I am sent to the Aircrew Selection Centre at Hornchurch - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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I am sent to the Aircrew Selection Centre at Hornchurch

The booklet, called A Future in it, claimed to tell the story of '…the men and women who carry on the traditions of The Few.' It really was very interesting. There were photographs of all the new aircraft then coming into active service, all of which I either piloted or flew in later in my career. "The RAF does not offer you easy living but you will live your life to the full", it promised. The recruiting officer, a flight lieutenant with lots of medals, quickly decided that I was both officer and pilot material. That surprised me not a little because they were careers that had never occurred to me.

Whilst preparing this page in 2015, I watched a TV documentary about the exciting aviation developments that had taken place since the end of the war: the introduction of jet engines, then jet fighters and eventually jet bombers. I cannot claim that I was particularly excited by any of those events at the time because I was still mentally, if not entirely realistically, craving for a career as a professional musician following my inevitable National Service. I had easily persuaded myself that I had nothing to lose by going to the Aircrew Selection Centre at RAF Hornchurch in Essex to enjoy a few days in the London area at the RAF's expense. I had never been within a hundred miles of London and so I accepted the Recruiting Officer's offer with alacrity. On the face of it, I had the necessary qualifications.
I had not told my parents that I had been to the Leeds recruiting office, so it came as a great surprise to them when a letter, on blue paper in an RAF blue envelope, arrived a few days later inviting me to attend the Aircrew Selection Centre.

On Tuesday 14 July at 8.30am I arrived at the Recruiting Office in Leeds again, this time to be briefed about my visit to RAF Hornchurch. In fact, I did not get a briefing about what to expect, but one on how to get there. A clerk simply issued me with a railway warrant and told me to catch the 9.50am LNER Kings Cross train from nearby Leeds City Station. About half an hour later I was able to look out of the carriage window on the right hand side of the train as we passed over the 99 Arches and see our former house at the end of Cotton Street where we had lived throughout the war. From Kings Cross I travelled by London Underground to Elm Park and there met up with some other candidates and in due course we were taken to RAF Hornchurch in an RAF bus.

It was only the second time in my life that I had spent nights away from home and I was totally unprepared for the entire selection procedure. Many of the boys in my group of about 50 had been in either the Combined Cadet Force or the Air Training Corps at private schools and grammar schools so they had been well briefed on what to expect. In my case the interviews and group activities were a nightmare. I displayed my total ignorance of the RAF and anything to do with the Queen's Commission and aviation and that, of course, was largely my own fault. I should have done some advance preparation, but I had expected the staff at the Aircrew Selection Centre to tell me what it was like to be an officer and a pilot in the RAF and then, having given me time to think the matter over, I could have decided whether or not to accept their kind offer.

My strange Northern accent must have sounded very common to the Centre's officers - and to my fellows. Apart from me, it seemed most of the lads spoke what we used to call BBC English. Although I didn't know it then, my accent was simply not acceptable in 1953 for commissioned service in the RAF - but it did amuse some of my fellow candidates. They had possibly never heard a Northern accent before - unless they had listened to Wilfred Pickles reading the BBC 9pm news on the wireless during the War in a broad Yorkshire accent with his famous "Gud neet!" valediction.

I didn't take my diary with me to the Aircrew Selection Centre so I have relied on my memory and a few notes I made as soon as I got home, to describe what happened during the selection procedure. After checking in at Hornchurch we were told that we were free to do what we liked for the rest of the day. I latched on to Tony Howard, a grammar school boy from Chard in Somerset. Like me, he had never been to London before and, like me, he had a regional accent, a West Country one. We went on the Tube to the West End. We obviously didn't have much money to spend because I had to lend him a £1 note and, if my memory serves me aright, that was to pay for the train ticket.

The following evening, after a long tiring day carrying out a range of aptitude tests, my notes stated: "The same lad and I visited Southend on Wednesday night. We went out on the very long pier, but it is not a very exciting place. The train stopped at every station and its speed was very exasperating." On Thursday we had medical inspections and individual interviews. The one-to-one interviews were disastrous because it was obvious to the questioners that I knew absolutely nothing about the RAF. There were long embarrassing silences while I tried to think of something useful to say. It was beginning to get rather tedious. Then there was a series of Orderly Rooms, disciplinary procedures, where each of us had to take it in turn to act the parts of prisoner, escort, and commanding officer. Another disaster for me when it was my turn to be the officer because I had not the least idea of RAF law. The CCF and ATC cadets had been well briefed in those matters and did well. In the evening I went into central London on my own. I walked all the way from Liverpool Street station, through the West End to Hyde Park, had a look around and returned to Hornchurch. No money left!

According to my contemporaneous notes, Friday was the most interesting day. We had several outdoor obstacle exercises and several indoor initiative tests. The manual dexterity tests, the Morse aptitude test, and the extensive medical examinations, were all fine but the teamwork exercises in a hangar were humiliating, especially when it was my turn to lead. "We're more concerned with the way you set about the task you're given than whether you actually succeed", said the supervising officer briefing us, presumably trying to be helpful. My attempt to get a team of five across a simulated electrified fence using only the poles and ropes provided, resulted in all six of us being electrocuted. I fared rather better when I was not in charge and had to do what the leader told me to do. I don't think any of the 'Leaders' managed to complete the exercise successfully, but it was quite good fun trying.

I couldn't be bothered leaving the camp that last evening, so I went to the station cinema instead. There was a film about Hitler and also a Frankie Laine musical - I came out halfway through that!  On Saturday it was all over by mid-morning. I returned home to Yorkshire vowing that I would never again attend a job interview without extensive research and preparation. I seem to recall that I was very non-committal when answering my parents' questions.

By first post Monday morning I got a Postal Order for £2 16s 3d from the RAF, representing five day's pay! About 10 days later, I received a nice handwritten thank-you letter from Tony Howard enclosing a £1 note.

The inevitable rejection letter from Hornchurch arrived a few days later. It was three paragraphs long, mainly patronising waffle, but the final sentence read as follows: "Do not be disheartened that we have rejected you; you did very well but the standard now required is extremely high." Decades before word processors and templates with boilerplate text, this was clearly a standard rejection letter that had merely been topped and tailed. I still have the original RAF letter and I still think it very condescending. These days it reminds me of doddery Old Mr Grace in the 1970 TV series Are You Being Served? who regularly croaked to his assembled staff, "You've all done very well", when they had, in fact, done anything but very well.

Why hadn't the recruiting officer in Leeds briefed me on what to expect, I thought, angrily. In retrospect, I have always suspected that he had a quota to fill and I was the best prospect he had come across that week or that month. On the other hand, I did eventually become not only a pilot, but a flying instructor, flying examiner and senior officer, so perhaps he had recognised some latent talent.

Nearly 40 years later, I had access to my own RAF personal file. Such access was not authorised; individuals were not supposed to read their own personal files. However, someone who shall remain nameless put my bulging file in front of me when I was working with the Red Arrows at Scampton in 1990. She said I might like to look through it - and then left me alone in her office for half an hour. The very first enclosure on the file, by then tattered at the edges and browning with age rather like the 1953 recruiting pamphlet shown in the image above, was the internal report of my 1953 visit to Hornchurch. It was by no means as bad as I had always imagined it to be. There were some quite complimentary remarks about my personal qualities, my manual dexterity, and my contributions to the leadership exercises. The final sentence, however, was the killer: referring to my Northern accent, it concluded: "Unlikely ever to become fit for commissioned service."

A follow up letter came from the Leeds recruiting office a few days later inviting me back for a further interview to discuss alternative opportunities. I went, fully intending to give the officer a piece of my mind for deceiving me about my prospects and for not briefing me on what to expect. Instead I signed on for four years as a wireless mechanic, a subject that I did know something about. The recruiting officer seemed quite relieved about that. Twenty days later I was in and 17,373 days would pass before I took off my uniform for the final time.

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