Kiev to Budapest in close formation with the Red Arrows - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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Kiev to Budapest in close formation with the Red Arrows

Monday 25 June 1990 dawned mild and sunny with no sign of the clouds and rain that had threatened to ruin the Red Arrows displays on the previous two days. Whilst waiting to board the coaches taking us from our hotel in Kiev to Borispol, Wing Commander David Guest, the Hercules Captain, told me that his crew had spent the previous evening having dinner at the house of the Borispol Base Commander.

Wing Commander Guest had produced a bottle of Glenfiddich for the Colonel to try. "Very like Russian vodka to my mind", the Colonel had said. David was not sure whether that was a compliment or not!

Not to be outdone the Red Arrows Team Manager, Andy Stewart, presented our interpreter (centre) with a bottle of the hard stuff - which, like a good Soviet officer, he immediately handed over to his superior officer (right)!

Out on the airfield while the official farewells were being made, I found that I still had a 10 rouble note in my possession. I could have changed it back into Sterling with the Assistant Air Attaché but, since it was worth barely £1, I decided instead to give it to one of the Soviet guards who had been protecting our aircraft overnight. The guard, obviously of Far Eastern origin, quickly stuffed the note inside his jacket. I told John Elliot what I had done. "You shouldn't have done that, Tony," he said earnestly. "That guard will be in serious trouble if he's found with a 10 rouble note in his possession because it's more than he earns in a month. They've nothing to spend money on and his officers will assume he has stolen it."

The BAe 125 and the Reds taxied out at 0950 local time for a take-off exactly on schedule at 1000hrs for the flight to Budapest. On the climb it had been arranged for the Hawks to join up in close formation on either wing of the BAe 125 for photographic purposes. The late Arthur Gibson, the well-known and sadly missed freelance film-maker, photographer, and friend of the Red Arrows for many years, had moved from Air Marshal Pilkington’s VIP Andover to the BAe 125 for just this purpose. Just after the formation had levelled off at around 30,000 feet the first Hawks appeared on the starboard side of the aircraft and all six passengers in the BAe 125 moved over to that side to get a good view. (I took both these pics but my seat was already on the port side so I didn't have to move!)
We heard an anguished shout from the flight deck and Corporal Morgan came rushing back to see what was happening. The auto-pilot had failed to cope with the rapid change of lateral trim and the co-pilot flying in the left hand seat had fought to stop the aircraft rolling to the right. Before the steward could report back to the co-pilot what was happening, we noticed more Hawks coming up on the port side and the inevitable happened - a sudden roll to the left. We passengers became rather better behaved after that!

The flight to Ferihegy Airport in Budapest took 90 minutes. This time the BAe 125 led the formation of 10 Hawks right down to the runway threshold at 300 kts and 500 feet for a spectacular arrival. An enthusiastic and very friendly group of Hungarians greeted us on the apron. Also there were the British Defence Attaché, Colonel Nicolas Davies, and the Air Attaché, Wing Commander Malcolm Gaynor, and their staff. There was a short press conference in the very modern airport buildings before we were taken to the Hyatt Hotel in Budapest city centre.

We were all immediately surprised at the beauty of Budapest and the friendliness and cheerfulness of its inhabitants. We were told that in recent months the Hungarians had gone to considerable expense removing all signs of the previous Russian occupation. There was not a red sign or Russian poster in sight and we tactfully removed from our uniforms and flying suits all the Russian badges we had been given as mementoes in Leningrad and Kiev. The Budapest Hyatt was worth five stars even by Western standards. Because it was still early in the day, having wound our watches back two hours from Kiev time, we were taken on a city tour with one of the charming secretaries from the British Embassy acting as courier. No generals, no military, no police escorts here, thank goodness. There simply was not enough time to get more than the merest flavour of what is undoubtedly a fascinating city. Many of us resolved to go back there on holiday.

The Red Arrows display was set for 6pm over the airport. There had been much advance publicity on Hungarian radio and TV and in the local press so quite a large crowd was expected. It is just as well we set off early from the hotel because long before 6pm all approach roads were jammed solid with traffic heading for the airport. The Hungarian police finally estimated that 15,000 people were inside the airport while another 15,000 were outside trapped in their cars. This was by far the largest crowd seen in Budapest for many years.

A good time was had by all. General Borsits, an Hungarian air force officer hosting the British Ambassador and Air Marshal Pilkington, offered to buy the Red Arrows, "lock, stock and barrel". We believe the Air Marshal refused the offer.The weather was brilliantly clear and for the first time on this tour the Red Arrows were able to do their full looping display in front of an enthralled crowd. The Red Arrows motto Éclat means brilliant - and this really was a brilliant occasion. The pilots do not readily congratulate themselves, as anyone who has attended one of their de-briefings knows, but this time even the pilots were satisfied and they climbed out of their aircraft grinning from ear to ear.

Above: That evening the British Embassy Defence Staff hosted a dinner in a local restaurant for the entire RAF detachment. There was a splendid Hungarian three course meal, unlimited supplies of local beer, a stripper, and an authentic five-piece gypsy orchestra to provide the music.

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