Unforeseen consequence of a staff letter I wrote - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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Unforeseen consequence of a staff letter I wrote

A few of the former Valiant AEOs took advantage of the unexpected break in their careers caused by the grounding of all Valiants, to apply for re-training as pilots. Many AEOs, myself included, had long thought that the writing was on the wall for our careers. Apart from a few odd jobs here and there, the only openings for AEOs were on the V-Force and in Coastal Command. In spite of oft-repeated official promises that we had the same promotion prospects as pilots and navigators had, only one AEO had at that time reached the rank of wing commander and there seemed little likelihood of any of the rest of us ever reaching that or any higher rank. It was widely believed that a redundancy scheme for AEOs was on the cards and a number of them decided to pre-empt any compulsory redundancy by applying for re-training as pilots.

It was almost unheard of for any aircrew officer to be permitted to re-train for another aircrew category, partly because by the time they thought about it they were usually above the age limit (then 26 years), but mainly on cost grounds. The RAF had always taken the not unreasonable view that if they permitted an AEO or navigator to go for retraining as a pilot they would have to recruit someone else to replace him. Furthermore, in the 1960s the attrition rate at the RAF's flying training schools was very high and there was always the possibility that any re-tread might fail his pilot training, thus resulting in more wasted money.

Any AEO who was determined that he wanted to re-train as a pilot had to submit a formal written application through 'the usual channels'. The applications that station commanders recommended, and there were very few, found their way into my in-tray at 3 Group HQ. It was my job to evaluate them before passing them on to the AOC with my recommendations. Air Marshal Spotswood had left at the end of 1965 to become Commander-in-Chief RAF Germany. The new AOC was Air Vice-Marshal Denis Smallwood (later Air Chief Marshal Sir Denis), always known as 'Splinters'. He was a much more approachable officer than his predecessor.

I was dismayed to see that almost all of the AEO's applications lacked substance and were not likely to impress anyone. The shortest one, but correctly laid out in the rather stilted formal Service language of the day, stated simply: "Sir, I request that I may be re-trained as a pilot, I have the honour to be, Sir, Your obedient servant, Joe Bloggs, Flight Lieutenant" That was it. No explanation, no pleading, no attempt to convince anyone that it was in the RAF's best interests that tens of thousands of pounds should be spent on re-training the writer.

I decided that I could do better than that. One day, purely as an academic exercise, I typed a lengthy letter explaining in some considerable detail why I thought I should be re-trained as a pilot. I signed my letter and passed it through the connecting hatchway to my immediate Boss, Squadron Leader Dougie Fish, the Senior Personnel Staff Officer. I verbally explained to him that I didn't expect the letter to go any further than his Boss, Group Captain Hugh Lynch-Blosse, the Staff Officer in charge of Administration. I said that I merely wanted to make a point on behalf of all AEOs. I then forgot all about it and got on with my work. I still have a photocopy of my letter, now badly fading at the edges after 52 years, and I am still amazed what it led to. (Part of Page 1 is shown below.)

About two months later I was summoned to the AOC's office. I was ushered into the presence by the ADC, Flight Lieutenant Mike Pilkington. "Ah, Tony, come in and sit down," said Splinters, beaming all over his face. He had never before addressed me by my first name. I sat down and waited, with pen poised, to make notes. "I liked your letter," he said, slowly turning over the pages of a letter on a file. It could have been one of the many letters I wrote for him about junior officers in the course of my job, but I had never been summoned to the AOC about any of those.

"Which particular letter was that, sir?" I asked, mystified.

"This one - where you are asking for re-training as a pilot," he said, tapping the blue personal file in front of him. "I was so impressed with your arguments that I sent a copy of it personally to the Air Secretary, Air Marshal Sir Brian Burnett - he's an old friend of mine. He agreed that you had made out a good case and should be given a chance." Lengthy pause, then: "You start your pilots' course at South Cerney next month. Don't let me down."

To say that I was flabbergasted would be an understatement. Clearly Dougie Fish and Hugh Lynch-Blosse had passed my letter on to the AOC when I had not intended that to happen. I was suddenly far from certain that I really wanted to go for pilot training. Some of my AEO contemporaries were outraged when word inevitably leaked out. They thought I had abused my position and they were not in the least mollified when I let it be known, very discreetly in case word got back to the AOC, that I had not expected my letter to be taken seriously.

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