The long Russian Course is on the horizon - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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The long Russian Course is on the horizon

From the beginning of 1976 I had been well aware that I would not be current on any aircraft remaining in service once my tour of duty as OC VSU came to its natural end with the arrival of the new Victor Mk 2 Tankers in the Spring and Summer of 1976. I waited anxiously to hear what my next appointment would be. As a result of my own very varied early career, I was several years older than many other squadron leaders with similar seniority and I knew that this was unhelpful for my further promotion prospects. Furthermore, I had already completed two flying tours as a squadron leader, the second one a command appointment, when many aircrew squadron leaders did not get even one, so the RAF was very unlikely to give me a third flying tour.

In February 1976 I had been invited, privately, to visit British Aerospace's Saudi Air Force Division at Warton in Lancashire to be briefed on current opportunities in the company for flying instructors for the Royal Saudi Air Force. I was told that I had all the desirable qualifications and experience they were looking for. The pay on offer was extremely good - far more than the RAF was paying me - and it was UK tax free. I thought about the offer for a few days and then turned it down because I really did not want to leave the RAF. For years afterwards I wondered if I had made a mistake. Now retired and with the benefit of hindsight, I am satisfied that I made the right decision in 1976 but, because of that, I'm not nearly as rich as I might have been!

Shortly after my trip to Warton, I had a telephone call out of the blue from my Desk Officer at the Personnel Management Centre at RAF Innsworth, near Gloucester. The Desk Officer was the chap who looked after postings and was always thought by officers at the squadron and station 'workfaces' to have more influence than he probably had. I did think, however, that it was a bit suspicious that my Desk Officer should telephone me so soon after my visit to British Aerospace - a visit the RAF was not supposed to know about.

"I see from your personal file that you're keen on learning foreign languages, Tony," he said by way of introduction.

"What makes you think that?" I asked, rather mystified.

"You indicated in one of your annual confidential reports that you would like to learn Russian. I have the report in front of me."

I thought back. Then I remembered: 11 years earlier following the demise of the Valiant but before my selection for pilot training, I had indeed included amongst my preferences for next posting a wish to go on the Russian language course with a view to being posted to Moscow as the Assistant Air Attaché. That was the time when most V Force aircrew would have clutched at any straw to get out of the V Force and back into the 'normal' air force.

"That was 11 years ago," I said, rather lamely.

"We've a long memory here at PMC," replied my desk officer, sounding rather smug. "We like to please. Anyway, I'm sending you for a language aptitude test at RAF North Luffenham next week. These days we always put prospective language students through an aptitude test before sending them on a full-time course. It saves wasting time and money on someone who can't hack it. Hope you enjoy it."

"Does that mean I'll be posted to Moscow if I pass the aptitude test?"

"There are postings other than in Moscow that need Russian speakers," he said, mysteriously. "Just get through the aptitude test. The full-time Russian course lasts at least 12 months. By the way, it won't be easy learning a new language at your age. You know that, don't you?"

I didn't know that because I had never given the matter any thought but with that rather unkind and worrying barb he rang off leaving me pondering. In truth I had from my schooldays always been keen on foreign languages but I was actually more keen on linguistics: learning about languages and their grammar, rather than learning thousands of new words. Still, ever since my exchange tour with the Pakistan Air Force back in 1969/70 I had fancied a tour in the diplomatic world and that must surely be what  the RAF had in mind for me.

During my drive on 16 March to the RAF's Language School at North Luffenham in Rutland for the aptitude test, I heard on the car radio the surprising news that Prime Minister Harold Wilson had just announced to his stunned Cabinet and country that he was retiring.

The aptitude test was interesting. It was conducted entirely in a language laboratory with headphones on and that was a new experience. Part of the test required candidates to memorise lists of words read out to them and then repeat them back several minutes later. I thought a synthetic language was being used but I learned later that it was one of the rarer Asian languages - Tibetan or Vietnamese or something like that. I reckoned I did particularly badly on that part of the aptitude test, and not much better on the rest of it. I need to see the words written down after hearing them and then I need to write them down myself, rather like the new system for learning Morse that was introduced when I was a student at Swanton Morley in 1956. Actually, I found the aptitude test extremely boring and I began to lose my patience with it. I like to see who I am talking to and I like to ask questions of a real person as a lesson proceeds. When they let me out of the box at the end of the test, I mentioned to one of the staff that I thought I had probably failed.

"Don't worry about it, sir", said the cheerful sergeant. "No-one fails - not senior officers anyway. You were sent here by the Posters at Innsworth so they must have decided already where they're going to send you. Nothing we say will make any difference." Then he added as an afterthought, "But you won't find it easy learning Russian at your age, sir!"

As it happens, he was correct on both counts.

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