You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink

One day I was acting as the station's Duty Commander Flying (DCF) for an important deployment of several Victor tankers to Cyprus. I did not have to be on the roster for any purely station activity, but I had let it be known that I was quite content to take my turn on the DCF roster because it was easy for me to arrange my VSU programme around it. DCF was responsible to the Station Commander for all aspects of current flying by any of the station's aircraft. His duties included monitoring the weather and selecting suitable alternate airfields in the event that diversions were required; advising any airborne pilot that had a problem; and keeping the squadron commanders informed of any incidents involving their aircraft.

On this particular day I was up very early because the station was mounting an operation where several tankers would be supporting a deployment of F4 Phantoms to the Middle East. Normally I would have gone to Station Operations first but, because I knew there had been a heavy overnight frost following rain the previous evening, I decided to go first to the Air Traffic Control Tower on the far side of the airfield. I wanted to talk face-to-face with the Duty Controller so I could have the best possible advice on whether or not the runway de-icing vehicles would need to be called out: that was one of the DCF's prerogatives.

The airfield was dark as I approached in my car at 0500hrs, three hours before the first planned take-off. Before crossing the threshold of the main runway, I automatically slowed to a crawl and looked up the airfield approach and then along the runway to make sure that there were no aircraft in the vicinity. It was an instinctive action on my part because the fact that the runway was in darkness indicated that the airfield was closed. I entered the Tower and climbed the steps to Local Control where a young pilot officer, recently arrived from training school, was on duty. He had just started switching on the airfield lights, prior to going out to check on the condition of the airfield surfaces, when he noticed a car coming across the now brightly lit runway 24 threshold.

"Who's in that car?" he asked, reaching for his binoculars.

I recognised the Station Commander's car with his pennant flying from the bonnet. Thinking, perhaps, that the young officer was out to impress me with his vigilance I said, helpfully, "Don't you recognise the Station Commander's car?"

"I don't care who he is," said the pilot officer. "He needs my permission to cross the active runway." Before I could stop him, he flashed the red Aldis lamp continuously at the car, the signal that the driver was to report immediately to Air Traffic Control. This is going to be interesting, I thought.

The Station Commander came up into Local Control a few minutes later. Not noticing me in the background, he asked the Pilot Officer, "What's the problem?"

"You crossed the active runway without my permission, sir," said the Controller rather brusquely.

The Station Commander, apparently noticing me for the first time, gave me a quizzical look. Then he turned back to the pilot officer. "So I did. However, this my station. I give the orders. To whom are you going to report me?"

The pilot officer reddened and failed to reply. The Station Commander then ignored the Controller and started a conversation with me about something entirely different. My point in re-telling this story is to point out that each of them, the young controller and the senior group captain, were both right and both wrong. The pilot officer was correct about the breach of rules but should have been more tactful and at the very least should have asked me to mention the breach of rules to the Station Commander rather than do it himself - after all, I was the Duty Commander Flying at the time. The Station Commander was right to reprimand the young officer about his manner, but he was wrong for not calling ATC on the mobile radio in his car to ask permission before crossing the active runway. It was also wrong of him to humiliate the very inexperienced officer in the way that he did. It is the duty of all officers to educate those officers junior to them, not to humiliate them (that's a paraphrase of what Queen's Regulations for the RAF state.)

When the Station Commander had left and the pilot officer and I were alone again a few minutes later, I told him that he had been unwise to speak to the Station Commander the way he had.

"That's not the point, sir", he said, stubbornly. "I was right, and he was wrong."

You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink, I thought to myself - an ancient saying that means you cannot force someone to do something they don't want to do.

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