I make my own way to South Africa by civair - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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I make my own way to South Africa by civair

The original 1995 Display Season ended in late September with displays in Turkey and Greece and it was convenient and economical for the Team to continue from Athens through the Middle East without re-starting from Scampton or Cranwell. A wave of tummy troubles afflicting pilots and ground crew, caused by unscrupulous hotel staffs in Ankara filling mineral water bottles from the ordinary taps and then sealing the bottles to make them look authentic, made life unpleasant for several days. We knew for a fact that was happening because one of the ground crew saw it for himself. The whole detachment immediately changed hotels but the damage was done. The Red Arrows flew from Athens to Akrotiri, then two more legs to Tabuk and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, where the engineers had to change an unserviceable engine and the tail plane on one aircraft, and finally on to Doha Capital of Qatar.

Unlike football fans in 2015, not many folk in UK knew in 1995 where Qatar was. I arrived a few days before the Team and gave several interviews to newspapers and magazines. It really was exceedingly hot - well into the 40s Celsius and not a breath of wind. Later I did a 'Desert Island Discs' type of programme on Qatari Radio's English language programme. Now that was something new: a Desert Island Discs programme from a real desert location - but not quite an island. Actually Qatar is a large isthmus attached to Saudi Arabia by a narrow neck of desert about 30 kms wide. I had to choose my six records for the programme from a rather limited library of western music. The presenter, a British ex-pat, and I recorded the 60-minute programme "as live", that is to say in one continuous take. I took the opportunity to explain the history of the Red Arrows and the reason for our visit to Qatar, and gave the listeners a detailed description of the display they would see. There was a lot of local publicity and a great deal of excitement amongst the ordinary Qataris as well as the ex-pats as they awaited the arrival of the Red Arrows.

There was no air show as such in Doha, just a display on 28 September by the Red Arrows at which members of the Qatari Royal Family and many Government ministers were the guests of honour. The display was centred on the splendid beach-front Hotel Sheraton which was where we were all staying. I assisted the British Embassy staff in placing Red Arrows' brochures on each and every VIP seat. I can assure footballers and football fans intending to travel to the Qatar World Cup in 2022 that the early evenings in autumn are extremely hot and humid. After 30 minutes or so in the baking sun placing brochures on seats I was physically drained and in need of shade and water - and I was no stranger to hot desert conditions! All six lanes of the entire 10km stretch of the Corniche, the main thoroughfare through the centre of Doha, became one huge parking lot.

A very late change of plan, caused by the imminent arrival of a detachment of USAF aircraft which needed the parking slots, meant that the Red Arrows had to leave Doha earlier than planned. They could not fly on to Oman straightaway, as originally planned, because all the hotels there were fully booked for a Gulf Co-operation Council meeting. Instead the Team had two unscheduled nights in Bahrain before flying to Seeb International Airport in Oman.

I flew from Doha to Seeb on Gulf Airways. It was a great pleasure to be back in Oman for the first time since my tour of duty there in the mid-1980s. There was no PR to be done because the media were not allowed to be told in advance of the Red Arrows visit, or of the presence of HRH The Prince of Wales. That was the way they did things in Oman: any events at which the Sultan would be present were never advertised in advance. As in Doha, the Red Arrows were the only performers and the display on 2 September was private and not open to the public. There were only a few hundred spectators, including Omani Royals and most of the Diplomatic Corps and military brass. The Prince of Wales took time out to talk with every single member of the Red Arrows after the display before departing with his entourage in a fleet of helicopters which literally blasted the 11 Hawks with sand, dust and flying debris. The Red Arrows' ground crew were not amused at that, but it wasn't the Prince of Wales' fault.

After the Seeb display, which was in late afternoon to avoid the worst of the ferocious heat, there was no time for entertainment or rest. I headed off to the civil airport on the other side of the main runway and took an overnight flight to Johannesburg via Abu Dhabi. The Team took off from Seeb at last light for Riyadh where they made a night landing. It was nearly midnight before the ground crew had serviced all the aircraft and readied them for the next day's very long haul.

After departing from Riyadh, the Red Arrows had an extremely tiring three-hop day - the first two legs, to Jeddah and then Addis Ababa, took the formation over very isolated terrain with few navigation aids. The Garmin satellite navigation equipment that was on loan to the Team proved to be worth its weight in gold. Eight of the Hawks carried hand-held Garmin 100 GPS satellite navigation receivers, which perched on the cockpit coaming; one additional pilot had a Garmin 95 strapped to his knee pad. From time to time civil airliners they passed on route obliged by transmitting position reports to the air traffic control authorities by short wave radio, equipment not fitted to the Hawks.

The facilities on the ground at Addis Ababa were poor. The parking ramp in particular was littered with all kinds of rubbish, a real hazard for small jet aircraft. The Air Traffic authorities would not accept the departure flight plan until the landing fees had been paid in full - and in cash! Fortunately, a representative of the British Embassy was on hand to fork out. Addis airport had one final surprise for the pilots. As the 11 Hawks accelerated down the runway on their stream take-off, dozens of people suddenly and alarmingly appeared from the long grass immediately alongside the runway and stood up to wave goodbye to the British fliers.

The flight from Addis Ababa to Nairobi took the Team through the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), a phenomenon much loved by meteorologists and A2 QFIs, and across the Equator. The weather progressively worsened. Approaching Nairobi, the Hawks had to climb to 43,000 feet to keep above the dangerous ITCZ frontal cloud, but the descent into Jomo Kenyatta International Airport was something of a nightmare. Red Arrows' Leader, John Rands, split his formation into two sections for the penetration to the airfield. The weather turned out to be even worse than forecast. The aircraft were in thick cloud continuously until they broke out, in torrential rain, just 400 feet above the ground and about one nautical mile from the runway. A fine piece of precision close formation flying by all the pilots.

The following day there were two long legs, from Nairobi to Lilongwe in Malawi and then on to the South African Air Force base at Waterkloof, midway between Pretoria and Johannesburg. As the Red Arrows approached the border between Malawi and the Republic of South Africa, and in anticipation of a friendly interception by SAAF fighters at the border, Squadron Leader Rands mischievously obtained ATC clearance for a cruise climb to 47,000 feet. The SAAF Cheetahs that came up to meet the Red Arrows could not reach that height and so the Hawks obligingly descended to a more modest 32,000 feet to be escorted to Waterkloof.

I was well-placed on the airfield to take this pic of the Red Arrows spectacular arrival at Waterkloof but I was concentrating so hard that I did not realise that a flag had intervened - and it was not the South African flag!

Sadly the pilots were said to be "so tired and mentally drained" when they arrived at Waterkloof that they felt unable to give the media the interviews I had spent ages setting up. Particularly frustrated was the ITN television crew who had set up a live satellite link back to London, still quite a rare event in 1995, and found they had no-one to talk to other than me. In fact the ITN crew were so disappointed that they left without even talking to me and valuable live coverage on UK national television of the Red Arrows arriving in South Africa was lost. A PRO can only do so much!

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