Temporary duty at RAF Wattisham - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Temporary duty at RAF Wattisham

Some weeks before leaving Pakistan I had been told that my next posting would be to RAF Marham to be a 1st Pilot/Captain on one of the Victor Tanker squadrons. I was intrigued - and pleased. After tours instructing at Cranwell and Risalpur I certainly did not want to get stuck in the flying training empire. I assumed that, like most pilots returning to flying duties following a ground tour or an overseas tour, I would be sent on a flying refresher course before going to Marham to start flying the Victor. However, someone noticed a problem.

There was a long-standing rule that to be a 1st Pilot on a Victor you had to have served a full tour as a co-pilot on Victors and been recommended for a captaincy or had served a tour of duty on the twin-jet Canberra light bomber and held, or had recently held, an instrument rating on that aircraft. I, of course, had done none of those things. It was perhaps ironic that those rules had been in force when I was serving as a personnel staff officer at HQ 3 Group in 1966. In those days it had been part of my brief to ensure that only pilots who met those requirements were posted to the Victor Bomber or Tanker Force.

I assume that when news of my posting reached Marham, someone in the Victor empire realised that I had never flown anything larger than a Hunter fighter - and even that was as a student on my own advanced flying training course at Valley. Eventually a compromise was reached - although I was not privy to the negotiations. I was to be sent to No 231 OCU at RAF Cottesmore to do a short Canberra Course. There was then another assumption: that at the end of the course I would have earned a twin-jet instrument rating and, therefore, at least partly fulfilled the qualifications for flying as a 1st pilot on Victors. It didn't work out like that.

Frustratingly for me my Canberra Course did not start until mid-November and so, after a couple of weeks disembarkation leave, I was sent off to RAF Wattisham in Suffolk on a temporary posting. There were many stations I could have been sent to but Wattisham was actually quite a good idea because there were two Lightning Mk 3 squadrons on the base, 29 and 111; the Lightnings did a lot of air-to-air refuelling and I was going to be a tanker captain. I arrived on 3 August 1970 and was told I would be employed in the Operations Control Centre. I had the whole of one week to learn the job before I was authorised to stand watches on my own.

One of Wattisham's operational roles was the southern Quick Reaction Alert force (QRA). The idea was that if any Soviet aircraft came down the North Sea without permission, one or sometimes two Lightnings would be scrambled to investigate what they were up to. I soon learned that Wattisham didn't get many operational scrambles because the northern QRA at RAF Leuchars in Fife usually dealt with Soviet intruders, who mostly came down from the far north, and turned them away. The Wattisham squadrons, therefore, spent most of their flying hours practising interception procedures, including lots of air-to-air refuelling. The F3s certainly had a voracious appetite for fuel. There was an 'in' joke that by the time an F3 Lightning had taken off and climbed to 30,000 ft, it was in a state of emergency due to shortage of fuel.

On my last day of temporary duty at Wattisham I found myself on the night shift. The weather was pretty awful, very low cloud and horizontal visibility only about 1,000m. There was no planned flying, so I was expecting a quiet watch. As I took over from the off-going watch officer, he pointed out that the QRA Alert board in front of us displayed the message "Launch but no recover", which meant that any aircraft that took-off on an operational mission would have to recover at a designated diversion airfield because conditions at base were too poor for landings.

There was no-one else in the building. I had a good book to read - no TV permitted in the operations room. I settled back in the comfortable swivel chair and put my feet up on the desk. After about an hour the squawk box connected by a direct line to the operations centre at HQ Strike Command burst into life: "Wattisham alert one Lightning". I dropped my book and almost fell off my chair as I reached for the key on the squawk box to acknowledge the message. I reminded the controller that the alert state was "Launch but no recover".

"I'm aware of that," snapped the controller, "but this looks as though it could be a real intruder. Call me back as soon as the aircraft is ready to launch."

I had a check list of things do. My first action was to use the emergency telephone to the QRA flight line to make sure the ground crew and the pilot had heard the Strike Command alert message on their own squawk box. They had. The second thing I had to do was to telephone the pilot's squadron commander to brief him that I might be about to launch one of his aircraft. However, before I could do that the QRA pilot, Flight Lieutenant Tony Bagnall, telephoned me.

"Tony," he said. "I'm not fully operational yet and I've only got a white instrument rating on Lightnings. The weather is well below my take-off limits, never mind my landing limits."

"OK, I'm calling your Boss. Go to your aircraft anyway - Strike Command reckons this could be for real."

The squadron commander was in his on-base residence and answered the telephone promptly. I quickly apprised him of the situation, the weather limits on his pilot, and the fact that the pilot claimed to be not fully operational. It was surely an error on someone's part on the squadron to have a non-operational, white-rated pilot on QRA in weather conditions that precluded him from even taking off - but I didn't say that to the Squadron Commander.

"Who's the QRA pilot?" asked the Squadron Commander.

"Bagnall, sir."

Lengthy pause, then "He's OK. If we get a scramble order, then I authorise him to go."

I put the phone down and simultaneously pressed the two keys on the squawk box and said to the Strike Command Controller, "The squadron commander has given his authority for the pilot to take-off - should it be necessary."

"It is necessary. Wattisham scramble one Lightning."

As I was still entering the squadron commander's verbal authorisation in the official log book, I heard the mighty roar as the Lightning hurtled off into the night.
I repeat that story here because the very next time I saw Tony Bagnall (on the right in the image above) was 30 years later on 14 March 2000 at Cranwell when he, now Air Marshal Sir Anthony Bagnall, the Air Member for Personnel (AMP), was making his farewell visit to the RAF College and the Red Arrows before taking up his next appointment as Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief RAF Strike Command on 1 April 2000. As the Red Arrows PR officer, I had arranged for Sir Anthony to be interviewed at the Red Arrows HQ by a film company who were making a documentary about RAF Strike Command and I had wondered if he would remember me.

We had eye contact as soon as he came into the Red Arrows' crew room. "Hello Tony," we both said together, "Long time no see." I later took the pic of AMP with two of the Red Arrows pilots. That was one of only two occasions in my entire RAF career when I addressed an air marshal by his first name.

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