No 3 Flying Training School, RAF Leeming - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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No 3 Flying Training School, RAF Leeming

I can still clearly remember arriving in my car at No 3 Flying Training School in late April 1966. A few miles north of RAF Dishforth, which had its main runway adjacent to, and parallel to, the A1 trunk road, there was a right turn at a small and easily missed signpost to RAF Leeming. In our joining instructions we had been warned that this was the only entrance to the RAF Station and that there was no entrance from either Leeming Village or Leeming Bar, both of which were at the northern extremities of the base.

Looking very apprehensive, this image of our entry was taken on the first week at Leeming. I am second from the right on the rear row: my 'AE' brevet  is a bit of a giveaway The lanyard I was wearing was because I was the 'senior student', a job that rotated every few weeks.
After turning off the A1, I pulled onto the grass verge as a Jet Provost roared very low overhead and disappeared out of view. Leeming's Runway 34 was on the left but out of sight hidden by trees. After a short while watching the jets and marvelling that in a week or two I could be flying solo over that very spot, I continued along the twisting minor road, through the village of Gatenby, and so arrived at the main guardroom.

The regime at Leeming was much more relaxed than at South Cerney. I found the Jet Provost easier to fly than the Chipmunk: no more tail-wheel three-point landings on bumpy grass and, of course, the instructor and student were seated side by side which seemed much more friendly. My instructor was Tony Ryle. He arranged for me to make my first solo at RAF Topcliffe, by then the latest home of the RAF Air Electronics School. It happened on 2 June 1966. I doubt if there was anyone there who knew me from my Air Signaller and AEO days and, since I didn't get out of the cockpit, there was no-one to see me going off solo wearing a flying suit with an AE brevet on it.

The flying in the first couple of months of the course was all on the early Mark 3 Jet Provosts. My first lesson in the much more powerful JP4 (2,500lbs of thrust compared to the Mk3's 1,750lbs) was not until 9 August 1966. The difference in performance was quite startling. Once we had converted to the Mk 4, we rarely flew the Mk 3 again - and then only dual, with an instructor. That was probably a sensible safety precaution.

The Mark 4 syllabus included some high altitude flying at up to 35,000 feet. The aircraft was unpressurised and the oxygen equipment we used was designed to provide 100% oxygen up to a maximum height of 30,000 feet. Flying at 35,000 feet unpressurised, therefore, meant that both student and instructor were getting less than 100% oxygen and were, therefore, mildly hypoxic, that is to say short of oxygen. I should mention here that in the 1960s the RAF used the incorrect term 'anoxic'. According to the medics, anoxia means a total lack of oxygen, but what we experienced in the JP4 above 30,000 feet was hypoxia, an oxygen deficiency. It took many years for older aircrew like me to get used to referring to hypoxia instead of anoxia.

On 20 September on a solo trip in a JP4 (see clip above) I experienced some severe vibration during my aerobatic sequence. After landing I reported it. I am sure my instructor thought I had merely performed, albeit accidently, a high 'g' stall which is instantly remedied by simply relaxing the amount of back pressure on the control column. I knew I had not 'g'-stalled and I denied it vociferously. The next day, after no fault had been found with the aircraft, I was sent up in the same aircraft with the Unit Test Pilot (UTP). He really wanted to see if I could perform my aerobatic sequence without g-stalling the aircraft. Curiously, the UTP put me in the right hand seat - my first sortie in that seat. Looking back, I imagine the UTP was not a QFI and was, therefore, qualified to fly a passenger but not qualified to supervise a student pilot. When I had done my bit without incident the UTP took control and put the aircraft into a steep dive. At 400 knots indicated air speed, the maximum speed permitted, he applied 6g to pull out of the dive and the Perspex canopy above our heads immediately exploded with an enormous bang. Large pieces of the canopy smashed into my right shoulder and caused me quite a bit of pain. The rest of the Perspex presumably showered down onto North Yorkshire when the UTP inverted the aircraft and applied negative g to shake any loose pieces out before they might have jammed the flying controls.

We returned to base without further incident, apart from the terrific wind noise in the cockpit. The queue of JPs at the marshalling point waiting for permission to take off must have been startled to see our jet approaching with a large hole where the canopy should have been. After investigation, the engineers decided that the canopy seal had been wrongly fitted on a recent service. When I had experienced severe vibration on my solo flight at 5g loading, the canopy seal had probably been weakened; when we dived at 400kts with the UTP in control, the canopy simply gave way altogether on the 6g pull-out of the dive. I was vindicated - but sore.

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