Home at last- but not without a further incident at Akrotiri - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Home at last- but not without a further incident at Akrotiri

Our crew met up again for the excellent, help yourself, breakfast buffet and the friendly Arab who had driven us to the hotel the evening before was waiting in the foyer to take us back to our aircraft. I assume he was on a retainer. Fuel bowsers turned up as we arrived on the airfield and we helped our crew chief fill our tanks to capacity as quickly as possible. The armed guards were still around keeping watch over us, but they were less threatening than the day before. A few other locals had gathered, and they stood around silently watching - they possibly had nothing else to do. I simply assumed that we were going to be permitted to leave and it seemed a good idea to go just as soon as we were ready. I actually forgot about the diplomatic clearances for the next leg across Iran and Turkey. I was determined to leave Dubai as quickly as possible. Finally, I got my navigator to send a copy of the flight plan over to Air Traffic Control and we boarded our aircraft. It was very hot, already in the high-30s, rising rapidly, and very humid.

Our take-off run used up most of the 13,000 feet of concrete. Thankfully the flight to Akrotiri went as per the flight plan and there were no problems with any of the air traffic control authorities. A direct route from Dubai to Akrotiri would have crossed Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq, countries where the RAF was not welcome in 1972. Instead, we flew north across the Gulf to Bandar-e-Abbas on the southern coast of Iran, where we joined the Iranian civilian airways system, and then flew the length of Iran from south to north, passing close to Tehran, before turning left at Lake Van and continuing along Turkish airways. Most of our flight was, as usual, at around 40,000 feet, well above any civilian traffic. Eventually we turned left when we were passing south of Ankara, crossed the Mediterranean, passed overhead Nicosia and on to Akrotiri. It was just like a navigation exercise for the navigators but a very pretty route for the pilots, especially flying in clear skies over the high mountains in the north of Iran, and over the very remote Lake Van and Diyarbakir areas of Turkey.

In order to make up for the extra day we'd been delayed at Gan, I had already planned, after discussions with my crew during breakfast in the Dubai hotel, that we would double-stage through Akrotiri, staying on the ground there just long enough to refuel. We were all pretty desperate to get home. To save us the bother of repacking the tail braking parachute, a lengthy, tedious job at the best of times, I checked the landing conditions to see if we were within the limits for landing without streaming the parachute. We had to be below 135,000lbs all up weight on landing, there had to be 9,000 feet of runway available and there had to be no tail wind component at touchdown. I confirmed all three of those conditions on the final approach.

It was the co-pilot's turn to do the approach and landing. Alan flew a perfectly good approach but in the last couple of hundred feet we clearly picked up a few knots of unexpected tailwind. Alan flared for the landing but the aircraft 'floated' about 50 feet above the concrete and continued to do so. I took control, forced the aircraft down onto the runway and simultaneously streamed the tail parachute. It was a heavy landing, the worst I ever made in a Victor. The tail braking parachute is most effective at high speeds but by the time it was fully streamed on this occasion it produced little noticeable retardation. For a few seconds I thought we might be going off the end of the runway into the salt flats. However, the Victor's wheel brakes are very efficient and we slowed sufficiently to allow me to turn left off the runway and onto the taxiway right at the western end.

ATC reported that sparks had been seen from one of the main wheels on touchdown and they thought a tyre might have burst. They advised me to hold my position so that the wheels could be checked. I suddenly realised that there were several Marham tankers waiting to take off on an operational refuelling sortie. It was a good job I had managed to clear the runway because to have delayed tankers on an operational take-off would have been extremely embarrassing. The Marham detachment engineering officer came out to us at the end of the runway with a crew coach and inspected the undercarriage. He reported that one tyre had burst and several others would have to be changed as a precaution. He told us to go to the Transit Mess, have breakfast (the second breakfast of the day), and stay there until he called us. His men would change the tyres, refuel the aircraft, re-pack the tail parachute and prepare the aircraft for the flight to Marham. He clearly wanted us up and away before the other tankers returned from their operational sortie.

Within two hours we were airborne again and less than five hours after that we taxied into our usual squadron dispersal at Marham. As we climbed down our Flight Commander welcomed each of us back and introduced us to our new Squadron Commander. The new Boss said he had followed our adventures with great interest and was most impressed with the way our crew had handled all the difficulties we had encountered in the 32 days since we had left Marham. There was no mention of the landing incident at Akrotiri.

I handed over to the RAF Marham Operations Staff the signals file I had maintained throughout the Lone Ranger. The final enclosure, number 100 as it happens, was the copy of the signal I had sent at Akrotiri giving our estimated time of arrival at Marham. Of those 100 enclosures almost 90 were signals I had sent; the remainder were engineering signals we had received and admin messages from stations we had passed through. There were only two signals from our Command HQ, Station or Squadron: one was the message that told us a replacement engine was on its way to us from UK and the other was the one that had authorised us to continue the Lone Ranger following the engine change at Masirah. It really had been a 'Lone' Ranger.

We never did learn for certain what had caused the alternator failures at Tengah although, when the aircraft went into the hangar at Marham for an investigation, handfuls of swarf (stuff rather like wire wool) were found in a couple of cooling ducts around the dodgy alternator. It was thought the material might have been left over after a major servicing some months earlier at a maintenance unit. Whether that swarf had in some way caused a short circuit when the ducts flexed in flight and thereby caused the alternator trips in the Far East, was never proved. It was agreed by the engineers that the swarf shouldn't have been in the ducts anyway.

We never heard anything more about our diplomatic clearances nor did I ever have any feedback from Sharjah, or anywhere else, about what happened to all the signals I had sent them and to which they never replied. I never heard anything more about the huge bills I had signed in Singapore and at Dubai - although I must admit I did keep a careful check on my personal current account for several months.

I was most impressed by the professionalism of all my crew during this, my first Lone Ranger as a Captain. I am particularly grateful to my AEO, Neil Flowerdew, and my co-pilot Alan Skelton, who both proof-read this story (they were the only ones I was able to contact), and for their suggestions and corrections, all of which I incorporated. Neil told me that there were 29 unserviceable items to be entered in XH667's engineering log when we got back to base - most related to faults that we had carried (ie we made do without them being fixed) for most of the Lone Ranger. The item I particularly remembered concerned the auto-pilot, which had failed on our initial approach to Tengah. Alan Skelton and I had to fly the entire route from Singapore to Marham manually - 16 hours 30 mins flying time. Non-pilots will not appreciate how very tiring that was. - especially as the navigator would always grumble if we allowed the aircraft heading to wander off more than one or two degrees!

Above: My two logbook pages covering the round trip from Marham to Singapore in June/July 1972. LR5216 was the name of the lone ranger. MTARK was our international radio callsign for the entire lone ranger - I reckoned it actually stood for Marham Tanker from the Ark.  DNCO stands for "duty not carried out " - referring to the planned duty.
2018 Afterthought. Looking back from 2018 at our Far Eastern Lone Ranger, my very first Lone Ranger as a captain, I still find it astonishing that the most junior crew on the squadron should have been sent on their own to the Far East and back when international air traffic control and diplomatic and domestic communications were so basic, and to take 33 days about it. I had only 350 hours on type and less than 1,000 ‘command’ hours on all types, when we set off. In those 33 days, the only order I received from UK, was to "carry on" after that near disastrous engine fire on Day 2. I imagine it would be unthinkable these days for any single crew in a military aircraft to be permitted to fly through all the countries we flew through without having confirmed diplomatic clearances and without receiving orders every few hours from home. That was actually what Lone Rangers were all about – and why they were called Lone Rangers.

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