Introduction to Victor tankers - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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Introduction to Victor tankers

Above:  I took this pic on 15 May 1973 as we were flying over the spectacular Alps en route to Luqa, Malta. I was flying XA939 - I didn't record this tanker's ident in my logbook. The white blob over the Victor's canopy is on my original transparency and so is probably the reflection of the sun. These two 'customers', Harriers of No 1 Squadron, were flying non-stop from Wittering to Akrotiri, Cyprus. My crew returned to Marham two days later, escorting a single 56 Sqn Lightning to Leconfield - but we diverted him to Leuchars because the weather at Leconfield was out of limits for him - but not for us at Marham.
First, a general introduction for those of my readers who are not familiar with the Victor Tanker. The standard five-man crew consisted of a First Pilot who usually occupied the left hand seat, and a co-pilot in the right hand seat; each of the pilots had an ejection seat. In the rear cabin there was an Air Electronics Officer, a Navigator Plotter, and a Navigator Radar who was also the air-to-air refuelling operator. Those three had seats facing rearwards but they did not have ejection seats. The pilot in the left hand seat was usually, but not always, the captain. More of that later. About the time I left the Victor Tanker force in 1976, it became possible for a navigator or AEO to be appointed as captain, although a more accurate description for those captains would have been Mission Controller. Experienced navigators and AEOs were certainly sufficiently qualified to direct operational air-to-air refuelling missions but only a 1st Pilot could make the important command decisions about the actual 'poling' of the aircraft.

From the very earliest days of the three V-Bombers, Valiants, Victors and Vulcans, there had been much debate both within the RAF and publicly, about the lack of ejection seats for the rear crew members. There were a number of well-publicised fatal accidents where one or both pilots managed to escape from a stricken aircraft but their three rear crew members were killed because they had no time, or were too near the ground, to escape by parachute.

For several years I had flown in the rear cabin of Valiants as an Air Electronics Officer. At sea there has always been the principle that the captain should be the last to leave a sinking ship. However, if an emergency struck a V Bomber at low level was it reasonable to expect the captain not to save himself simply because the rear crew members did not have the time or the equipment? In my AEO years I can honestly state that the fact that my pilots had ejection seats and I didn't was not a day-to-day concern for me. I simply accepted, probably because I never believed it would happen to me, that a situation could arise where the two pilots in my aircraft would eject, leaving the rest of us to our fate.

I was now forced to address that iniquitous matter again, but from a different angle. How would I feel, as the captain, if faced with the possibility of being able to escape a doomed aircraft by using my ejection seat but knowing that my three crew members down the back would almost certainly die? When my first Station Commander at Marham brought that subject up with me at my introductory interview with him, I said that I would never eject from my Victor until all the other four had escaped. Although I meant it, he didn't believe me and said so. Fortunately, I never had to make that decision during my time on Victors.

It was perfectly feasible to fly the Victor from either of the pilots' seats without any assistance from the other pilot, but there were some minor difficulties. For example, the steering control for manoeuvring the aircraft whilst taxying on the ground could be reached only from the left hand side of the cockpit. It was possible to steer the Victor on the ground by the use of asymmetric engine thrust, but this was less precise, extremely noisy for those on the ground nearby, and not good for the undercarriage legs and the tyres.

During my Victor Tanker career I was to spend a lot of my captaincy time in the right hand seat, examining, training, or flight checking the 1st Pilot, or assessing the potential of an experienced co-pilot who was flying in the left hand seat under my supervision. On all those occasions I always briefed the whole crew before take-off that I would act as an average co-pilot could be expected to act unless it became necessary to speak to the whole crew in my capacity as Captain of the aircraft.

Taking on fuel in flight from another Victor was a two handed operation whichever pilot was doing it: one hand was on the control column flying the aircraft while the other hand had to be used for handling the four engine throttle levers. The pilot flying the aircraft during an on-load of fuel needed to handle the throttles himself because continuous small movements were needed to stay in the correct refuelling position, especially in turbulent conditions. To take on fuel from the right hand seat required practice and a degree of ambidexterity. The non-flying pilot, whichever seat he was in, was not a mere observer: he had to keep the aircraft's centre of gravity within permitted limits, ensure that the fuel flowed into the correct tanks, and monitor all the aircraft instruments.

Above: This is a pic I took for instructional purposes one day when I was flying in the right-hand seat. It shows the view the pilots get when one Victor is taking on fuel from another. No need for a telephoto lens: this was taken on my personal 35mm camera with a fixed 50mm lens. (I trusted the 1st Pilot in the left-hand seat!)
It was sometimes operationally necessary to take on fuel either in cloud or by night - or even both at the same time. In a perfectly balanced turn and with no external references, there is no sensation of turning so by night or in cloud it was essential that the non-flying pilot kept a keen eye on the instruments. The under-surface of the tanker could be illuminated for taking on fuel at night but many captains found the lights distracting once they had made contact and asked for them to be turned off - I certainly preferred the lights to be off.

Most tanker squadrons operated with constituted crews: in other words, the same five officers flew together as a team. This was a system that had been the norm in the V Bomber Main Force where five-man crews had to train together as a complete fighting unit for their nuclear bombing missions. Only they knew the location of, and regularly studied, their own target. Guest crew members were not allowed: you either flew as a complete crew or the crew didn't fly. There was no such necessity on the tanker force and, indeed, quite regularly in my early years on 214 Squadron we were programmed to fly non-constituted crews for operational or planning reasons.

The Victor Mk 1 and 1A, I needn't go into the differences now, were pleasant and forgiving aircraft to fly, but with one main proviso: they were desperately short of power (aka thrust - oomph.), especially in hot climates. When you read in the following pages about things that went wrong on some of my Victor sorties, you may be excused for thinking that it was a dangerous aircraft to fly. It was not, but the best stories to read are about the flights where something went wrong and those are the ones I have written about. I'm sure you would not want to read about the hundreds of sorties that went exactly as planned.

Before being let loose on a real tanker, I 'flew' eight sorties in the Victor flight simulator, all but one with me in the left hand seat. Flight simulators in the early 1970s were nothing like the sophisticated simulators available these days. The Victor simulator was little more than a large link trainer: there were no visuals, no movement, absolutely no sense of flying at all. It was useful as a procedures and emergencies trainer but that was all and, in any case, there was nothing better.

Some 27 years later, on 20 December 1998 to be precise, I was a guest of British Airways at Heathrow and 'flew' their fantastic B747-400 flight simulator. The setting was Kai Tak Airport at Hong Kong. We 'took-off' on the infamous RW31 where the high mountains off the end were getting closer and closer. I then flew a low level sight-seeing circuit around Hong Kong island before landing back half an hour later on the reciprocal RW13, which necessitated skimming hundreds of dwellings at little more than rooftop height before making a 60 degree descending turn onto the runway heading when barely three miles from touchdown - I needed help with that! The visual sensations, accelerations, climbs, turns, turbulence, were both exhilarating and disconcerting. My instructor on that day, who had been in the right hand seat making sure I didn't crash the simulator, said afterwards, "You can always recognise an RAF QFI. They're the ones who spend a lot of their time looking out of the cockpit, particularly before making a turn. You, Tony, looked to the right and left before every turn - even before we started taxying out from the stand."

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