Pirate Trail - the longest VSU trip ever! - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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Pirate Trail - the longest VSU trip ever!

In reconstructing the following story I am very grateful to the three members of my crew I have been able to contact, John Elliott the 1st pilot, John Chivers the AEO, and John Hudspeth the navigator/refuelling operator, for jogging my memory of events now more than 40 years ago, for correcting my mistakes, and for permitting me to tell what is their story as well as mine.

Above: This is Victor XH589, the subject of this story, at RAF Gan in 1973 being prepared by my regular crew for a mission unconnected with the story of this Pirate Trail

There was one over-riding principle of any tanker operation: the receivers should always get from the tanker the fuel they needed to complete their mission. The mission of Operation Pirate Trail A26 starting early on Monday 24 February 1975 was for 57 Squadron to escort a single Royal Navy Buccaneer from the UK to somewhere off the coast of Florida, USA, to replace one that had 'accidentally dropped over the side of the aircraft carrier and been lost', (Get the reason for the operation's name? Pirate - Buccaneer.) The plan required four Victor tankers to get that single Buccaneer across the North Atlantic Ocean from RAF Honington in Suffolk to RAF Goose Bay in Labrador: three to fly and one ground reserve. All four tankers would start engines simultaneously but the reserve aircraft would remain in dispersal when the other three taxied out for take-off. Only when the three primary tankers were airborne and on their way would the ground reserve be stood down.

Pirate Trail A26 did not go as planned. The four crews of 57 Squadron detailed for the Pirate Trail were in Marham Operations at the same time as I was there planning to fly a routine VSU flight check on John Elliott's crew of 55 Squadron. About 10 minutes after the 57 Squadron crews had gone to their aircraft, I was summoned to OC Operations Wing who asked if I was willing to stand in as ground reserve for the Pirate Trail because a crew member on the reserve aircraft had just been given some sad news about a family death and it was then too late to find a replacement for him. Since I had a crew already dressed and ready to fly in Victor XH589, which was fuelled to maximum capacity as all my VSU flights were, OC Ops thought it would be easier for my crew to act as the ground reserve for the Panther Trail rather than trying to get 57 Squadron to generate another aircraft and crew. Ground reserves were rarely called upon to fly but, as an independent CO, my first instinct was to decline because I knew my crew would have been keyed up over the weekend getting ready to fly their annual VSU check. No-one liked VSU checks, but no-one liked last minute postponements of them either. I made the decision to help the station out on an important operational matter and delay my planned VSU flight slightly in order to stand by as ground reserve.

For complicated tanker operations such as this one, the rule was that all the tanker crews involved should have complete flight plans for any of the possible roles they might have to fly. To that end, a mass of briefing material was quickly photo-copied and handed to us as we left the briefing room to go to our aircraft. Time was of the essence because the scheduled take-off time for the Buccaneer at Honington as well as the Marham tankers was rapidly approaching. Now we were the nominated ground reserve, we had to be prepared to take over at a minute's notice any of the flight plans for the three primary tankers.

As ground reserve in Victor XH589 we would go through all the motions, including engine start, and only stand down on instructions from the Group Controller when all three primary tankers, and the Buccaneer, were airborne and en route. It was actually quite a good, if totally unexpected, test of crew cooperation because I could watch how John Elliott's crew went about this short notice change of plan and I would be able to use my findings in my VSU report.

Without going into all the operational details, on the first stage Tankers 2 and 3 would top up the leading tanker at different points over the North Atlantic and then return to Marham. The lead tanker then had sufficient fuel to accompany the Buccaneer, and top it up as required, all the way to Goose Bay. The following day the Buccaneer would be refuelled in flight just once, somewhere overhead New York State, by the one remaining tanker. The Buccaneer would then have sufficient fuel to complete its journey unaccompanied to wherever its aircraft carrier was off the coast of Miami and the tanker would turn about and return to Marham via Goose Bay. Job done!

As I always did when flight testing crews, I told the crew to treat John Elliott as Captain and I briefed John to make all the decisions even if we had to get airborne on the Pirate Trail. I, in the right hand seat, would perform as an average competent co-pilot could be expected to perform. That implied that I could be trusted to carry out the co-pilot's duties but with suitable supervision. It was standard practice at the time for the two pilots to refer to each other on the intercom by their seat position: 1st pilot or co-pilot. If I wished for some operational or safety reason to overrule any decision, I would announce it by saying on the intercom, "Captain to crew", so there could be no misunderstanding. There can, of course, only be one captain at a time and he is the one who signs for the aircraft and carries the can (and quite often the in-flight rations box as well!).

We all had overnight bags containing civilian clothes and passports because it was standard practice to fly with those items on all operational refuelling sorties. We were wearing the cumbersome, but highly effective, rubber immersion 'dry' suits since they were mandatory wear for all flights over the Atlantic and the North Sea in winter. The crew chief from the original ground reserve aircraft, Chief Technician Dave Cooper, joined our crew out at our aircraft rather breathlessly. Because of low cloud over Marham, the three Pirate Trail tankers were planned to take-off at 30-second intervals and fly a precise pattern on the climb out from Marham until they were all in visual contact with each other on top of the cloud. The Buccaneer would make its own way to join up with the three tankers somewhere over Scotland.

The refuelling plan was quite complicated. The inviolable rule was that the Buccaneer should at all times have sufficient fuel in its tanks to reach a land-based airfield should any emergency occur en route. With that in mind, the route across the North Atlantic had been planned by the Refuelling Cell at Group HQ Bawtry accordingly and suitable land-based airfields in Iceland, Greenland and the east coast of Canada had been booked and were on standby.

As Tankers 1 to 3 were taxiing out for take-off from Marham, another problem arose: Tanker 2 reported that he had a problem. I can't now remember exactly what it was, some sort of hydraulic snag, but that tanker had to shut down and was unable to continue. Tanker 3 automatically moved up to become Tanker 2 and our crew was promoted from ground reserve to become Tanker 3. Our engines were already running so we simply taxied out of dispersal and took our place at the rear of the other two tankers.

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