No 4 Flying Training School, Valley - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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No 4 Flying Training School, Valley

When we arrived at RAF Valley on the island of Anglesey, North Wales, there was a shortage of Gnats so six of the 20-odd students who should have been on the Gnat flying course were instead destined to be guinea pigs on a special course utilising Hunter fighter aircraft. In fact the six of us selected for the first Hunter course were amongst the tallest, and broadest: we were the ones who might have found it difficult to fit into the tiny Gnats. On the first day of the course the Chief Instructor actually apologised to the six of us and assured us that the training we would get would be just as good as if we had been on the Gnat course. He need not have worried. We were delighted to be flying the venerable but famous Hunter. Our aircraft were still painted up as front-line fighters whereas all the Gnats were in standard Training Command colours with the prominent yellow stripe around the fuselage. Those things mattered to students.

The real perk for us, however, was that all our solo flights, apart from the first one, would be flown in a Hunter Mk F6 - a real single-seat fighter aircraft but unarmed of course. What is more our F6s had the full 10,000lb rated engine, not the down-rated version that many of the main force of Hunters were using as an economy measure. Since our aircraft were not fitted with the heavy under-wing, long-range fuel tanks that the operational Hunters carried, our aircraft really did perform extremely well.

The first few sorties were flown in the two-seat T7 Hunter, with the instructor in the right hand seat. The T7 Hunter was much larger and heavier than the Jet Provost and a great deal faster. It would actually fly over 600kts at low level - not far off the speed of sound - as my instructor proved to me one day. Our first solo was also flown in the Hunter T7, in my case XL591 (see image below). When my instructor deemed that I was ready, we taxied back to dispersal, he got out, made his own ejection seat safe, and then sent me off. The first solo was not just a simple once-around the local circuit as it had been for the Chipmunk and Jet Provost. The briefing from my instructor was to take off, climb to about 15,000 feet over Snowdonia, then "throw the aircraft around and get the feel of it", before returning to Valley and flying a few circuits and bumps. That first solo lasted 40 very enjoyable minutes.

Above: Hunter XL591, looking sad in retirement, photographed by Nathan Long at Gatwick Aviation Museum on 24 November 2006 and reproduced here by kind permission of Nathan Long - who has over 3000 military and cívilian pics on https://www.jetphotos.com - well worth a visit.

There was no flight simulator for us to practise on. For our first solo in the single-seat F6 a couple of trips later, our own instructor stood on a ladder alongside the cockpit while we carried out the pre-start checks, quite different from the T7, and familiarised ourselves with the unfamiliar cockpit. Most of the F6's systems, in particular managing the fuel system, were quite different from those of the T7. Once the engine was running the instructor got down, removed the ladder and waved us off. That was a great moment.

We all went outside to watch as each one of us went off on our first solo in the Hunter F6. There was an effect known as 'waving goodbye' which had to be watched whenever one of us got airborne on his first sortie. The hydraulic-powered flying controls were so light to the touch that it was quite difficult to keep the wings level as the aircraft left the ground - hence waving goodbye.

The acceleration along the runway was truly phenomenal. We'd been briefed by our squadron commander, a long-standing Hunter pilot, that he didn't want to see Gnat type take-offs, where the students pulled up quite sharply as soon as they left the ground and before retracting the undercarriage. Our man wanted us to level off as soon as we were off the ground, get the undercarriage up quickly and accelerate to climbing speed before starting to climb. The climbing speed, which I seem to recall was 330 knots, was easily reached before the end of the runway and then it was up, up and away. Brilliant!

Above: There I am about to make my first solo in a Hunter F6 - XF509
As I was idly browsing the Internet in 2013, as you do, I came across several sites dealing with 'hammerhead' stall turns in small competition aircraft and I was reminded of the time my instructor and I performed a full hammerhead in a Hunter T7 (XL609) during my course at Valley. We were operating at around 40,000 feet practising recoveries from the near vertical - a bit reminiscent of the exercises we used to do on the Jet Provost - but higher and faster. This is an essential demonstration and practice of what happens if the aircraft runs out of flying speed when at or close to the vertical - the sort of thing that can happen in combat when chasing, or being chased by, another aircraft. Solo students can also get into that situation if their aerobatics go wrong. After my instructor had demonstrated the practice without incident, it was my turn.

I pulled the aircraft up into the vertical. My instructor told me to look out to the left and keep the aircraft perfectly vertical by reference to the horizon - but, since the tips of the highly swept-back Hunter wing are not visible from the cockpit, that is easier said than done . By good luck, rather than skill, I must have put the aircraft into a perfectly vertical attitude. I glanced inside the cockpit and saw the airspeed indicator fluctuating wildly at less than 100 knots as the altimeter crept up to 43,000 feet and then stopped increasing. Suddenly the aircraft was enveloped in a dense white mist.

"Hold the stick and rudders absolutely central and don't touch the throttle", said my instructor. "That's un-burnt fuel we can see coming out of the engine intakes".

It appeared to me that the white fuel vapour was hurtling skywards when in fact it was the aircraft sliding backwards at increasing speed and leaving the fuel behind rather like a vertical contrail. After a few seconds, as the reverse airflow over the wing and tail plane increased, the aircraft pitched rapidly forwards, producing a large amount of negative 'g'. That was the hammerhead. Now we were looking straight down onto the mountains and valleys of North Wales, swinging gently as though suspended by the fin and rudder.

"That's the first time I've done a true hammerhead stall," said my instructor encouragingly. I could have pointed out that he had not done it: I had - but that would have been pedantic and, wisely, I decided not to press the point. He continued: "The Hunter usually falls out of the vertical, either forwards or backwards depending on the airflow over the wings and elevator, without sliding straight down. Interesting wasn't it?"

I pulled out of the ensuing high speed dive and was told to climb back up to 40,000 feet and do it again, but the second time the aircraft fell over backwards with a small amount of positive 'g' without performing a hammerhead. As a new trainee pilot with many hundreds of hours flying as a crew member in Shackletons and V Bombers, it seemed unnatural for such a large aircraft as the Hunter T7 to fly backwards but the experience certainly gave me added confidence in the aircraft.

However, the most exhilarating solo trip for me was the first, and only, night supersonic sortie towards the end of the course. Mine was in Hunter F6 XG190 shortly after midnight on 3/4 August 1967. I was briefed to climb to 45,000 feet in a big circle over North Wales under radar control, then point the aircraft out over the Irish Sea, to avoid dropping a supersonic boom over land, half roll over into a 60-degree dive on full throttle and exceed Mach 1. When I was ready to start the run, I was required to contact the air traffic controller requesting clearance to go ‘high speed’. That gave the controller time to check that there were no other aircraft in my vicinity – especially in front but also below, because the aircraft would descend several thousands of feet during the run.

The F6, unlike the T7, was reluctant to reach Mach 1.0 even on full throttle in a dive because of the design of its airframe; when the Hunter had been designed, little was known about flight at high Mach numbers. (If you wish to know more about that subject, search on the Internet for ‘supersonic area rule’ and all will be revealed.) At last, the needle on the Mach meter crept past Mach 1.0. The ride was extremely smooth, no change of aircraft trim, no increase in cockpit noise, and absolutely no sensation of speed. The ground radar controller then called and suggested that I turn around and head back towards Wales as I was about the cross the border into the airspace of the Irish Republic.

The next time I flew supersonic as the captain of an aircraft was four years later, overhead Paris in a Victor tanker no less and accompanied by four Lightning fighters – that story is here.

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