We return to base and the AOC bought me a beer but put it on my bill - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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We return to base and the AOC bought me a beer but put it on my bill

To our great surprise, about noon on the following day I got a telephone message from Base Operations to say that a small package for us had just arrived from UK. It was the new igniter. I have no idea how it got to Cecil Field from UK in such a short time, but the Crew Chief decided that he would install it straight away and then do an engine run to make sure that everything was OK for a departure the following day. We stayed around to help him. Seemed the decent thing to do. In the meantime, our two navigators did what navigators always do: play the fool to lighten the day - now wearing the USN lightweight flying suits (Below: John Hudspeth on the left and Paul Greenaway - they were good friends. No, that's not a missile, it's the port underwing refuelling pod.)

The igniter was easily installed and the engine was run satisfactorily - but then the next problem presented itself. The flexible engine doors could not be closed. John Cooper, our Crew Chief, immediately realised what the problem was. When the wings were full of fuel they flexed downwards, not sufficiently to prevent the engine doors being opened but more than enough to prevent them being closed. The only solution was to partly defuel the aircraft, taking as much as possible out of the port wing tanks. The Americans were incredulous, and we felt we were becoming a laughing stock.

The ancient fuel tanker that had provided our fuel after our arrival, was summoned. The driver scratched his head when we said we had to defuel the aircraft. It took longer than the refuelling operation had taken even though we only had to remove about half the fuel load. Finally, we were able to get the engine doors closed - but we didn't refuel the aircraft to capacity again until we had made sure all four engines would start. I made another executive decision that we were all now out of crew duty time and would stay another night at Cecil Field. We were dirty, sweaty, very tired, and in no fit state to fly. In any case it was too late in the day for us to fly to Goose Bay and arrive within their normal opening hours.

Since the following day was Friday, I asked the crew if they were willing to fly a double-stage: a quick refuel at Goose Bay and then straight on to Marham. To a man everyone was in agreement even though it would mean a very long day and a night landing at Marham. That would be very unpopular with ATC, Station and Squadron Operations, but I reckoned they would prefer a late Friday evening finish rather than a Saturday working day. Paul Greenaway did his sums and advised that we could arrive at Marham about midnight local time, give or take an hour, depending on high level winds over the North Atlantic. Another message was sent to Goose Bay for onward relay to UK advising all concerned of my new intentions. We didn't want to arrive in the Marham area and find it all closed up for the weekend.

Above: USN Cecil Field Base Operations - I was particularly grateful for the help the Ops Staff willingly gave me and my crew in re-organising our own operations.
The next day we finally departed from Cecil Field and there was a large crowd out to watch. We had told them that because of the calm wind, the air temperature of 30°C, and a full fuel load, we would need 10,000 feet of runway to get airborne. Fortunately, their Northerly facing runway was 12,000 feet long. The southbound flight from Goose Bay to Cecil Field in the face of 200 knots headwind for half of the route had taken 5 hours 15 minutes. Now those very unusual winds had abated and our flight planned time to Goose Bay over the exact reciprocal route was only 3 hours 40 minutes. What a difference!

We were on the ground at Goose Bay for barely an hour; clearly the RAF staff there were as keen to get rid of us as we were to leave. We flight-planned to fly across the Atlantic at 41,000 feet because that would put us in the westerly jet stream and give us the best ground speed. Frustratingly, when we were climbing out of Goose Bay we got an ATC message ordering to us maintain 29,000 feet until further cleared by Oceanic Control. It was like trying to join the M1 on a Friday night between junctions: it simply couldn't be done because of conflicting civilian traffic. We never did get clearance to climb and so we had to fly the entire way to UK airspace at the lower level, where the fuel consumption was greater, and we were well below the westerly jet stream. That change added 40 minutes to our planned transit time. On leaving Oceanic Air Traffic Control when we were still quite a long way west of the Hebrides, the controller at Prestwick said that we were cleared to leave the airways system, at our discretion, and fly direct to our base as there was no known traffic. We accepted!

The weather at base was excellent: sky clear, unlimited visibility and no wind to speak of. Marham ATC offered, and I accepted, runway 06 so that we could position ourselves for a straight in approach. We could see the blazing runway lights from about 40 miles as we approached from the west. I told the crew that I would do the approach and landing because I needed to fly an instrument approach from the right hand seat for my own currency - and it seemed a shame not to give the approach controller something to do.

But I really did not need to fly a right hand seat approach and landing: I had a sneaky VSU plan! At about seven miles from touch down I started deliberately slipping low on the glide path and edging off to the left of the centreline. The radar controller advised that we were getting low on the glide path. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the 1st Pilot glancing anxiously in my direction. I continued to deviate. The radar controller spoke again, urgently: "You are dropping further below the glide path - acknowledge."

I said to the 1st pilot: "Captain to First Pilot: you have control", and John took over. I pushed my press-to-transmit button and acknowledged the controller's call. "Everything's OK - I'll explain after landing," I said on the radio. It was a rotten thing to do - handing over control to the 1st pilot in an awkward position when he might have been relaxing after a testing few days and possibly not concentrating on what I was doing. But he was right on the ball. John recovered the aircraft smoothly back to the correct glide path and made an excellent landing a few seconds later. I telephoned the approach controller after landing, while the rest of my crew were unloading the Victor, to tell him what I had done and why. I apologised if I had caused him any concern.

Pirate Trail A26 was finally completed at about 0100 hrs on the Saturday morning. We had flown 19 hours 40 minutes - more than four times the length of a normal VSU flight check. I gave a quick debrief to my excellent crew, telling them they had passed the flight check with flying colours. They then went off to their homes. The 1st pilot, John Elliott, told me later that as a junior captain and having been on the squadron only nine months, he would have been more than happy just to pass the VSU check with every aspect graded 'Satisfactory'. He was delighted that I had given him well-deserved 'Highly Commendable' grades for Contingency Planning and Captaincy.

Above: That's my official flying logbook extract covering the Pirate Trail 24-28 February 1975. Note the different flight times Goose Bay - Cecil Field and the reverse flight three days later over exactly the same route: that's the difference a 200 knot headwind on the southbound flight made.
I went straight to the Officers Mess after bidding my crew goodnight. Weary though I was, I urgently needed a pint of beer before retiring to my suite in the East Wing. I knew that the bar would still be open because I had remembered that a formal Dining In Night would be in progress. I went to a rear hatchway in the corridor at the back of the bar and silently gestured to the Barman, who happened to be looking my way, to bring me a pint. I downed it greedily in one and then, to my dismay, my Boss - the 2-star-ranking Air Officer Commanding No 1 Group - appeared in the hatch and ordered me to come through into the main bar. So, unshaven, unwashed, and embarrassed at my unkempt and probably smelly body still enclosed in the winter rubber immersion suit but now with the zips wide open to let some fresh air in and thereby revealing my underclothes, I made my way into the bar. There was a horrified silence from the assembled gentlemen as I clumped my way over to the AOC, who was standing next to the Station Commander and various invited civilian guests, all immaculately dressed in their Mess Kit or DJs.

"Barman, give Squadron Leader Cunnane, the Station Commander and me another pint each on my bill," called the AOC cheerfully. "Now, Tony, I'm pleased to see that you decided to come home at last but tell me, why did you double stage from Florida? We all expected you to spend the weekend in Goose Bay and fly home on Monday." He paused, then grinned and said, "Congratulations to all your crew - and tell them well done from me. Never let it be said that we don't help the Royal Navy - especially when they go around dropping expensive Buccaneers off the side of their carriers."

The next day the Mess Barman buttonholed me and said, "The AOC doesn't have a bar account so I put that last round on your bill - was that OK, sir?"

I believe that weekend was the time when my already thinning hair started to go grey!

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