I am persuaded to do a little spying - but fail in my mission - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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I am persuaded to do a little spying - but fail in my mission

To comply with my orders, I never took my camera into the air with me at any time during my tour in Pakistan (apart from that abortive formation trip to the Swat valley which had been authorised specifically by the College Commandant - see this page)
One Friday near the end of my tour of duty in Pakistan, the Defence Adviser telephoned me at Risalpur and asked me to call at his office in the British High Commission in Islamabad. He sent his car to collect me on the following morning. That was unusual because I rarely had need to go into the High Commission itself; most of my visits to the capital were social.

"Tony, do you ever fly anywhere near Sargodha?" he asked when we were ensconced in his office.

"No sir, it's in the middle of a large Restricted Area - no foreigners are allowed there."

"Don't you sometimes fly a low level navigation route which passes near Sarghoda?"

"Yes - but not within about 50 nautical miles."

"London has intelligence which suggests that in the last few days several brand-new Chinese F6 fighters have flown into Sargodha. They urgently need confirmation. Do you think you could contrive to overfly Sargodha and have a look - or better still land there?" He could see that I was not keen. "I don't want you to compromise your position at the Academy but please see what you can do. Be very discreet."

After the 1965 war between Pakistan and India, the USA had imposed an arms embargo on Pakistan. In subsequent years the Pakistan Air Force acquired Shenyang F6s (the Chinese-built equivalent of the Soviet MiG-19s) from China, some of which were donated and some they purchased. I could see why the UK would be keen to know whether or not Pakistan had taken delivery of the latest version, although I doubted whether I could tell one version from another. I certainly could not risk taking any photographs from the air.

I was in a quandary. I was not a spy: I was an exchange pilot in the country at the invitation of the Pakistan Air Force. When I got into work on the Monday morning following my weekend visit to the High Commission, I discovered that I was programmed to fly a low level navigation exercise with an Iranian student that very morning. Although I was the Flight Commander, one of my other QFIs had the job of planning the daily flying programme. The roughly triangular route was well-known to me; it was a standard route on the syllabus and I had already flown it several times with students. I could happily fly the route without a map, but we had to teach the students how to prepare a low level navigation map. The main principle was to mark clearly on the map significant geographical features en route, including the turning points and the heading and elapsed time to the next turning point. The idea then was to cut the map into long strips, one for each leg of the route, then join the strips together in one long strip so that in flight it was easy to unfold the map progressively to reveal the next leg with the minimum of fuss.

The anti-clockwise route was, roughly, Risalpur - Kohat - Mianwali - Chakwal - and back to Risalpur. It usually took about 70 minutes if the student didn't get lost or wander off track. It was a very picturesque route - flown at around 500 feet above the ground. The first two legs were uneventful, but my student got his low level navigation map into a mess as we were turning onto the third leg. Whilst trying to re-fold his map to show the leg to Chakwal, it came apart at the joins and fell to the bottom of the aircraft cockpit around his feet. He spent a few seconds recovering the map and trying to re-orientate it whilst getting increasingly frustrated and anxious. More seriously, he was not paying attention to flying the aircraft - not a good idea at only 500 feet above the ground. He allowed the aircraft to start descending and wander about 30 degrees off course. I let it go as long as I dared but after what was probably only 10-15 seconds, for the safety of both of us I had to take control. I told him to sort himself out.

One of the arts of flying instruction is to know instinctively when to take control of the aircraft from the student. If you do it too early, the student is likely to be aggrieved and complain that he was just getting the situation under control; if you leave it too late - well, anything could happen. I had to make that sort of decision many times during my flying career, including once in a Victor tanker some years after my Pakistan tour when the captain I was assessing completely lost control of the aircraft in cloud, at night, and didn't even realise it. (In case you cannot wait, that anecdote is here - it will open in a new window.)

When I had the T37 on an even keel again back at 500 feet above the ground, I suddenly realised I had an opportunity to carry out the Defence Adviser's task. "Big fluctuations in the oil pressure in the left engine," I said to my student, pointing with my finger to the instrument. " I'm shutting the left engine down." There were no fluctuations, but he hadn't noticed.

The drill with one engine shut down was to climb by converting excess speed to height and divert to the nearest suitable airfield. That airfield just happened to be Sargodha and we were actually now pointing in roughly that direction. As I pulled the aircraft up to about 3,000 feet, I told my student to transmit a message on the international distress frequency - 121.5 Mhz - requesting a precautionary diversion to Sargodha due to engine failure. I wanted him to transmit the message because my voice, the only Englishman in PAF, was well known. However, that was never going to fool anyone because the Controller would instantly recognise my personal callsign. Sargodha ATC answered promptly and informed us that Sargodha was closed and we were to proceed direct to Chaklala, the PAF area within Rawalpindi civil airport. There could be no argument. I knew Sargodha was not closed because I could hear, on the normal radio frequencies, aircraft flying around the airfield.

We proceeded visually to Chaklala at reduced speed on the single engine and landed there after a total of 85 minutes flying - my longest ever T37 sortie. I explained to the engineers that I had seen fluctuations in the oil pressure and had shut the engine down in accordance with standard operating procedures. Of course, no fault was found but the chief engineer told me that they had changed the engine oil filter as a precaution. After refuelling, we took off and flew back to Risalpur - a short 20 minute hop. I felt guilty and used. Air Commodore O'Brien was on the tarmac to greet us as we taxied in at Risalpur.

"Tut tut, Tony", he said, with a broad grin on his face. "You'll have to do better than that. I've let Group Captain Johns at your High Commission know of your little problem. He was very - how shall I put it? - very understanding." He carefully stressed the word 'understanding' and I knew then that he knew what I'd been up to. The incident was never mentioned again. My student didn't suffer because I marked the exercise as not completed and he flew it again the next day, with a different instructor, a new map and a new briefing, and he did well. Lesson learned.

The only positive side to this story are the teaching points I made later to all the students. Always fold low level navigation maps in such a way that it is easy to turn them over with one hand to reveal the next leg - and never, ever, forget that at low level you cannot afford to look in the cockpit more than about five seconds at a time because that's all it takes to fly yourself into the ground. If any of my non-pilot readers compare that flying lesson to the reason for not fiddling with your electronic devices while driving a car, then I have not wasted my time telling this story.

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