Exploding teacakes - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Exploding teacakes

During all my time on Valiants, aircrews were thought to need extra sustenance to keep them going during the rigours of high-altitude flying. I lived mainly in Officers' Messes in those days, so I always availed myself of a full cooked breakfast before going to work. We didn't call them English Breakfasts - I don't know when that expression was invented - our name for a hearty breakfast was 'full fry'. On flying days my normal Mess breakfast was often followed at about 10am by another full fry in the Greasy Spoon, our rather unkind name for the pretty good aircrew restaurant at Gaydon. Crews always took into the air with them a large box of in-flight rations which usually consisted of a selection of well-filled sandwiches, chocolate bars of our own choice, crisps and fruit. We also carried a large flask filled with coffee, tea, or fruit squash. At one stage delicious chocolate marshmallows wrapped in silver foil became all the rage and eventually most crews asked for a supply to be included in their in-flight rations box. These items of desire, often called Chocolate Teacakes, became the subjects of some rather unscientific in-flight experiments.

Following a typical five-hour flying sortie we could have another two- or three-course cooked meal in the aircrew restaurant or, if the post flight de-briefing was short, the livers-in could race to the Officers' Mess in time for a late afternoon tea of toast and preserves before bathing, changing and reporting to the Mess Bar for a few drinks prior to dinner. High altitude flying really was exhausting and we needed to keep our calories up. In spite of all the food I consumed, I never put on an ounce of extra weight or an extra inch around the waist and I always passed my annual aircrew medicals and fitness tests with flying colours.

In normal peacetime flying conditions, the crew cabin in the Valiant was pressurised to maintain the equivalent of about 9,000 feet even when the aircraft was actually flying at 40,000 feet. That made for a comfortable working environment and there was no need for the crew to keep an oxygen mask clamped to their face. In real combat conditions, the cabin pressure would be set to maintain the equivalent of about 25,000 feet, which did require oxygen masks to be worn. The reason for this was that if the aircraft cabin were to be punctured due to enemy action, the subsequent explosive decompression from 25,000 feet to the real altitude of upwards of 40,000 feet would be much less traumatic than an almost instant decompression from 9,000 feet.

Any significant loss of pressure in the aircraft cabin, for any reason, would automatically initiate a system known as ‘flood flow’ which would allow a huge amount of additional air to be admitted into the cabin from the engine compressors. Flood flow was supposedly sufficient to keep the cabin pressure at around 25,000ft when there was a hole up to about nine inches square in the pressure wall and that would allow the crew to continue their operational sortie at up to at least 40,000 feet. I once pointed out that should the cabin be “punctured by enemy action”, the explosive decompression would be the least of the aircrew’s problems – but my comment was not welcome!

Since Gaydon was a training station, new crews had to experience flying with a cabin altitude of 25,000 feet and there were a number of sorties on the course syllabus where the entire high level portion of the flight, up to four hours duration, was flown with the cabin altitude at 25,000 feet. On at least one training sortie per crew the instructor was required to depressurise the cabin completely at some stage, usually near the end of the sortie, so that the student crew could experience what it was like when the aircraft completely depressurised at 40,000 ft or thereabouts. There was usually a loud bang and the cabin instantly filled with an icy-cold white fog followed by the release of unpleasant bodily odours as intestinal gas expanded rapidly. It was very uncomfortable, very cold, and very unpopular. The student captain was supposed to initiate a maximum rate descent to a more hospitable altitude. Those sorties were annotated on the flying programme, and in the aircraft log, as 'D60 removed', a reference to the fact that fuse D60 had been removed before flight. Removing that particular fuse ensured that when the cabin was deliberately depressurised the flood flow system would not operate, and so, theoretically, there would be less strain on the aircraft's pressurised cabin. What it did to the aircrew's bodies seemed not to be a consideration.

During one of those 'D60 removed' flights, someone noticed that as the cabin altitude increased above about 15,000 feet, the marshmallow inside the chocolate teacakes had expanded sufficiently to crack the chocolate shell, because a fair percentage of the bulk of marshmallow is, of course, made up of air bubbles trapped within the gelatinous mass. This discovery kept different crews fascinated for several days. Marshmallows were stripped of their silver foil coverings and laid out on various flat surfaces in the cabin. Some aircrew discovered that the expansion was so great that they could no longer put the whole chocolate teacake into their mouth in one piece - but the taste appeared to be unaffected.

It was inevitable that sooner or later someone would take a batch of chocolate teacakes with them on a 'D60 removed' sortie. When the captain deliberately operated the emergency depressurise switch, both he and the student pilot had completely forgotten about their marshmallows, minus their protective foil, sitting on the ledge above the instrument panels. They, the chocolate teacakes, disintegrated explosively and bits of chocolate and shredded marshmallow splattered all over the windscreens, the flight instruments and the pilots' flying suits. This rather distracted the pilots from the immediate emergency actions they were supposed to take for aircraft and aircrew safety. Thereafter marshmallows were banned.

Nearly 50 years later a reporter on a Scottish newspaper, who claimed he was a keen student of the V Force, saw my story (the one you are reading now) on the internet and telephoned me for an interview. I could see no reason to refuse him but, because I couldn't remember the make of the chocolate teacakes we used to consume, he decided they must have been Tunnocks. (I learned later that Tunnucks main factory was just down the road from the newspaper's offices - but that could be purely coincidental.) The Scottish version of my website story was rapidly picked up by several more newspapers, even including a Hungarian and some other foreign news agencies. Over a period of only a couple of days I gave interviews to several UK TV and radio stations and I even agreed to go to the BBC Radio Leeds studios to record a live interview. Sadly, no free packets of chocolate teacakes ever reached me, nor any fees for interviews! Reporters, of course, felt the need to re-word my story without asking me first. The most accurate report I saw was this one from the Daily Telegraph:

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