'Thinking allowed' - or should it be 'Thinking Aloud'? - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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'Thinking allowed' - or should it be 'Thinking Aloud'?

Before Number 4 Hangar at Scampton could be re-occupied, a new septic tank had to be fitted. You can make up your own jokes! This was one of the last four photographs I took before finally retiring - two of the others are further down this page.

Late one afternoon in early December I called in at the still deserted RAF Scampton to record an interview with the well-known broadcaster Laurie Taylor for the long-running BBC Radio 4 programme Thinking Allowed. (It's still going in 2019 with Laurie Taylor still doing the thinking.) When I was first contacted by the researcher, I assumed that Laurie wanted someone to talk about the Red Arrows and I asked if he would rather interview the Team Leader. However, it was me they wanted! The 30-minute programme would be devoted entirely to stories about the City of Lincoln and my 10-minute contribution would not be about the Red Arrows but about Scampton airfield and its long history - and that famous black dog. I assured Laurie that I would not utter the dog's real name!

Above: This was the new RAF Scampton sign being erected near the main gate in December 2000.
When I met Laurie and his sound engineer at the car park in front of Station HQ, I insisted on driving them onto the airfield first. It was cold, windy and pouring with rain but I invited them to stand silently for a few minutes at the dog's grave right outside what had been his Master's office in 1943, and then turn about to look across the wide expanse of the grass across which the 18 Lancasters of 617 Squadron, Guy Gibson in the lead, had roared off on the raid from which so many brave aircrew never returned. I considered the interview I was about to do needed that for authenticity.

We were shivering when we got back into the empty shell of an office in Station Headquarters that had been the domain of 41 station commanders from Group Captain J C Russell in October 1936 to Group Captain Chris Burwell at the end of 1995 when the station had closed. We dripped rain onto the uncarpeted floor, while the engineer set up his recorder and the microphone on its stand. The interview went well, a single take (known in the trade as "as live") and I was well pleased.

The weather in the week beginning 18 December was appalling, starting with thick freezing fog which gradually gave way to very low cloud, mist and rain. No flying was possible on the first three days of the week and late on the Wednesday afternoon the decision was made to cancel the media event I had planned for the Thursday and as a result several weeks' work was wasted. It began to look as though the Red Arrows' aircraft would have to remain at Cranwell until the New Year and that would have been particularly inconvenient for the engineers. However, the weather lifted just sufficiently during the Thursday afternoon for the Hawks to fly into Scampton almost unnoticed. The Team Manager did not even tell me they were getting airborne, so I missed their arrival and, therefore, so did the media! In fact, I was on the A15 halfway between Scampton and Cranwell when I heard the Hawks flying overhead. The whole Squadron then went off home for Christmas. My second planned retirement date had passed.

Above: this was the new RAFAT sign being prepared. In case you are wondering what happened to the 4th of my last four photographs that used to be here until quite recently, I can reveal that it was another pic of the grave of Guy Gibson's dog, still clearly showing the dog's real name. In deference to those who objected, I have removed it.
My successor should have started work on 8 January 2001 but in the event that was the date that the interviews took place for the candidates who had applied for my job. Surprisingly, there were only three applicants, all of them civil servants of one sort of another - and one of those had pulled out literally at the very last minute. The successful candidate had to give three months' notice to her current employer. I agreed to a further extension, but less readily this time. To be strictly accurate, I was not asked in advance: I heard about my latest extension when a personnel officer at Cranwell casually mentioned that he had heard that I was now staying on until March. Plus ça change!

A few days after my successor had been offered the job, the Red Arrows flew off to RAF Akrotiri for a 25-day 'Winter Hawk' training session while those technicians who stayed behind at Scampton got on with the work of setting up the engineering services in No 4 Hangar. I started arranging another civic and media event to mark the Red Arrows' return and that event took place on 9 February 2001, when the Red Arrows flew in from Cyprus. This time the weather was kind and the event was very successful. However, in spite of my suggestion that we should renew the invitation for the Minister for the Armed Forces to attend, the RAF did not invite him. If there is the slightest possibility of a potentially good news story going wrong, then MoD believe it is better not to tell the media in advance! That seemed to be the thinking anyway. Another wasted opportunity!

I had copied everything from my own computers, which I was still using because the RAF never supplied me with one, onto discs especially for my successor. She told me, on our one and only brief meeting that she didn't want the written briefing I had prepared for her, nor did she want the computer discs containing the databases of all the Red Arrows displays and pilots and my extensive database of media contacts. I had no wish to get in the way of a successor who made it clear that she needed no help from me. I heard through the grapevine some months later that she only lasted a few weeks before leaving under some sort of cloud - but I never enquired into that.

I left Scampton for the final time on 14 March 2001: the 17,376th day since I enlisted in the RAF. The Red Arrows were away somewhere and my replacement was not there either. I simply slipped out of what had been my office without saying goodbye (the only person there, a clerk, was talking on the telephone and he didn't see me leaving). A few weeks into my retirement, the Red Arrows Adjutant telephoned me at home and asked if I would let him have a copy of all my databases. Of course, I agreed willingly.

I have always wanted to remember places as I last knew them. I have never liked reunions of any sort and so I have never been to any station, squadron or school reunions. However, whenever the Team was in the news, I continued to get media requests for interviews. I turned them all down, well all but one, politely pointing out, truthfully, that I knew nothing about Red Arrows current activities and suggested they should contact the current Team PRO or MoD. The one exception was in March 2002 when I was asked by BBC Radio Lincolnshire to comment of the death of HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who had been Honorary Commandant-in-Chief of the Red Arrows for so many years. The very last request I got was in 2012 following a Red Arrows crash. You would have thought that 11 years after my retirement, my successor, or someone at MoD, would have informed all the media that I was no longer spokesperson for the Red Arrows.

I thought it would be a wrench having to retire but it has been nothing of the sort. I moved out of Lincolnshire in April 2001 and came back to Wakefield, which I have always considered to be my home town. I now find that my time is so fully occupied that I cannot imagine how I ever found time to go to work. I know most retirees say that, but I actually mean it.

Finally, the news very recently issued, that RAF Scampton will close again, this time in 2022, but the MoD apparently is refusing to make any comment on the future of the Red Arrows. Well, I can make one. In the mid-1990s when Scampton was scheduled to close, no RAF airfield in the country could be found that was available or suitable to be a home for the Red Arrows and so the expensive, inconvenient, and totally ill-conceived solution was to send the Team to Cranwell. There are now even less RAF airfields than there were in 1995 so perhaps those mysterious individuals, or their successors, in MoD who wanted to see the back of the Red Arrows, may have another opportunity.

Final thought. In case you have been wondering who my ‘confidant’ had been, all I will tell you is that he was not any of the senior officers I have mentioned by name, or appointment, in my autobiography. It would have been nice to learn whether he was satisfied with the way I had carried out his ‘instructions’, but he died a few years before I left the Red Arrows.

The End!

There are stories, written during my retirement, that may interest you here:

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