Settling in at Cranwell - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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Settling in at Cranwell

At Cranwell the Red Arrows pilots, the admin staff, and me were accommodated in a building which was about 400 metres from the flight line and, therefore, rather inconvenient. I still didn't have a computer or printer supplied by the RAF so I installed all my own equipment yet again. The RAF would not supply me with a mobile phone and they would not pay the rental on my home telephone or provide me with a fax machine. Thus, the one and only PRO for the world's favourite aerobatic display team still had to provide and finance all his own communications equipment. No-one seemed to realise that most media calls came to me outside normal working hours. On the plus side, I had no responsibility any more for low flying complaints, other than those relating to the Red Arrows, and I had no responsibility for PR for either the station or the RAF College.

Above: The Red Arrows flypast over the RAF College at a Graduation Parade on 23 July 1998
(C) UK MOD Crown Copyright [1998]
The Team had barely time to find their new offices before they had to begin preparations for the 1996 season, the opening displays of which were barely 12 weeks away. On 29 March 1996, just 40 days after arriving at their new home at the RAF College Cranwell for the first time, the new 1996 Red Arrows team flew their first nine-ship practice. For good measure the Team included in that practice a flypast at RAF Waddington for the official opening of WAVE, the Waddington Aircraft Viewing Enclosure, on the side of the busy A15 trunk road.

Probably the most complicated PR event I ever conceived and organised had its genesis with a phone call I received at Cranwell from Tony Charles on the afternoon of 1 May 1996. The Red Arrows were away in Cyprus on the annual Springhawk pre-season training, a season shortened because of the Far East tour. I was just thinking of having an early finish for once, in fact I was halfway out of my office, when the telephone rang. The caller was a man called Tony Charles; I had never heard of him but he quickly introduced himself as a well-known entertainer, stage name Luci (pronounced the Italian way) and, as if to demonstrate his skills, he launched into an amazingly accurate impersonation of Prince Charles. Mr Charles was clearly disappointed that I didn't know him. Over the next ten minutes or so he asked me for a lot of information about the Red Arrows for a "secret" project BBC Television was proposing to do.

From his guarded line of questioning, some instinct told me immediately that he was talking about a This Is Your Life television programme, but he would not be drawn. The Red Arrows had been involved in three This Is Your Life programmes in the previous six years so I knew that secrecy was all important. I sent Tony the material he asked for - the new Red Arrows colour brochure, hot off the press, and all my current news releases, thousands of words in all. He rang again a few days later.

"Thanks very much for all the PR material. It's great and just what I needed. Would it be possible for me to visit you at Cranwell? I need to talk some things over with you."

"You're talking about the Red Arrows taking part in This Is Your Life aren't we?" I said. He admitted that he was.

"Let me guess," I continued. "You must be thinking of Ray Hanna, am I right?"
I had flown in Ray's back seat on a Red Arrows training sortie from Kemble in 1968 - my penultimate flight as a student flying instructor on the CFS course (see logbook entry scan above) - and Ray was in his second year as Leader of the Red Arrows. In the intervening years he had become famous in both the military and civilian aviation world. I knew that Ray was now running his own aviation business, The Old Flying Machine Company based at Duxford Airfield in Cambridgeshire. He owned and flew a famous World War 2 Spitfire, MH434, and 1996 was the 60th anniversary of the first Spitfire flight. Those seemed good enough reasons to make a programme on Ray's Life.

Tony Charles refused, wisely, to be drawn further on the subject of the programme on the telephone so we arranged to meet at Cranwell on 15 May, a date when I knew the Red Arrows would be back from Cyprus but would be off base playing in a golf tournament at Lindrick, in Worksop, Nottinghamshire. The fewer people who were around to ask Tony, quite innocently, what he was doing, the better. He visited me as arranged and confirmed that Ray Hanna was to be the subject of This Is Your Life and that it was natural to involve the present-day Red Arrows in his story. Tony seemed very surprised, if not actually irked, that I had correctly guessed not only the programme but the subject.

Tony Charles explained that Thames TV made the programmes under contract for the BBC but he was a freelance and worked for neither. As a long-standing friend of the Hanna family he thought that it was high time Ray Hanna got some public credit for all that he had contributed to the British aviation scene over the past 40 years or so. Tony, through his professional contacts, had put the idea of a programme about Ray to John Graham, the Producer of This Is Your Life, and he had quickly been sold on the idea.
"We're planning on making the hit at Fairford on 21 July," said Tony. Fairford was the venue for the Royal International Air Tattoo, the biggest air show in the UK. "Ray will be there with his Spitfire - and so will the Red Arrows so it should be easy to arrange a surprise meeting."

"Oh no it won't," I said. "This year the Reds will be flying the Tattoo displays from RAF Brize Norton. The show organisers have told us that there's no room for the Red Arrows to park at Fairford because there will be so many visiting aircraft, but you weren't to know that. The only Red Arrow on the ground at Fairford will be Red 10, the Commentator, and his video man. It'll look very suspicious if we suddenly try to get the Tattoo organisers to change their arrangements and there's absolutely no way you'll persuade Ray to go to Brize Norton on a Tattoo day. There's no good reason for him to go, but there's every reason for him to be at Fairford. He'll be doing business there."

That flummoxed Tony Charles but then I had a brainwave. "Why not do the hit here at Cranwell?" I suggested helpfully. "Ray Hanna has a long-standing invitation to visit us and fly with John Rands. I'm sure we could get him here - but obviously not on 21 July. Are you committed to that date?"

"I'm not sure. They normally record the programme as quickly as possible after the hit. That way the subject doesn't have time to get over the shock and change his mind, or get too used to the whole idea! I think Thames TV have it in mind to film the whole programme at the International Air Tattoo. If we did the hit here at Cranwell we would probably have to do all the filming here."

"Why not do the entire programme from College Hall," I said, warming to my idea. I also knew that it would provide great PR for the RAF. "It's a magnificent building, inside and out, and probably has all the facilities the TV Company would require."

Tony Charles became quite excited and he could wait no longer to put the revised plans to the Producer. He spoke to John Graham on the telephone from my office and obtained his very provisional approval for what had now become 'our' plot. It was early evening, much later than originally intended, when Tony Charles left Cranwell to return to London and I left for home.

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