Virgin Trains' chief exec is foiled by bad weather at Exeter - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Virgin Trains' chief exec is foiled by bad weather at Exeter

On the Friday afternoon before the trip to Exeter, the Team gave a private display at Marham in Norfolk for the students of the Royal College of Defence Studies. While the nine display pilots flew back to Cranwell to debrief and refuel, Red 10, who had been giving the commentary at Marham, flew direct to Exeter. All the other Reds plus Wing Commander Dick Johnston, flying as Red 11, arrived in the vicinity of Exeter to find a very active thunderstorm sitting over the airfield. Visibility was reduced to about 2,000 meters in torrential rain and the cloud base was only a few hundred feet above the ground. Simon split the formation into groups of three and two aircraft. The leader of each group would fly an Instrument Landing System (ILS) pattern which would guide the aircraft down to Decision Height, 200 feet above the runway, from which point the pilots would complete a visual formation landing - if they could see the runway!

ILS patterns are flown at low speed so that when the runway is sighted, the aircraft is already in the landing configuration. If the pilot does not sight the runway at Decision Height, he has to climb away to a safe height and either try again or divert to another airfield. Instrument circuits use up considerably more fuel than a standard high speed run and break into a visual circuit. The fourth group, Red 9 and Red 11, found themselves only eight miles out from the airport while the other aircraft were still in the process of landing and clearing the flooded runway. Sean and Dick were rapidly approaching their minimum safe fuel level and to further complicate matters, Dick’s VHF radio was unserviceable which meant that he could not hear or talk to the air traffic controllers although he could communicate with Sean on the UHF military frequencies. Had any of the first eight aircraft blocked the runway for any reason, Reds 9 and 11 would have been stranded with nowhere to land. Sean, leading Red 11, prudently decided to carry out an emergency diversion to Cardiff airport while there was still sufficient fuel remaining. After refuelling at Cardiff, Reds 9 and 11 flew back to Exeter, by which time the weather had improved considerably.

The Blues had arrived at Exeter airport about 9.30am to start preparing the aircraft for the day's activities. Red Arrows brochures and stickers, left in various places in the Airport Terminal, were snapped up by holiday-makers arriving from, and just setting out for, Tenerife, Palma and the Channel Islands. Some inbound passengers, alighting from their holiday jet, made a beeline across the tarmac towards the red Hawks, much to the consternation of the airline movements staff who were trying to shepherd the passengers into customs and immigration. The flight crew of a Lufthansa Regional Jet took time out to examine the Red Arrows' Hawks at close quarters before re-boarding their own aircraft for a flight to Hamburg. Crowds of onlookers were parked in every available lay-by on the narrow road that leads from the A30 to the airport.

Brian Barrett, claiming to have eaten a hearty breakfast, arrived from his hotel with his wife and daughters. He was quite keyed up but insisted that he was really looking forward to his flight. The weather, unfortunately, was very poor. The overnight heavy rain and the moist southerly airstream produced a dew point of 20°C. Since the air temperature was also 20 degrees, that meant 100% humidity and, inevitably, fog swirled around reducing visibility at times to less than 1,000 metres. Overhead, the sun occasionally poked through the overcast. The conditions were almost monsoon-like. Someone referred to it as "hot fog", a very graphic but not very technical description. With just an hour to go before take-off, Simon had no option but to cancel the flypast.

As tends to be the way with weather-related problems, no sooner had Simon announced his decision than the sun broke through a break in the overcast and the air temperature climbed two or three degrees in as many minutes. This created a classic "Suckers' Gap", named after those foolish aviators who are sometimes tempted to ignore the weather forecast and take off in a clearance only to find that a few minutes later the weather closes in on them. But Simon is no sucker. Shortly after the sun appeared, the increase in temperature stirred up low level turbulence and caused the fog to thicken again. No-one was surprised when the sun gave up the unequal struggle. Conditions rapidly deteriorated and were soon well below those required for Hawk operations.

To say Brian Barrett was disappointed would be an understatement but Simon promised that, should a suitable opportunity occur later in the year, the flypast of the train would be set up again. At the same time as Brian was changing back out of his flying equipment into his civilian clothes, his Account Manager a few miles away in Weston-super-Mare, was walking down the aisle with Annie. For once, Kelvin's mobile phone was switched off and so he could not be told that the flypast would not take place.

Less than one month later, Kelvin was made redundant as part of his company's reorganisation, but he loyally insisted that it was nothing to do with the Red Arrows or the train-naming. Life can be cruel!

Brian Barrett did get his trip with the Red Arrows - two trips actually. The Red Arrows flew from base to Aberdeen Dyce Airport on 16 October 1997 positioning for a full display that afternoon for the opening of the Tall Ships Race. Brian travelled in Red Leader's back seat on the transit flight. That evening he entertained the Red Arrows to dinner in a restaurant in Cults, on the outskirts of Aberdeen. The following day Brian had to rise early for his second flight when once again he was in Red Leader's back seat on the transit back to Cranwell but on that occasion the Team made a low level flypast over the Virgin's own 'Red Arrows'.

I had been handling the arrangements for the flypast over the train for some weeks. It was essential that the Red Arrows, travelling at about 350mph, and the train travelling at 40mph at that point, were both exactly on time so that the photographers from many railway magazines and media outlets would be able to get both aircraft and train in the same frame. One of Virgin's train drivers had suggested the RV, a remote coastal location called Colsea Yawns, a few miles south of Aberdeen, where the railway curves spectacularly over cliffs. The train was a scheduled service from Aberdeen to Penzance so it had to stick to its timetabled departure of 0910 otherwise other trains on the line would be affected. The exact time for the flypast at Colsea Yawns was set at 0917 and 30 seconds.

I had travelled in the driver's cab from Birmingham to Aberdeen on the 16th and I was again in the driver's cab for the trip from Aberdeen as far as Birmingham on the 17th. There were two drivers on duty in the cab because at that time the rules required two fully-qualified drivers in the cab when speeds of 100 mph and higher were scheduled for any part of the route. Virgin Trains had made special arrangements with Network Rail to ensure that the train's departure from Aberdeen was exactly on time because neither the Red Arrows nor the train driver had any scope for advancing or delaying the RV time and place.

The weather was ideal, the timing worked perfectly. Looking down from my vantage point in the locomotive cab, I could see the group of photographers on the ground who were ideally placed to get photographs of the Hawks flying in a left hand turn around the train. The only one who did not see the Red Arrows was the train driver who had been watching the track ahead as it curved around the headland and then between a cutting through the hillside.

I know that several aviation magazines printed photographs of the flypast and most of the Aberdeenshire media used the story with pictures. I'm not sure why, but I never did see any photographs of the flypast! However, I readily admit that the best parts of the event for me were the two cab-rides and especially the truly awe-inspiring crossings of the Forth Rail Bridge and the Tay Bridge. I also enjoyed the point where we crossed the centre of a golf links course somewhere north of Perth; the train was coasting at 80 mph on a slight down gradient and players on both side of the track stopped their game to wave at us. Of course, I waved back feeling like some VIP personage!!

Some weeks later, much to my surprise, I received a personal invitation to the annual Christmas party that Richard Branson laid on for staff from all his business ventures but unfortunately at the last minute I was taken ill and I had to send my regrets.

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