Atlantic crossings - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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Atlantic crossings



Above: I cannot now remember when I took this particular pic - it was one of many I took while training or examining pilots because they were useful for de-brieing purposes. In this instance, the receiver was holding just short of contact with the tanker's droque; you can just about make out that the red lights on the HDU (hose drum unit) underneath the tanker's fuselage are ON. When the red lights were on it indicated that the receiver should not attempt to make contact.  This image shows that I, in the right hand seat, was directly behind the tanker's centre line, therefore the hose was flying off to the left - and so was the pilot in the left-hand seat.)
A very popular series of flights for the Victor Tankers in the 1970s were known as Western Tankex Rangers. Like the ordinary Western Rangers I had been on as an AEO on Valiants, the aim was to give crews an opportunity to operate independently over North America, and a chance to visit USAF Strategic Air Command HQ at Omaha, Nebraska. Two tankers were required for Western Tankex Rangers. On Day 1, the first tanker flew from Marham to Goose Bay in Labrador and stayed the night. On Day 2 the second tanker would fly non-stop from Marham to Offutt AFB, being refuelled in flight by Tanker 1. The first tanker, having landed back at Goose Bay to refuel, then transited to Offutt AFB on the third day. The tankers reversed roles on the return flights to UK. My first Western Tankex Ranger was in March 1973 (see logbook extract below. Notice that my excellent co-pilot, Alan Skelton was now authorised to fly from the left hand seat and he did so for the flights on 16 and 19 March).

The tanker on the direct flight between Marham and Offutt typically took on 40,000lbs (roughly 20 old-fashioned tons) of fuel in 22-25 minutes, during which time its own engines used up about 6,000lbs of fuel. Thus, the net gain was about 34,000lbs. The Flight Refuelling Operator in the lead tanker had the fuel gauges which measured accurately the amount of fuel that flowed from tanker to receiver. Maximum transfers, as they were called, were always tiring for the receiving tanker's 1st Pilot because he had to fly the aircraft manually, right hand holding the control column and left hand operating the four engine throttles together. The auto-pilot couldn't be used by the receiver because it didn't have sufficient sensitivity to make the continuous small corrections needed and, let's face it, the Victor K1's auto-pilot with its 1950s technology, was not totally reliable anyway.

Timings by both Victors in the Goose Bay area were critical because the tanker transferring fuel overhead Goose Bay had to take off at a precise time that would enable it to climb to the operating height, usually about 35,000 feet, to be at the Rendezvous exactly on time and, crucially, pointing in the right direction. In those days the RV had to be completed by the hard work of the navigators in the two tankers - the civilian Air Traffic Controllers would not assist in achieving the RV since, as they often told us, their task was to keep aircraft apart not bring them into close proximity.

This was not the first occasion when I had been required to take on 40,000 lbs of fuel in flight but it was the first when a maximum on load was essential if the long non-stop flight was to be accomplished. The maximum fuel transfers between the two tankers were usually carried out around 35,000ft, well out of the way of any of the 1970s civilian traffic. Failure to complete the max on load successfully would defeat the whole purpose of the Western Ranger. I was, therefore, rather apprehensive as we approached the RV near Goose Bay and found there was quite a lot of high level turbulence causing the tanker's hose to wander around in gentle circles.  Anyone I flew with will confirm that I never 'lunged' at the tanker's hose - as I know some captains did. A Victor has a lot of momentum (or is it inertia?) at high altitude so any attempt to 'chase' the end of the refuelling drogue will inevitably cause either a very rough ride for the rear crew or repeated failures to make contact - or both. As a former AEO, I didn't want to worry my rear crew, who always hated being in the receiving aircraft, so I always tried to make the approach to the hose as gentle as I could - and if I missed contact, then I would back off and try again. I used up most of the refuelling area on this first Western Ranger but I did succeed.


The pic above, taken by my co-pilot, shows the tanker XA927, now on minimum fuel, turning away after filling us up and before descending back into Goose Bay.
Sometimes the receiving Victor would find that it was impossible to remain in position at maximum permitted power. In those circumstances the receiver would request a manoeuvre known as 'toboggan'. The two aircraft would gently enter a very slow descent thereby using gravity to assist and consequently allowing both aircraft to reduce power slightly. 'Gently' was the keyword. Both aircraft had to start descending at exactly the same time and at the same rate otherwise a 'whip' was liable to develop in the refuelling hose and contact could easily be broken. In the worst case the receiver's probe end could be broken off. A rate of descent of about 300 feet per minute was usually sufficient to allow the on-load of fuel to continue until the planned transfer was complete.

Pilots reading this will readily appreciate, but non-aircrew often do not, that the weights of both tanker and receiver change significantly during this long transfer of fuel. The tanker gets lighter and its pilot has to reduce power to maintain a constant speed, while the receiver gets steadily heavier and its pilot has to increase power to remain in contact. (I use the non-technical term ‘power’, rather than the correct term ‘thrust’, deliberately to avoid confusing non-technical readers.) Towards the end of a maximum on-load of fuel, a Victor K1 receiver required almost the maximum permitted power setting on all four engines to remain in position without dropping back and thus breaking contact with the refuelling hose. The co-pilot was responsible for making sure the fuel flowing into the receiver was pumped into appropriate tanks and in so doing aiming to keep the aircraft's centre of gravity within the allowable limits.

Below: In May 1973, I received what was known as the Promotion Letter, telling me that I had been selected for promotion in July 1973 but I was not to tell anyone until it was formally and publicly announced at midnight on 1 July.

I was duly promoted to squadron leader and posted from 214 Squadron to 55 Squadron in the adjacent hangar. In the 'old days', promotion to squadron leader or any higher rank almost always involved a posting away from the station, presumably to avoid any unfortunate personality clashes with former friends and colleagues who were now your juniors, but by the 1970s that had changed. For a few weeks I was the Pilot Leader in my new rank on 55 Squadron but, when the paperwork caught up and a new squadron commander, Wing Commander A J (Tony) McCreery had taken over 55 Squadron, I was formally appointed as his Flight Commander Air.

The new squadron commander was a navigator. He thought it would be more flexible and efficient to programme five individuals for each flight rather than have five-man constituted crews. There were always some crew members that others didn't like to fly with, for one reason or another. The new OC 55 Squadron considered that constituted crews might get too familiar with each other in routine peacetime flying, particularly if the crew was stuck with one of those individuals who was not well liked, and he considered that might be detrimental to flight safety, especially in an emergency. Many of 55 Squadron aircrew did not agree with him but he was the Boss so we did things his way.

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