One pilot worried me when he dived from 40,000ft to ground level without warning me - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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One pilot worried me when he dived from 40,000ft to ground level without warning me

I found the Vampire flying at Shawbury really enjoyable. At one stage I was gently accused of pinching other Safety Pilots' trips so that I could get more flying. I learned a lot about controlled descents through cloud (known as QGH), and 'no compass, no gyro' let downs through cloud when the pilot simulated that he was lost above cloud with both aircraft compasses unserviceable -  the trainee controller had to bring us safely to a low level position in sight of the runway. There were ground controlled radar approaches (GCA) where the trainee controller talked the pilot down onto the runway using his radar equipment and there were also 'speechless let downs', when the pilot simulated that the aircraft's radio transmitter was unserviceable. I learned a lot about flight safety and airmanship that would stand me in good stead later in my flying career.


Above: One day at Shawbury as we were taxying in after a routine storie, I noticed two visiting Beverleys parked nose to nose and I snatched this pic from the right head seat of our Vampire T11. 49 Beverleys, all built at Brough (East Yorkshire) were delivered to the RAF between 1952 and 1958; the last ones were withdrawn from service in 1967.
Apart from our base at Shawbury we also used a satellite airfield at nearby High Ercall and, for GCAs only, a tiny hamlet called Sleap where the GCA truck was parked in a corner of a small field and there was no runway at all. One day a new Station Commander is said to have asked where a certain controller was. He was told that he had gone to Sleap with a WRAF (airwoman). The Station Commander misunderstood until someone explained. A new order was immediately issued that in future Sleap was to be pronounced "slayp" - irrespective of how the local population pronounced it.

From time to time the pilots had to fly what was called SCT (staff continuation training) so that they could practice their own flying techniques without interruption from the trainee controllers. Usually they opted to fly on their own since there was no requirement for a safety pilot. However, when I'd been around for several months some of the pilots invited me to go along for the ride and that was always a great pleasure. Some of them started teaching me the basics of flying, including recovery from a stall and simple aerobatics. The Squadron Commander, Squadron Leader Hibbert, flew with me several times as did Wing Commander Atkinson, and the Station Commander Group Captain RK Cassels. The latter also chose me to accompany him on a flying day out to RAF Manby in Lincolnshire.

Above: A scan of my flying logbook for the first half of September 1957.
On 14 September 1957 I flew with Flight Sergeant Williams to RAF Gaydon, near Leamington Spa, in Vampire T11 436 - just 15 minutes flying time each way. We spent the day on static display at the station's Battle of Britain Open Day, talking to the crowds and signing autographs for small boys. That was probably the first day I was ever asked for my autograph! One of the visitors thought that I was the pilot's son. FS Williams was a bit miffed about that. The last flight on this list was my 22nd birthday.

On another SCT sortie recorded in my log book my Polish pilot, Master Pilot Rockminster (that was how he Anglicised his name), took me up to 40,000 feet, then carried out a high speed dive at the T11's limiting speed all the way down to just 100 feet above the ground. He then carried out a simulated ground attack on a field (a farmer's field not an airfield) somewhere near Shawbury. He hadn't told me he was going to do that and for a fleeting few seconds I wondered if he'd either had a seizure of some sort or had become suicidal. As we flew at high speed and very low level over the field, he waggled the controls violently, then pulled 5g to enter a steep climb, performed several aileron rolls on the way up before rolling off the top at about 10,000 feet above the ground. He flicked his flying helmet visor up and grinned at me. "Zat ees vot vee did ven vee attacked airfields in zee Vor," he said in his fractured English. "Did you enjoy zat, Tonee?" I would have preferred him to have told me in advance what he was about to do - but of course I didn't tell him that; instead, I gave him what was probably a sickly smile.

About once a month I was detailed for a trip in one of the Station's Varsity aircraft to keep me in practice with air signaller duties. On those flights I carried out the full duties of an air signaller while a bunch of student navigators down the back tried to navigate us around the country. The sorties were between six and seven hours long and I was responsible for most of the real radio calls and position reporting, thereby keeping up my proficiency in Morse code procedures.


Above: My final flights at RAF Shawbury

On my final day at Shawbury, 18 October 1957, Master Pilot Mullard flew me and most of my RAF and personal kit in Chipmunk WK577 all the way to my new station, RAF Kinloss on the Moray Firth in the north of Scotland. The first leg, from Shawbury to Edinburgh Turnhouse, was flown at about 500 ft above the ground and took 1 hour 40 minutes. After refuelling at Edinburgh, the final spectacular leg around the Scottish mountains and through the glens to Kinloss took 55 minutes. In my five short months at Shawbury I had flown 135 sorties amounting to 160 hours.

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