The Russian Knights call in at Coningsby before landing at Scampton - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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The Russian Knights call in at Coningsby before landing at Scampton

The first surprise was that the Ilyushin 76 transport aircraft carrying the ground support personnel landed first. That was not part of the plan! So I had already imparted wrong information to the radio listeners but at least Chris Jones and I had something new to talk to the listeners about. As the giant aircraft moved slowly and cautiously past the CFS HQ building and along the taxiway in front of the hangars, it was supposed to turn left and park at the northern end of Echo Dispersal. That is exactly what the marshaller indicated with his wands but, inexplicably, the Il-76 turned to the right and nosed in between numbers 1 and 2 hangars. It came to a rather abrupt halt, rocking slightly on its enormous undercarriage, as the Soviet pilot presumably suddenly realised he had turned into a dead end.

"I wonder if he has reverse thrust so that he can taxi backwards like the Hercules?" someone near me asked of no-one in particular, but no-one volunteered an answer. Someone else then stated that it was the marshaller's fault: "Everyone knows that the Soviets turn towards the moving wand - exactly the opposite of what we do," he said confidently. A bit of a sweeping statement that! We learned afterwards that he was wrong anyway. Why is there always a know-all on such occasions? What possesses some people to swear blind that something is so when they know full well they have just made it up?

You could almost see the 'thinks bubbles' emerging from the cockpit of the Ilyushin as the engines wound down. A curious silence descended on the airfield. Everyone standing around realised that the Ilyushin had turned the wrong way but, still broadcasting live on BBC Radio Lincolnshire, I merely informed the listeners that the Russian transport aircraft was now in position - it was not the intended position, but radio listeners didn't need to know that! There seemed no point in causing embarrassment for our visitors.

After a few minutes a Russian officer, who turned out to be an air traffic controller, descended from the aircraft and was met by one of our own RAF Russian interpreters. There was no time for them to sort out what was to be done about extricating the Ilyushin from its spot because they needed to be in Air Traffic Control before the fighters arrived. In some haste, they drove off across the tarmac and down the taxiway, presumably leaving the Russian aircrew to ponder their future careers.

As the Sukhois' scheduled time of arrival was rapidly approaching, Chris Jones and I continued our live chat, peering continuously and hopefully, towards the north east. We had by then been broadcasting on and off for an hour and I had used up all the pearls of wisdom I had prepared. Time passed and still no news. Even Chris Jones ran out of things to say and so he temporarily handed back to the studio for a musical interlude. Eventually word reached me that the Soviets were thought to be approaching the east coast close to Spurn Point, not far north east of Scampton, and we were quickly back live on air.

"The Russian Knights will be with us very shortly," I said confidently, live on the radio. "The RAF air defence radar now has them on their screen descending near Cleethorpes. Four Tornados from RAF Coningsby that had flown halfway across the North Sea to the United Kingdom's international boundary are providing an escort. At the speed they are travelling they will be with us, overhead Scampton, in two or three minutes."

It was more like six minutes before the six gleaming red, white and blue Sukhoi Su-27s of the Russian Knights appeared through the autumnal gloom overhead Scampton, flying in a very tight formation. The four Tornados from Coningsby had split themselves, two onto either flank of the Sukhois, in traditional escort formation. The Sukhois performed a very low, very slow, and very tight orbit over Scampton airfield. This was obviously one-upmanship on their part because the Sukhois were able to manoeuvre more slowly in the tight turn than the Tornados.

The two Tornados at the bottom of this impromptu flypast were barely 200 feet above the ground and, as their airspeed reduced perilously close to their stalling speed, they were forced to break formation, engage their afterburners and accelerate up and away at a more sensible speed. The combined noise of all that power was truly ear-shattering. To the experts on the airfield it all looked rather shambolic - which is, presumably, exactly how the Russians intended it to look. With the possible exception of the Tornado crews, everyone else near me seemed to think this was a brilliantly cheeky move on the Russian Knights' part.

We learned afterwards that the Knights arrival over Scampton airfield was late because the Russians had deliberately ignored air traffic control instructions and the hand signals from the escorting Tornados. Just as the Red Arrows had conveniently failed to correctly interpret Air Traffic Control instructions on the approach to Leningrad a year earlier, the Russians were now playing a similar game. They had obviously planned in advance to deviate slightly from the approved route in order to make a low flypast directly over the Tornado's base at RAF Coningsby. There had been confusion and alarm when, for a few minutes, controllers at Coningsby thought the Sukhois were intending to land there. However, having made a spectacular low flypast along the runway at Coningsby, the Russians obediently joined up again with their escorts and continued the final few miles towards Scampton.

Unfortunately, I was so tied up with all the visiting media that I never got an opportunity to take any photographs for my own use.

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