I apply for an exchange post in Pakistan - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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I apply for an exchange post in Pakistan

When I had been at Cranwell for about 18 months, I saw a notice calling for volunteers to go on an unaccompanied one-year tour of duty as a QFI at the Pakistan Air Force Academy. I liked the sound of that, so I applied. Soon after the final date for applications had passed, I learned that I had been selected from a short list of just one to take up the exchange post. There was one snag outstanding: I held a B1 category but the post required an A2. I was still quite inexperienced and had only the bare minimum number of instructional flying hours required even to apply for the A2 re-cat test – but I had to go for it or lose the posting.

I was already sufficiently experienced to have sent five of my own students off on their first solo in the Jet Provost. I had also sent two of my more advanced students on their first solo formation flight. The rule, probably an unwritten rule but one that was always followed in my time at Cranwell, concerning formation was that when you considered your student was fit to fly solo in formation, then you had to lead him on his first solo flight. In other words, both instructor and student had to have confidence in each other.

I don’t mind admitting that at least one of my Cranwell students was already much better at formation flying than I was. He was a natural. In 1977-79 he was flying with the Red Arrows team and the next time I actually met him face to face he was a wing commander and I had to call him sir, not the other way around.

It has always been well-known that the CFS examiners will only award an A2 QFI category, or indeed any category, if the candidate really deserves it. I knew I would not be awarded an A2 if I didn’t reach the required standard, even if it meant losing the posting to Pakistan, I had only 5 weeks to prepare myself if I was to succeed in time to meet the deadline for departing to Pakistan. There were many raised eyebrows amongst Cranwell’s dozens of QFIs, some of whom had done the job for many years, when word spread that I had applied for re-cat to A2 at such an early stage of my tour. Very few of them knew that I had applied for the exchange posting to Pakistan, but it was not up to me to tell them.

I had only five weeks to prepare myself if I was to succeed in time to meet the deadline for departing to Pakistan. There are two main parts to the re-cat test: the ground assessment and the flying test. It took lot of hard work and late nights during those five weeks beavering away on the ground studies. I was more confident about the flying test. The A2 ground assessment always included the candidate giving a formal 30-minute 'Mass Briefing' to one or more examiners acting as students. Real students were always given a lengthy detailed briefing 'en masse' on the theory of each new flying phase they were about to embark upon. The only visual aid available to instructors in those days was the overhead projector. For questions and answers, it was necessary to resort to the blackboard and coloured chalks - and hand-held model aircraft.
About a week in advance I was told that the subject for my Mass Briefing would be the theory of maximum rate turning, a complicated subject to deal with, both technically and mathematically. Fortunately, it was one of my favourite subjects; I had delivered it several times to real students and I had a selection of my own OHP slides already prepared. More instructors than I had expected, including the Chief Ground Instructor, gathered to listen to me. The question and answer session afterwards, an essential part of every mass briefing, was considerably more technical and probing than I had expected but I was able to hold my own, I thought.

Finally, the day for the flying test in a Jet Provost Mk 4 arrived. I was given no advance warning of which lesson I would be required to teach. There were literally dozens of lessons that I could be asked to teach on the test; they were all precisely defined in the training manual and, for standardisation, every flying lesson had to be delivered to every student in exactly the same way. When I met my examiner for the pre-flight briefing, he told me that he wanted me to teach him 'Introduction to forced landings', a flying exercise that came in the syllabus immediately after a student's first solo flight in a Jet Provost and before any student was allowed to fly solo outside the immediate area of the home airfield. Any student having the misfortune to experience an engine failure during his very first solo would have been ordered to eject rather than allowing him (students were still all male) to try and force land back on the airfield he had just taken off from but I never heard of that happening. I was quite relieved at my examiner's choice because it was a busy, demanding, and ultimately rewarding exercise to teach.

The examiner told me that to prevent clogging up the ever busy Cranwell airfield circuit he had already arranged for me to do the flying demonstrations at nearby RAF Coningsby - and that did come as a surprise. Coningsby, 12 nautical miles due east of Cranwell, was actually a closed station at that time, being prepared for the arrival of the first Phantom F4 squadrons due some months later. There were no Air Traffic Control facilities at Coningsby but the Examiner told me that he had obtained permission to use the airfield for this one sortie and it would be permissible to land on the runway, at his discretion, in the event of a real emergency. That made me wonder if he had arranged something special for my re-cat trip. It was, however, a definite advantage to have the airfield to myself, with no interruptions from ATC or other aircraft; it was a slight disadvantage in that I'd had no proper opportunity to visit the Coningsby area to familiarise myself with local landmarks which are important for teaching the forced landings exercise.

After the short preamble, we changed roles: thenceforth I was the instructor, by RAF convention addressed as 'Sir', and he was the student, to be addressed by the usual pseudonym for students: Bloggs. It was understood that if and when the examiner referred to me as 'Tony', he was reverting to his true role as captain of the aircraft. I then gave Bloggs a pre-flight briefing of what we were going to do during the sortie and then we went staight out to the line. My 'student' carried out all the pre-flight checks correctly and in due course he took off and flew me towards Coningsby.

A problem faced me as soon as we arrived overhead Coningsby. I took control and flew once round the airfield perimeter at 2,000 feet, 'pattering' my observations to my student and at the same time looking for key points on the ground that I could use in my forced landing demonstration. Patter and pattering were (and probably still are) the words used by generations of flying instructors to describe their verbal teaching in the air. One of my many dictionaries defines the verb patter as 'to speak or chatter glibly and rapidly'. It derives from the Latin paternoster, because of the rapid, glib style in which prayers such as 'Our Father' are often recited. Another dictionary helpfully pointed out that 'patter' in Danish means something quite different: "Hun har store patter!" is Danish for "She has large boobs!" (If you type those Danish words into a Google search box you will, if you are lucky, see several pleasing photographic examples.)

Now I have your attention again, I will continue. The only runway at Coningsby was the ex-wartime emergency strip, orientated east/west, as most such strips built during WW2 were so that damaged aircraft returning from operations over Germany could make straight-in approaches. There was still a serviceable windsock on the airfield; it indicated that there was a very strong northerly wind: I estimated it to be a steady 25 knots with occasional even stronger gusts. A 25 knot cross-wind component was well out of limits for teaching students forced landings - or even for real students to attempt one. After that one circuit of the airfield, I informed my 'student' that the conditions were quite unsuitable for teaching basic forced landing techniques and that I intended to return to Cranwell. The 'student' suddenly became the Examiner.

"Let's not waste the sortie, Tony," he said with a grin. Clearly, he'd arranged for us to go to Coningsby to see whether I would be tempted to teach forced landings when the wind was outside safe limits. "Climb away and you can teach me 'Introduction to High Level' instead. Assume you've already given me the pre-flight briefing for that."

Of all the exercises in the syllabus this was the one most hated by QFIs, even when you had time to prepare it beforehand. We started the long tedious climb to 30,000 feet during which I pointed out the different effects the reducing air pressure had on the aircraft - and our bodies as ínternal gases expanded. I reminded my student that we were limited to 10 minutes above 30,000 feet because of limitations of our oxygen equipment, and I set the cockpit stop watch, pointing out that was for our own medical well-being. On arrival at 30,000 feet I demonstrated the much increased rate of rotation about the aircraft's fore and aft axis if you applied full aileron deflection in straight and level flight. Then I let my 'nervous' student have a go for himself.

After that I demonstrated the reduced elevator function by attempting a high level loop. 'Attempting' is the correct word because the JP4 could not complete a loop having started the pull-up at about 30,000 feet. Somewhere around 33,000 feet the aircraft would run out of urge and stall. I demonstrated that and the technique for recovery from the vertical - not as dramatic as the 'Hammerhead' in the Hunter when my own instructor had taught me that lesson at Valley. Then I instructed my 'student' to have a go at a high level loop for himself. It was entirely predictable that he would deliberately mishandle the controls when the aircraft was pointing almost vertically upwards and get the aircraft into a very uncomfortable high-rotational spin. I took control and recovered the aircraft to straight and level flight. I was about to start the complete demonstration and practice again but the examiner told me to consider that part of the exercise complete. At the time I wasn't sure whether that meant I had done a good job, or was already a potential failure, or because we had already used eight of our permitted 10 minutes above 30,000 ft.

I moved on to the next part of the exercise sequence: a high speed run followed by a maximum speed descent to a more comfortable altitude where I demonstrated my aerobatic sequence at the request of the 'student', explaining to him what I was doing and keeping a keen look-out for feigned signs of unease or air-sickness. All the time I, as the Instructor, also had to keep tabs on our fuel state and our geographic position (no radar or advanced navigation aids in those days). Finally the Examiner told me to return to Cranwell, which I found without any problem because the Fylingdales Early Warning Station on top of the Yorkshire Wolds, and Lincoln Cathedral on top of its own hill, were both clearly visible and all QFIs knew the way home when you could see either of those landmarks. I even remembered to make use of both as teaching points.

Throughout the flight I had to keep in mind that one of the Central Flying School teaching precepts is that all demonstrations QFIs give to their students must be valid. I remembered that from one of my earliest lessons on my own QFI course at CFS. Then, I was demonstrating to Bloggs (a common nickname for an instructor playing the role of 'student') one of the first lessons about flying circuits. "Here we are, Bloggs, flying straight and level, downwind, parallel to the runway, at 1,000 feet", I said confidently. "Please sir," interrupted Bloggs innocently, "the altimeter on my side is showing 1,100 feet - is there something wrong with it?" Point taken!

It was a good job I had deemed conditions at Coningsby to be unsuitable for teaching forced landings because the Examiner told me at the post-flight debriefing that had I persevered, my demonstrations would not have been valid and I would have failed my re-cat. I was awarded my A2, the customary barrel of beer at Friday Happy Hour in the Officers' Mess was on me, and a couple of weeks later I left Cranwell for Pakistan.
The final page of my flying at RAF College Cranwell - the A2 recat flight was on 7 July. My final two flights at Cranwell were a couple of air experience flights for Air Training Corps cadets.

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