Advanced training and graduation - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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Advanced training and graduation


We started flying at Swanton Morley on 11 January 1957. First there were six sorties in the venerable Anson. On those sorties three student signallers flew together and shared the operating time. A staff instructor flew up front alongside the pilot, handing out tasks and making notes as the trip progressed. Once the Anson sorties had been completed satisfactorily, we graduated to the Percival Prentice: just one student signaller and one pilot. This was much more exciting, especially at the end of the sortie when there was often a little time remaining for the pilot to show off his aerobatics on the way back to Swanton Morley.

There were a number of simulated air-to-ground stations in use for the early sorties - they were actually on the ground at Swanton Morley and manned by instructors. On later sorties we had to make contact with real air traffic control stations manned by professional controllers. The RAF had, for example, a dozen or more HFDF (high frequency direction finding) stations scattered around the UK from St Mawgan in Cornwall to Kinloss in the north of Scotland. They all operated on the same frequency, 5695.5kHz by day and 3095kHz by night. Once per sortie we were required to request bearings from at least two of those DF stations using a procedural system which included sending two 10-seconds-long dashes so that the ground stations had time to swing their direction finding equipment in our direction. Two bearings, when plotted, would give a reasonable fix - providing the ground stations we chose were suitably located to provide decent triangulation. Sometimes as many as three different stations would offer us a bearing and we had to log all the ones that replied to our initial call whether we needed them or not. Hopefully all the bearings, when plotted, crossed at or near the same point on the ground.
The RAF's overseas DF stations also operated for real on those same two frequencies and occasionally one or more of those would chip in with a bearing as well. I logged bearings from both Gibraltar and Singapore on one sortie - no use for navigation purposes but jolly good for bragging rights in the crew room afterwards. I was very glad those DF stations were available when, a few years later, I was the signaller on a Hastings aircraft heading for a real emergency landing in the middle of a war in North Africa with two of our four engines shut down. (That story is here.)

While preparing this page from my official logbook, I noticed for the first time that I flew with a Flight Lieutenant Shannon on 28 February 1957. However, I have recently (2016) been able to confirm that this pilot was no relation to Dave Shannon DSO DFC of Dam Busters fame. None of the pilots at Shawbury ever spoke openly about their WW2 exploits in my hearing. Sadly, I did not record the proper registration mark of the Ansons and Prentices, only the local name used at Swanton Morley.

Decent transmission and reception on HF required long aerials - much longer than could be fixed to an Anson or Prentice aircraft airframe. Instead, the Ansons and Prentices each had a very long trailing aerial (antenna) that was under the control of the signaller. Before the HF transmitter could be used, the trailing aerial had to be wound out manually to its maximum length. The aerial control in both the Anson and Prentice was a handle down by the signaller's left hand. We were warned that if we tried to do it the easy way, by releasing the ratchet and allowing the wire to deploy freely in the aircraft slipstream, it was almost certain that the aerial would run out rapidly to its full length, snapping the retaining mechanism in the process. If that happened, the cable would flutter unhindered to the ground, possibly landing on roads, railways, houses, people, or even high tension electricity pylons and cables. The very least that would happen to the offending signaller was that he would have to pay for a new aerial.

Winding-in the trailing aerial was a very tiring, arm-aching business - and dangerous if the Prentice pilot started performing aerobatics before the aerial was fully wound in. There were stories, probably apocryphal, about a pilot who nearly caught up with the trailing end of his own long wire aerial whilst performing a very tight loop-the-loop without warning his signaller. Naturally, if any student forgot to wind in the trailing aerial before landing both he and the pilot would have been in big trouble.

There was no graduation parade when AS39 course because only half a dozen of us got that far and there were barely a couple of dozen student signallers remaining in total at the school. Sporting our brand-new sergeant stripes, we gathered in a sitting room in the Sergeants' Mess and someone, I cannot remember who, handed out our air signaller 'S' brevets which we later stitched onto our uniforms ourselves. I had finished first in order of merit but the only privilege that gave me was that my brevet was presented first. I was also graded as Air Signaller(A) by virtue of my earlier radio and radar training in the RAF. That (A) suffix not only gave me extra pay but was to have an important consequence on my career a few years later.

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