Flying as safety pilot in Vampires - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Flying as safety pilot in Vampires

We six newly-promoted sergeants were then faced with a wait of several months because there was a blockage in the training system which meant that we couldn't immediately be phased into Operational Conversion Units (OCU). I was sent, in May 1957, to RAF Shawbury in Shropshire. The main station activity was support for the Central Navigation and Control School (CNCS) where they trained, would you believe, navigators and air traffic controllers.

Above: Vampire T11 XD541 being refuelled at a dispersed site during a training exercise.
Below: In this sortie we were flying at around 35,000 feet. My pilot was Flying Offier Anker in the left hand seat of Vampire T11 XD541 on 7 August 1957. The aircraft formating on us was Vampire T11 XD612 but I did not record the name of the pilot of that one.
I joined a small squadron of distinguished airmen who flew the Vampire NF10 and T11 aircraft. The pilots, both officers and Senior NCOs and several of them Polish, were almost exclusively ex-World War 2 pilots and they wore a magnificent display of medals on their blue uniforms, including quite a few DSOs, DFCs and AFCs and the non-commissioned equivalents. Their job was to fly airfield homing and instrument landing procedures for the benefit of the trainee air traffic controllers. Because the pilots had to fly most of the sorties looking at the cockpit instruments irrespective of the actual weather conditions, the right-hand seat in the Vampires was occupied by a Safety Pilot whose role was to keep a sharp look out for conflicting aircraft and warn the pilot accordingly. The safety pilots were very necessary because there was a large variety of aircraft flying around Shropshire from a number of airfields in those days. Most of my flying was in the right hand seat of the Vampire T11 because that had full control for two pilots sitting side-by-side, but I did have a few sorties in the Vampire NF10 night fighter which was configured for one pilot and a navigator.

Above: That's a page from my official flying logbook for two busy weeks in June 1957. The sortie on 14 June created two personal records: the highest and fastest I had flown up to that date. Mach 0.84 was the T11's limiting Mach number, and 42,000ft was about the maximum height a T11 could reach.

All the Safety Pilots had served during WW2: they were SNCO air gunners and wireless operators who had just as many medals as the pilots. One of the flight sergeant air gunners had the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal, a decoration I'd never heard of before. I learned that the CGM was the non-commissioned equivalent of an officer's Distinguished Service Order. Although the gunner in question would never tell me what he had done to earn the medal, one of the others quietly told me that he had a large metal plate in his head to cover up damage caused in combat. (In 1993 the CGM was replaced by the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross CGC which is tri-service, can be awarded to any rank, and is second only to the Victoria Cross for acts of bravery in war.)
Selfies were not a 21st Century invention! This is one from 1957 as I lounged on my bed in the Sergeants' Mess at RAF Shawbury.

Into this exalted group of flyers I arrived, a fresh-faced 21-year old sergeant signaller with a grand total of 75 hours in his flying log book. It was daunting, but I was made very welcome. Not surprisingly, there was no-one else in the Sergeants' Mess within 20 years of my age. The non-aircrew warrant officers and SNCOs seemed offended that anyone so young could be a member of their Mess, while the aircrew types tended to keep a fatherly eye on me. It was the first time I learned that during the war and for a few years afterwards, aircrew SNCOs had their own messes so that they didn't have to mix socially with non-aircrew.
Here is another view of my room from the same roll of film. The Amateur Photographer magazine is in the foreground with my Parker 51 fountain pen, the Daily Telegraph is lurking between the portable radio and my Grundig TK5 tape recorder and associated tapes. All the electrical kit was connected to a single 5 Amp round pin plug on the wall. So unsafe!!

There were some Mess conventions I had to learn. When the Station Warrant Officer (SWO) came into a room, you stood up until he invited you to sit down again. In the evenings you couldn't order a drink in the Sergeants' Mess Bar until the SWO, who lived in the Mess and also happened to be the senior warrant officer, had entered and bought his first drink - or, more likely, someone had bought it for him.

Following the Station's formal Birthday Parade in early June on the occasion of the Queen's Official Birthday, all members of the Sergeants Mess assembled at noon in the Bar dressed formally in No 1 Home Dress to toast Her Majesty. As the youngest member, it fell to me to propose the Loyal Toast and they made me stand to attention, wobbling on top of a bar stool, clutching a pint of beer, to do it - which seemed rather incongruous, not to say dangerous. I think that was the day when I consumed alcohol for the very first time - although I didn't mention that to the assembled Mess members. At least I didn't have to pay for the pint.

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