Fire in the air! - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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Fire in the air!

There were some interesting security matters that I remember from my time on 18 Squadron. Supposedly to prevent Soviet snoopers learning of the RAF's strike aircraft performance, no RAF aircraft was permitted to broadcast its precise altitude if it was above 45,000 ft; it had to be reported on the radio as "above Flight Level 450." On one occasion I was amused to hear a very high flying Vulcan aircraft call to the controlling agency, "Request permission to descend from above flight level 450 to above flight level 450." Permission was granted. We were also not permitted to report our actual aircraft type, so V Bombers referred to themselves on the radio as a "four-jet" which, in the early 1960s, narrowed it down to Valiant, Vulcan , Victor or Comet.

On another very busy air defence exercise I heard an exercise controller asking an aircraft in flight what his type was and the pilot replied, "Twin jet." That was not sufficient for the controller because both Canberras and Lightnings were twin jets. The pilot then replied that he was a "vertical twin jet" and thereafter Lightning pilots enjoyed referring to their aircraft in that fashion. Bit of a give-away, really, since the Lightning was the only RAF aircraft with two engines mounted one above the other. There must have been at least one Canberra pilot who reported that he was flying a "horizontal twin jet", but I never heard it.

In my days on 18 Squadron some aircraft captains allowed their crew members to smoke whilst airborne. That seems an astonishing thing especially when you consider that the Valiant crew compartment was very small, pressurised, and contained copious quantities of flammable material, not least the 100% oxygen coming through the crew’s oxygen masks. On one particular day our co-pilot was badly hung-over from a party he'd attended the previous night in the Officers' Mess at RAF Akrotiri and he’d even arrived late for the pre-flight briefing for the flight home to UK. The captain and the rest of us were not happy. There was no other co-pilot at Akrotiri to take his place and to have delayed our flight to let him sober up would have required lots of awkward explanations to HQ Bomber Command so the captain elected to continue as scheduled and deal with the co-pilot at a later time and in his own way.

Once we had reached our cruising altitude, the co-pilot told the captain that he badly needed a smoke. That particular captain never smoked in the air but he asked if any of us objected. We all said we had no objection to the co-pilot smoking if he really needed it and couldn't wait four hours until we landed at Finningley. After a few minutes there was a muffled cry from the co-pilot. He'd dropped his cigarette and he could see it resting on the visual bomb-aimer’s window on the cabin floor far beneath his ejection seat. Someone had to go and get it. Reluctantly, I volunteered. To do that I had to remove my parachute harness before leaving my seat because space for moving around in the cabin was extremely limited. I peered down into the visual bomb-aimer’s position located several feet beneath the pilots' ejection seats. To my horror I saw that the cigarette, well alight by then, was resting on a Perspex tube that fed de-icing fluid to the inside of the bomb-aimer’s window and it was out of my reach.

I reported the situation to the captain. He ordered me to put the safety pin into the gun of the co-pilot’s ejection seat, thereby immobilising it. It was hazardous to get into and out of the ejection seat while the gun was live and, for obvious reasons, an ejection seat was never immobilised in flight. When I had made the co-pilot's ejection seat safe, the captain ordered me to get back into my seat and put my parachute harness back on. The captain then uttered the immortal words etched into my memory: “OK, Co-pilot, you dropped the damned thing: you go and retrieve it - and be quick about it.”

The hapless co-pilot muttered something to the effect that it would be dangerous to get out of his ejection seat in flight; the navigator replied that it would be a darn sight more dangerous if the cigarette burned through the Perspex pipe and caused an explosion. The co-pilot did as he was told and the danger was averted. He returned to his seat, chastened and humiliated. The captain later had the job when we reached Finningley of explaining to the ground crew why there was a lengthy scorch mark on the Perspex tube adjacent to the bomb-aimer’s panel. Had the aircraft exploded in flight over the Mediterranean it would have been just another unexplained accident involving a V Force aircraft.

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