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

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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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' for a dedicated VSU sortie, I asked the squadron commander of the captain I wished to check, to programme me to fly a scheduled sortie which involved refuelling either a group of fighter aircraft or taking on fuel from another tanker - or both. 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, in conjuction with the aircrew, how to deal most expeditiously with the simulated 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 to check out his general flying ability and, fuel and time permitting, I would fly a few myself to keep my hand in.

On one of my early VSU sorties, I managed to ‘contrive’ a practice diversion to RAF Manston in Kent for a simulated, wheels-up, landing on their emergency foam strip - the only one in the UK. I had deliberately not told ATC at Manston in advance that I was intending to initiate the practice since the station was permanently on standby to deal with any such incident - military or civil. I did alert the Controller at West Drayton what I intended to do, and they agreed not to warn Manston. En route to Manston, the captain under test had to brief his crew on the procedures before and immediately after an emergency wheels-up landing on foam. Had this been a real emergency, we would have flown around in the immediate vicinity of Manston to reduce the aírcraft weight to the absolute minimum by jettisoning redundant fuel over the sea. I made sure that Manston didn’t actually lay the 1,000 ft long foam strip for this practice but, I learned later, that the station’s crash, fire and medical teams all went through the motions for a Victor tanker making a ‘wheels-up’ landing. It was a good exercise for everyone. I had been hoping that someone on the ground would take photographs of our Victor approaching to land with its undercarriage up but, if they did, I never saw the photographs.

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 an occasional practice diversion to either Heathrow or Gatwick civil airports. 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 Exceptional assessment was, as might be expected, exceptional but I did award one or two – on occasions where a real emergency occurred in flight and the captain handled it, in my opinion, in an entirely proper way. 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.

While I was busy concentrating on flight checking pilots, my other three staff organised their own flight checks independently of mine. They almost always flew in the 6th seat facing to the rear so they could concentrate on the navigators’ and the AEO’s specialist performance and on overall crew co-operation.

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. Cynics might suggest that it would be a brave squadron checking officer who would write a critical report on OC VSU or one of his team. Don’t believe it! Professional aircrew are not like that. If I screwed up, I would know I’d screwed up, and the checking officer would know that he could not get away with ignoring that fact.

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 (over the top) 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 wanted 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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