The Russian Knights and The Red Arrows flypast at Balmoral - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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The Russian Knights and The Red Arrows flypast at Balmoral

I then saw that a small lady was approaching from the house. With a shock, I realised that it was Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. She must have been waiting inside the house until we came out onto the lawn. Sir Alistair formally presented me and then Russ to the Queen Mother and we had to explain all about the Russian Knights and General Antoshkin's gift. I lifted the lid, showed the Queen Mother the internal electrics, and recommended that she did not allow her staff to plug it in.

"It is so kind of you to make that long drive from Lincolnshire just to present me with this gift from the Russian airmen," said the Queen Mother. "How long is it before the flypast is due?"

"They will be overhead at 11.30, Ma'am," I replied. "The Red Arrows are leading and they're always on time."

"I know. I do so always enjoy watching them. We have about 20 minutes to wait then. Would you like me to show you my private gardens?"

The Queen Mother led the way across the lawn, down a few steps, across an ornate wooden bridge over a ha-ha, and into her private garden. I suddenly noticed that Sir Alistair had silently withdrawn from the scene and the three of us were all alone. For ten minutes or so Her Majesty proudly showed us her flower beds, explaining how much she enjoyed spending time in this quiet garden, then she excused herself and disappeared towards the house leaving Russ and I alone in the garden.

A few minutes later we started to make our way back up to the front lawn. As we did so a rather unkempt looking man came out unexpectedly from behind some bushes and confronted us. It really was amazing how people kept silently appearing and disappearing. It was almost as though this man had been waiting off stage ready for his cue to make his appearance. He was supporting a large artist's easel over one arm. I assumed he was another secret service agent, although he did seem rather old for that sort of job.

"Good morning," he said, holding out his spare hand to be shaken. "You must be the gentlemen from the Red Arrows. I am the Duke of Hamilton and I'm very pleased to meet you."
The Queen Mother, Russ Fraser and me waiting for the flypast. This and the lower image are
(c) Colin Gower 1991
I racked my brain swiftly and decided that the correct form of address to a Royal Duke was "Your Grace". If that was wrong, the Duke didn't correct me. We chatted as we made our way back towards the front lawn, then he looked at his watch and said, "Oh dear, it's almost time. I had better go and change. Excuse me please." No sooner had he disappeared into the house than the Queen Mother re-emerged, accompanied this time by two corgis, and once more joined Russ and me on the lawn. From various other doors and gates, people silently appeared and lined themselves up to the right and to the left of the main entrance. A television crew from Grampian Television in Aberdeen appeared and also a still photographer, Colin Gower, an old friend of mine and one-time Picture Editor for the Daily Express, were also on the lawn. They kept at a discreet distance.

"I've invited my house guests and the staff to come out and watch the flypast," explained the Queen Mother, turning and gently waving at each group in turn. The ladies all curtsied gracefully, and the gentlemen bowed deeply in obeisance. "I invited the television crew here so that everyone in Scotland can see the flypasts and I have asked the Headmaster at the village school to let the children out to watch."

As I was explaining to the Queen Mother where the formation would come from and the fact that they would fly past twice, I noticed the Duke of Hamilton, now immaculately dressed in a morning suit and looking much more ducal, come out of the front door and take his place in the line-up of house guests. He smiled in my direction: that had been a pretty smart change of clothing in more senses than one. I peered into the distance towards Ballater, hoping that Red 1, Squadron Leader Thurley, would be on time. The Queen Mother saw the formation before either Russ or I did!

"There they are," said the Queen Mother pointing excitedly. It was another five seconds or so before the aircraft came into my vision. Russ and I had moved back a few paces so that the TV crew was able to film the Queen Mother without having us in shot. I glanced at my wristwatch; exactly on time to the nearest second, the formation flew directly over the spot on the lawn where the Queen Mother was standing. The Red Arrows were closely followed by the Russian Knights, looking enormous by comparison to the British Hawks, as they swept over the town of Ballater and down the valley at 360kts and 500ft above the ground. The Commandant-in-Chief raised her right hand in salute; the corgis at Her Majesty's feet looked up disdainfully at the unusual noise.

Adrian Thurley then manoeuvred his 17 aircraft formation, nine Red Arrows, six Su-27s and two photographic chase Hawks, around a wide right hand circuit over the mountains that encircle Balmoral Castle, for a second flypast. The Royal corgis totally ignored the aircraft this time round and then calm once more descended upon Royal Deeside.

"That was magnificent," said the Queen Mother turning to Russ and me. "It brings a lump to the throat and a tear to the eyes. Please tell all the pilots, RAF and Russian, how much I admire their skill and precision."

I promised to do just that, and Her Majesty withdrew. Sir Alistair came across to lead Russ and me back to a side entrance into the house where we left a large pile of Red Arrows' brochures and stickers for the Housekeeper to distribute amongst the staff. After changing back into civilian clothes, this time in a private room inside the house, we set off on the long drive back to Scampton. The same guard was on duty as we drove down the avenue through the estate. He flagged us down.

"Have you any brochures left, please," he asked. "There's half a dozen of us here and we're all Red Arrows' fans but the ones you just left with the Housekeeper will all have been snapped up by now."

I was very impressed with the internal communications! We handed over the rest of our gizzits.

The following year there was a follow up to the story about the Samovar. The Queen Mother came to Scampton in June 1992 to present, on behalf of the Queen, a new Queen’s Colour to the Central Flying School. I was in charge of the media arrangements of course and so did not expect to be presented to the Commandant-in-Chief. The Russian Knights’ Samovar had been returned to Scampton to take its place in the CFS Museum because the Queen Mother thought that it would make a fine exhibit for the public. During her visit to the Museum, whilst looking at the Samovar again, the Queen Mother had eye contact with me at the far end of the room where I was shepherding the media and keeping them at a respectable distance. Her Majesty left the group of VIPs and came over to me, much to the delight of the media and the surprise of the VIPs - and me!

‘Good morning Squadron Leader,’ she said. ‘How nice to see you and the samovar again. I followed your advice and never did plug it in, but I am sure it will have pride of place here in this museum. How is that nice Mr Fraser who came with you to Birkhall?’

‘He’s almost finished his flying training, Your Majesty,’ I said. ‘He’s done very well and is hoping to be posted onto Harriers shortly.’

‘Do give him my very best wishes when you next speak to him.’

I was amazed at the Queen Mother’s memory. Although her aides may possibly have briefed her that she might bump into me, there was no way they would have thought of briefing her about Russ Fraser. The Queen Mother must have remembered his name without any prompting. I tried to speak to Russ later that day. He was stationed at RAF Chivenor in Devon, but he was in the flight simulator when I rang the crew room. His flight commander answered the phone:

‘When Russ comes out of the simulator,' I said, 'will you please ask him to call me on this number. Tell him I’ve got a personal message for him from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.’

The flight commander thought I was winding him up and I had some difficulty persuading him that I was not, but he did pass on the message and I spoke to Russ an hour later.

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