All change - and we finished the day in Canada - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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All change - and we finished the day in Canada

Below: I found this pic in my archives recently but I don't remember where it was taken or who took it. However, it nicely illustrates what I describe in the following paragraphs when my crew were maneuvering to take on fuel from the Lead Tanker halfway across the North Atlantic in this story of  Operation Pirate Trail A26, in which we escorted a Buccaneer from UK to Florida.

Things then progressed exactly as planned - but only for the next couple of hours. Tanker 2 topped up the Buccaneer a couple of times, once over Scotland and once heading out over the Atlantic, and then turned for home. As Tanker 3 we had a waiting role until we approached 20° West when it was time for us to give Tanker 1 sufficient fuel to allow him to continue with the Buccaneer to Goose Bay. Just as we were moving into the lead to do that, Tanker 1 reported on the inter-aircraft radio frequency that he had a fault that meant he would be unable to take on fuel. I cannot now remember what that fault was but it meant that Tanker 1 was incapable of completing its mission. John Elliott looked across the cockpit at me with an unspoken question in his eyes. I gave him an encouraging grin and a thumbs up. He announced to his crew and on the radio that we were assuming the role of Tanker 1. He moved smoothly behind the 'new' Tanker 2 and took on board the 20,000 lbs or so of fuel required for us and the Buccaneer to get to Goose Bay. The original Tanker 1 then turned about and returned to Marham.

It is worth pointing out that none of those in-flight changes to the plan had to be approved by anyone on the ground back at base or at Group HQ because they were all carried out strictly in accordance with the Tanker Standard Operating Procedures. As a matter of routine our AEO, John Chivers, kept Marham informed of the various changes of plan so that Marham Operations Wing and the squadron HQ could be informed and they, in turn, could let all the affected families know. Not once did I need to refer to myself as Captain because the crew acted exactly in accordance with the tanker SOP. That evening at Goose Bay, I debriefed my crew and told them that their formal VSU check was now over so that we could all enjoy a night off in Canada before returning to UK on the following day after refuelling the Buccaneer over New York.

Next morning, at pre-flight briefing with the Buccaneer crew, it became clear that there was cause for concern about the weather for our departure from Goose Bay. There would be thick frontal cloud from take-off up to about 30,000 feet. In what in 1975 was still a very remote area of Canada, there was no military radar available that could aid the Buccaneer to RV with us when we reached the top of the climb. Over Canada, there was the added problem that we would be operating in the civilian airways system on an international flight towards US airspace. Air Traffic Controllers always used to maintain that their job was to keep aircraft apart procedurally and they could not effect a mid-air RV even had they wanted to. The Royal Navy pilot wanted to carry out a stream take-off with us but allowing a Buccaneer to do that was not an approved procedure and was not practised even in the UK. However, I knew the Buccaneer pilot was very experienced so I stepped in, as Captain, and said that unless anyone on either crew had an objection, the Buccaneer could take-off 30-seconds after us and use his on-board radar to maintain a safe height and distance behind us until we reached the top of the cloud. There were no objections.

But that was not all: the Met Officer told us that there was an unusually powerful south-westerly high level jet stream which meant that we could expect a 120 knot headwind component for the first 750 miles of the flight at least. The two navigators, Victor and Buccaneer, worked out that the Buccaneer would require more fuel, over and above that detailed in the Pirate Trail plan, in order for it to complete its flight safely to Florida. That meant that, after casting off the Buccaneer somewhere near New York, we would arrive back at Goose Bay on minimum fuel.

We heard the Buccaneer call "rolling" on the radio 30 seconds after us, as we had briefed, but by then we had already disappeared into the low cloud. During the climb to 31,000 feet, we flew through heavy snow precipitation for the first few thousand feet and it was very turbulent due to the dense frontal cloud. The Buccaneer was keeping tabs on us using his air-to-air radar and my refuelling operator, John Hudspeth, was using his old V Force bombing radar in a special mode which allowed him to look rearwards rather than downwards, so we knew the Buccaneer was following about two miles behind. Soon John Hudspeth reported that the Buccaneer was closing up. The tension in the Victor was palpable and my crew became very quiet. Visibility in the cloud was minimal. If the Buccaneer crew got too close, or with too much of a closing speed, there could have been a mid-air collision with disastrous results.

I told the Buccaneer pilot on the air-to-air radio (that could not be overheard by Air Traffic Control) that unless he had visual contact with me he should back off as he was too close for safety. He replied that he had good radar contact with us and there was no danger of collision. By keeping silent and trusting him, I condoned what he was doing. No-one in my crew expressed out loud any objection - but I hadn't asked them. A few minutes later, when the cloud was beginning to thin out, John Hudspeth reported that he could see the Buccaneer in close formation with us on the starboard side. Almost immediately we came out of cloud at 30,000 feet into a brilliant blue sky and we all relaxed. Unfortunately, as became clear later, the Buccaneer had used up much more fuel during the climb than had been planned.

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