A short history of the RAF Central Flying School - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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A short history of the RAF Central Flying School

In one of my informal chats with the Commandant, Air Commodore Bruce Latton, he asked me to research and write a version of the CFS history suitable for use by the media and anyone else who asked for it. Over several months I put together a number of versions of the CFS history; the following paragraphs are selections from one of the shorter versions.

The Central Flying School opened its doors for the first time at Upavon on 12 May 1912 as an Army unit commanded by a Captain RN, six years before the RAF was born. Under the arrangements made when the Royal Flying Corps had been created in 1912, the cost of the flying school element was to be borne equally by the Army and the Navy, but its administration and support infrastructure were solely the responsibility of the War Office, so it was known initially as the Army Flying School. To balance things up, a Royal Navy officer, Captain Godfrey Paine RN, was chosen to be the first Commandant. According to his personal journal, Captain Paine was informed of his selection by Mr Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, and told in no uncertain terms that he must learn to fly within two weeks if he was to be confirmed in the appointment. It was not clear why there was such a rush; it was probably an early manifestation of Churchill's 'action this day' notes he used to issue when he was Prime Minister during WW2. Captain Paine, who admitted that he knew virtually nothing about flying, took himself off to Royal Naval Air Station Eastchurch on the Isle of Sheppey and duly completed his somewhat rushed training under the guidance of Lieutenant Arthur Longmore, RN.

Above: No 1 Course Central Flying School. Central amongst the staff on the front row is the the 1st Commandant, Captain Godfrey Paine RN, later Sir Godfrey Marshall Paine, KCB, MVO.
Arthur Longmore, Paine's flying instructor, had an interesting, distinguished, but ultimately frustrating career. He was born in New South Wales, Australia, in 1885. Following a public school education in England, he joined the Royal Naval Air Service in 1912. After service at sea he joined the Royal Air Force on a permanent commission in 1920 and quickly rose through the ranks. He was appointed Commandant of CFS, then based at the RAF College Cranwell, in 1929. During the early years of WW2 Longmore appears to have fallen foul of Winston Churchill for he retired, at the age of 57, as a 4-star air chief marshal in 1942. Later that year he stood for Parliament as the Conservative candidate in a by-election for the seat at Grantham - years later to be Margaret Thatcher's constituency. He was narrowly defeated at the by-election by the only other candidate, an Independent, who had a majority of less than 400 from a turnout of over 23,000.

One of the 36 students on the first flying course at Upavon was a certain Hugh Trenchard DSO, then a 39-year old major serving in the Royal Scots Greys. Having lost one of his lungs as a result of being shot up during the Boer War, Major Trenchard realised that there was little future for him in the Army. When the opportunity arose, he decided to learn to fly and he spent all of 13 days doing just that. I am not sure a pilot with only one lung would pass today's aircrew medicals!

Trenchard’s end-of-course report, written by Captain Paine RN, described Trenchard as an 'indifferent flyer' but, because of his previous military background, he was nevertheless posted to the CFS as the Adjutant and Deputy Commandant - and that was before he had even fully qualified for his pilot's wings! However, when Trenchard discovered that one of his duties as Deputy Commandant CFS was to set the examination papers, arrange and invigilate the examinations, correct the papers and then assess the results, he set his flying and ground examinations himself, corrected his own written papers, and awarded himself his pilot’s wings! Trenchard later became the very first Chief of the Air Staff in 1918, the very first five-star Marshal of the Royal Air Force in 1927, and finally was ennobled as the first Viscount Trenchard in 1936. He died in 1956.

Godfrey Paine was appointed 5th Sea Lord in 1917, a post which made him responsible for all aspects of naval aviation. He died on 23 March 1932.

In 1918, when the war was over, the RFC and the RNAS were amalgamated to form the Royal Air Force and as part of that reorganisation the Central Flying School was tasked to carry on the work started at Gosport. In 1926 the Air Ministry decided that, in between courses, the CFS staff should visit all the flying training schools to check whether the system and standard of instruction was being maintained. This was the beginning of the present-day Examining Wing. The following year a Refresher Flight was formed and pilots from air forces in many parts of the world travelled to UK to join in the courses at CFS - as they do to this day.

From the start of the second World War in 1939 the CFS course was reduced from nine weeks to four and RAF Volunteer Reserve pilots began to appear as full mobilisation took place. The Refresher Squadron took on an assortment of pilots from all backgrounds who had volunteered for the newly formed Air Transport Auxiliary. The ATA pilots relieved the general pilot shortage by undertaking duties such as ferrying aircraft from the factories to the squadrons. They became known, rather rudely, as Ancient and Tattered Airmen when "elderly and bald pilots, very young pilots, not particularly fit pilots, some with only one eye or one arm", joined their ranks. By no means all the ATA pilots fitted into those categories and, in any case, they all did a very important job of work. Early in 1940 some young ladies, who were definitely neither ancient nor tattered, arrived at CFS to be trained up for the ATA. Two of the ladies, Amy Johnson and Winifred Crossley, were old flying hands who had given aerobatic displays with Alan Cobham’s Flying Circus - possibly flying in the display a couple of miles from our house on the very day I was born. (See this page) One other young lady, Jean Hughes, was only 17 years old and she became almost certainly the youngest ever pilot to pass through CFS. Now there is a good question for a pub quiz!

During 1939 the fighter defences of Great Britain improved dramatically from a force of about 600 aircraft, of which all but about 90 were obsolescent bi-planes, to one of 38 squadrons of which 22 were equipped with the Hurricane and Spitfire. In spite of CFS’ best efforts at standardisation, it quickly became obvious that there was a lack of uniformity in the handling techniques for the new powerful aircraft which were coming into service. The new aircraft were not producing the increased fighting power and efficiency that the air marshals had hoped for because the pilots were not flying them to best advantage. To try and overcome this the Air Ministry introduced the Examining Officers' Scheme which established a flight of experienced officers to maintain a liaison between CFS and the operational squadrons and to instruct the latter in up-to-the-minute techniques. By the end of 1940, 90 pupils were being accepted in each five-week period. The modern day equivalent of these examining officers are known as CFS Agents and there is at least one for each type of aircraft operated by the RAF. The agents are there to keep in touch with CFS doctrine and to pass on their pearls of wisdom to the front line operational pilots. I was the CFS Agent for the Victor Tanker Force during my final years at Marham in the 1970s (see this page).

The 1950s and 1960s were the halcyon days of RAF jet aerobatic display teams. In the 1950s almost every fighter squadron and flying training school had its own unofficial aerobatic team. Mike Lyne’s 54 Squadron formed a team with four Hawker Hunters in 1955, later known as The Black Knights because the pilots wore black flying suits. (More about Mike Lyne and his exploits here.) The most famous, and still the best remembered, team of the 1950s was that of 111 Squadron. Some RAF squadrons are very fussy about how they are called and, ever since its formation, No 111 Squadron has always been known as Treble-One Squadron, or simply Tremblers, but never One-One-One or One-Eleven Squadron. The French public gave Treble-One the nickname Les Flèches Noires and the name stuck. In 1961 the Blue Diamonds, flying 16 blue Hunters in an immaculate diamond shape, took over from the Black Arrows.

So much time, effort and money was being expended on non-established display flying that the RAF eventually decided to disband all the squadron formation aerobatic teams and form a single, full-time professional team, but it could not be done overnight. In 1964, Central Flying School instructors formed a team of six Jet Provost T Mk 4s and became the first team to represent the RAF as a whole. The Jet Provosts were painted red and so the team were named Red Pelicans in recognition of the fact that CFS had a real live pelican as its mascot. In that same year the RAF Aerobatic Team was formed at the advanced flying training school at Valley in Anglesey. Flying the diminutive Folland Gnats, they worked up in time to perform at the 1964 Farnborough Air Show in yellow-painted Gnats. Flight Lieutenant Lee Jones was the Leader. The Team was allocated the radio call sign Yellowjack and the pilots and Team quickly became known as the Yellowjacks.

The Commandant of the Central Flying School in 1964, Air Commodore H A C Bird-Wilson, apparently hated the Yellowjacks and insisted on a name change. Lee Jones considered this an unwarranted interference, but he had to appear to acquiesce to higher authority so, for a short time, the Team was known by the ridiculous name Daffodil Patrol. Lee Jones, who had no fear of Their Airships, as he irreverently referred to officers of air rank, knew that Bird-Wilson would hate the new name even more than Yellowjacks. He was absolutely right and in due course the Team's name quietly reverted to Yellowjacks.

The following year Lee Jones was posted from Valley onto the staff of the CFS, by which time Bird-Wilson had moved on from CFS and was serving as Air Officer Commanding Hong Kong. Lee Jones had long wanted to run a full-time aerobatic team instead of a part-time one, so he was delighted to be given the job of forming and leading a new team to represent the RAF as a whole. The Gnat was the RAF’s chosen aircraft because it was more modern, faster, and better suited to aerobatics than the only alternative aircraft at the Central Flying School, the Jet Provost. The Gnats allocated to the Team had already been painted red, probably, Lee commented cynically, to make sure the name Yellowjacks could not be used again. He was asked to suggest a name for his new team. "In that case," Lee Jones said, "let it be Red Arrows: red for the aircraft's colour, and arrows in memory of the Black Arrows".

Although the official name is now The Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team (RAFAT), they have been, as far as the public is concerned, the Red Arrows ever since and the Team has remained under the overall command and control of the Central Flying School.

In 1960 the Central Flying School was honoured when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother accepted the appointment of Commandant-in-Chief of the RAF Central Flying School, an appointment which she held until her death in 2002. In 1962 The Queen Mother received, on behalf of the CFS, the Cheltenham Sword which marked the granting of the Freedom of the Royal Borough of Cheltenham to the RAF Central Flying School.

1962 also saw the presentation to CFS of Patrick the Pelican, now deceased but replaced in turn by clones Frederick, Cedric and Godfrey - the latter named, presumably, after the school's first Commandant. Purchased by several staff officers at CFS, Patrick and his successors resided for many years at Birdland in Bourton-on-the-Water in the safe keeping of Mr Len Hill and later his son Ron. Whenever the Queen Mother paid an official visit to CFS the pelican was taken to the station and the Queen Mother had to meet and greet the pelican and be photographed alongside it, but not too close, for posterity. The last occasion this happened at Scampton was in June 1992 when Her Majesty asked the Commandant if she really had to be photographed with the bird. "I hate these Pelicans," she said. "They always snap and try to bite me."

Above: This is one of the CFS pelicans, looking supercilious at its home in Birdland in Bourton-on-the-Water- I don't know which one it is but they all probably looked very similar.
Her Majesty The Queen presented the Central Flying School with a Queen’s Colour in 1969. The Queen’s Colour, which is in the gift of the Sovereign and no-one else, is the RAF equivalent of a Regimental Colour. Initially there was resistance within the RAF itself to the proposal to award a Queen’s Colour to the Central Flying School. I imagine this was something to do with the on-going antipathy some non-CFS graduates had to those who had graduated from the school, while others may have thought that a Queen’s Colour for CFS would detract from the prestige of the Queen’s Colour for the Royal Air Force itself. (The Royal Air Force College Cranwell had been awarded its own Colour by King George VI in 1947.) In any event, when the Queen Mother, as Commandant-in-Chief of the CFS, heard of the proposal it is said that she encouraged the Queen to approve the award.

Up until 1976 all Red Arrows’ pilots were Qualified Flying Instructors on the staff of the Central Flying School. The first non-QFIs were Tim Curley and Nigel Champness, Reds 8 and 9 in the 1976 Team. I don't believe anyone ever had the temerity to suggest that only QFIs were capable of representing the RAF in a formation aerobatic team but since the Team was originally formed at the CFS it had seemed a logical step to use QFIs on the Team. That restrictive policy did not stop the RAF sending pilots onto the CFS course with a view to posting them to the Red Arrows immediately after graduation with no intention of using them for normal instructional duties - not immediately anyway. Dickie Duckett was one of the students on my CFS course. He was rushed through the final few weeks of the course so that he could join the Red Arrows for the latter part of the winter training season. Just a week after the rest of us graduated on 11 March 1968, Dickie flew his first public display, at Fairford. He was Red 9 in the 1968 season, Red 4 in 1969 and Red 7 in 1970. He returned as Team Leader for the 1975 and 1976 seasons. Dickie’s own flying instructor when he was a student on Gnats at Valley had been none other than Lee Jones, the first Leader of the Red Arrows. (In retirement, Dickie Duckett FRPS is a renowned wildlife photographer.)

Other students with me at CFS included Johnny Haddock, Richard Howard, Richard Gowring and Keith Skinner. Johnny joined the Red Arrows for the 1970 season but was one of four pilots tragically killed in 1971 when Reds 6 and 7, each with another pilot in the back seat, collided over Kemble. Richard Howard was Station Commander at Scampton when I arrived; Richard Gowring replaced him in May 1990. Peter Edwards, who as a flying officer had been one of my flying instructors at Leeming in 1967, became Scampton Station Commander in 1992. Keith Skinner was, like me, a CFS graduate and he turned up at Scampton as Wing Commander Red Arrows in the early 1990s. My life has been full of coincidences!

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