Our aircraft was electrically quite dead - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Our aircraft was electrically quite dead

I need to get a little bit technical to explain the next part of this story, so please don't skip this paragraph. The Vickers Valiant was often referred to as the 'Electric Bomber' because the undercarriage, flaps, air brakes, flying controls and indeed most services operated in normal aircraft by hydraulic power, were all operated in the Valiant by DC (direct current) electric motors. To provide this source of electrical power, a powerful direct current generator was mounted on each of the four jet engines. Those generators produced 112 volts DC to operate the major systems and also to keep fully charged a bank of four 24v batteries that, connected in series, provided the 112v DC bus bar with emergency power when the generators were off line. (The extra 16 volts ensured that the 112v generators charged the 96v battery and not the other way round). That 96 volt battery plus a separate high capacity 24v battery were stacked on a large shelf at the forward end of the huge bomb bay. A series of rotary converters and 3-phase inverters running from the aircraft's main DC bus bar provided DC and AC low voltage supplies for other services, such as aircraft instruments and the specialist ECM equipment.

The following morning, we returned to the airport very early; until we took off, the runway couldn't be used for scheduled airport movements. That's when the trouble started. The Crew Chief, as usual, was the first to board the aircraft. His first action would be to use the aircraft's internal batteries to open the bomb door so that we could stow our luggage at the rear of the vast bomb bay. (On 18 Squadron Valiants only one of the two bomb doors could move; the other was permanently locked closed because some ECM antennae were mounted along its outside length.) The Chief switched on the main 24 volt battery - but nothing happened. The voltage was zero. He climbed out of the aircraft and said to me, nonchalantly, "Go switch the 24 volts on, Tony." Thinking that he'd been in the cockpit doing something else and had forgotten to switch the batteries on, I boarded and operated the 24 volt battery switch. Nothing happened.

The six of us then gathered outside on the tarmac where a sizeable crowd of spectators was gathering to watch our take-off. Sid, our captain, was beginning to look very worried. This was critical. We needed the 24 volt battery on line in order to operate the contactor that would bring the 96 volt battery on line - and both batteries had to be on line to turn over the aircraft engines. None of us had ever experienced this problem before, nor had we even practised such an eventuality in the flight simulator. The emergency drills in the aircraft manual assumed that because a serviceable 24 volt battery supply was absolutely critical to the operation of the aircraft, one would always be available.

After a few minutes, as we were trying to work out what to do next, an airport vehicle with flashing lights appeared at high speed. A flustered air traffic controller came over to us.  "Will you be long?", he asked. "We've scheduled flights waiting to depart and you're blocking the runway."

The captain explained our predicament and, when offered the use of the airport's mobile power supplies, told him we couldn't use those because we needed our own internal 24v battery on line before we could do anything at all.

"No problem," said an airport engineer who had just arrived on the scene. "We have plenty of 24 volt batteries. I'll get some sent across right away and you can use one to replace your own."

"That won't help," I said, thinking it was time I made a contribution. "The 24 volt batteries are in the bomb bay and we can't open the bomb bay door without power from the internal battery."

"There must be another way to get at the batteries," said the airport engineer, disbelievingly.

"Afraid not," said our crew chief gloomily.

Between us, we tried to explain the Electric Bomber's peculiar system. The ever-growing crowd of onlookers, sensing a drama, drew closer.

Suddenly the crew chief made a suggestion. "I could go up into the organ loft. There's an access panel in there that leads into the forward end of the bomb bay. It's never used normally but I reckon I could remove the panel and climb down into the bomb bay. Once I get in there, you can pass long cables through to me from an external 24 volt battery and I'll clamp them on to our own dead battery." Without being asked, the airport engineer drove off in a great rush to find some batteries and some long connecting cables.

The 'organ loft' was a cramped, attic-like space above the nose undercarriage compartment. It housed most of the electrical components the Valiant's systems used and also many of the specialist ECM equipment boxes. Access to the organ loft was gained by climbing up behind the nose wheel leg and unfastening an overhead hatch. AEOs were required to go up there before every flight; it was more of a ritual than anything else because no-one seemed to know exactly what we were supposed to look for. Only our crew chief knew of the other access panel that he said led from the organ loft through into the bomb bay.

In desperation, the Captain decided to put the chief's plan into action without giving any thought to any possible snags or further implications. At this stage none of us had even thought to wonder why the battery had become completely discharged overnight. Several minutes later our Crew Chief, now very sweaty and grimy, came back down with bad news.

"It's no good. I got the access panel off OK but the hole's too small for me to get through." He was rather portly. "To make things worse," he added, "I dropped the panel fasteners and now I can't find them - it's dark as pitch in there."

The rest of the crew, as one, turned to me and surveyed my very slim body. "Tony," said the captain, "you're thinner than any of us. Go see if you can get through."

"What if I can't?" I asked, I thought not unreasonably. "What if I get stuck in the access panel hole? What if I get through to the bomb bay and you still can't open the doors? I'll be trapped in there."

I was pressed into action in spite of my protestations. The Crew Chief handed me his torch and I climbed up into the hot, humid, inky darkness. I knocked my shins painfully on several items of equipment but eventually I located the new way through into the bomb bay. I shone the torch through the hole. That was when I encountered the next problem. There was a considerable drop on the other side down onto the bomb doors which made it potentially very dangerous to go through head first, as I had first intended.

It was quite tricky turning around in the very confined space. I manoeuvred so that my backside was level with the access panel in the vertical bulkhead. I stuffed the torch, still lit, into the top pocket of my flying suit and then gingerly started feeding my six-foot body, feet first, through the extremely narrow hatch. Every now and again one or other of the crew called out to me to enquire as to my progress. Their voices seemed to come from another world and I uttered some uncomplimentary expletives.

I lowered myself, as slowly as my aching muscles would allow, until I was at full stretch - but my feet were still dangling in space. I was now committed: there was no way I had the strength left to haul myself back up into the organ loft. I worked out, from my knowledge of the aircraft layout, that my feet must be quite near the inside walls of the bomb doors, so I simply let go. I fell - and only just managed to remain standing. The torch was jerked out of my flying suit pocket and fell with a loud clatter onto the bomb doors and its light went out.

"What's going on, Tony?" shouted the captain. He sounded quite peeved.

"I've fallen onto the bomb doors - and I've dropped the **** torch," I replied, or words to that effect.

There followed a silence that to me seemed endless. As my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, I saw that some daylight was percolating into the bomb-bay through various cracks. It was very eerie; this was where a single nuclear bomb or 21 x 1,000lb conventional bombs on bomb racks could be carried by operational Valiant bombers. Our aircraft had a virtually empty bomb bay. There was a strong smell of aviation fuel mixed in with the characteristic smells of airframes and electronic equipment but that didn't seem important at the time. I turned around to the forward bulkhead where there was a low shelf on which was mounted the bank of batteries. Then I had a brainwave. Close by was a short tube which led to the outside world - I knew that it used to be part of the 'Window' chaff dispenser in the earlier years of the Valiant's life as a bomber. I prised the cap off the top of the chaff tube and more daylight appeared. I found my torch - switched it on and it still worked.

"You don't have to feed the long cables through the organ loft after all - you can pass them up the chaff chute," I shouted down through the tube. "You'll need much shorter cables."

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