April Fool - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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April Fool

As a bit of light relief, I was asked by William Wright, a presenter with BBC Radio Lincolnshire, to help him with an April Fool’s story he was preparing. Anything to deflect attention from the crowd front story, I thought, so I was happy to oblige. Accordingly, several times on the morning of 1 April the following news item was broadcast:

"NASA has bought up the airfield at RAF Scampton so that it can be used as an emergency landing strip for the Space Shuttle. A spokesman for NASA explained that the 9,000 foot runway was not quite long enough so the famous bulge in the A15 trunk road would be moved even closer to the village of Hackthorn to accommodate the extra runway length. There would be some inevitable noise nuisance because the Shuttle would be supersonic when it entered Lincolnshire airspace. Scampton was an ideal airfield because the airfield was now used only by the Red Arrows. Furthermore, if the shuttle crew got into trouble, they could aim first for Lincoln Cathedral which was clearly visible from space and had been used during World War Two as a navigation aid by Lancaster crews returning from operations over Germany. Another spokesman speculated that it might be possible for the Red Arrows to formate on the shuttle for a photo opportunity as it came in to land."

I think the Sunday Sport newspaper missed a great opportunity for one of their specials based on this story. Most people recognised the item for what it was but, nevertheless, a few gullible people called the radio station, and me, to ask for further details.

After that April Fool's joke, it was back to the crowd front story. It was eventually decided by the MoD that we would not formally release the story because of the awkward questions it would raise. Instead the PROs were given a question and answer brief we could use should any reporters ask questions. The point about Q & A briefs is that you only answer the specific questions that are asked. I kept my copy close to hand because I knew it would be only a matter of time before someone leaked the story to the media. On 3 April I sent the following fax message to our Command HQ.

"I have just spoken to Tom Rounds in the Defence Press Office about an enquiry I had this morning from the Deputy News Editor of the Lincolnshire Echo. The Echo man was wondering why we have not been flying very much recently when we normally fly three times a day every day at this stage of the training season. As agreed with you earlier, I explained that the Red Arrows are changing their show to conform with EC regulations and that the Team leader and his pilots needed time to re-organise the routine and to eliminate crowd over-flights. Inevitably the News Editor asked why we are changing the show at this late stage. I referred him to the Defence Press Office for an answer to that! NB. The Lincs Echo has asked to send a reporter and photographer to Cranwell on Monday next (06 April) to cover the Team’s departure for Springhawk in Cyprus. I have said they are welcome, but we can expect more questions then."

The reporter from the Lincolnshire Echo persevered, as I knew he would. He telephoned the Defence Press Office, our Command PRO, and me, several times. Someone obviously did spill the beans - and, once again, I can state that it certainly was not me! The Lincolnshire Echo was first off the mark, as far as I am aware, and I answered their reporter’s questions straight out of the Q & A briefing notes. They really went to town. The next day the single word headline across five columns was "BANNED". Under the headline was a large and superb colour picture of a Vixen Break and under that the story. There was also a World Exclusive tag. It doesn't happen very often that a regional newspaper can claim a world exclusive!

The Mail had the story next and it seemed to me to be based almost entirely on the Echo’s piece. The Mail’s headline was, "Red Arrows lose strings from their bow in safety crackdown." It continued:

"For more than 30 years the Red Arrows have enthralled crowds with their aerobatics. But a tightening of safety rules means that their most famous stunts will soon disappear from the skies forever. The daredevil pilots have been told that they will have to rewrite much of their programme to meet regulations. Some of their most famous manoeuvres involve them flying over the crowd at low level. Legislation prohibiting certain manoeuvres was introduced in many European countries 10 years ago, but the Red Arrows, regarded as the best in the world, were the only aerobatic team to have a special licence allowing them to carry out the daring stunts. A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: 'There was a lot of ill will among other display teams that the Arrows were allowed to perform things that they weren’t. All aerobatics over the UK are governed by the Civil Aviation Authority, and it was deemed that the RAF could not allow the Red Arrows this special privilege any longer.'"

Although the Mail’s story was essentially correct, especially the comment about the Red Arrows being the best in the world, there were certain statements in it that did not tell the whole story, possibly because the reporter did not ask the right questions of his source. No-one from the Mail spoke to me at all. The Red Arrows pilots cringe when they hear their manoeuvres described as stunts because the word ‘stunt’ has an implied suggestion of foolhardiness and the way the story had been written implied that the Red Arrows’ displays had not been entirely safe in the recent past. That implication was something that I had been particularly keen to avoid. I was surprised at the statement attributed to the MoD spokesman about ill will. I never heard of any ill will amongst the other aerobatic teams because of the Red Arrows’ waiver to fly certain manoeuvres over, or towards, the crowd. Jealousy, maybe, but ill will never!

I was inundated with requests for interviews from media outlets all over the country. The Team Leader and I gave both live and recorded interviews with radio stations as far away as Jersey and the Isle of Man. Television stations in the north and the Midlands carried the story and the local BBC television stations re-used gruesome footage from the Frecce Tricolori’s 1988 Ramstein accident. It was all particularly galling, certainly for the Team Leader. Introducing a crowd front show in his third and final year would have been his legacy to the Team. By forcing its introduction for his second year, made it appear more like compulsion than a legacy. All in all, this whole saga was a good example of how not to handle sensitive PR stories and I was professionally embarrassed that I had to be associated with it.

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