Wings Parade and we learn our next posting - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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Wings Parade and we learn our next posting

With the end of the course approaching, the students remaining on the course, for some had been withdrawn from training along the way, started thinking about where we would be sent for our advanced training. The RAF system in force in the 1960s separated students graduating from the basic flying training schools into one of three streams: those destined for fast fighter jets were sent to RAF Valley in Anglesey; those destined for the more sedate transport, bomber and maritime aircraft, and who would benefit from the companionship and expertise of other crew members, were sent off to RAF Oakington in Cambridgeshire to fly the venerable Varsity; those destined for helicopters were sent to RAF Tern Hill in Shropshire and for many years were never heard of again.


This photograph includes all the graduating students at the end of No 21 Course (if you really want to know, I'm 5th from the left, seated).
It was generally accepted that those who wanted to become helicopter pilots had joined the RAF with that ambition and, usually, they got what they wanted. In my experience over many years, helicopter pilots were the most contented pilots in the RAF. On the other hand very few students at basic flying training actually volunteered for the Oakington route because, rightly or wrongly, that was always considered second best and no-one was likely to volunteer to be second best right at the start of their career. There was also a story put around by some of the instructors that anyone actually volunteering to go the Oakington route was so lacking in self-confidence that he didn't deserve to graduate at all. (That is not a sexist remark; there were no female pilots in the RAF at that time.)

There were never enough vacancies for either the Tern Hill or Valley options, so a significant proportion of the student pilots were bound to be disappointed when they got their postings at the end of basic flying training. I had always assumed, because of my background as an Air Signaller in Shackletons and an Air Electronics Officer on Valiants, that I would be sent to Oakington at the end of my basic training with a future career in either Coastal or Bomber Commands to follow. However I had won the prize at Leeming for the best all-round student, to my very great surprise, and I suppose the RAF felt bound to send me to Valley. I was both proud and apprehensive to be so selected and all the more determined to show that grumpy group captain at the Ministry of Defence who had clearly wanted to block my application for pilot training, that even AEOs could make good pilots given the aptitude, right training and sufficient determination.

There was a Graduation Parade at the end of the course at which we were awarded our coveted Pilot's Wings and for the second time in my unusual career I was the Parade Commander.

It may seem odd to younger readers that we received our Wings at such an early stage of our flying career but pilot cadets at Cranwell, who combined their basic flying training with the rest of their three-year cadet training, were awarded their wings at the end of their Cranwell course and, therefore, before their advanced flying training. Some years later the system changed and all flying students were awarded their wings on successful completion of advanced training, which was actually more sensible.

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