We arrive in Florida - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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We arrive in Florida

Shortly afterwards, somewhere over Maine, we gave the Buccaneer the planned fuel top-up - plus the extra needed to compensate for the head wind we had experienced. This refuel was in one of the USAF's assigned refuelling areas and, as we were listening to Air Traffic Control, we realised we were not alone in the area: a USAF KC-135 tanker was also operating there. It wasn't long before the KC-135 captain recognized that he was in company with an RAF crew: it transpired that he was ex-Victor tanker captain Alan Kearney on a two-year exchange tour with the USAF. We had a short conversation and then prepared to go our separate ways - the Buccaneer on its own to Florida and us back to Goose Bay.

Almost immediately Paul Greenaway, my navigator, reported yet another problem, confirmed by the Buccaneer navigator: the headwind component of the jet stream at our operating height was averaging out at an astonishing 200 knots, not the 120 knots that had been forecast. By that time the clouds below had melted completely away and visibility in all directions was unlimited. We were approaching the point overhead New York City, where several civilian airways cross, when the Buccaneer pilot said on the air-to-air radio that they would definitely need another top-up if they were to reach their destination. I made some rapid fuel calculations in consultation with the navigators on both aircraft, and it was immediately obvious that if we gave the Buccaneer the extra fuel he needed, we would not have sufficient fuel to return to Goose Bay even with a 200 knot tailwind. Either we had to take the Buccaneer back to Goose Bay with us, or we had to go all the way to Florida with him. I could sense the bated breaths of my crew as I thought through all the implications and then made another decision: "Captain to crew - let's go to Florida".

I told the AEO to inform New York Centre on VHF that we were continuing with the Buccaneer to Naval Air Station Cecil Field Florida and would they please relay our change of flight plan to Goose Bay. It later transpired that the Controller at New York Centre had been unaware that the blip on his radar screen was really two aircraft in formation so he didn't understand that message. The Controller merely said "Continue as per flight plan". In the meantime, John Chivers was on the HF channels trying to inform Strike Command in UK that we were continuing to Cecil Field but, in spite of several attempts, he was unable to raise Strike Command. However, that didn't concern me since I knew that RAF Goose Bay always kept Strike Command fully informed of all RAF movements in and out.

The Buccaneer crew told us when they were ready to take on the additional fuel to allow them to reach Cecil Field. That created the next problem: we were not in an authorised air-to-air refuelling area. In the UK, the designated areas were over the sea or at least over very sparsely-populated land to cater for a hose falling off, or debris from the drogue or the refuelling aircraft's probe after a botched contact. Most of the route from Goose Bay had been over land or very near to the coast. As luck would have it, we were over a very large river estuary, so we just checked visually below and got on with the refuelling.

The rest of the flight was, thankfully, uneventful in smooth flying conditions with unlimited visibility. There were spectacular views of the east coast of the USA, especially from my seat on the right hand side of the aircraft. (It was always wise for Victor pilots not to keep going on about beautiful views because the rear crew couldn't see them.) As we approached the US Navy airbase at Cecil Field, near Jacksonville, the Buccaneer departed to continue ahead independently. By the time we were handed off by ATC to Cecil Field Tower, I was worried about our own fuel state and had to request a priority landing due to shortage of fuel.

The controller in Cecil Field ATC was mystified because, although he was expecting the Royal Navy Buccaneer, he had no idea who we were! Nevertheless, full marks to that controller for not asking questions; he acknowledged our priority request and gave us permission for a straight in visual approach and landing on the westerly runway. I told the 1st pilot to continue the approach while I had a quick look at the flight documents we had on board and at the immediate countryside. I was looking at options should some sort of disaster prevent our landing even at that late stage. John Elliott told me, when he proof-read this story many years later, that my surprise was hilarious when the Controller said, "Clear to land. I have 12 aircraft on the runway for take-off". At the time John had added quickly that the 12 were on one runway and that we had priority to land on the parallel runway.

After landing at Cecil Field (pronounced as 'see-sill' - not the British way) someone, probably one of the USN pilots flying around the airfield, said on the radio: "Gee, that's a mighty strange aircraft you have there." ATC told us we would be guided by a vehicle to the 'Hot Refuelling Point' and asked how much fuel we required. I asked for 80,000lbs but had to point out that we were not cleared for 'hot refuelling'. (Hot refuelling means taking on fuel while the aircraft engines are still running). That caused some initial consternation, but we were re-directed to a largely empty parking area adjacent to Flight Operations.

With much relief, we shut down and disembarked. We discovered later that our refuelling connections, supposedly NATO Standard, were not compatible with the USN's hot refuelling points anyway.

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