Back home to Scampton via RAF Wildenrath - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Back home to Scampton via RAF Wildenrath

The following day it all started to wind down. First, there was the transit flight from Budapest to RAF Wildenrath in West Germany where we stopped to refuel and pick up our duty free allowances. No VIP escorts here - and very few smiles either. Then it was the final leg across the North Sea to Scampton. The difference on this leg was that the ten Red Hawks took the lead with the BAe 125 flying close astern so that Arthur Gibson could do some more aerial photography. The Reds landed first at Scampton, followed by the BAe 125 and a few minutes later by Albert the Hercules. The local customs officers met us, of course, but they did not trouble us for long.

So ended a historic tour for the Red Arrows and the RAF, the first visit by UK military non-transport aircraft behind the Iron Curtain, or what was left of it. We had all been surprised by the genuine warmth of our welcome in Leningrad, Kiev and especially in Budapest. We did not meet any surly, grumpy Russians, Ukrainians or Hungarians. No-one tried to make life difficult for us - not even the dezhurnayas, who, in the past, had been notorious for making life difficult for foreign guests. If the inhabitants of Leningrad had looked less happy than the others, well who could blame them? Glasnost had arrived but perestroika was still awaited in that once prosperous city. Unfortunately for the friendly Ukraine citizens, recent years have brought more trouble, still unresolved at the time of writing.

The Red Arrows had shown the Soviet and Hungarians something they had never seen before: precision flying and skills of the highest order. They wanted the Red Arrows to go back but it has not happened so far. The Red Arrows invited the Soviets to visit RAF Scampton but at the time that did not seem likely to happen either. None of us expected to see the Soviet Union disintegrate but, of course, that is exactly what did happen a few months later.

The RAF missed a great PR opportunity. Although there were some TV and radio interviews and newspaper reports about the Red Arrows within the Soviet Union and Hungary, there was very little reportage back home. While the Red Arrows resumed their UK display programme, I did some interviews about the tour for the Lincolnshire media and I wrote a two-part article for the RAF’s own in-house magazine 'Air Clues', repeated in many aviation magazines, but that was about it. The British Aerospace film crew that accompanied us wherever we went made a rather good 20 minute film of the tour ,but it was never shown publicly as far as I know. There were very few stories that I saw or heard about from the media group that had gone on the tour in the AOC's aircraft. It seemed to me as though the RAF were not interested in generating good news stories. From that day on, I decided that if the Red Arrows were ever to get the media coverage they deserved, I would have to arrange it myself bypassing both our Command HQ and the Ministry of Defence. Never again did I ask anyone in those corridors of power for permission to do anything.

Above: Part of the first page of my first article for Air Clues, the RAF's in-house magazine
On my return to Scampton there was another letter waiting for me about the QFI Cadre (that story started here if you missed it). It offered me a 5-year appointment in the rank of squadron leader starting with a bonus of two years accrued seniority - that meant two annual increments of pay to start with. Success! It was really nice to be wanted. However, it was too late. A one-to-one chat with Air Vice-Marshal Mike Pilkington at around midnight on the deserted streets of Budapest whilst walking back to our hotel, had given me pause for thought. Without going into the confidential details of that conversation, he advised me, in my own interests, to turn down the offer and, since I trusted him, I did - and never regretted it.

In January 2015 I was particularly saddened to hear that my good friend and mentor over many years, Air Vice-Marshal Mike Pilkington, had died aged 77.

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