Towards the end of October 1975, I was summoned by the Station Commander at RAF Marham, Group Captain David Parry-Evans, and asked if I fancied an ocean cruise. Knowing the Station Commander very well, I knew that there was more to this question than he had let on. With a grin he told that my name had been put forward to go on a cruise on the US Navy's aircraft carrier CV62, USS Independence.
"As you know, Tony", said the Group Captain, "Exercise Ocean Safari starts shortly. It's a major exercise involving a large number of NATO ships and aircraft. It will take place mainly in the UK's south western approaches. It's just been agreed that the US Navy will take part because their fleet just happens to be in that area at the time. Pure coincidence, apparently. Anyway, the Americans have requested permission to carry out air-to-air refuelling from our Victor Tankers. Headquarters 1 Group have agreed in principle but invoked our Standing Operating Procedures (SOPs). As you well know, no pilot may refuel in flight from our tankers unless they have attended our Air-to-Air Refuelling School (AARS) to familiarise them with our procedures."
It still did not dawn on me where this conversation was leading. The AARS was a small but highly respected unit based at RAF Marham. There were only four or five staff, mostly navigators, but they were all highly experienced air-to-air refuelling operators. In fact, between them they had designed, tested, refined, and taught the techniques over many years - and then written the AAR SOPs - the standard operating procedures bible for air-to-air refuelling.
"Obviously", continued the Station Commander, "the US Navy pilots can't come here to Marham - the Fleet is somewhere in the Mediterranean at present. In any case, there's no way the US Navy would allow all the Independence's pilots to leave the ship at once to come here - I believe there are well over 100 of them - so the AOC has decided that you must go out to the ship and teach the US pilots all they need to know."
"The guys on the AARS are not going to be too pleased", I said lamely. "They'll see this as a task for them - after all they're the experts at air-to-air refuelling."
"The AOC knows that," said the Group Captain. "However, the AOC says that as OC VSU you're his expert and spokesman - and in any case he thinks the US Navy pilots will prefer to be briefed by a pilot. No point in arguing with the AOC. The job's yours. In the meantime, I suggest you find out everything you can about the Independence and the way the US Navy do things. A word of advice, Tony. Don't forget that US Navy pilots on carriers rely on buddy-buddy refuelling for their everyday operations. I don't suppose they'll take too kindly to being told by a Brit how to do their job! You'll need to be very tactful."
HQ 1 Group duly sent a signal to the Americans giving my profile and security clearance - and, my own specific request, the fact that I was authorised by the RAF to fly in any USN aircraft if and when the opportunity arose. On 30 October 1975 I flew out from Gatwick Airport to Gibraltar, my first visit since the early 1960s. I was getting more and more apprehensive about my forthcoming task and how the US Navy fliers would respond to a Brit telling them how to carry out air-to-air refuelling..
Early on 1 November I had a message to report to a remote area of Gibraltar airfield and await the arrival of my transport to the ship. I packed my bags, including my duty free alcohol allowance, and boarded the RAF Land Rover that came to collect me. The vehicle dropped me off then departed, leaving me standing all alone on the grass at the side of the runway waiting for the aircraft that was to take me out to USS Independence. I had carefully wrapped my duty-free bottles of wine and brandy in clothing in my suitcase to protect them from accidental damage in transit. It had not occurred to me, however, that I was about to break a US Navy regulation: no-one had reminded me that US Navy ships are strictly alcohol-free.
Below: This was my first aerial view of USS Independence off Gibraltar
I won't dwell too much on the domestics of living for the first few days on CV62. Suffice it to say that everyone, from the Admiral downwards (this was the Fleet flagship at the time) made me feel most welcome. On my first evening I was the guest of the Wardroom and was served a superb dinner. It was then that I remembered the USN run a 'dry' outfit. In a quiet moment over coffee I confessed to the Captain that I had some alcohol in my cabin. "Don't worry about it," he said with a grin. "Just keep it well out of sight. It is for medicinal purposes isn't it?"