Annual formal visits to the squadrons - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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Annual formal visits to the squadrons

For my VSU flight checks I thought it was important to see how the 1st pilot and his crew reacted to both normal and emergency situations on a routine, scheduled air-to-air refuelling mission. Instead of borrowing an aircraft and crew, I asked the squadron commander of the crew I wished to check to programme me to fly a routine sortie which involved refuelling either a group of fighter aircraft or taking on fuel from another tanker. At some convenient point I would institute a simulated emergency that would require a practice emergency message to the UK flight emergency organisation: the controllers at West Drayton always welcomed such practices. It was up to the controller at West Drayton to decide how to deal most expeditiously with the incident, which is what he would have to do in the real case. On return to Marham I would ask the pilot to carry out a variety of circuits and landings and, fuel and time permitting, fly a few myself to keep my hand in.

I soon learned that the first question crews asked each other when they returned from a VSU check was "What did he give you?" or "Where did you go for your practice diversion?" One day in Marham's main briefing room when there were lots of aircrew around, I allowed myself to be overheard discussing quietly with another member of my own Team that I was going to start introducing practice diversions to either Heathrow or Gatwick. I discovered later that some crews started looking up the Heathrow and Gatwick approach and departure procedures, just in case. Of course, I couldn't do that - for one thing the RAF would not pay the airport handling fees.

Immediately after each VSU flight I debriefed the crew as a whole and then the pilot separately. In slower time I wrote a narrative report, at the end of which I was required to assess each pilot in a single word: Unsatisfactory, Satisfactory, Commendable, or Exceptional. An unsatisfactory flight with any VSU member was inevitably reported straight up through the command chain to the AOC - by me on the telephone immediately after landing if there was something serious to report. As a result the aircrew under test were usually in a state of anxiety before and during the flight checks and there was nothing I could do about that.

Like all captains, I had to renew my own QFI, Instrument Rating, night currency and other qualifications once per year. It could all have been a bit nepotistic because, on the face of it, I could choose which checking officer to fly with - but I didn't and so it wasn't. When my time was due I asked the squadron commanders to select one of their own supervisory captains to carry out my own annual check rides. I knew that if I didn't meet their required standard in any test, then I would be in big trouble.

Once per year my entire unit, all four of us, had to descend on a squadron HQ for a week and examine everything in minute detail, from the cleanliness of the buildings to the correct maintenance of the many order books. We carried out oral tests of individuals' general knowledge about tanker operations and procedures but we did not do any flying tests that week. The VSU's Annual Formal Inspection was a worrying time for everyone, but especially for squadron commanders.

To make sure everyone realised it was the Annual Formal Inspection, we turned up on the Monday morning promptly at 0900 hrs, dressed in our best blue uniform, and formally told the squadron commander that we had arrived. That had always seemed well OTT to me, especially as one of the squadrons lived in the same hangar as the VSU so all we had to do was walk downstairs. OTT or not, it had, so I was told, been the practice in the V Force for many years when the examiners were based at the Group HQs and not at the airfields. I tried to change that so that on Day 1 of the formal visit we could go downstairs, or walk to one of the other hangars, in our normal flying clothing, but I was over-ruled by Group HQ.

At the end of the VSU Week we debriefed the squadron commander on our findings and invited him to make any observations or comments that he wished to be included in my formal written report to the AOC. I always assumed that squadron commanders wrote a report on the VSU after we had left.

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