I am sent, first class, to Australia - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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I am sent, first class, to Australia

Soon after the visit by Lord Mountbatten, an exercise of Operation Spherical was ordered and four Victor bombers duly arrived at RAF Tengah. We in Medium Bomber Ops then directed and controlled subsequent events. We were required to originate various exercise alerts so that the Victor air and ground crews and the Tengah station personnel could get some practice on what was, essentially, the Bomber Command alert system. The Far East Command Operations Centre (FECOC), located just along the corridor from our office, wanted to make use of the high-flying Victors to test some new high power HF ground transmitters that had recently been installed; in particular they wanted to check at what range test transmissions could be received by aircraft flying in various specified areas well to the north of Singapore. I, as the communications expert, was told to devise two long routes entirely over the sea, going as far as practicable from Singapore but avoiding all Indonesian and Philippines territory. I cannot now remember the exact routes but one was over the Andaman Sea, west of Burma (now Myanmar); the other was over the South China Sea between Malaysia and Vietnam and on towards Hainan.

The four Victor crews pre-planned the routes and then two of them were advanced through the various alert stages before finally being scrambled from Tengah to fly them. Normal ATC Flight Plans were submitted once the aircraft were airborne. The routes were flown entirely in international airspace above 40,000 feet which kept them well out of the way of any civilian airlines. I monitored the progress of the flights from take-off to landing in FECOC. The ground-to-air communications on a wide variety of frequencies exceeded expectations.

A few days later I was despatched to Darwin to be the RAF Controller for the deployment of the same four Victor bombers from Singapore to Darwin. On my flight to Darwin I once again acted as an official courier. This time I travelled First Class on BOAC B-707 flight BA714. In addition to my personal bag, I was carrying by hand a locked briefcase that I was required to declare to the aircraft captain. I didn't have a key, but I knew what was inside the briefcase because I had helped to pack the documents - indeed, I had originated some of them and typed most of them.

I was one of only two first class passengers on the flight; we sat on opposite sides of the cabin and completely ignored each other. How very British!! The Air Hostess and the Chief Steward both paid particular attention to my creature comforts. High overhead the island of Bali, the air hostess sat down alongside me - at my invitation. By that time, I had savoured several apéritifs, consumed an excellent four or five course dinner washed down by a selection of fine wines, and knocked back a couple of glasses of Grand Marnier. I had declined the offer of a cigar, being a life-long non-smoker. During a pleasant conversation, the hostess and I swapped stories about the progress of our respective careers in aviation. Of course, I didn't tell the air hostess why I was en route to Darwin - and she did not ask – but we exchanged contact details. I invited her to have dinner with me when we were both next in Singapore. To my delight, she readily agreed and shortly afterwards she returned to the galley, presumably to continue with her other duties. (We did subsequently meet several times in UK and twice in Singapore, but I have been unable to contact her, so I have not mentioned her name and those occasions do not form part of this autobiography.)

I then promptly fell asleep thereby missing the only opportunity, however unlikely, I might have had to join the exclusive '40,000 Foot Club'. I put my tiredness down to the rarefied atmosphere in the Boeing 707's pressurised cabin. I was wakened rather abruptly sometime later by the Chief Steward. "So sorry to disturb you, Mr Cunnane," he said deferentially, but with a suggestion of a smirk on his face. "The Captain requests your immediate presence on the flight deck." He made it sound more like an order than an invitation. I hurriedly struggled somewhat unsteadily to my feet and followed him, clutching my briefcase and rehearsing in my mind the security briefing I had been given about what to do with the briefcase in the event of a serious emergency. I seem to remember that involved asking one of the crew to open a cabin external door when we were down to a reasonable height over sea, and then launching the bag - but not me - to the sharks!  With some trepidation I allowed myself to be pushed through the narrow door which led into the darkened pilots' office. The 707 cockpit was very small compared with the spaciousness of the modern Boeing 747's flight deck; there were seats for the two pilots and the flight engineer and little else.

"Captain, this is Mr Cunnane," announced the Chief Steward. He then silently withdrew, closing the interconnecting door behind him. My eyes quickly grew accustomed to the dim cockpit lighting. There seemed to be complete calm on the flight deck and there were no obvious signs of any emergency. Automatically scanning the skyline and the flight instruments, something an experienced airman can do in a couple of seconds, I could see that it was a clear starlit night and that everything seemed to be normal.

"Ah, Mr Cunnane," the Captain said grimly. He was a large, moustachioed gentleman, perhaps 50 years of age. His safety harness was loosely fastened and so he was able, although with some difficulty because of his bulk, to turn and face me. He motioned me to sit on the occasional seat that the Flight Engineer had just folded down behind me. "I hope your briefcase is still quite secure?"

"Yes, Captain," I said meekly, sitting down and patting the briefcase reassuringly. "Is there a problem?"

"I'm afraid there is - a serious problem." There was a pause before the three aircrew broke out laughing. I was nonplussed. "What d'you mean by inviting my girlfriend out to dinner in Singapore without first asking my permission? You Air Force types are all the same. In the airlines the Captain always has the first choice of the hostesses."

These days such a comment would be considered highly patronising and sexist. It turned out that the two pilots and the flight engineer were all ex-RAF themselves. Having had a no doubt highly exaggerated account from the Chief Steward about the 'goings-on' in First Class, they thought it would be a jolly good wheeze to wind me up. Whether the Chief Steward was jealous of my interest in the air hostess rather than him, or whether he was simply looking after the Captain's interest, I never found out, but I was invited to remain on the flight deck for the remainder of the trip to Darwin.

We landed at Darwin very early on Thursday 27 May, Ascension Day. I was the only passenger to disembark at Darwin and the vast airport terminal was almost deserted. As it happens, I was travelling on a standard UK passport, not the special one issued to regular government couriers because I had been told that there hadn't been time to get me one of those. No-one took any notice of me as I stood waiting to collect my personal suitcase and wondering where my promised meeter-and-greeter was. There were no customs or immigration checks, and no-one asked to see my passport.

An alert policeman, probably noticing my briefcase embossed with its distinctive government diplomatic crest, came over and asked me what I was doing. I explained that I was awaiting an RAAF officer who was supposed to meet me. The policeman must have been suspicious and was just about to get difficult when a wing commander arrived to escort me to the air force base on the other side of the airfield. The wing commander was simply a duty officer who had been told to meet me and take me to the Officers' Mess. He knew nothing about my purpose, but he convinced the policeman that I was not a threat. He probably objected to being detailed to meet a lowly flight lieutenant so early in the morning - and who could blame him? He led me to a single, non-air conditioned room in the Officers' Mess and departed.

I collapsed in a heap on the bed and promptly fell fast asleep, clutching the briefcase to my chest underneath the bed clothes. I completely failed to notice a letter on the bedside table welcoming me to Australia and inviting me to report to the Operations Centre at 7am. A search party found me at about 10am. A senior officer amongst them, I forget what rank he was, relieved me of my briefcase, said I could take the rest of the day off and disappeared. I never saw the briefcase again and no-one ever asked me about its contents.

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