I am invited to an ice cream party at the Officers' Mess - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
Go to content

I am invited to an ice cream party at the Officers' Mess

At my introductory interview with my squadron commander, Squadron Leader Saleem, he asked me how I wished to be known. Naturally, I replied "Tony" assuming that he wanted to know how I wished to be addressed informally. That was the wrong answer because, thereafter, for the whole of my tour I was known officially as Flight Lieutenant Tony, and informally as Cunnane - except by the Commandant who, being a Christian, always called me Tony on social occasions and Cunnane otherwise. I learned too late that Pakistani officers could choose which one of their several names they wished to be known by and that name is underlined in their official Air Force List to ensure everyone knows it. The Pakistani officers I was introduced to and worked with were always introduced to me by a single name - and it was the only name I ever knew for them.

Above: Squadron photograph at the start of term - staff sitting down; students standing up! One of the few occasions when we wore uniforms rather than flying suits.
During that initial interview with my Squadron Commander, it became obvious that there was something else he wanted to ask me but, for some reason he didn’t quite know how to broach the subject. He talked around the sort of problems that could arise should I be forced to eject from my T37 well away from the base area and the way I might be treated, as an obvious white man dropping in from the sky into a remote area, if the villagers discovered that, as Saleem put it, I was not like all Muslim males. It suddenly dawned on me what he wanted to know so I assured him that I had been snipped as a very young child for medical reasons. He sighed with relief and made a note on my file – without asking for proof!

In the first week of term I was invited to a welcoming 'Ice Cream Party' in the Officers' Mess garden. All the Academy staff were there, but no females - apart from Mrs O'Brien, the Commandant's wife, and her mother who lived with them. The ice creams, in a wide variety of flavours, were delicious. There was, of course, no alcohol, not even Chivas Regal.  At that party I was invited by one of the Pakistani instructors to supper at his house. What he actually said was, "You must call round and see me sometime, Cunnane". Naturally, I said I would be delighted.

Above: This was taken at a party in the Officers Mess garden. All the T37 Squadron personnel, staff and students, plus wives and children, are there.
About a week later that same officer came up to me and said, in a rather critical voice, "Why haven't you been round to my house yet?" I explained that, having agreed to visit him at some time, I had been waiting for an invitation to visit on a particular day. He explained that it was a Muslim tradition that once you accepted an invitation to visit someone's house, you were obliged to visit as soon as possible, without any further arrangements, otherwise you would be considered impolite. I apologised profusely and said that no insult had been intended. There was always something new to learn.

I went on my visit that very same evening. There was just me and my host - and a tantalising smell of curry. After a while I noticed a young lady in a brilliantly coloured sari peering into the room where we were standing, drinking soft drinks. When she saw that I had noticed her, she quickly withdrew, pulling the veil across her face. I asked my host if I could meet his wife. He looked doubtful.
"Are you sure you wish to meet her?" he asked.
"Certainly," I replied. "But only if it is permitted - and if she wishes."
He called his wife in and we were introduced. She smiled shyly and then disappeared again almost immediately. I thought it was rather sad, but I had no wish to offend local customs.
At last I was able to start flying with students. I was allocated three students in their first term who would spend most of their early flying training with me - aiming for one trip per day with each. I was programmed with most of the students in their second term in rotation. For general handling sorties away from the immediate vicinity of the airfield, each instructor, or solo student, was allocated a particular area to use. One such area was over the small village of Charsadda just to the north-east of Peshawar; another was over the town of Mardan, a few miles due north of the airfield. The T37s were generally required to operate above 15,000 feet because T6Gs were operating in the same areas at lower altitudes.
The views from the air to the east and north were breath-taking. The 9th highest mountain in the world, Nanga Parbat, 8,126m (26,660ft) was easily visible above about 10,000ft over Risalpur when looking towards the east. Permanently covered in snow and ice, Nanga Parbat, the westernmost peak of the Himalayas, appeared at its most magnificent on early mornings when silhouetted against the rising sun. To the north of Risalpur are the Hindu Kush mountains.
Although very easy and pleasant to fly, the T37 did have a few vices to trap the unwary. It was unpredictable when spinning and was prone to entering potentially dangerous high rotational spins for no known aerodynamic reason. Even worse, if the controls were mishandled in a spin, the aircraft would readily snap into an inverted spin, a manoeuvre that is both uncomfortable and disorientating because the occupants are subjected to continuous negative g forces trying to force them against the shoulder harness restraints and out of the top of the aircraft - that is literally hair raising (excuse the pun).
Visual circuits in the T37 were based on the USAF system, not the RAF's. At the beginning of the runway was Mobile Control - roughly the equivalent of the RAF runway caravan. Mobile Control had an Air Traffic Controller inside who actually controlled what was going on in the circuit. The T37 initial approach was made from about five miles out at 1,500 feet above the runway and at a speed of between 240 and 280 kts. After overflying Mobile the aircraft would break left into the circuit for what the RAF calls a run-and-break and everyone else calls a pitch: that is a level decelerating turn onto the downwind leg, before completing a normal visual landing, overshoot, or touch and go. Even students on their first solo had to do this which meant that the first solo flight lasted about 12 minutes. At that time in the RAF, Jet Provost students on first solo, took off, turned straight downwind and made a hopefully normal landing, all completed in 5 or 6 minutes.
The T6Gs used a 'kutcha' strip on the northern side of, and parallel to, the main Risalpur runway. Kutcha was a new word for me; it derives from Hindi and literally means makeshift or unprepared. The kutcha strip was in fact just graded earth. Because the main runway and the kutcha strip were almost always in use at the same time, aircraft using the strip always made right hand circuits and had to make sure they didn't cross over into the T37's circuit pattern. Every now and again a T6G made what was known as a 'ground loop' by allowing the tail to rise too high on touchdown or take-off, whereupon the large diameter propeller touched the ground, causing the aircraft to tip over and occasionally finish up inverted. It was always embarrassing but usually no serious injury to pilots or damage to the aircraft resulted.
One day early in my tour I was invited by the Iraqi exchange officer and the Iraqi students to a party, no alcohol or females of course, to celebrate their Armed Forces Day. The following morning it was discovered that the exchange officer had disappeared. It 'emerged' that a car from the Iraqi Embassy had collected him in the middle of the night, driven him to the airport in Rawalpindi and put him straight onto an Iraqi military flight to Baghdad. Later that day someone whispered to me that the missing Iraqi officer came from a tribe that was not in favour with the new Iraqi Government that had swept to power a few months earlier and in which a youthful Colonel Saddam Hussein had played a key role. For the remainder of my tour there was no Iraqi exchange QFI, but the Iraqi students stayed on. I was advised not to ask awkward questions and ordered not to discuss the departed Iraqi officer with the students.

/continued here or go back to the top of this page                                      Home

Back to content