The Highland fliers

MENTION that dreaded Tom Cruise movie to the RAF's emerging generation of front-line pilots, and you're likely to receive a withering smile. Yet the phrase 'Top Gun' will inevitably be sprinkled liberally about the headlines as STV's new documentary series, JetSet, takes to the air next Tuesday.

"That's just Hollywood, and a film you watch when you're 14," says Flight Lieutenant Tony Eyles with a grin, an instructor with 15 Squadron at RAF Lossiemouth, where the six-part documentary gives unprecedented insight into the progress of a group of trainees as they experience the exhilaration and stresses of learning to fly the Tornado GR4, the RAF's primary strike aircraft.

The Moray coast air station is the RAF's largest and busiest fast-jet base, and also where Eyles, who has flown Tornadoes on operations over Iraq, supervises aspiring GR4 pilots on the gruelling six-month OCU (Operational Conversion unit) course which takes them from the Hawk jet trainers they have been flying until then to the formidable state-of-the-art attack machine that is the Tornado. "With us, they learn to cope with navigation at seven miles a minute, then they learn how to use it as a weapons platform," says Eyles.

The series is narrated by Ewan McGregor, an actor more associated with the intergalactic dogfights of Obi-Wan Kenobi than with real-life aerial warfare, but whose brother, Colin, was one of the first RAF pilots to pass the OCU course at Lossie. Hence the Scots actor's willingness to narrate the series, at a fee somewhat less than his Hollywood norm. "When I was approached by STV I said yes right away," the actor said. "A few years ago [Colin] completed the same course, and through him I have some idea as to the level of passion, personal drive and skill required to do this."

The documentary features its fair share of triumphal soundtrack guitars and slo-mo shots of elegantly banking jets, but the reality involves a lot of hard graft and some stressful moments for the dozen aspiring pilots and navigators, all in their mid-to-late twenties. This is the course that can make or break their jet-flying careers.

The pressure to succeed may be immense, but a pilot's first trip in "the big beast", as McGregor calls the Tornado, is always an event. "You line up on the end of the runway and the heart races," recalls Flight Lieutenant Frazer Wood from Kirkcudbright, the only Scot among the students. "As soon as you plug in the re-heat - the afterburner, as it's commonly known - you feel the kick. It puts you into the back of the seat."

NOW 27, "WOODSY", as Lieutenant Wood is called (all the airmen sport nicknames, some as unlikely as Judy and Dot), made his first forays into flying in small, prop-driven Bulldogs with the Glasgow University Air Squadron. His OCU passage wasn't without its bad moments, though: "All through flying training I've had times when I haven't done as well as I could have. And that does knock you, because we all strive as hard as we can."

He passed, however, and is now with 13 Squadron, based at RAF Marham near King's Lynn, Norfolk, and is due to fly out for a tour of duty in Iraq later this year. Just as the OCU at Lossiemouth was the big step from operating a simulator to flying a 30 million strike aircraft at speeds of up to 550mph on a daily basis, duty in Iraq could see him undergoing his baptism of fire - both being shot at and also delivering a ferociously destructive package of weaponry.

When it comes to the crunch, how does he feel at the prospect of potentially killing or being killed? "There are a lot of stages you go through before you press the button and drop a bomb," he replies. "There are a lot of checks... to guarantee that what you're dropping on is definitely a target. I haven't been out there yet, but we'll be protecting our armed forces on the ground so, in my eyes, that's a good reason to drop, as long as it's a legitimate target."

He met his wife Jennifer while still at university. "She's been at my side the whole way, so she knows what exactly what I've got myself into." And he dismisses any suggestions that his is a particularly glamorous life: "It involves long days and hard work. You can quite easily be away from home for six months in the year. If people find that glamorous, well... It does put strains on relationships, but people get through it."

Flight Lieutenant Mark "Stilly" Still, from Bournemouth, expresses similar thoughts: "It's what you've been training towards for years, and you want to prove you can do it when under pressure. But the other side of it is, why would I want to put myself at risk? But it's something you have to accept. I don't particularly want to go and drop bombs on things, but if that's what I'm told to do, I have to do it and I will."

In an aircraft packing a bewildering array of hi-tech navigational and weapons delivery systems, the relationship between navigator and pilot is, he says, "crucial".

"You're relying on each other. And the pressure is on you twice as much, because not only do you not want to mess it up for yourself, you don't want to mess it up for your mate in the front."

Low-flying over the Highlands is demanding enough by day, occasionally granting them an opportunity to savour the spectacular landscape, but night flying is something else, he adds. "Neither of us see anything out the cockpit, and we've just got this radar. It's a bit butt-clenching," he says with a smile. "It does concentrate the mind."

Still, who has three young children and a fourth on the way, almost didn't get as far as his OCU, following a car crash which all but split his face in two. "Luckily at the time I was on Tucanos [the RAF's basic trainer aircraft], and there was a problem with them and they were all taken out of service for four months, just when I had my car crash. So when I was fit to fly again, I was only two weeks behind the others."

WE'RE CHATTING AT the programme's launch in STV's Glasgow HQ. The fliers, sitting about in their green flying suits, have a slightly incongruous backdrop of panels featuring the wares of the show's sponsor, McIntosh, makers of pre-packed traditional favourites such as mince and tatties, haggis and neeps, the advertising tag being "A fast way to refuel".

Whether you'd want to perform a high-speed turn in a Tornado after filling up with stovies is a moot point (bring on the anti-G trousers). However, with intense pressure of another kind on the trainees to get through the OCU, one would have thought that the last thing they'd need would be a fly-in-the-cockpit camera crew following their progress (and also filming their families). They seem unfazed, however, by imminent small-screen stardom. Wood says that any trainees who didn't want to be filmed were left in peace. "And for the RAF as a whole, I think it's been a good thing, because it lets people see exactly what we go through. I know that throughout the UK, people get annoyed by us flying at low level, and it is noisy. I hope they'll see that we're not just having a jolly, that we're working hard, and for good reason."

And, no, he laughs, Tom Cruise doesn't come into it. Flight Lieutenants Richard "Rich" Taylor and Scott Cotton (yes, he's the one known as "Dot") are similarly amused by the Top Gun label. Taylor confesses that he watched it in his teens, and then admits: "There are times, the odd moment, when you can relax in the cockpit and say, 'This is actually quite a cool job,' but most times you're actually working bloody hard."

So the ubiquitous Top Gun appellation is, they agree, about as relevant as terminology such as "wizard prang, old chap" or wearing handlebar moustaches. "Tally ho!" says Cotton, obligingly.

• JetSet starts on STV at 7:30pm on Tuesday 18 July.