An interestíng first intervíew with Commandant Central Flying School - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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An interestíng first intervíew with Commandant Central Flying School

I was concerned at the lukewarm reception I got from the Red Arrows at that first short meeting. Naturally, they were polite but were not inclined to be drawn into conversation. I wondered if word had got around the rest of the Red Arrows pilots about my report of their colleague’s Falklands debriefing. However, a day later I learned that was not the reason: it was something quite different.

The afternoon of my long first day at Scampton ended when I was called into the Commandant’s Office, just across the corridor from my own office, for my introductory interview. The Air Commodore welcomed me warmly, using my first name.

“The Central Flying School – well, Tony, you know what we are and what we do because you were a flying instructor,” said the Commandant. “I want to make sure you understand how the CFS and the Red Arrows fit in at Scampton. We, CFS, use the station and all its facilities, but we’re not part of the station. CFS and the Red Arrows are lodger units – just as we were for many years at Little Rissington. Every member of the Red Arrows, the pilots and ground crew, belongs to me. The Red Arrows are officially called the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team – usually abbreviated to RAFAT by everyone except the public. They’re organised and administered, as far as possible, like any other RAF flying squadron. The Team Leader is OC RAFAT with all the normal responsibilities of a squadron commander, but he reports, through my staff officer, Wing Commander Mike Hall, to me and not to the Station Commander.”

“Who do I belong to, sir?” I asked.

“That’s a tricky question! To get financial provision to establish the post of Red Arrows PRO it was necessary to include the station’s and CFS’ public relations tasks to ‘beef up’ the job specification.” He must have seen the frown on my face. “I know what you’re thinking, Tony, but you’re going to have to be flexible. I’ve already agreed with the Station Commander that you should aim to spend about 75% of your time dealing with Red Arrows PR, about 15% dealing with station PR, and the other 10% looking after the publicity requirements of the Central Flying School itself – which are not many. Now, I want you to go away and write your own Terms of Reference. Send them to me in due course for my signature – there’s no hurry though. Your job title must be Community Relations Officer for RAF Scampton because that is how we got budget approval for your post – and the auditors will check. By the way, you’ll need to bear in mind that the Station Commander deputises for me as Commandant CFS during my leave and other absences.”

It did not seem a good time to mention that the job I had applied for, and thought I had been accepted for, was the specific job that had been advertised: Red Arrows PRO. At the end of the interview I was uncertain whether or not the Commandant knew about the confidential tip-off I had been given alleging that elements of MOD had it in mind to disband the Team to save money and that my job would be to ensure that the Red Arrows were always so much in the public eye that any attempt to disband the Team to save money would fail. I wrote my own Terms of Reference, on the lines of the Commandant’s instructions, over the next couple of weeks but I never got them back, signed or not.

On my second day I called in, by appointment, to meet the Station Commander, Group Captain Richard Howard. He had been a student on the course one ahead of mine at the Central Flying School back in 1967. If he remembered me, he never let on. It was a very short and one-sided interview. He didn't mention what his policy was on PR for his station nor the fact that I had just taken on, allegedly on his own instructions, the task of dealing with all the low flying complaints directed at the station. A casual remark, made to me by a civilian clerk as I was leaving Station HQ after that very brief meeting with the Station Commander, revealed that I had had a predecessor who had survived only a few days. Now that was news to me! Bit by bit I got the rest of the story about my predecessor from various sources in the Central Flying School - but curiously no-one on the Red Arrows ever mentioned him to me, either then or later.

It seems my mysterious predecessor had taken on the job as the full-time PRO for the Red Arrows early in December 1988 while he was still serving his last few weeks on the active service list as a wing commander. He had been appointed as Red Arrows' PRO without any responsibility for the Station or CFS and he had turned up at Scampton during his terminal leave - that is additional paid leave granted to retiring personnel to enable them to clear up their affairs. When he arrived he was allocated desk space in a cramped corner of the already over-crowded Red Arrows Admin Office in No 4 Hangar. I was told that one of the first things he did was encourage everyone from the lowest rank upwards to call him by his first name. What a nice friendly idea, you may think, but you would be wrong. His invitation to all ranks on the Red Arrows to use his first name caused quite a stir and raised a lot of eyebrows. Since he was still a serving wing commander and presumably dressed as such, normal protocol would have required everyone on the Team, from the Leader downwards, to call him sir.

Almost immediately after his arrival my predecessor had discovered that virtually all his time would be spent organising and hosting the visitors to the Red Arrows. They included a large number of so called 'corporate visitors', that is to say friends of the many businesses that 'sponsored' the Red Arrows, as well as a continuous stream of 'ordinary' fans. It seems he had no responsibility for dealing with low flying complaints or any purely station or CFS publicity, nor was he required to have any dealings with the media about the Red Arrows since that was the province of the Team Manager. The wing commander had, not surprisingly really, very quickly become disillusioned; he considered such tasks, normally given as a secondary duty to the most junior officers, as menial and beneath him. I could sympathise with that! Perhaps, like me, his job specification had not been properly prepared - assuming he ever had a written one. He went off on Christmas leave and, allegedly, never returned to Scampton nor left any message explaining why he was not returning. His entire time as Red Arrows PRO lasted only two or three weeks but he certainly caused all ranks of the Red Arrows to look upon Retired Officers as a very peculiar breed.

I should stress here that everything I have just related about my predecessor is based on what others told me; I never met him so I have not been able to get his version of events. No-one, and I do mean no-one, ever mentioned his name to me, nor did I ever come across any references to him in any of the Red Arrows files I saw during the 11 years I was with the Red Arrows. He had become a non-person. It was both surprising and depressing that I had to find out about my predecessor because of a casual conversation with a civilian and not from anyone in an official capacity, but it certainly explained why I had been received by the Red Arrows cautiously and with barely disguised suspicion.

I never did discover whether either the Commandant or the Station Commander, or their successors, had any inkling of what I had been told in confidence by my confidant  before my job interview about my real role as PRO for the Red Arrows. Had my short-lived predecessor had the same briefing in MOD and had he decided over the Christmas break that it was not something he wished to be involved in? I will never know!.

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