A Lone Ranger to North America - my first Atlantic crossing - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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A Lone Ranger to North America - my first Atlantic crossing

One day in July 1962, the new 18 Squadron Commander, Wing Commander (later air commodore) Nic Bristow, announced that he had asked Bomber Command HQ to give the squadron a formal war role. Surprise changed to dismay when he told us that Command had agreed. From then on 18 Squadron became part of what was known as the 'Main Force' and we had to react to all Bomber Command's frequent alert and readiness exercises. When personnel of 101 Squadron got to hear of this, which took at least half a day because it was supposed to be top secret and on a strict need-to-know basis, they gloated because we now had to react to the same alerts that they did.

That same month, our crew was allocated a Western Ranger training sortie to Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. Lone Ranger was the generic name for any overseas flight operated by a single crew, but Lone Rangers to the USA were usually known as Western Rangers. The purpose of Lone Rangers was to accustom V Force crews to operating entirely on their own - the sort of thing that might have been needed at dispersed and emergency airfields either during what was usually referred to as increased tension or in the case of real war (had we survived the Soviet's initial strike). Landings and night stops on Lone Rangers were often at civilian airports and foreign air force bases.

Lone Rangers were highly prized because they were usually jolly good fun and always provided welcome relief from the tedium of routine V Force duties. A specialist crew chief always travelled in the aircraft in addition to the regular five crew members. To accommodate the crew chief, a 6th seat was temporarily installed in the rear cabin. The crew chief's job was to supervise and advise the aircrew when they refuelled and serviced the aircraft away from home base. Almost all Western Rangers were allocated to the main force V Bomber squadrons and in return USAF B-52 aircraft visited RAF bomber bases. Our Western Ranger was the only one during my time with 18 Squadron and it had an extra bonus: on the way home from Offutt we were to take part in an air display at St Hubert, then the international airport for Montreal.

On the first day, 23 July, we first made a 55-minute flight in Valiant WP216 from Finningley to RAF Aldergrove in Northern Ireland where, due to forecast adverse head winds, we needed to refuel before the Atlantic crossing. We carried out our own refuelling, had another breakfast, then flew on - another 4 hrs 50 mins to Goose Bay in Labrador.

Communications over the North Atlantic in the 1960s were always tricky. Once aircraft were out of range of the UK stations in Scotland and Northern Ireland there would be no further voice communication with any station until we approached the Canadian coast. The navigator had to rely on dead reckoning supplemented by the occasional sun shot (or star shots on night flights) using a sextant which could be poked through a hole in the cabin roof. (Thinking back after more than 50 years, I realise there must have been a method of getting the sextant through the roof without depressurising the cabin.)

There was a small group of civilian-operated Ocean Weather Ships, established primarily for meteorological observations and, when called upon, for aiding any air or sea search and rescue operations. The ships were stationed roughly every 10 degrees longitude across the north Atlantic. They transmitted continuously a high power, longwave, non-directional radio beacon (NDB). The weather ships also maintained a 24/7 listening watch on 500kHz (600 metres longwave), which was then the maritime international emergency frequency. Theoretically the weather ships were anchored at a known fixed point so that other ships and aircraft could take their own bearings to assist with navigation. When sea conditions required one of the weather ships to move away from its designated position, the NDB would be programmed to transmit a simple code which permitted navigators to correct any bearings taken on the ship. The Ocean Weather Ships continued their invaluable work until the mid-1970s when more modern technology took over. (There is a comprehensive history of the Ocean Weather Ships here - opens in a new window.)

The AEO came into his own on Atlantic crossings. We were required to send a position report by Morse every 30 minutes to the RAF Flight Watch system; those messages told ATC and Bomber Command that the flight was going as pre-planned. AEOs also maintained a continuous listening watch on VHF and HF emergency frequencies. RAF crews were discouraged from asking a weather ship to relay routine position reports to ATC agencies on either side of the Atlantic, unless all other methods had failed, because to do so distracted the ships' operators from their primary tasks.

On our crossing from Aldergrove to Goose Bay, when we were still over 400 miles from the Canadian coast and well outside VHF range of any known ground station, a very loud American, possibly Canadian, voice came up on the VHF emergency frequency, 121.5 mHz, which startled my crew. "Unidentified aircraft at . .", the voice then gave a position not all that far from where our navigator thought we were, " . . report your identity immediately". Hurriedly our navigator re-checked our position and told the captain that the position given was definitely not us. No aircraft replied to the urgent message; it was as though the operator at the then highly secret NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) station was giving navigators time to check their own positions. After about 30 seconds the message was repeated, even more insistently. Then we heard a very faint transmission from an aircraft that I knew, from its callsign, was an RAF Vulcan bomber: "I think that might be us. Very sorry but we're unsure of our position."

We had a little chuckle about that amongst our crew and made a few unrepeatable observations about Vulcan crews. We knew that NORAD kept a permanent watch on all air traffic over the North Sea looking for Soviet missiles and nuclear bombers, but it was kind of reassuring to have a demonstration of their capability.

The following day, after a pleasant night at RAF Goose Bay, we flew on to Offutt Air Force Base conducting some ECM trials on the way and enjoying the fabulous views from 40,000ft of the Great Lakes. I had learned of the Great Lakes at my junior school, but I had never appreciated how vast those lakes are. After two enjoyable days in and around Omaha, including the obligatory tour of Strategic Air Command HQ and shopping visits to the Base Exchange, we flew north to Montreal St Hubert carrying out ECM training exercises with the USAF and RCAF en route. The following day, 27 July, our captain, co-pilot, navigator and second signaller flew the Valiant on the air display. I stayed on the dispersal with the crew chief to watch, to answer the crowd's questions, to pose for photographs, and to sign countless autographs. I think it may have been the first time a Valiant had been seen on the ground at Montreal.

Flight Lieutenant Sid Aldridge, our captain, put on an excellent and very noisy display but then he had to remain airborne, orbiting several miles away from the airport, until all the other flying displays had ended. After landing he was instructed by Air Traffic Control to shut down on the runway because the taxiways were being used as roads for the thousands of cars exiting the airfield. All six of us then assisted with the refuelling and after-flight servicing of the Valiant. Finally, the Crew Chief made the aircraft safe and locked it securely. There being no further scheduled airport movements that day we left the Valiant on the runway, on instructions from ATC, pointing in the direction we would use for take-off early the next day. We all then repaired to our hotel and spent quite a lot of money visiting a selection of exotic night clubs. Job done.

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