My very first press relations appontment - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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My very first press relations appontment

I have no photographs of Valiants during my tours in the V Force because photography was prohibited on airfields for 'security reasons'.

There were always dozens of secondary jobs that needed to be done on RAF stations and squadrons; these were allocated mostly to junior officers. Station and squadron commanders frequently handed them out without any regard for an individual's particular interests or skills. Indeed, it was deemed good for your career to be given one of the less popular jobs that had no appeal and for which you had no aptitude. One's performance in carrying out secondary duties was always assessed on annual confidential reports and so those officers who wished to get on in the Service usually tried their best.

A few months after arriving at Finningley, I was summoned to the Station Commander's office. He told me that he was appointing me as the Station's Press Liaison Officer. I was pleased with the appointment although a bit surprised that there was such a post because those were the days when the Cold War was at its most icy and station commanders at their most xenophobic.

"Your main job, Cunnane, will be to keep me and my station out of the press unless I tell you otherwise," said the Station Commander sternly by way of a briefing. "I don't want you bringing any reporters or photographers onto my station - is that clear?" It was. I never did find out whether I was given the job because he thought I might have a talent for working with the press, radio and TV (we didn't use the word 'media' in the 1960s) or simply because mine was the first name that came to his mind.

Above: There was actually very little flying on 18 Squadron. 'MDA Tour' (Master Diversion Airfield - selected airfields that were available 24/7 irrespective of any local flying) was a tour around the UK doing practice approaches at airfields away from base. 'Cross-country' was simply a navigation exercise. 'AEO Training' was a euphemism for using our ECM equipments against the UK air defence radar systems and those sorties were classified at the time. Whenever I could, I cadged trips in the station Chipmunk just for pleasure.

One weekend in May 1961 when I was driving back to Finningley from a friend's wedding in Scotland, I stopped late in the evening to pick up a couple of hitchhikers on the southern outskirts of Glasgow. Before they got in my car the young man said that he and his girlfriend were returning to London and asked if I could give them a lift to Preston, the first big place southbound on the A6. It was obvious from their age, demeanour, and dishevelled appearance that they had been at the well-publicised CND demonstration at Holy Loch (which, to be honest, was why I had stopped to pick them up). I told them I could do much better than that: I could give them a lift as far as Doncaster. Naturally, they were delighted. They were exhausted and slept in the back seat of my car for the next few hours.

I pulled into an all-night transport cafe on the A66, the usual trans-Pennine route for long-distance travel between the A6 and the A1 in those pre-motorway days. I bought them a hot breakfast, because they had no money left, and after that, as I drove on southwards, they were wide awake and regaled me with their adventures at Holy Loch. They were very dedicated to the campaign for nuclear disarmament and questioned me on whether I agreed or not; I tried to be non-committal. When the girl asked me why I was going to Doncaster in the middle of the night, I told the truth: that I had been at a friend's wedding in Greenock and was returning home. I dropped them off at about 6am by Doncaster racecourse. The A1 trunk road still went right through the centre of Doncaster in 1961 and the racecourse was a popular pick-up point for southbound hitchhikers. As they got out of the car, I said with a grin, "By the way. You might like to know that I'm in the RAF. I fly in the V Force. It's been nice to get your point of view on the UK nuclear deterrent, but I happen to think you're completely misguided." I drove off quickly before they could respond!

The Station Commander occasionally invited politicians and VIPs to his station and then I would help with escorting them - but, for security reasons, I could not invite the local 'media'. Such visits sometimes, dependent upon the importance of the visitors, included a visit to the ORP (Operational Readiness Platform), a large concrete area adjacent to the beginning of the south-westerly runway where aircraft could be parked without impeding other aircraft wishing to take off or land. For those pre-planned visits to the ORP, four of the resident No 101 Squadron Vulcans would be parked with their crews waiting in the adjacent hut at what was known as 'immediate readiness'. The Station Commander would invite the senior visitor to press the 'scramble' button and then watch as the crews dashed out of the hut, boarded their aircraft and started their engines. All four engines could be started simultaneously on Vulcans. The Vulcans then roared down the runway in quick succession. For these demonstrations the Vulcans had light fuel loads and no weapons in the bomb bay, so the take offs were always awe-inspiring however often you saw them. Being near to any Vulcan on full power was a shattering experience; being close to four Vulcans on full power was incredibly painful on unprotected ears. (Ear defenders were not in general use in those days.)

On those practise scrambles, the four Vulcans usually climbed steeply away, often quickly disappearing from sight into the overcast. The sound of 16 Olympus jet engines on full power could be heard for a considerable time after the aircraft had disappeared from view. Apart from being an exciting spectacle, which was eventually incorporated into some public air shows, the practice scrambles were presumably designed to reassure the visitors and the British public at large that they were safe from the 'Red' hoards and at the same time let the Soviets know that the RAF was ready and waiting.

One practice scramble that I watched with a VIP party was different from all the others. The first two aircraft turned sharply to the left and right almost as soon as their wheels were off the ground; the third aircraft stayed very low and accelerated away at tree-top height towards nearby Bawtry. The fourth aircraft stayed low whilst accelerating then pulled up steeply, well before the end of the runway, into a half loop and rolled off the top at about 5,000 feet above the airfield before heading off to the north east.

I cannot recall that I was able to do anything really productive as Press Liaison Officer until the date of the first RAF Finningley Battle of Britain Open Day loomed. Once again, I was summoned to the Station Commander. "I want you to go, in person, to every newspaper office within 40 miles of Finningley and get the editors to print stories about our At Home Day," said the group captain. "I want it to be the biggest and best air show of all time." That was a complete change of attitude towards PR but who was I to question the ways of Group Captain Heward?

By searching the local telephone directories, I discovered that most towns and villages around Doncaster had a newspaper office where advertisers could hand in their small ads and where readers could order copies of pictures from recent editions. I had to use my own car and I didn't get paid motor mileage allowance. Although I met no news editors, I was able to hand over my carefully crafted press release, which I had typed myself onto a stencil and duplicated on a Roneo machine. Most, if not all, of the newspapers printed a version of my story but that was not because my release was riveting but because any news at all about the RAF was news. There were, of course, no local radio or TV stations in those days.

I was detailed by the Station Commander as the host officer for the Mayor of Doncaster at the Open Day on 16 September 1961 which meant that I spent most of the afternoon in the VIP tent introducing the mayor to the many RAF senior officers. It also precluded me from meeting the press reporters and doing any PR. My reward was a flying trip to Gibraltar during which, for the first and only time in my flying career, I had to send out a distress message.

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