Black Velvet party and graduation - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Black Velvet party and graduation

A few days before our graduation I was summoned unexpectedly from a lecture by a messenger who announced that the Squadron Commander wished to speak to me immediately in his office. In some trepidation, I put my hat on, went along the corridor, knocked on his door and entered. I saluted and he invited me to sit down.

"Tell me, Cunnane, now your course is all but over, how do you think you've done?" he asked, staring at me intently.

I thought that a rather ominous question. How was I supposed to answer? After thinking for a few seconds, I answered truthfully: "I think I've done all right, sir".

He suddenly flung a small booklet towards me. I caught it and saw that it was labelled 'Orders for the Parade Commander'. I knew at that moment that my worries about successfully completing the course were unfounded because the honour of being Parade Commander on the Graduation Parade was the reward for winning the Sword of Merit for being the best all-round cadet on the entry. I was truly astonished to have been selected especially as I had genuinely been half-expecting the Squadron Commander to tell me that I was either being re-coursed or suspended. All of us had, in the preceding days, been having bets on who might be selected for the Sword of Merit and, although my name had been mooted by some, I was by no means the favourite. When I returned to the classroom a few minutes later it was obvious that the Instructor had told the rest of the course why I had been summarily called out.

Above: I've often wondered who or what the College Warrant Officer was watching from the corner of his eyes!
Thereafter the days passed swiftly. A few days before we started practising our Graduation Parade, the squadron commander told me that it was customary for the Sword of Merit cadet to pay for the Guinness and Champagne, equal parts of which make up the exotic drink known as Black Velvet that formed the basis of the traditional pre-graduation party. I was a bit alarmed about that because I had never heard of Black Velvet and I had no idea how much it would set me back. I learned that the cost would not be excessive: a few bottles of cheapo Champagne that I would pay for and the Students' Mess fund would pay for the Guinness.
The Reviewing Officer on our Graduation Parade was Sir Edward Chilton, AOC-in-C Coastal Command, the same air marshal who had been AOC Malta during my time on 38 Squadron and who had, in that capacity, recommended me for a commission. For the parade, we wore our brand-new officer uniforms for the very first time. The trickiest bit for me was taking the sword with my gloved hand from the Air Marshal who held it out in a horizontal position; from there going straight into the salute was easy by comparison. Thankfully, the early morning rain had stopped, the parade went well - and I didn't forget any of my lines, nor did I give any marching orders on the wrong foot. As soon as the parade and subsequent Church Dedication Service were over, off from my uniform came the air signaller S brevet, that had temporarily been held on by Velcro for the parade, and on went the AE one.

In my first six years in the RAF I had held every rank up to and including sergeant and had been an Air Signaller(A) because of my earlier service as a wireless fitter. I was now, not a commissioned Air Signaller but an Air Electronics Officer (AEO) in the rank of substantive Pilot Officer. The pay of a pilot officer in 1960 did not amount to very much - certainly not enough to live on as an officer. The RAF had a rule, however, that whatever airman pay you had been receiving, you could not be paid less on commissioning, which was just as well. For the next year or so I continued to be paid as a sergeant, complete with the flying pay supplement, until my officer's salary eventually exceeded my final salary as a sergeant.

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