Home for Christmas then out to the Far East and Australia - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Home for Christmas then out to the Far East and Australia

As it happens, I was not able to go to Langkawi and Australia for the next part of the World Tour because our Command HQ wanted to send their own lady PRO from Command HQ and the Pot of Gold did not run to two PROs. The Hawks had been left at RAAF Butterworth in Malaysia over the Christmas and New Year period because it was neither financially nor operationally sensible to fly them all the way back to UK - and the Aussies had promised not to play with them. It was a different matter for the pilots and ground crew who returned to the UK by British Airways to join their families for the holiday period. They made the return journey in early January and then spent a week getting back into practice. After that it was the long haul to Australia, transiting via Jakarta, Bali, El Tari, Darwin, Alice Springs, Adelaide, Canberra and thence to Sydney where they arrived to a rapturous welcome on 23 January.

It was fortuitous that the Red Arrows display in Sydney was scheduled for 26 January because that is Australia Day and a public holiday. The Team gave a spectacular display over the harbour area and Australian police reported that 1.2 million people watched. I claimed that, on behalf of the Red Arrows, as a world record for the largest number of spectators ever at any single air display show anywhere. It seems likely that most of the people would have turned out whether the Red Arrows were there or not. Apparently, the Harbour Bridge area on Australia Day is something like Trafalgar Square on New Year’s Eve - but warmer. I cannot, therefore, claim that all those people turned up specifically to see the Red Arrows perform, but see them perform they did, and no-one challenged my world record claim.

I flew out from UK to Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei Darussalam, a couple of days before the Team arrived there on their long way home from Australia. My flight lasted 14 hours 40 minutes on Royal Brunei Airlines with a refuelling stop at Dubai. The service was quite immaculate! On my first full day I was taken on a solo tour by taxi around the Sultanate, including a half day in the truly fabulous Royal Regalia Museum where I was the only visitor. I was astonished to hear weather reports for central London on the taxi radio: Capital Radio was available 24 hours a day by satellite from London.

It was the Holy Month of Ramadan so the Sultan was unable to appear in public and there was little I could do in the way of PR. There was a practice display 30 January 1996 and a display the following day which was watched by the Sultan’s teenage son, Prince Abdul Maten (see image below). The Sultan himself watched from the privacy of the Royal Hangar on the other side of the airfield. The Team Leader was later granted an audience with the Sultan.

After an all too short stay in this fascinating country, I travelled from Brunei to Manila in Business Class comfort ahead of the Team while they made the long flight north-eastwards across the shark-infested South China Sea to the Philippines, with no airfield en route for use in the event of an in-flight emergency. The RAF provided a Nimrod search and rescue aircraft to shadow the Team and act as a communications relay.

I gave a very strange, live television interview on Philippine TV on the night before the display. I was collected from my hotel at 6.30pm by the Defence Attaché and we were driven the relatively short distance to the TV studio, about three miles I seem to remember, through the most horrendous traffic jams I have ever seen. My interview was scheduled for "some time" during the evening's main programme which was on air from 7pm to midnight. We arrived just after the programme had started but no-one seemed to mind that we were late. The studio was a very large, very hot, hangar-like room with lots of invited guests and members of the public sitting and standing around haphazardly. There was a general air of chaos.

During a break in the proceedings I was introduced to the Presenter (there was only one) and he told me that my interview would form part of a Philippine-wide phone-in. The Presenter, surrounded by a bunch of technicians, was seated in what seemed rather like a boxing ring without the ropes. I would be invited to "make a little speech to introduce myself" and then answer whatever questions were phoned in. That was fine, I said, until I realised that the programme was being conducted in at least three languages. Nevertheless, I said I would be very happy to do my best!

For over three hours, the Defence Attaché and I watched a heated live debate that concerned a notorious murder trial that had just ended. We could hear very little of what was being said in the studio and nothing of the outside broadcasts, but we gathered that the details of the murder were horrific and that cannibalism featured large. One of the studio managers explained that gruesome murders made very popular evening TV in the Philippines. He pointed to a large monitor that was showing the crowded court room and what seemed to be an interview with the convicted murderer just after he had been sentenced. I have no idea what the sentence was, and I certainly didn't ask!

It was my turn just before midnight. Someone placed headphones on my head and sat me down facing the presenter and I did my bit to explain why the Red Arrows were in the Philippines and what those at the display airfield could expect to see. There was time for only one question from the phone in but, at the crucial moment, before I could even have the question translated for me, the connection was lost and the programme came to a sudden halt.

The display, on 1 February 1996, at the Villamor Air Force Base in Manila was intended only for invited guests because members of the public were not supposed to be allowed into the airfield restricted area. However, many thousands of onlookers turned up at the gates and I watched as a young Philippine Air Force officer shrugged his shoulders and ordered the gates to be opened. "This is a free country," he said to the guards. "Let them in!" The grateful people swarmed in. The lucky ones at the front of the throng found shelter from the blazing sun in the VIP pavilion. When the VIPs, including several Government Ministers, high ranking military officers and diplomats, arrived from a reception on another part of the airfield about an hour later, they stood out in the sun and made no attempt to move the interlopers out of their seats in the Pavilion! Can you imagine that happening at a VIP event in UK? It is not recorded what, if anything, happened to the young officer but I reckon he deserved congratulations for his sensible decision.

About three months later a letter was forwarded to me from the British Embassy in Manila enclosing a cheque, payable to me by name, from the Philippine TV company for my services. It was for a large sum of money when converted into Sterling. It was the first and only occasion in all my 11 years working as the Red Arrows PRO that I had ever received, or even been offered, a fee for my services. I sought advice from various administrative departments of the RAF about what to do with the money. After a few weeks, word came back to me that there was, apparently, no suitable fund into which broadcasting fees could be paid. In the end I cashed the cheque and wrote one of my own for the same amount payable to the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund - and I included an explanatory letter in case the RAFBF needed a record of where the money had come from.

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