First flying lessons - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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First flying lessons

All the Chipmunk flying instructors, apart from the Squadron Commander, were flight lieutenants and some were younger than I was, but I had no difficulty in keeping to the RAF tradition of always calling your flying instructor "Sir" irrespective of his rank. The course at South Cerney lasted just four weeks and in that time we had to cram 30 hours of flying, including at least 5 hours solo flying, as well as all the ground lectures. There was no night flying, no instrument flying and no formation flying. There was a lot to learn, even for me.

Above: There we are just before our first flying lessons in the venerable Chipmunk.
Student pilots always keep tabs on their fellows to see who goes solo first and who does it in the fewest number of hours. My first solo, on the 6th flying day of the course was delayed by one flight because I made a basic error. Having flown several pretty good circuits, including deliberate missed approaches, a simulated engine failure after take-off (always abbreviated to EFATO), and a number of touch and go landings on the bumpy grass airstrip, my instructor told me that if I did one more good circuit, he would send me solo.
The final approach on the next circuit was going well until I started to go a little too low on the ideal path. I still made a good landing and I taxied the aircraft back to the parking area near the Air Traffic Control Tower, expecting a compliment.

"You went low on the final approach," said Flight Lieutenant Snell.

"Yes sir, but I got back OK", I replied defensively. I thought that perhaps he was  checking to see if I had noticed and then taken the correct recovery action.

"Tell me, Tony, how have I taught you to control the rate of descent on final approach? With the throttle or with the elevators?" I hesitated and then gave the wrong answer.

"Just now when you went low, the first thing you did was to pull the nose up," said my instructor, somewhat wearily I thought.

"But I was a little fast - I had some speed in hand so it was safe - wasn't it?"

"You've forgotten what I've drummed into you. You control the rate of descent with throttle, and the speed with the elevators. If you're low on finals and you pull the nose up without first increasing power, as you just did, the speed will fall away, and you'll be in danger of stalling. Remember: pulling the nose up immediately increases drag - and the speed will wash off quickly."

I was about to argue that I had been both a little fast as well as a little low on the ideal glide path so the two effects would cancel each other out - but I thought better of it. He made me fly another 40 minute sortie of circuits and landings with him before he sent me off for an uneventful but immensely satisfying solo flight.
I had cause to remember that lesson many times in subsequent years when I was a flying instructor myself and once, later in my piloting career, when I had to land a Victor tanker at its minimum flying speed on an extremely short runway at Catterick, carefully controlling the rate of descent with four large throttles.

On the penultimate afternoon of the South Cerney course, when I had completed all the syllabus flying lessons, I asked the flight commander if I could have one more solo trip just for pleasure. It was late in the afternoon of 22 March and to my surprise he said I could.

It was a beautifully clear day with unlimited visibility. I was given a triangular navigation route to fly maintaining 500 feet above the ground. It went from South Cerney, roughly north-west to Gloucester, then a longer leg south-west to Newport in South Wales, and finally back across the Bristol Channel in a straight line to South Cerney. I was told to report my position to South Cerney ATC at each turning point. As I taxied out for take-off, I noticed that all the other aircraft had been put back in the hangar for the night and I could see the rest of my course watching me. I took off just after 4pm and set course for Gloucester. The only navigation aid I had was the VHF radio; on that I could ask for true bearings from base, or magnetic headings to steer to reach base, if I needed them. I had no means of measuring distance flown so I had to rely on my pre-flight planning. The visibility was so good that I didn't need any radio aids because Gloucester Cathedral, my first turning point, stood out clearly on the horizon. As I turned left at Gloucester, setting course for Newport, I transmitted my position to ATC at South Cerney but heard no acknowledgement. I thought perhaps that South Cerney was out of VHF radio range since I was flying at only 500 feet. After a couple more tries, I considered calling RAF Kemble or even RAF St Athan but that would have involved looking up their radio frequencies, so I decided against it and concentrated instead on my navigation.

Finding Newport was not quite so easy because the horizontal visibility had steadily decreased due to thick smog coming in on the westerly wind from the South Wales steel works. With more experience I might have climbed another 500 feet to get above the smog but instead I ploughed on, thoroughly enjoying myself. After the planned number of minutes when I should have been overhead Newport there was nothing recognisable - apart from the vast expanse of the Bristol Channel out to my left. I called South Cerney again and asked for a steer to check my position but got no reply. I turned left anyway on the planned time and set off on my pre-planned heading across the Channel towards South Cerney.

After leaving the Bristol Channel behind, I discovered that the ground underneath bore little resemblance to the ground marked on my map and I couldn't recognise any landmarks. Obviously, I was off course - but by how much - and was I left or right of track? Suddenly South Cerney ATC boomed through loud and clear on the radio and asked me where I was. I said, hopefully, that I was about 20 miles from base. The Controller came back and said, "Sorry we went off the air. The ground servicing folk thought all the aircraft had landed so they switched all the radios off. Call me again when you have the airfield in sight." Without being asked, the controller gave me a heading to steer and it was more or less the heading I was flying so I felt quite chuffed about that.

It seemed to take ages at a ground speed of about 75 knots but familiar landmarks around Kemble and then South Cerney came into view and I landed safely about 10 minutes later. No-one asked me where I had been - all the instructors and my fellow students had been in the Officers' Mess bar for quite a time enjoying the end-of-course beer. When I joined them, I told my instructor that I'd had a really enjoyable time and I thanked the flight commander for giving me that one extra sortie. No-one ever mentioned the fact that ATC had gone off the air while I was still airborne, and I didn't see the need to tell anyone about that nor make any complaint. We all left South Cerney the very next day. We had all passed and we met up again a few weeks later at RAF Leeming, No 3 Flying Training School in North Yorkshire. (My last, bonus, solo navigation trip never got entered into my logbook because the end-of-course summary had already been signed.)

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