Farewell party for the Russian Knights and I meet a Russian pilot who had once 'met me' on a Dragonfly sortie - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Farewell party for the Russian Knights and I meet a Russian pilot who had once 'met me' on a Dragonfly sortie

After the flypasts over Balmoral, all the aircraft landed at RAF Leuchars for a press conference hosted by that station. On Saturday there were public displays for the 'At Home' days at Leuchars and Finningley and then it was time for all concerned to wind down and really relax for the first time in five days.

At parties in the Officers' and Sergeants' Messes at Scampton on the final evening, more speeches were made, gifts exchanged, and hand aerobatics performed, as the relative performance of Russian and British aircraft were discussed with passionate fervour. At one stage, when dinner had been cleared away but we were all still seated, more or less, a Russian Air Force colonel came and sat alongside me. I had never met him before so I assumed he was one of the many officers who were travelling on the Ilyushin support aircraft. He knew who I was because I had just made a short speech explaining how Russ and I had delivered General Antoshkin's gift to the Queen Mother.

"Hello Major Cunnane," he said affably in good English, but using the Russian equivalent of my squadron leader rank. "You used to fly Victor tankers from Marham and Leuchars." It was a statement not a question. Although I was taken aback by his forthright approach, I managed to refrain from giving him the satisfaction of asking him how he knew, so I simply said, "Yes."

"We met, so to speak, many years ago flying well to the north of the Faroe Islands in what you call NATO Area 12," the colonel continued, obviously enjoying having the ascendancy over me and knowing full well that I had no idea what he was going to tell me next. "You were on Operation Dragonfly flying out of Leuchars on an early morning mission. I was the commander of a TU-95 bomber, the one that NATO calls Bear, and your Victor tanker was refuelling a Phantom F4 before it came looking for me. I never imagined that we would meet one day in person as friends." He paused, then continued slyly, "But the F4 had a little accident and had to run for home so it never found us."

He then added some details of an incident that had occurred on a sortie I had flown in August 1975. About 80 minutes into that flight we had been alerted by the ground controller that there was an unidentified aircraft coming towards us - probably Soviet. In accordance with standard operating procedures, the pilot of the single Lightning, not an F4, automatically moved in to fill his fuel tanks to full before going off to intercept the intruder. No radio calls were made between us because we were operating under silent radio procedures. Unfortunately, the Lightning pilot broke his aircraft's refuelling probe on his first approach to take on fuel. At the time we were 550 nautical miles from the nearest airfield, RAF Kinloss, right at the maximum range of the Lightning with the amount of fuel remaining its tanks. I had to abort our mission and head for Scotland, close escorting the now very anxious Lightning pilot.
(Below: The extract from my official logbook above shows the sortie in question on 23 August 1975.)
"It was a Lightning not an F4," I said to the Russian - and immediately wished I had not.

"So it was," said the Colonel, with a broad smile. That convinced me that either he had been in the TU-95 as he claimed, or he had taken the trouble to read about the incident in a Soviet Air Force report. I had to admire his research - or his researcher.

Sadly, or perhaps it was just as well, our short conversation came to abrupt end because General Antoshkin stood up to make his speech. The colonel returned to his original seat and afterwards, when we all repaired to the bar, he had disappeared. I never saw him again – not even the following day when we all gathered on the airfield at Scampton to bid farewell to the Russian Knights. I realised then that the colonel had never told me his name.

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