Bear Hunting - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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Bear Hunting

Image below: These were the members of my regular 214 Squadron crew dressed in our bulky 'dry' immersion suits and looking really excited to be at  RAF Leuchars on a cold and wet day some time in 1972/3. From left to right they are: Paul Cross, the navigator and a fine rugby player; Neil Flowerdew, the AEO; Ken Hulse the navigator radar/refuelling operator; and Alan Skelton the co-pilot. We were there for one of the regular Operation Dragonfly detachments - described below.

In November 2016, as I was editing this page, there had been regular reports in the media about Russian Air Force aircraft entering UK airspace and being intercepted by the RAF. That sort of thing had been going on for decades during the Cold War but rarely making the news headlines. There were even reports of a mystery Soviet submarine lurking somewhere in UK waters. The RAF/RN had apparently been unable to find it because it seems we no longer have any anti-submarine warfare assets. How embarrassing is that?

When I joined the Victor Tanker force in 1971, RAF Strike Command, as part of its UK commitment to NATO, was required to intercept all Soviet aircraft infringing the vast expanse of sky then known as NATO Area 12, which stretched from the UK westwards halfway across the North Atlantic Ocean, eastwards as far as the UK territorial boundaries, and northwards as far as our aircraft could safely go. The Soviet aircraft could, of course, have heralded the start of World War 3 but, fortunately, the ones I write about in this article, did not. These Soviet aircraft were not breaking any rules – bending the rules, maybe, since they did not, as far as I know, communicate with UK air traffic controllers. Nevertheless, the UK Government just wanted to let the Soviet Government know that we knew they were there. The aerial meetings were mostly good-natured; often the RAF and Soviet crews would wave at each other, although I am not sure either the Soviet Air Force or the RAF officially approved of such familiarity.

In the 1970s, the Soviets operated Tu-95 aircraft (NATO designation Bear) from their bases near Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula close to the northern borders of Norway and Finland. There were, as far as I knew anyway, two versions of the Tu-95: the long-range bomber, Bear B, and a reconnaissance version, Bear D. Live intelligence was usually, but not always, available indicating when Soviet aircraft were on their way around North Cape (approximately 71N 26E) heading into NATO Area 12. The intelligence usually came from NATO radio and radar intercepts from stations which were conveniently situated quite close to the Soviet bases in the Murmansk area but, for all I knew, there may have been other sources. The Bears were either on re-supply missions to the Soviet forces in Cuba or, more often, were simply coming out into the North Sea for training purposes and to see if and when they were spotted.

The Victor tanker flights in support of those interceptions were officially known as Operation Dragonfly - and colloquially as Bear Hunting. The role of the Victor tankers in those operations was to refuel the RAF interceptors so that they could travel further or stay on task longer; the tankers, however, were not supposed to close within 10 nautical miles of any Soviet aircraft.

At some time during my Victor days, I forget exactly when but about 1974, Operation Dragonfly was suddenly renamed Operation Suffrage. Certainly at Marham it was seen as a daft move, judging by the lengthy and heated discussions in squadron tea bars. Everyone knew what Operation Dragonfly meant so why change it? It can't have been a security measure since even the Soviets knew what it meant - as I will relate on a later page. After only a few weeks it was changed back to Dragonfly and the Marham tea bars settled down again.


Victor XH649 on Dragonfly duty on a frosty Winter day at RAF Leuchars, Note the line of RAF F4s in the distance.

The interceptors used on Dragonfly operations were, at different times in the 1970s, Mark 3 and Mark 6 Lightnings and F4 Phantoms and were usually, but not always, based at RAF Leuchars near St Andrews in Scotland. Tankers were particularly important when the interceptors were the early Mk 3 Lightnings: the Mk 3s could fly very, very fast but not very far. Lightning Mk 3 pilots were often heard to comment that they were short of fuel as soon as they retracted the undercarriage after take-off. Of course, the later marks of Lightning and the Phantom had much better operating ranges but, nevertheless, it was always comforting for them to have a tanker nearby especially when operating far from land. In fact there was a rule that the interceptor always had to have sufficient fuel on board to reach a land-based airfield without air-to-air refuelling. That rule ensured that should the interceptor break its refuelling probe off (I saw it happen at least twice) the aircraft could still make it safely to an airfield.  Successful in-flight refuelling allowed the interceptor to stay on task longer.

Each Victor squadron kept one crew on permanent standby (24/7 in modern parlance) at Marham for Operation Dragonfly. However, if a Soviet aircraft was detected late, when for example one suddenly appeared at low level coming around North Cape, or one was detected returning from a re-supply mission to Cuba, any airborne Victor tanker could be re-tasked in flight to provide refuelling facilities for our interceptors. Those operations were then known as Dragonfly Mobile. Strike Command Operations would call up any tanker that was already operating in a suitable position and order it to discontinue what it was doing and change frequency to one of the Air Defence frequencies to be briefed on the new requirement.

The only time I actually saw a Tu-95 was when I was on board a USN aírcraft carrier somewhere in the Bay of Biscay and was asked, very politely, not to photograph it (see this page).

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