A captain under test becomes disorientated in cloud at night - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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A captain under test becomes disorientated in cloud at night

One very dark night at 31,000 feet between layers of clouds over the North Sea, I was flying in the right hand seat of a Victor K1 conducting an Instrument Rating Test on a very experienced captain. IRTs were sometimes practised in the Victor Flight Simulator but the rules at the time stipulated that the formal test had to be conducted in the air and the pilot under test had to fly much of the flight manually, that is without using the auto-pilot.

At one point, ATC instructed us to alter heading 40 degrees to port to avoid conflicting traffic. The candidate entered what should have been a routine turn with 30 degrees of bank. I put my right hand on the four throttles waiting for him to request the 5% increase in thrust that was necessary to maintain speed (Mach 0.84) and height in the turn. Not only did the candidate not ask for the power increase but he allowed the angle of bank to increase beyond 30 degrees and, at the same time, he let the aircraft’s nose drop. In other words we entered a descending left hand turn with the speed increasing towards and potentially beyond Mach 0.9. I explained in an earlier page how the Victor was a very 'slippery' aircraft at high Mach numbers. The candidate made no response at all when I urgently called him to "check bank; check rate of descent". It was as though he had suddenly become paralysed into inaction.

I took control of the aircraft as we entered a thick and extensive cloud layer. With the angle of bank increasing beyond 45 degrees and the speed approaching Mach 0.94, I had to recover the aircraft to straight and level flight without inducing a high speed stall (often referred to as an 'accelerated' or ‘g’ stall). A very gentle pull up was needed to avoid the application of ‘rolling g’, which, to put it unscientifically, twists the airframe. During all this I had no reaction, or assistance, from the candidate. My navigator, doubtless speaking on behalf of all three rear crew members, asked on the intercom in an anxious voice, "What the Hell’s going on?"

Throughout those dramatic few seconds, the candidate had remained completely silent and motionless. Whether this was because he was embarrassed at what he had just allowed to occur, or because of a medical problem, I knew not. I assured my rear crew that everything was now under control. I told the area radar controller, who had obviously noticed our unexpected manoeuvres and rapid height loss on his radar, that I was curtailing the sortie and returning to base. Still with no response from the candidate, I told the AEO to inform ATC at base that we would need medical assistance for the First Pilot on landing.

The candidate maintained his silence and I completed the return to base and landed without any input at all from him. The candidate made no attempt to offer an explanation for his inaction. I left him in the care of the medical officer and debriefed the rest of the crew. Of course, the candidate failed his IRT for dangerous flying and he was immediately grounded by his squadron commander. I submitted my factual post flight report but heard nothing more officially about the incident. I never got any feedback from Group HQ so I took that to mean they approved of my action at failing the captain's IRT. They could hardly have done otherwise.

I was aware that one or two Victor pilots thought that I had acted too soon and thereby ruined a very experienced captain’s career - but that was based on crew room gossip. They had not been there and they did not know, or need to know, the full story from me. I heard no complaints from the three rear crew members who had been flying on that sortie with me, nor from any of the other navigators or air electronics officers on the Victor squadrons. (2017 Note. That pilot died some years ago from natural causes but I see no point in my naming him now. I tell the story to highlight the flight safety and airmanship elements.)

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