An unexpected phone call gave me cause for much thought - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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An unexpected phone call gave me cause for much thought

Within minutes of getting back to my office after doing a live interview on Radio Lincolnshire about the BBC TV Songs of Praise programme I was organising. I had a phone call from a lady who introduced herself as Secretary to Lord Cheshire. I knew, of course, that Wing Commander Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire VC had taken command of 617 Squadron from Wing Commander Guy Penrose Gibson VC, just weeks after the Dam Busters Raid. The Secretary wanted to make sure that Lord Cheshire, in his capacity as the founder of the Cheshire Homes, would be invited to the Scampton event and I assured her that he was top of my list. In truth, Lord Cheshire wasn't actually top of my list because he had not been involved in Operation Chastise, the official name for the Dam Busters Raid, but he was certainly on my provisional list of VIPs to invite. Lord Cheshire's Secretary, however, had a second reason for telephoning me.

"As soon as I heard your name on the radio a few minutes ago," she said, changing the subject abruptly, "I just had to contact you. Tell me, squadron leader, how do you spell your surname?" When I told her, she continued, "There are several variations of your surname in the Republic of Ireland but relatively few with your spelling. Are you by any chance related to Archbishop Joseph Cunnane in Ireland?"

"I don't think so," I replied warily; it was the first time I had heard of the archbishop.

"I think you might be related," continued the secretary. "Joseph never left Ireland but many of his close relatives emigrated to America and England in the 1890s and he lost touch with them. Joseph became Archbishop of Tuam in County Galway in 1969 and that's where I used to work for him. He's now living quietly in a home for retired priests and he's very interested in finding out what happened to those of his relatives who left Ireland and never returned. I know he would be really delighted to hear from you to compare notes."

The Secretary gave me the address of the Archbishop's retirement home in case I wished to contact him, and we left it at that. I was intrigued and sorely tempted to write straightaway to him but instead I told Dad about that conversation when I was next at home. While not actually forbidding me, Dad made it quite clear that he would prefer me not to contact the archbishop. Being an obedient son and having plenty of other things on my mind at the time, I did nothing. Sadly, Lord Cheshire died a few weeks later on 31 July 1992 so I never met either him or his secretary. Once again, I put the archbishop to the back of my mind - but not for the last time.

In July 1992, someone at a high level in the MoD suddenly banned the BBC programme. The BBC was very disappointed, and I had to send out literally hundreds of letters telling those who had provisionally been allocated tickets that the event would not now take place. There was outrage in the local press and before long the national newspapers quickly picked up on the story. Barely a month later the MoD did an about turn and announced that the programme could go ahead after all. As the Sunday People newspaper put it in their edition of 9 August 1992:

"We're delighted to report that a dotty decision by RAF chiefs has been shot down in flames. Apparently anxious not to upset the Germans, the defence bosses said it would be inappropriate for the BBC to do a live show from the RAF base at Scampton. Now, after a bombardment of criticism from ex-airmen, the MoD has done a smart about turn and the programme will go ahead. Wizard prang!"

Once again my word processor had to work overtime as I sent out hundreds more personal letters advising people that the event was back on. By early December I had allocated all 2,500 tickets but letters continued to arrive by every delivery of post. Eventually I could not spare the time to answer each one individually, so I ran off a standard letter saying that there were no more tickets and added that the number of requests was still so great that it was quite pointless trying to maintain a reserve list.

Word spread that all the tickets had been allocated but there was still a trickle of requests coming in as late as two weeks before the programme. I estimated that I could have allocated over 6,000 tickets in all. Less than a dozen people in total returned their tickets for re-allocation, and that was mostly because they were unable to attend due to illness or death. In other words, the 2,500 lucky people who had been allocated tickets were so committed to the event that they had put the date in their diaries many months in advance to make sure that nothing would prevent them from attending.

Right from the outset I had wanted the Red Arrows to be involved in the programme because I knew it would attract enormous publicity that could only be good for the Team. Curiously the Team pilots were not all that enthusiastic, perhaps because the Sunday in question was scheduled to be a day off in the midst of a very busy period. Initially the BBC Producer, Christopher Mann, was also ambivalent because, as he rightly said, the Red Arrows had nothing to do with either Bomber Command or World War 2. I told Christopher that his viewing figures would go up considerably if it became known that the Red Arrows would be appearing. Talking viewing figures to television directors is much like talking votes to politicians. Christopher agreed to let the Red Arrows appear right at the very beginning of the programme as their tribute to 617 Squadron and to represent the present-day Scampton. He decided that after landing the pilots should quickly make their way into the hangar in their red suits where the television cameras would pick them up as they joined the congregation.

Building the Red Arrows into the programme format then gave us the argument we needed to get permission from British Airways' management, the Civil Aviation Authority, and our own RAF bosses for the BA Boeing 747 to fly over Lincoln in close formation with the Red Arrows. The Red Arrows pilots were always more enthusiastic about flying in formation with Lima Tango than they were about appearing in Songs of Praise.

On the morning of the programme, GBNLT departed from Heathrow, rendezvoused with the Red Arrows over Cambridgeshire and then flew northwards in close formation at 1,000 feet above the ground, passing overhead the RAF Stations at Wittering, Cranwell and Waddington, before finally passing over the 900 year old Lincoln Cathedral and landing at Scampton. For this special formation flight, the Civil Aviation Authority had insisted, for safety reasons, that there should be no cabin crew and no passengers on board, just three qualified pilots: the Captain in Command, one of BA's most experienced 747-400 pilots; the First Officer, an experienced 747 pilot who was a former RAF fighter pilot and who would actually fly the aircraft as it flew in close formation behind the nine Red Arrows; and the Red Arrows' senior flying supervisor, Wing Commander David Hamilton, as overall safety officer.

"Shortly after taking off from Heathrow and before joining up with the Red Arrows," said David Hamilton afterwards, "I had to leave the flight deck and go back for a call of nature. I then took the opportunity to take a walk through the cabins. It was the weirdest sensation I've ever had - walking alone through both decks of that enormous aircraft and finding nothing but hundreds of empty seats. It was a great relief to get back to the flight deck and find that there really were two pilots on board as well!"

Adrian Thurley leading the Red Arrows said: "It was quite an economical way to fly because the huge bow wave which precedes a 747 was literally pushing us along through the air and I found that we had to reduce power quite considerably to maintain the assigned true air speed of 330 knots."

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