Darwin to Sydney as the third person in a two-seat Canberra - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
Go to content

Darwin to Sydney as the third person in a two-seat Canberra

I was out anxiously walking around the deserted Darwin airfield long before dawn. There was not a cloud in the skies and visibility was, thankfully, unlimited and remained so as dawn broke. The four Victors arrived exactly on schedule at roughly one minute intervals. They flew across the main airfield area on high power at about 100 feet, raising huge clouds of dust, before breaking into the circuit, as fighter aircraft do, to land. I felt jolly proud to be British. I went to greet the crews.

I heard a couple of hours later that the Victors had not been observed on the new air defence radar "because they were too low." They were heard when they flew over the installation at tree top height (not that there were any trees) having homed onto the ground radar signals using their on-board electronic detection equipment. Those senior Australians gathered underground at the radar station watching the glowing radar screens for any indication of the approaching Victors were startled when they heard the sudden tremendous roar as the bombers flew directly overhead. I gather the Defence Minister was not amused. A couple of RAAF officers berated me afterwards because the bombers, by flying so low, "did not act fairly."

Above: Two of the Victor bombers parked alongside an RAAF Canberra at Darwin. (I did not record the Victor taíl numbers because at the time the Victors presence was classified and this was a sneaky pic!)
I then had to go from Darwin to RAAF Operational Command HQ in Penrith, near Sydney, to take part in debriefings. I could have travelled in comfort on Ansett-ANA but a kindly RAAF officer, Group Captain Rose, offered me the spare seat in his Canberra bomber down to RAAF Richmond, near Sydney. I had assumed it would be the 3-seat version of the Canberra. but it wasn't: it was a 2-seat B2 version. What he had not told me until we were walking out to the aircraft, registration A84-226, was that I would have to perch on the very narrow space between him and his navigator. They had ejection seats; I did not even have a parachute.

Above: RAAF Canberra A84-226 in retirement in 2002 at RAAF Wagga.© Darryl Gibbs.
The ground crew's faces when I got out at Richmond were an absolute picture. They thought I was mad to have flown right across the continent from north to south in 3 hrs 45 mins flying time at around 40,000 ft without a parachute. On reflection, I was. We actually dropped in somewhere in the middle of Australia to refuel but I can't now remember where that was. Allegedly, the group captain was well-known to everyone at Richmond for offering lifts in his Canberra. It had been, however, a fascinating trip and for the first time I realised just how really, really big and empty Australia is. (Sorry, Aussies. Most Brits at that time didn't appreciate how enormous your country is – and it didn't help to be told that Darwin is nearer to Singapore than it is to Sydney because they didn't know where either Darwin or Singapore were on a map.)

Above: That was Operatíonal Command HQ when I was there but I believe it is now an hotel. A security guard told me off after seeing me take this pic because he said it was classified. When I told him my visit was classified, he let me off saying: "It must be OK then  - you're a Brit!" The Aussies I met were always very polite.
In between more briefings, debriefings and discussions at OpCom HQ, I had time to spend a couple of days in Sydney seeing the sights. I was able to view the partly-completed Opera House and go up to the top of one of the piers of the Harbour Bridge to take lots of photographs. In the early 1960s everyone in UK had been talking about the Sydney Opera House because it never seemed to be getting any closer to completion. (I believe construction started in 1959 but was not complete until 1973.)

While I was on a tourist boat tour around Sydney Harbour a couple got into conversation with me as I enjoyed the view from the rear of the boat. They mistook what remained of my Yorkshire accent and thought I was from New Zealand. When I had put them right, I mentioned that I 'd just been staring wistfully into the distance because "I wanted to get a photograph looking towards New Zealand so I can show folks back home and tell them that this is probably the nearest I'll ever get to New Zealand." They laughed and the lady said, "It certainly will be if you go that way. You're 180 degrees out; New Zealand's in the opposite direction." So much for my sense of direction. (There are some pictures of my weekend in Sydney on this page.)

My RAAF hosts were astonished that because I was not acting as a courier on the return to Singapore the RAF had not been willing to buy me a First Class ticket, so I was having to travel back to Singapore in Economy Class. The RAAF insisted on buying me a First Class ticket for the full trip from Sydney to Singapore.

/continued here or go back to the top of this page                              Home

Back to content