A delay before we even started - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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A delay before we even started

This and the following pages about the Soviet visit are based largely on a series of articles I wrote for the RAF News and which were then re-published by a number of UK newspapers and magazines.

"Danish pastries with tea or coffee will be served as soon as we're airborne". Those were the final words of Corporal Carl Morgan's pre-flight briefing to the passengers on ZD621, the British Aerospace 125 executive jet of RAF number 32 Squadron which was to lead the formation of 10 Red Arrows' Hawks throughout the tour. We passengers smiled at each other as we settled into the comfortable VIP seats. How civilised and how very British. The date was 20 June 1990; the time 8.10am.

Above: Roy Fleckney on the aircraft steps and Mick George on the right with a couple of groundcrew in the centre.
There were five passengers on board. The senior man was Air Commodore Bruce Latton, Commandant of the Central Flying School, who would be in charge of the detachment until we reached Leningrad. Squadron Leader Roger Matthews, the Senior Medical Officer at RAF Scampton, carried mysterious bagsful of potions and pills designed to ease the queasiest of stomachs and to purify the foulest of waters. I believe, but was never able to confirm, that he had also packed onto the support Hercules aircraft stocks of pure British blood so that none of us would be contaminated with Soviet blood should we need a transfusion. I can personally confirm that he also carried several large bottles of Glenfiddich malt whisky - presumably for medicinal purposes. Then there was Squadron Leader Mick George, at that time one of the most accomplished Russian interpreters in the RAF. Until shortly before the Soviet Tour, Mick had been the Senior Air Traffic Control Officer (SATCO) at Scampton and he now served on the newly-formed Joint Arms Control Implementation Group (JACIG), also based at Scampton. Although Mick was not aircrew, his excellent knowledge of Russian, much better than mine, and his familiarity with international air traffic control procedures were sufficient qualifications to make his seat on the tour unchallengeable.

The fourth passenger was Warrant Officer Roy Fleckney, Red Arrows' Adjutant and Cash Imprest Holder. He was a very important passenger because he carried an attaché case stuffed with large amounts of hard currency sufficient, hopefully, to finance the entire detachment. I was the fifth passenger and I felt rather like an unwanted intruder. The Red Arrows had made room for me in the Commandant's executive jet but I had the distinct impression that my late inclusion on the tour created a bit of a nuisance because, amongst other things, all the hotel bookings had to be changed. No-one gave me any briefings about what I was supposed to do, what I was allowed to write about, and what I should not write about. Nine months after starting the job of PRO for the Team I was still left to my own devices to do as much or as little as I wished. I carried a simple automatic camera, my own property needless to say, with a bagful of films I bought with my own money from Boots in Lincoln, and a stack of notepaper taken from the CFS stationery store.

But why was a small executive jet to lead the Red Arrows? The principle was straightforward, but never practised before. The Hawks used by the Red Arrows were quite old and had very limited navigation aids, barely adequate to meet the civil international requirements for flying in controlled airspace. It was unthinkable that the world famous Red Arrows might cause a diplomatic incident by wandering off course inside the Soviet Union and so it had been decided at an early stage of the planning that there should be a Russian speaker somewhere within the formation in case of difficulty with the Soviet air traffic controllers.

The BAe 125, with Mick George on board, was chosen to lead the formation on the transit flights to Leningrad, Kiev, Budapest and then back to Scampton via RAF Wildenrath. For the all-important flight across the Soviet border into Leningrad, Mick George would transfer to the Team Leader's back seat thereby ensuring that if the Red Arrows and the BAe 125 became separated for any reason, the Red Arrows would still have a Russian speaker within their formation. Tim Miller’s regular back-seater would join us in the executive jet for that leg. Tim had already practised flying in formation with the BAe 125 and had discussed speeds, heights and rates of climb and descent with Flight Lieutenant Paul Mulkern, the Captain. It turned out that the performance of the two types of aircraft was compatible so no problems were envisaged in maintaining formation.

Corporal Morgan had barely completed his passenger briefing when Paul, the captain, asked us all to leave the aircraft. There was, he told us, a minor snag with one of the Hawks that would delay take off by an hour or more. The Danish pastries were returned to the aircraft's cold store, the passengers disembarked and we ambled across to where the Red Arrows and the Hercules were parked. Things turned out to be a bit more complicated than we had been led to believe.

The miniature detonating cord (MDC), in the canopy of one of the Hawks had exploded as the canopy was being locked down. The MDC was there to shatter the Perspex in the aircraft canopy immediately a pilot initiated the seat ejection sequence; the ejection seat then had a large hole through which the pilot, in his seat, could leave the aircraft cleanly and safely. On this occasion the MDC had, apparently, fired inadvertently. The pilot, Flight Lieutenant Martin Cliff received several minor, but painful, burns around his face caused by what is known as 'MDC splatter', small burning fragments of the fuse that makes up the cord. He should have had his helmet visor lowered to protect his face but, perhaps in the excitement of leaving for the Soviet Union, he had omitted to take that elementary safety precaution. He needed medical treatment and his aircraft needed a new canopy.

The doctor, Roger Matthews, examined Martin’s injuries and decided that he might also be suffering from shock. Roger declared Martin unfit to fly his Hawk on the first leg to Uppsala. A quick change of plan was needed. It was highly undesirable to delay the entire Team and Tim Miller certainly did not want to arrive in the Soviet Union one aircraft short. In any case, it would be a logistical nightmare trying to get clearance later for a single Hawk to transit alone to Leningrad. Air Commodore Latton decided that he would fly Martin’s aircraft, when it had been repaired, and Martin would take the Air Commodore’s place in the BAe 125.

That was not the only problem. The support Hercules, XV199 from 30 Squadron at RAF Lyneham, parked at the side of the Red Arrows hangar, was also having its own technical problems as evinced by the sight of an airman clinging precariously to the top of the rudder - presumably rectifying whatever the fault was. The Hercules, variously known by the soubriquets Ascot, the Bomber, and Fat Albert, would be carrying out its regular Red Arrows role of following on behind, but not far behind. It was loaded to the gunnels with technical equipment, food, bottled water, additional ground crew, and Roger Matthews' blood supplies. No Red Arrows major detachment was complete without the Hercules and it turned up, regular as clockwork, down the route often before the Red Arrows pilots had time to board their coach to the next hotel.

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