One person telephoned me to let me know that he had written to the Prime Minister - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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One person telephoned me to let me know that he had written to the Prime Minister

I was required to send a summary of every complaint, other than the most trivial, and a copy of every letter I wrote to complainants, to the appropriate department of the Ministry of Defence in London for their records. Members of Parliament, or their secretaries, must get letters of complaint on a wide range of topics every day from their constituents. MPs cannot possibly be expected to know all the whys and wherefores of every subject that crops up and so they usually forwarded flying complaints to the appropriate Defence Ministry department where the staff dealt with them by forwarding them onwards to the station concerned.

A small number of complainants, not satisfied with my explanation, subsequently did write to their MP. One individual even wrote to the Prime Minister to complain about me because, he claimed, I was not taking his complaint seriously. Even that letter ended up on my desk together with a Photostat of my original letter to the complainant. He addressed the PM as "Dear Tony" and took the opportunity to express his total support for all his Government's policies before getting around the real purpose of the letter.

That type of correspondence was called a PE - parliamentary enquiry - and it was a form of what I call circular correspondence. As soon as I received a PE I would draft a reply, usually a paraphrase of my original letter, for the MoD official, who then translated it into parliamentary language for the Minister for the Armed Forces to send back to the MP who had received the original complaint. The MP usually then simply sent a copy of the Minister's letter with a short covering note of his own to the original complainant who was, presumably, gratified to have several letters on Westminster-headed notepaper. In most cases I eventually received for my files, copies of all the letters involved in this circular correspondence so that I and my Station Commander knew how the complaint had been handled at each and every level. Talk about the paperless society! No MP or official at the MoD ever changed the sense of anything I had written and no changes to the Red Arrows flying practices were forced upon the Team as a result of a complaint. I mention that not for my personal satisfaction but because it indicates that the Red Arrows did have very strict operating procedures and that they did not disregard them.

For some years at Scampton I had two very persistent complainants, one was a name-dropper of a sort and the other a self-styled expert. The name-dropper reminded me, every time she called to complain about aircraft low flying over her house on the run-in to the East Coast bombing ranges, that she was the wife of the local police constable. I always wanted to say to her, "Thank you, I'll bear that in mind if I'm ever in your area", but of course I didn't. She always complained to me because she thought Scampton was "the nearest proper RAF station" to the bombing ranges. I did send her a short, and formal, follow up letter after every conversation but I did not accept her frequent invitations to visit her to watch the aircraft. Perhaps she was lonely? I might have got more than I had wanted.

The other regular complained about Tornados from RAF Coningsby over-flying his house at 50 feet. It was always 50 feet. "I'm glad I've discovered you, Squadron Leader," he said brightly on his first call to me when I had been at Scampton only a few weeks. "I used to complain to the Community Relations Officer at Coningsby, but he never believed me and he never did anything. Now I'm going to call you every time I have a complaint."

Thank you very much, I thought. I checked with my fellow CRO at Coningsby and he confirmed that this man was, or had been until then, the bane of his life. The Coningsby CRO had regularly checked with the Tornado squadron commanders who confirmed that their aircraft were always at least 250 feet over the ground in the vicinity of the complainant's house. This man would go on at me at great length, sometimes for up to 20 minutes or longer. I believe he, too, was lonely and merely wanted someone to talk to so I occasionally indulged him and we talked about all manner of aviation subjects. He was obviously in his 70s and enjoyed talking about the war years, as do I. Occasionally, when I was particularly busy, I would put the telephone loudspeaker on and carry on with my other work. Every five minutes of so he paused for me to make some comment. He continued to telephone me regularly up until the end of 1995 when Scampton closed. I had intended to let him know that I was moving to Cranwell, but I forgot.

The village of Welton, barely three miles east of Scampton as the Hawk flies, posed a problem which needed careful handling. In 1988, the year before I started, one of the Red Arrows aircraft had crashed into the village, narrowly missing one of the schools which was full of children at the time. Fortunately, and miraculously, no-one was injured. At the time there was the inevitable outcry about aircraft practising at low level over a built up area and there were vociferous calls from some of the residents for low flying over the village to be banned. The fact is that the aircraft that crashed onto the village had been involved in an incident several miles away. The pilot had ejected as late as possible from a largely uncontrollable aircraft and the pilot-less aircraft had landed on the village. A ban on low flying over Welton village would not have prevented that accident.

When an aircraft has a catastrophic failure it rarely descends vertically unless it happens to be in a vertical dive when the catastrophe occurs. Most people in Welton accepted that and were grateful that they had had a lucky escape. As it happens many RAF Scampton personnel had young children attending the schools in Welton and, as far as I am aware, no parent moved their children to other schools in the area. From time to time throughout my first period at Scampton and again from 2000 when it was announced that the Team would be returning, a small number of villagers continued to raise the spectre of the Welton crash and now, in 2018, for all I know they may still be doing it.

At the end of the letters I sent to everyone who complained about Red Arrows activities at either Scampton or Cranwell and who lived reasonably close, I included an invitation to come and meet the Team and see for themselves how we operate. Very rarely did anyone take me up on the invitation. However, one man who lived just one mile from Exeter Airport very quickly did accept.

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