I am appointed Officer Commanding the Victor Standardisation Unit (VSU) - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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I am appointed Officer Commanding the Victor Standardisation Unit (VSU)

I was appointed Officer Commanding the Victor Standardisation Unit (VSU) in January 1975. My new unit lodged in a tiny office on the top floor of one of the hangars at RAF Marham. It made sense for the VSU, colloquially known as the Trappers, to be based at Marham because the complete Victor tanker force was there, but I reported directly to the Air Officer Commanding No 1 Group (the AOC) then based at RAF Bawtry, 100 miles away near Doncaster.

Above: The standard way for one Victor to join up with another: astern and 1,000ft below, with a closing speed of about 50 knots, before being ínvited to close up on the tanker's starboard side.
There was a touch of déjà vu about my new appointment because only nine years earlier, while I was still an Air Electronics Officer but about to start my own pilot training, I had sat in, as an observer, on a very heated staff meeting where a new commanding officer for the 3 Group Standardisation Unit (3GSU), the predecessor of the VSU, was being discussed. The choice then was between a time-served squadron leader who was very experienced in the role, and a younger, less experienced, newly-promoted squadron leader who was deemed to need a 'command appointment' to further his career. I never found out which candidate was selected because shortly after that meeting I was posted away to start my own pilot training. I could not help wondering if there had been a similar staff meeting about my appointment to command the VSU.

I had to visit my new Boss at HQ No 1 Group before I could start the new job. I arrived very early for my appointment having driven myself from Marham. While I was waiting to meet the air vice-marshal, I went to another office to call in on the Victor Air-to-Air Refuelling Cell. The cell was manned by navigators whose task was to write the refuelling plans for Victor tankers and their accompanying fighters (the 'customers') engaged on operational deployments. Those plans were always incredibly complicated and I wanted to see how they were put together. I found the office full of navigators when I entered; they were gathered around a bulky VDU - but they were not planning a Victor deployment.

"Come and look at this, Tony," one of them said excitedly as I entered. "It's a Moon-landing computer programme we've just created."

Wow, I thought. Is RAF Strike Command getting into space flight less than six years after Apollo 11. No! The navigators had created a simple Basic 'program' that supposedly simulated the final stages of a manned rocket landing on the Moon. The scenario had the Moon lander short of fuel. As far as I could discern, the object of the game was to enter, via the keyboard, amounts of fuel with the aim of retarding the lander just sufficiently to make a soft vertical landing. If too much fuel was injected the lander would shoot skyward, sorry spaceward, and never be seen again. If too little fuel was injected the lander would make a heavy, or very heavy, or disastrously heavy, landing on the Moon and be destroyed.

"All you have to do," one of the navs explained, "is to key in any multiple of 50 and press the Enter key. Watch."

He demonstrated the various options and 'made' several successful soft landings as well as some disastrous ones. Text messages on the screen indicated "Goodbye forever", "You've crashed and are all dead", or "Congratulations, you've landed safely", as appropriate. I was underwhelmed! Actually, there was no lower case so everything came up on the screen in capitals. There were no graphics, no sound, no instructions, no advice on fuel consumption or weight, sorry mass, of the rocket: it was all guesswork. After each iteration, one had to key in 'CLS', whereupon the screen went blank momentarily before displaying a flashing green ">" symbol at the top left hand corner. The navigators knew how to make successful soft landings because they had programmed the machine. They could not understand why I had no interest in trying the programme for myself.

"Typical pilot" someone muttered and then, to my relief, the ADC came in and summoned me to the AOC's office.

The AOC made it abundantly clear to me that I would be responsible to him alone, and not the Station Commander at RAF Marham, for all aspects of Victor tanker flying operations. To do that I and my three specialists, a navigator plotter, a navigator radar/refuelling operator, and an air electronics officer, were to carry out regular flight and ground checks on the crews of the three Victor tanker squadrons (55, 57 and 214) and the pilots on the Victor Simulator Squadron, and additionally make recommendations to the AOC on any matters affecting tanker operations that I saw fit - he emphasised the "any matters" bit. How I carried out those orders was entirely up to me. The AOC did not ask me to comment on my orders; he dismissed me with a smile, a "Good luck", and a handshake. It was all over in about five minutes!

The first thing I noticed at Marham after taking up the appointment was that the four of us on the VSU could no longer pop into any of the three squadron crew rooms just for a coffee and a chat. "You and any member of your team may call in for a social visit at any time you wish, Tony," Wing Commander Al Sutherland, OC 57 Squadron, told me one day in my first week when I was in his crew room uninvited, "but you must ask me in advance so I, or one of my flight commanders, can be present. Look at it from my point of view: you work for the AOC now - I work for the Station Commander. I need to know what you're up to." I could see his point.

I was required to fly with each Victor captain once per year and supervise a flight simulator sortie once per year with each of the three or four flight simulator instructors. My three staff on the VSU had similar tasks pertaining to their own aircrew category. In addition to those duties, there were sundry additional tasks for me: checks of flight supervisory officers; checks of experienced co-pilots who were being considered for captaincies; and the renewal of pilots' instrument ratings.
I was also ex officio CFS Agent for all the Victor tanker force pilots. In that capacity I worked for the Commandant of the RAF's Central Flying School, then based at RAF Little Rissington. As CFS Agent I was responsible for the flying standards of all Victor pilots, and for issuing, renewing, and upgrading the QFI category held by any of the Victor captains who were former flying instructors. Clearly, I was going to get considerably more flying than I had done on either of my previous Victor squadrons and that pleased me.

On a legal point, I personally authorised all my own VSU flights which meant, of course, that I was solely responsible for the way I conducted the flights. The VSU did not 'own' any aircraft so, in effect, I borrowed the aircraft and associated ground crew for each and every VSU flight. That was very important - for the squadron commanders as well as for me. If I screwed up there would be no come-back on the squadron commanders.

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