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

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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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, quite early on in the sortie, 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 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 rapidly 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. Fortunately, I had been paying attention to the flight instruments otherwise I might have become disorientated. 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, still in thick cloud, 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. One of my crew, 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 happen, or because of a medical problem, I knew not. I assured my rear crew that everything was now under control. I told the AEO to inform the area radar controller, who had obviously noticed our unexpected manoeuvres and rapid height loss on his radar, that we had experienced a minor problem, but everything was now under control. However, when he had done that and there was still with no response of any kind from the candidate, I told the AEO to inform ATC that I was curtailing the sortie and returning to base and would need medical assistance for the first pilot immediately after landing. I even wondered, but only for a second or two, whether the pilot had deliberately allowed the aircraft to go 'out of control' as a test for me – to see whether or not I was completely paying attention. I dismissed the thought because it was surely inconceivable that such an experienced pilot would deliberately do that.

The candidate maintained his silence while I flew the aircraft back to base and landed. While we were taxying in, the candidate still remained completely silent and I left him in the care of the medical officer who met us at the aircraft dispersal. I was bewildered, as were the rest of the crew when I debriefed them about what had happened. 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 by telephone, and subsequently in writing, but I heard nothing more about the incident. I never got any feedback from Group HQ, so I took that to mean they approved of my actions. 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.

(2018 Note. Later, when I tried to ask him what had been wrong, he simply ignored me; in fact, he never spoke to me again. I still have no idea what his problem was, nor was I privy to the medical officer's report. I wrote this story to highlight the flight safety and airmanship elements. That pilot died some years after this incident from natural causes, but I see no point in my naming him now.)

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