I started accepting visits by the public - to the station - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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I started accepting visits by the public - to the station

At the time I started my job the only visitors to the Red Arrows, apart from their personal friends, were the so-called ‘corporate visitors’ who were given VIP treatment as a reward for things their companies had done or provided, for the Team, such as the Red Rover cars, the Breitling watches, the Ping golf equipment. Those visitors and their 'friends' were hosted by the Red Arrows pilots, they sat in on briefings and debriefings, they watched any Red Arrows flying that was programmed for the day, and they had a buffet lunch with the pilots. I was not involved in anything on the corporate side: that was the province of the Team Manager. However you looked at it, it was sponsorship in every respect except name.

Next I discovered that it had been RAF Scampton policy for many months, if not years, not to accept any public visitors at all because there was no spare manpower to look after them. Letters and phone calls requesting visits to the station had routinely either been turned down by means of a standard letter, or simply ignored. Hardly good PR! Every letter should have been answered promptly, if only to say ‘Sorry can’t be done’. “We get very few requests for visits to the station, so it’s not a problem,” one officer in Admin Wing told me. Evidently the word had got around that it was a waste of time asking for a visit to RAF Scampton and I suppose folk had given up asking. That was appalling for such a historic and famous station as Scampton.

The first request for a visit that came my way was not a letter but a telephone call from a school in Scunthorpe. That was how I learned that the station PBX operators had been told to pass all requests for visits of any sort to me. The school teacher who telephoned me said that her children were doing a project on flight as part of the National Curriculum and a visit to Scampton to look at aeroplanes would help them enormously. The operational stations in the county, Binbrook, Waddington and Coningsby, had already refused to accept a visit for security reasons, she told me. How could I refuse such a plea?

I accepted, on my own initiative, a visit by 30 pupils and a handful of teachers and parents. Carried away by my own enthusiasm, I suggested that they might like to invite a reporter and photographer from their local newspaper to come along as well, to report on the visit. The organiser accepted with enthusiasm. The visit went off extremely well. The children watched a Red Arrows’ practice session over the airfield, and they closely examined aircraft in the various hangars. The airmen working in the hangars were very happy to talk to the children and let them look inside the cockpits. The children, about 9/10 years old, knew a lot about the Dam Busters raid so I took them to see the grave of Guy Gibson’s black dog; and they wanted to know if it was true that the dog haunted the airfield at night. (The grave recorded the proper name of the dog; I explained that in 'the olden days' the 'N' word was in common use for black dogs, and cats, but nowadays it was considered not nice to use it.) The Red Arrows pilots would not spare five minutes to chat and sign a few autographs when they walked past after their practice sessíon. I had to explain to the children that the pilots needed to debrief the practice as soon as possible and before they had time to forget what they had just been practising.

Word starting spreading rapidly that Scampton was open to visits! But it was not only schools who wanted them. There were several clearly defined groups of people who wanted to visit Scampton. To my mind the most important, even more important than schools or Red Arrows fans, were those ex-serviceman who had served at Scampton during the second world war. Now in the twilight of their lives, I considered that they had every right to visit their old station and I refused such a visit only on very rare occasions. Next in my order of importance were requests from the families of those airmen; they wanted to see where Dad or Grandfather had served their country.

Other people merely wanted to visit Guy Gibson's dog's grave in front of No 2 Hangar.  For example, one particular man from somewhere in the Midlands told me that he visited Scampton every year and all he wished to do was take a new photograph of the grave. He told me that he mailed copies of his photographs to interested parties all around the world and he always insisted on taking a new photograph even if there was little discernible difference from pictures he had taken a year earlier. Once I realised that he was making an annual pilgrimage, I offered to mail him new photographs every year to save him the trouble and expense of a 200-mile round trip but he declined my offer. "This is something I have to do myself," he said simply.

There was no spare manpower anywhere on the station to host potentially very large numbers of visitors but it was often difficult to get that across to people who wished to visit. The older ex-servicemen were the most difficult to convince. In their days, that is to say in my early days in the RAF, there always seemed to be a pool of airmen with time on their hands who could conveniently be employed to show visitors around. "I don't need any special treatment," was a common point ex-servicemen made in their letters. "Just get one of the erks from the SWO's working party to look after me." Many years had elapsed since the Station Warrant Officer had a pool of labour at his, or these days often her, beck and call.

One request that I did refuse, because it clashed with a visit by a Service VIP, caused me genuine sorrow and grief three years later. The request came from Mr W C Townsend who wrote to say that he lived in Bromsgrove and would be passing through Lincoln on a certain day visiting relations. He wondered if it would be possible to call in and have a look around Scampton where he had served for some weeks during the war. That was all he put in his letter. I wrote back saying sorry and explained that I had a VIP to look after on that date and we were short of staff.. I suggested he wrote back if he was ever passing close to Scampton again.

It was only three years later, when I was helping to organise the events marking the 50th Anniversary of the Dam Busters, that I realised to my great dismay that Mr W C Townsend was in fact Flight Sergeant W C "Bill" Townsend CGM DFM. Bill had been the captain of Lancaster AJ-O on the Dams Raid and he was the last to land back at Scampton at 0615hrs. One of his Lancaster's four engines was out of action and the windscreen was almost totally obscured by escaping oil. He was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal for his part in the operation. Sadly Bill Townsend had died in 1991 so I was never able to right a wrong and to this day I still feel guilty about it.

Above: This is a clip from one page of the documents I had found on my very first day at  Scampton. I have clipped the right hand end of this scan otherwise the text would have been unreadable on small screens. It shows the crew list of the 19 aircraft scheduled for the Dams Raid. The crossings-out, made at the time in RAF Scampton Station Operations, were those aircraft that failed to return. Bill Townsend's entry is No 17.

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