A PR fiasco but, fortunately, it had nothing to do with me - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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A PR fiasco but, fortunately, it had nothing to do with me


I took this pic of Kloof Nek, the gap between Table Mountain and Signal Hill, before the Reds arrived.
From Pretoria the detachment moved south west for a few days in Cape Town and everyone immediately fell in love with this delightful city and its friendly people. On arrival the Red Arrows and the support Hercules first made a spectacular joint flypast through Kloof Nek, the gap between Table Mountain and Signal Hill, and then over the city itself. Red Leader, John Rands, reported that as they passed through the gap he could see thousands of people waving. The display over the historic waterfront area with Table Mountain looming dramatically in the background was received ecstatically and traffic in large parts of the city came to a complete standstill. Later that day I recorded a 10-minute interview with BBC Radio Lincolnshire from my hotel room in the shadow of Table Mountain.

I spent most of my time looking after the hordes of media so I took very few photographs myself. However, I saw this one coming and just got my camera ready in time to snap a very low pass by one of the Synchro Pair over Cape Town harbour.
On one of the free days I went out for the day with a former Red Arrow in a hire car to the Cape of Good Hope about 60 kms south of Cape Town. Hands up all those who, like me, thought that the Cape of Good Hope was the southernmost point of the continent. Not so: Cape Agulhas, a short distance to the east, is just a few kilometres further south than Cape of Good Hope but too remote to visit by road in a day out from Cape Town. I had learned about the Cape of Good Hope at junior school and I had always wanted to visit it. I stood on the headland and peered straight ahead, due south towards Antarctica, the next land in that direction. On the right was the Atlantic Ocean and on the left the Indian Ocean. Sentimental, perhaps, but a childhood ambition achieved.

After Cape Town everyone on the detachment started to relax knowing that they were, in effect, starting the long journey home. I left Cape Town on a very early morning two-hour flight with South African Airways to Durban so that I could be on hand when the Team arrived. On arrival at Durban Airport I was collected, unexpectedly, by the local TV station and taken to the Presidential Suite in the magnificent rugby ground where I gave a live interview on Breakfast Television seen throughout the Republic. Quite why the interview was transmitted from the Presidential Suite was not made clear to me but the interview went well. I agreed to do a second television interview, later in the day, especially for the Durban area, about an hour before the Red Arrows were due to arrive. That was when the trouble started. The interviewer's very first question on that second TV interview had me stumped.

"It had been announced that the Red Arrows were going to fly over George at midday," said the interviewer sweetly. "Why didn't they do it?"

For a stunned moment I couldn't think who George was and then I remembered, in the nick of time before I made a complete fool of myself, that George is a town not a person! It was not one of my more comfortable interviews because I had no idea that it had been announced that there was going to be a display over George - it certainly was not on my programme. I was forced to waffle. I explained that I couldn't explain why the good citizens had been told to look out for the Red Arrows. I had to add, rather lamely, that I had been given no information about any such plans. The interviewer told me that virtually the entire population had stopped working to throng the streets, looking in vain for the Red Arrows. There were a lot of disappointed and angry citizens.

Unbeknown to me, a well-meaning PRO in the South African Air Force had told the media a couple of days earlier that the Red Arrows would perform over George and possibly Port Elizabeth on the low level transit flight from Cape Town to Durban. Unfortunately, the Red Arrows never had any such intention - they had not been asked to do so, nor did they have enough fuel to do it anyway. The displays-that-never-were created so much ill feeling that it almost cancelled out all the beneficial PR the Team had earned. The Port Elizabeth Herald printed a scathing report:

"Missing the Target. Never in the history of British aviation have so many been disappointed by so few, Winston Churchill might have said. The Red Arrows appeared for only a few flashing seconds and so undid much of the good work of the Queen's visit to the city last March. Let us hope that they have learned from this debacle and that in future they stick to their schedule and their promises."

The following day the same newspaper stated, quite wrongly, that I had apologised profusely for the fiasco. It continued, "Tony Cunnane, the Team's PRO, said that battling in the face of strong coastal winds and flying at sea level which uses up more fuel, the Red Arrows had no choice but to take the shortest possible route to East London." In fact I never spoke to that newspaper. Having unilaterally decided that it was the Red Arrows at fault, the media were not prepared to make any apologies, particularly since they would have had to lay the blame on their own air force. I heard some time later, from a reliable South African media source, that the top echelons of the SAAF were extremely miffed that the Red Arrows displays at Waterkloof had almost entirely eclipsed displays by SAAF aircraft. Certainly the Red Arrows got more publicity in the media than all the rest of the participants put together. That's why we were all there!

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