We go supersonic overhead Paris with 4 Lightnings in tow - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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We go supersonic overhead Paris with 4 Lightnings in tow

This is my own scan of a pic of Victor Bomber XH648, and a blow-up of its rear, before its tanker conversion, on static display at an air show somewhere in 1965. I cannot remember how I came by this pic so if anyone claims it is their copyright please let me know. As a B1A K2p I flew this aircraft many times - including the supersonic excursion detailed in the story below - and its last ever flight, to Duxford, on 6 June 1976. I became quite attached to this aircraft!

It had been decided in the mid-1960s that some Victor bombers should be re-configured as tankers to replace the operationally limited Valiants which could refuel only one aircraft at a time. The first few Victors were given an interim fit which mainly involved adding one refuelling pod under each wing. They were designated Victor B1A K2P. The K2P suffix denoted that they were 2-point tankers (K being the international designator for a tanker, eg the USAF's KC135, and 2P indicating two-point). The two underwing pods were fine for the in-flight refuelling of fighter aircraft but they could not refuel other tankers in flight. When the 3-point Victor tankers eventually came along, they were known simply as Victor K1; they had a specially designed large Hose Drum Unit (HDU - always pronounced 'hoodoo' to rhyme with voodoo) on the aircraft centreline in addition to the two under-wing refuelling points, and a very large fuel tank was installed in place of the now redundant bomb bay. Three rare Victor B1A K2P aircraft survived into the 1970s: XH648, XH647 and XH667. One was allocated to each of the three squadrons, 55, 57 and 214.

On 06 August 1971 I was detailed late in the day at very short notice to fly Victor B1A K2P XH648 to RAF Luqa (Malta) to replace an unserviceable 3-point tanker. The task was to escort four Lightning Mark 3s from Malta back to their home base at Wattisham in Suffolk, refuelling each of them twice en route. I was still the most junior captain serving on 214 Squadron but I was the only one available at such short notice. On the sortie in question, I had never flown before with the co-pilot I had alongside me for this sortie; I will not name him for reasons that will become obvious as you read on. The squadrons used K2Ps on operational refuelling sorties only when there were not enough 3-point tankers available, and that was the case for this operation. The flight to Malta took 3 hrs 20 minutes of which the last two hours were night flying.

Next morning, I decided to manage the fuel system myself at the latter stages of the return flight from Luqa to UK, not because I doubted my co-pilot's skill but because I wanted an opportunity to manage the internal fuel system myself. I briefed the complete crew before we left Malta that I would fly the aircraft for the first part of the flight and then handover to the co-pilot for the last hour or so and allow him to make the final approach and landing at Marham. The co-pilot was pleased with that arrangement because co-pilots regularly complained that they never got enough handling time.

Shortly after the final transfer of fuel to the Lightnings south of Paris, when we were flying at 41,000ft well above all civilian traffic, I handed control of the aircraft to my co-pilot and I started what was known as 'the scavenge drill', which involved pumping all the fuel remaining in the various wing tanks into the main tanks in the fuselage. Using the check list, I fingered the appropriate fuel pump and transfer cock switches before actually moving them; it would be disastrous to get it wrong and starve the engines of fuel. After some time, while waiting for the wing tanks to empty completely, I saw, from the corner of my right eye, the co-pilot reaching over to the central fuel panel and making a couple of fuel pump selections without my permission. I told him curtly to keep his hands off and concentrate on what he was supposed to be doing, which was monitoring the auto-pilot. Thinking about it afterwards I assumed he, out to impress the new captain, was getting frustrated with my slow, methodical progress through the check list.

Even as I was telling off my co-pilot, my eyes were attracted to the Rate of Climb and Descent Indicator (RCDI - some pilots call it the VSI, the Vertical Speed Indicator). I was astonished to see that the needle was moving down towards full-scale deflection - which represented a descent of 4,000 feet per minute. Immediately next to that instrument was the Mach meter and I was horrified to see the needle creeping inexorably from our planned cruising speed of Mach 0.9 towards, and a fraction beyond, Mach 1.0.

I need to make two short digressions here. The Victor bomber was a very slippery aircraft, and by slippery I mean aerodynamically very clean. It was well documented that on an early test flight of Victor Bomber XA917 on 1 June 1956 with test pilot Johnny Allam at the controls, he 'accidentally' exceeded Mach 1 in a shallow dive, making it the largest aircraft up to that time to exceed the speed of sound. I also knew there were stories, probably apocryphal, of Victor bomber pilots allegedly having exceeded Mach 1 in a slight dive just for the hell of it and because the aircraft could do it. The tanker versions could cruise quite happily, safely and relatively economically at Mach 0.93 in spite of the large refuelling pod mounted under each wing, but no-one knew of a Víctor tanker accelerating to anywhere near Mach 1.

There was a major reason for not deliberately exceeding Mach 0.95 – and we were warned about it in the ground school during our conversion training. At Mach 0.96 and beyond, the Victor would run out of pitch control because the large supersonic shock waves forming over each wing would completely blank the elevators on the top of the tailplane so rendering them ineffective. This meant that even pulling the control column fully backwards would not get the aircraft out of an ever-steepening dive and the aircraft would continue to accelerate past Mach 1.0 and on to who knows what Mach number. The only way of recovering from flight above Mach 0.96 was to slow down by closing the throttles and extending the air brakes. As the speed reduced through Mach 0.96, elevator control would be regained.

The second digression concerns the Victor's auto-pilot. It is always important to keep any aircraft in trim when flying with the auto-pilot engaged but it was especially important on the Victor. The auto-pilot height lock, which was supposed to keep a Victor flying at a constant height, was less than totally reliable and would frequently trip out for no obvious reason, even if the aircraft was in trim. However, if the aircraft had a nose up or nose down trim when the height lock tripped, the aircraft would naturally go into a climb or descent. Height lock trips in Victors were insidious; they sometimes occurred when the aircraft was in trim and then could pass unnoticed if the duty pilot was not completely attending to his duties.

Moving large quantities of fuel around during the scavenge drill always changed the aircraft's C of G (Centre of Gravity). My co-pilot, instead of doing his proper job of monitoring the auto-pilot and maintaining a good external lookout, had started fiddling with the fuel cocks against my instructions and had failed to notice two things: that the aircraft had gone slightly out of trim and the height lock had disengaged itself. The aircraft had then entered a descent, gentle and barely perceptible at first, which caused the speed to increase rapidly, which in turn caused the nose to drop further.

Calling out on the intercom, “I have control”, I grabbed hold of the control column with my right hand, thereby operating the auto pilot instinctive cut-out switch under my right thumb which disengaged the autopilot completely, fully closed the four throttles and extended the airbrakes. I remember seeing the Mach meter hovering just above Mach 1. I pulled the control column with both hands back into my chest as far as it could physically go and without it having any effect whatsoever on the aircraft’s attitude and that was a completely weird sensation. It is something I can remember as vividly today, even as I proof-read this page, as though it had only just happened. As the engines wound down to flight idle and the powerful air brakes took effect, we started rapidly decelerating. The deceleration caused the nose to start pitching up and I quickly had to retract the air brakes, open the throttles to 90%, and push the control column a long way forward again. There must have been several seconds of near zero-g. Fortunately, the crew in the rear cabin always had their seat belts fastened securely during refuelling operations. Having bottomed out at about 37,000 feet, I climbed gently and regained straight and level flight again at our ATC-approved cruising height of 41,000 feet.

My three crew members in the rear cabin with no outside view, must have said something during all this but I have absolutely no recollection of it. Worried about the four Lightnings that had been flying in loose formation with me, I called out "Sorry about that" on the formation's radio frequency. "Sorry about what?" came the nonchalant reply from the lead Lightning pilot. I looked out of my cockpit side window and saw two of the Lightnings in immaculate echelon port formation. Then looking downwards, I could see that we were directly over the centre of Paris: the Champs Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe were clearly visible. What I said to my co-pilot is best left unreported, but he was very apologetic and told me that he accepted full responsibility for what had happened. That, of course, was irrelevant because, as Captain of the aircraft I was solely responsible.

After landing, at Marham, 2 hrs 50 mins after taking off from Luqa, I filled in the mandatory Aircraft Incident Report. My grand total of 1st Pilot/Captain hours on the Victor amounted to only 100 hours. To my surprise and relief, I never heard anything more about the incident. The squadron engineers made the required stress checks of the airframe, paying particular attention to the two underwing refuelling pods, and found nothing untoward. The French authorities apparently didn’t make any complaint about supersonic booms over their capital, nor did the airways controller report that five aircraft had made an unauthorised deviation, albeit brief, of several thousand feet from their assigned flight level. Fortunately, in 1971 radar height finders were not very accurate and in any case the airways were far less crowded than they are these days.

I flew that aircraft, XH648, several more times before, almost exactly four years later, I delivered it on its final ever flight – to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford. That story is here.

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