Life on board - and cutting the crap - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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Life on board - and cutting the crap

For the first 24 hours I was sea sick. I was actually very surprised at how much the carrier pitched as we crossed the Bay of Biscay. Standing out on the flight deck, always with a safety escort to make sure I didn't fall off, it was remarkable to see how much the front end went up and down in the swell. In fact, for a couple of days no flying off was possible because of the conditions even though Spanish land airfields were within range. The Captain gave me a free run of his ship and told me I could go wherever I wanted, with my camera, except in the communications centre. He also advised me to keep well clear of the non-commissioned ranks' domestic areas, although he didn't explain why. If I wanted to go up on deck I was to arrange an escort for my own safety. My problem, I soon discovered, was finding my way around. I had taken the precaution of writing down the number of my cabin in case I became totally lost. Down below, I found the constant noise and vibration tiring and it was quite impossible to tell which way was forward and which way aft until a friendly sailor explained the signs on the walls. It was obvious that all ranks on board knew roughly who I was and I found nothing but curiosity and friendship.

Each of the flying squadrons, I forget how many there were - at least a dozen -  operated from their own area of the ship. They were all linked together by a ship-wide closed circuit TV system. Any of the ship's company could listen in to briefings and debriefings when the system was switched on. I was assured that every rank on board would wish to watch my TV briefings on how to carry out air-to-air refuelling. That was bad enough but then they told me that the system provided talk-back so anyone could chip in and ask me questions right there and then. In 1975 CCTV in the UK was in its infancy so the prospect of having such a large and professional audience for my briefings was daunting to say the least.

I decided, as my American friends would have put it, to 'cut the crap' from my prepared script. I dispensed with my prepared notes and shortened my briefing by at least 50%, concentrating as much as possible on practicalities and emergency drills. It seemed to go down well and I had lots of sensible questions from the various crew rooms. It went on for quite a long time - obviously there was nothing better for them to watch on TV.  On the day after my presentation, when we were within range of land airfields that could be used in an emergency, it was time for me to go flying in an A6. I had extensive safety briefings as one would expect. My pilot was the Flight Commander, a full USN captain in rank, son of a retired 3-star admiral. Some of the pilots wished me luck adding, "He doesn't do much flying these days but you should be OK." I enjoyed the flight immensely and we did some buddy-buddy refuelling.

Above: One of the deck crew kindly took this pic for me as I was about to be launched for my flight in an F4
Below: My view just before launch for my trip in an A6

The same Flight Commander also flew me on my second flight, this time in the back seat of an F4 Phantom and that was much more exciting. The pilot briefed me that in the event of an emergency on launch it would be a command ejection - he would operate the system so that he and I would be ejected simultaneously. The crewman strapping me in pointed out the lever in front of me by my left knee which, in one position, allowed command ejection and which, in the other position, inhibited command ejection and required the rear cockpit occupant to eject himself when necessary. In spite of listening carefully to the briefing, I forgot which position was which within seconds but didn't like to ask the pilot to tell me again. I stowed my camera, which I had permission to take with me, in a crevice on the right hand side of the cockpit. The launch was much more exciting than that in the A6. My pilot told me that there were 30 knots 'across the deck' - meaning that the ship's forward speed plus the headwind component of the natural wind totalled 30 kts.

"You OK, Tony?" called the pilot as we shot off the end of the ship at about 160 kts indicated air speed. From standstill to 160 kts had taken, so I was later reliably informed, 2.4 seconds. I was given, to keep as a memento, what was left of the bolt that was used to launch the aircraft forward and which was designed to fracture and fall away at the end of the launch. I still have it - on the desk in front of me as I write this. (OK. It probably was not the exact bolt that had launched me, but the principle was fine.)

"Yup, sir," I gulped. Then I noticed that the indicated air speed was already approaching 600 knots and that we were skimming the waves - I could not locate a Mach meter on the instrument panel but we must have been approaching Mach 1.

"Hold tight," he called, and promptly pulled the aircraft into a vertical climb. I watched the accelerometer reach 6g before, temporarily, I blacked out: he was wearing an anti-g suit; I was not. When my sight and senses recovered a few seconds later, we were rolling off the top at 35,000 feet and the Independence was a tiny speck far below.

Above: I took this pic myself of an RAF 57 Squadron Victor working with two of Independence's F4s.
We then RV'ed with a Marham Victor tanker south-west of the Scillies to watch a group of the ship's aircraft take on fuel, putting into practice what I had taught them. Then we moved behind the tanker to make a few dry contacts ourselves - 'dry' meaning there was no transfer of fuel - we didn't need to take on any fuel. My pilot asked me to deal with the radio calls. The Victor crew were astonished to recognise my voice on the radio because only a few people at Marham knew that I had l left Marham, let alone the UK. Shows how much OC VSU was missed!

When we returned to the carrier we had to make several approaches to land back on deck because the weather, and the swell, had worsened considerably. We were waved off at least half a dozen times.

Above: That's me (that is to say - my pilot!) about to 'take the hook'. My thanks to the friendly sailor on board who took this pic.

One of the junior pilots was sharing the circuit with us and when he got down to his minimum fuel state he was ordered to divert to RAF St Mawgan, then about 100 miles north of our position. I learned later that he landed safely on the 9,000 foot runway, but apparently made a carrier-type landing and came to a very rapid halt using maximum braking, bursting all his tyres in the process. There was some excuse for him: the St Mawgan runway was by no means level. It had a pronounced up gradient for the first couple of hundred metres before it fell away for the rest of its length. Just before touch down it would have suddenly appeared to the Navy pilot that the runway was extremely short. He had to wait in the cockpit for his aircraft to be dragged off the runway. Very embarrassing. I suppose he must eventually have re-joined Independence but I didn't meet him. We finally landed back on deck just before we reached our minimum fuel state.

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