I meet the 1989 Red Arrows for the first time - but there was a strange atmosphere - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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I meet the 1989 Red Arrows for the first time - but there was a strange atmosphere

The first person to come to my office, while I was wondering what to do next after browsing through the historic documents I had found, was a squadron leader from Station Operations. "The Station Commander tells me that from now on you'll be handling all the noise and low flying complaints," he said cheerily, dropping a pile of files onto my desk. "Here's a few of the outstanding ones for you to be getting on with. Central Registry will send you the rest through the internal mail. Best of luck!" He turned and left. I had been well and truly stitched up!

I put the pile of low flying complaints files to one side after just a cursory glance. I rang the Red Arrows admin office to let them know I was on my way and then walked along the front of the hangars to introduce myself to the Red Arrows. The walk took about 20 minutes, longer than I had imagined because the large gap between No 2 and No 3 hangars, where once had stood the wartime Air Traffic Control tower, was now a designated aircraft parking apron and pedestrians had to make a long detour. This is going to be great, I thought: a 40-minute round trip every time I need to go to the Red Arrows.

Above: I took this pic of the Red Arrows hangar one day during my first week in the job.
I found Squadron Leader Tim Miller, whom I was meeting for the first time since my appointment board, in his office on the first floor. He greeted me with a rather quizzical look on his face. After the briefest of welcomes, we went along the corridor to the coffee bar where most of his pilots were gathered, sitting in chairs around the walls. They had, presumably, been told by Tim to gather there to meet their new PRO. While Tim was making me a cup of coffee, he introduced me to his pilots as a bunch without going around each one individually and I suddenly realised that I had met one of them before. That particular pilot had been shot down during the Falklands War by the Argentines and taken prisoner, badly injured. When he was repatriated at the end of the war, he had been sent to the RAF Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court for medical checks on the serious injuries he had sustained.

As the senior RAF officer on the Joint Services Interrogation Wing (JSIW) at that time, I had been despatched by my colonel to Headley Court to debrief this pilot about his experiences. It had been a traumatic as well as a painful experience for him. In particular, the long list of probing questions that I had been specifically briefed to ask him about his treatment after capture caused him a lot of distress, although, to his credit, he co-operated willingly with me. One of those questions was whether he had attended one of the mandatory resistance to interrogation briefings before flying out to the Falklands and that was when I discovered that he had not. By a strange quirk of fate, he had been the only Harrier pilot deployed on active service to the Falklands to have missed my Resistance to Interrogation briefing at Wittering on the day before I had flown out to Montevideo, because he had been detailed to carry out an urgent air test on one of the Harriers (see this page).

I had been given an assurance that my subsequent written report, which was classified Confidential, would be distributed only to senior commanders who were intended to learn lessons from it to use in Resistance to Interrogation and Conduct after Capture training. Instead I learned many weeks later that my report had been declassified without any changes or omissions and was then made available for all aircrew throughout the RAF, and beyond, to read. That had caused totally unwarranted embarrassment for the pilot - and also for me when my friends asked why had I given away all that material which could be used by any potential enemies.

When the Reds and I had eye contact briefly in the Red Arrows' crew room on that first morning, we merely nodded at each other and I decided it would be best to let the Falklands pilot make the first approach to me, if he wished to do so - and if he remembered me. I was concerned at the lukewarm reception I got from the Red Arrows. Naturally, they were polite but they were not inclined to be drawn into conversation because they were about to get ready for their first flight of the day  As I walked back to my office at the other end of the station, I did wonder if word had got around the rest of the Red Arrows pilots that I was the author of their colleague's Falklands debriefing. However, that was probably not the reason: it was something quite different.

Postscript 2017. I never revealed the 'Falklands' pilot's name to anyone who was not on the distribution list of my original classified report and I have quite deliberately withheld his name here on my website. Right up until he left the Red Arrows a few weeks after my arrival at the scheduled end of his three-year tour of duty, he didn't speak to me and we have never met again! However, I have always regretted that I never had an opportunity to tell him my side of the story - unless he reads this.

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