A near midair collision with another Shackleton and a visiting Victor bomber makes a spectacular arrival - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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A near midair collision with another Shackleton and a visiting Victor bomber makes a spectacular arrival

On 24 August 1958 I flew in Beverley XH117 from Luqa to Abingdon, via a refuelling stop at Orange in the south of France. I then had to make my own way to Kinloss where I spent a fortnight learning about the new secret ASV21 radar and the new Blue Silk navigation equipment which would shortly be installed in all Shackletons. Blue Silk was a version of Green Satin that was already being used in V-force aircraft. All I can remember of Blue Silk was that it was brand-new way of calculating direct measures of an aircraft’s drift speed and direction and thereby allowed instant and accurate calculation of the upper winds.

I flew two long training sorties from Kinloss in Shackleton VP285, which was fully fitted with the new equipment and I remember being very impressed with the much larger and brighter screen of the ASV21. When I flew back to Malta at the end of September, by Beverley again (XH112 this time), I had become the Squadron’s first qualified instructor on ASV21. I had several lesson plans ready, worked out during the course at Kinloss. However, I don’t think I ever got beyond teaching lessons two or three because I had no photographs or diagrams to show my colleagues and the only written data I had was that I had written myself at Kinloss – and that had been retained at Kinloss because it was classified Secret! Everyone knew that 38 Squadron would be the last Shackleton squadron to be upgraded. Still, I’d had an interesting visit to UK and that made a pleasant change from MARSOs.

We sometimes played jokes on a new pilot. Towards the end of a very long sortie, when the auto-pilot was flying the aircraft and all ten crew members were getting bored and soporific, a group of three or four air signallers would decide to rush together from their usual off-watch gathering point near the galley in the centre of the aircraft, towards the Elsan. This unexpected rearward change in the aircraft's centre of gravity usually caused the auto-pilot's safety mechanism to trip out, whereupon the aircraft would suddenly pitch nose up and everyone, especially the new pilot, would suddenly wake up in some alarm. What fun!

"Sorry, Captain," one of the signallers would call out on the intercom in response to the pilot's polite request to know what was going on, "Had to rush to the toilet. Didn't have time to warn you!"

The pilots' revenge for this could be very unpleasant. When a crew member was known to be seated on the Elsan, an unscrupulous pilot seeking retribution would deliberately disengage the auto-pilot and then gently start easing the aircraft's control column backwards and forwards, causing the aircraft to rock on its fore and aft axis - and the fluid in the Elsan to start swilling about under the force of gravity. The pilot knew when to stop because, even above the roar of the four mighty Griffon engines, he could hear the howls of anguish as the foul liquid came into contact with the unfortunate crew member's rear parts.

There was an even more alarming story, current on 38 Squadron when I was there although I cannot vouch for its authenticity, about a crew member who, while sitting on the Elsan, found another way to frighten the pilots - and the rest of the crew as well. The Elsan was mounted at right angles to the direction of flight thus, when sitting on it you had your back to the port side airframe, more or less facing the rear entrance door. Along the wall of the port fuselage, running through metal guides, were the control wires that were directly connected to the rudders and elevators (no power-operated controls in those days). It is alleged that this particular crew member reached behind his head while seated on the Elsan, grabbed one of the control wires at random with both hands and pulled down hard, thereby causing the aircraft to lurch violently. Very nasty!
Above: The flight in which there was almost a mid-air collision at night is the one on 25 July 1958: I marked it afterwards in my logbook with an asterisk.
The first of three near mid-air collisions that I was involved in during my flying career, that's the three I know of, happened in the middle of one night while our crew was flying from Cyprus back to our own base in Malta. We took off on 25 July 1958 at 0145 hrs local time in a Shackleton Mk 2 from Nicosia, then the only operational RAF airfield in Cyprus although the brand-new base at Akrotiri on a peninsula at the south of the island was almost ready to be brought into operational use. On that particular night we were flying at 1,000 feet above the sea - but in cloud. The captain could have decided to climb above the cloud but, for whatever reason, he chose not to.

About halfway through the trip when we were north of Crete, we knew that because the central mountains with peaks up to 8,000 feet showed up clearly on our radar equipment, most of the crew were asleep. I was sitting at the rear of the aircraft by the window at the port beam. There was nothing to do, and nothing to see outside because of the cloud, except the reflection from our port wingtip navigation light. All of a sudden, I heard a tremendous roar - from outside our aircraft.

Now I have to tell you that the inside of a Shackleton in flight was one of the noisiest environments I have ever experienced and so for me to hear any noise from outside the aircraft, especially when I was wearing my flying helmet, meant that the noise must have been exceedingly loud. Almost immediately we flew through what the captain later described as air turbulence. Nothing unusual about that - it happened all the time at low level over the sea - but not usually accompanied by a loud noise. I asked on the intercom if anyone had heard the noise, but no-one had - or, to be more precise, no-one would admit to having heard it. After landing at Luqa, one or two of my fellow signallers admitted to me that they too had heard the noise and felt the associated turbulence. They thought, like me, that it had sounded like another Shackleton.

"Better keep quiet about that, sergeant," said the senior navigator, having overheard our conversation.

So I did. Nevertheless, I checked on the squadron's flying programme and saw that another of our Shackletons had flown from Malta to Nicosia that night and could have been north of Crete at about the same time as we were. A signaller friend on that aircraft told me, a week later, when he'd returned to Malta, that their crew had been flying in cloud at 1,000 feet and they had all heard what they thought was another Shackleton passing close by in the opposite direction and they too had experienced some unexpected air turbulence. Thus, each aircraft had been close enough to hear the other and each had flown through the other's wake turbulence. How close was that to disaster?

For several days in early October 1958 everyone at RAF Luqa had been expecting the arrival of one of the new Victor bombers which were just entering RAF squadron service. We had heard rumours that it would be attempting to break a speed record, but no-one seemed to know for certain any details. There was a great deal of secrecy about the V Force in the 1950s, but secrecy never stopped rumours.

On the morning of 14 October, I was walking from the Sergeants' Mess towards our squadron HQ on the far side of the old 14/32 runway at Luqa when I heard a jet approaching from my left and I just had time to get my camera out of my crew bag and take a photograph. Sadly, it was the last exposure on the roll of film so I was not able to take another photograph about 8-10 seconds later when there was an almighty roar from the Victor's engines, presumably as the pilot increased power trying to avoid undershooting. I watched in amazement as the Victor's braking parachute deployed before the aircraft touched down heavily 100 metres short of the runway, throwing up an enormous cloud of dust and debris in the process. The aircraft disappeared over the hump in the runway and down the hill. An eerie silence descended over the airfield.

Above: XA932 a few seconds before it made its spectacular and noisy arrival at Luqa 14 October 1958
Many decades later, an aircraft enthusiast in Malta helped me to identify the aircraft in this incident: it was XA932, belonging then to No 232 Operational Conversion Unit at RAF Gaydon, where the first Victor crews were in training. The Victor had indeed broken the long-standing record for a flight from overhead Farnborough to overhead Luqa, completing that part of its journey in two hours exactly. Had anyone told me when I took my photograph of it landing at Luqa that I would later fly that very same aircraft as a Captain/1st pilot I would not have believed them. In fact, I flew XA932 on 31 occasions in the early 1970s when I was a captain on 214 Squadron and later OC Victor Standardisation Unit at RAF Marham, but not once into or out of Luqa. (If you are really interested in XA932 click here to go to a page listing all those 31 occasions when I flew it as captain on Victor Tankers.)

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