him, and he was also a JTAC (joint terminal attack controller), a specialist who coordinates air support. He sang: “Dragon clears to engage.”

It was 2016 in spring, and more than a decade later the whole world watched horror as terrorists crossed Iraq and Syria in pickup trucks. They killed everyone 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

Mike Sutton, a Flying Ace and Commanding Officer of the RAF’s 1 (Fighter Squadron) Squadron in 2016, saw action over Islamic State’s badlands. 

They had taken over an area the size of France and killed tens to thousands.

ISIS gunmen and suicide bombers also made their way into Europe. The worst violence in France since World War II saw 130 deaths and 416 injuries in Paris on November 2015.

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. 

We were flying out of our Cyprus base, and we could see the worst of Islamic State’s badlands.

Since I was 16, I dreamed of becoming a pilot. After being invited onto the flight deck by an airline captain who brought me back from France, I realized my dreams. 

It was a memory that I cherished.

'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)

Sutton stated that the Typhoon’s relaxed handling allowed pilots to focus on their fight – which was huge in an air combat world where battles can be lost or won in fractions of seconds. (Above: A Typhoon pilot prior to take-off.

The big, murmuring engine and the silver-white glow from the wing tips edging upwards in the evening as the sun set on the Atlantic was all I could see. It was addictive. My dad was also hooked.

This became an obsession. It became an obsession. My home was always a place where my eyes were focused on the skies, as I watched the Hercules transport airplanes fly into nearby RAF Lyneham. Also, the Chinooks thumping overhead at low levels over my school while they travel to Salisbury Plain.

It was amazing, frightening and incredibly appealing. Now, twenty years later I am leading my squadron to battle on the latest, most powerful multirole jet in world. This was the aircraft I feel emotionally connected and trust with all my life.

The Typhoon aircraft is beautiful. It has an exquisite balance and looks almost like a sculpture. The simulator was intuitive and brilliantly designed, so it is easy to learn how to fly.

The cockpit was almost like stepping into the next dimension. The cockpit layout was minimalistic and almost boring. It had three colour TV screens, as well as a head-up display that provided all information needed by the pilot.

Its thrust and maneuverability, thanks to its massive Rolls-Royce engines were unimaginable. 

Engaging the afterburners at any altitude caused an acceleration that was almost like a kick in your back. You could almost see the sky from take-off.

'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 happened in spring 2016. For more than one year, the whole world watched with horror as terrorists crossed Iraq and Syria in pickup trucks. They killed everyone in their path. Photographed: militant Islamist fighters from Syria’s Raqqa Province

The top speed was Mach 1.8. This is almost twice as fast as sound. It would also climb more than 10,000 feet per minute. The machine was completely carefree. 

The control column could be smashed back at all speeds and the airframe would still hold its shape.

You couldn’t stall, spin off or lose control. The headset would sound like Judi dench’s M voice in Bond films if you slow down enough. . . Slow Speed, Recover.

Judi had always been the one to speak. You could ignore her, but she wouldn’t stop you from insisting until a normal plane spun out of control.

Loaded Glock… the fear of torture

My fears of being shot at or expelled over hostile terrain were constant worries in my head. 

It was a thought that I had when I pictured all pilots thinking about the Glock pistols they were given in the event of an emergency. Yes, I was. 

Reports talk of hero pilots who avoid densely populated areas and then eject. There is much more chance that the aircraft will crash into populated terrain than it does. 

Ejections often represent the last resort. An ejection to the ISIS hands could lead to brutality in operations over Syria and Iraq.

Pilots might try to flee and avoid being caught, while sustaining any injuries. 

While search-and rescue teams could be called in, there would always be a shortage of time. 

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 is caught. 

After that, four hours are spent in stress situations where interrogators shout inches away from you. 

Although the experience was difficult, you realized that you were being held in Cornwall’s phoney cell and that a night of recovery in Newquay was near. 

This psychological training would have been useful against an enemy that was more conventional, but ISIS’ brutality had changed the game and we felt it heavily. 

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, the system was neither impregnable nor without risk. The enemy had infrared guided weapons that they bought on the black marketplace with oil money. 

Although we’d avoid the small arms range, it is impossible to fly too high in order to dodge all surface-to-air missiles.

My cockpit was where I launched the targeting camera to see the desert below. A frantic and rapid-moving battle was taking place on the western outskirts Ramadi.

It was very hot, with the sun setting down. The troops below were left to suffer as the large calibre guns flew high through the air.

I saw clearly a trench that ran east-west, where ISIS soldiers were attacking Iraqi forces. Isis troops could be seen running down it, climbing out and firing rounds before returning to their trenches or moving forward toward the city.

Other people were moving towards Baghdad with their rocket-propelled, grenade-launchers. 

The fighters advanced and retreated in ways that were beyond logic. It was as though there wasn’t an overall command but a general order for mass attacks.

Our job, in this mayhem, was to place high-explosive weapons — released at high speed and high altitude — into precise, bullseye locations. 

We could kill our friends in Iraq if we don’t execute these attacks perfectly.

As we attempted to figure out who the other was, it was important to control our emotions.

I could see them racing through a field. They split. They ran north to set up new firing positions.

Third continued on an irrigation channel. He stooped, rifle in his hand. Then he threw himself against a bank and started to fire again at the friendslies from a new angle.

The Typhoon Formation had to be split and both strike groups needed. Cal, Nick Callinswood was my wingman. I looked across the room at him. His jet appeared like a grey dart in the sky, being about one mile from me.

Is it possible to visualize the dragon 2 who has just broken from the other three?

Cal replied, “Affirm.”

‘Your target. We will prosecute simultaneously.

I set up a home-on laser weapon and then moved my camera so that the target was in the crosshairs. Next, I hit the red button to release the weapon. As a laser-guided missile was launched into the airflow, I heard a small crackle in the airframe.

Cal also released a few seconds later. Both targets were hit. The earth went into a rumble. They killed all three of the fighters. The bodies of the three fighters were visible clearly.

In the oxygen mask, my breath was racing. God! I just killed another person. This is unacceptable! What is the point of doing such a thing?

We were being killed all across Europe. They are being killed all across the Middle East. All of this seemed horribly wrong and a great failure for humanity. It was all a waste of time.

'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

“The Typhoon” [file image]It is an exquisite aircraft. The lines are precise and the carvings look like modern sculptures. Mike Sutton said that the aircraft was intuitively and brilliantly designed, which made it simple to learn how to fly in a simulator.

One level I was just doing what I was supposed to. Cranwell, the RAF’s College for Officers, was the first job I applied to. Two of my starched interviewers had asked me if I would like to be a patriotic officer and serve my country.

However, the battle was on, and it felt like we were all machines, here at the front.

You can just act and react. Monitor the defense computers and systems, pilot the aircraft, steer the plane, look for enemy radar, evaluate fuel consumption, check for restricted airspace, follow the enemy and ensure that the rules are being followed. Keep in touch with JTAC to keep an eye on collateral damage.

There was not enough time for us to dwell on it. The future is not here. Under us, fighting went on. To my right, the attack controller was back in line. ‘Dragon. Confirm that you possess the 27mm shells today. This was the 27-mm cannon that was loaded with armor-piercing shells.

‘Affirm. We have 27 mm.

He replied, “Roger that.” He replied, “I have a gun target for your.” Friendly troops are being held down by enemy fighters concealed in a bush. Keep your eyes open for more.

A gun target! A gun target!

This would have been the first time the Typhoon’s gun was used in an operational setting, as well as a first for myself. My throat was dry. Sweat was running down my neck. Because it involved going down really low to the enemy, the penalty was always dangerous.

To fire accurately, you would have to jump into the mixture, facing every weapon at the ground. Even the Typhoon does not have protection from bullets fired by high-caliber rifles.

Was it possible for everything to go wrong? My heart quickened. It was an awful prospect to have to eject in such circumstances. Although I could feel my fully loaded Glock pistol resting comfortably against me chest, I was unsure what it would do if I had time to jump into hostile territory.

After being captured by the terrorists, the last airman was placed in a cell and then burned to the ground in front baying mobs. It is possible that I will not make it out alive.

These thoughts and many others echoed in my head and I was instantly wiping them like raindrops off a windscreen.

Absolute focus and total concentration were required. When I thought about the tasks ahead, I found myself calm. The cannon was attached to the airplane, so you must line the aircraft up and aim the 27mm rounds towards the target.

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

From their positions on the outskirts the village Zalhafa in south Mosul after taking it back from Islamic State terrorists in October 2016, Iraqi forces fired artillery shots towards Zalhafa.

Fly at 500 miles per hour, drop at thousands of feet every minute, then pull the trigger just in time to reach the target. 

The rounds could scatter and miss if I fire too soon. If I shot too soon, the rounds would scatter and I might miss.

One dot indicated that the gun sight was showing, so it could be used to place the bullets on target. A sight that was less than a millimetre distant from the target would cause bullets to miss the target by hundreds of yards. 

One chance would give me. I wanted to shoot the supersonic rounds quickly, in about two-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.

The fact that it was indistinguishable from other scrubs in open desert made matters even trickier. It was easy to misinterpret or lose track of this particular piece of undergrowth. I made mental notes of the surroundings.

In a jet, things happen quickly. Within 20 seconds I had turned around and saw the target in the distance. There were ten seconds left. I felt the adrenaline coursing through me.

The jet’s sound from the ground would have been masked only by the constant battle noise. I would have looked like a tiny dot in the sky, far from ISIS fighters, if they had seen me at this point.

It gave me the edge that I needed in order to surprise the attacker.

Just a flick of the wrist I flipped the Typhoon into the line. I pulled my nose towards the horizon, settled into a 30-degree dive and then rolled the wings up to level.

To keep engine noise down, I turned the throttles to idle. I wanted to reach the destination without any noise. I could feel the speed increasing. In 30 seconds, I could be there from 3 miles away.

It felt as if my heart was about to explode through the fabric of my suit. Sweat stung my eyes. Do. Not. Screw. This. Up. 400 knots. Only five seconds left. 450 knots. Increase speed 

I focused all of my attention, effort and concentration on the aiming point. The trigger was pressed down with my index finger. It took three seconds. Nearly 500 knots. 

As I began to fire, the whole of my airframe pulsed. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. At 4,000 feet per second, the 27-mm round was in the air. 

I could feel the ground rising fast all around me. Screaming was the aircraft ground proximity warning. 


Instantaneously, I pulled the stick back and released the trigger. 

This was the moment when I felt most alone and vulnerable. I am certain that if the ISIS fighters had not seen me approaching, they would have seen me right now, only a few hundred yards above me. 

Infrared countermeasures were sent to repel any missiles. I then accelerated the throttles as the ground fell away quickly. 

Rolls-Royce engines came to life as a loud roar echoed across flat desert terrain, propelling it upwards like a rocket. You can climb up to 15,000 feet, and 10,000 feet above the ground. I stopped and breathed deeply again. 

On the radio, the controller appeared. ‘Dragon. It looks like we have had an effect. However, some rounds took a little too long. We need an immediate reattack. 

‘Roger.’ One laser-guided missile remained in my armoury. The crosshairs remained fixed on the target as I circled back and was released. 

The weapon crashed into the bush just thirty seconds later. It left nothing more than a plume and deep scarring in the terrain. ISIS stopped firing. I headed back to base. 

A half hour later, I had my first glimpse of the Mediterranean’s hazy coastline and the start of a beautiful sunset. As much space as I could, I relaxed my shoulders. 

Tension eased. It was a very stressful day. It was 0800 in the morning. We had just walked to them. The time was fast approaching 1600. It had been eight hours and I barely stopped to breathe. 

Our actions were right there in the middle of it and caused a great deal of damage. 

While it is true that our actions saved many lives on the ground for the Iraqi troops, later I realized how much more we did not do. 

With a professional, professional focus, we were focused solely on providing precise air support in complex situations. Where was my compassion? But where was my empathy? 

My shell seemed to have been built around me. I routinely reported casualties as ‘2 enemy KIA.’ This was with little emotion. 

Perhaps the necessity of detachment is a way to defend oneself. Fighter plane pilots built emotional barriers to shield themselves from the harsh reality of combat. 

At some point though, I believed that our feelings would explode and the walls of separation would have to fall. 

This constant switch-flop from wartime to peacetime 12 hours per hour was draining. It made me feel tired in a different way than the fatigue you experience after a sleepless night. 

The weariness grew deeper. My mission was over, I thought to myself one day. I would end the endless cycle of sorties. 

Not yet. My life was at stake again, as I was in the air above Iraq 36 hours later. 

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.