Aurora borealis - or was it St Elmo's Fire - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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Aurora borealis - or was it St Elmo's Fire

Goose Bay airfield, 53.19N, 60.25W, was jointly operated in the 1970s by the Royal Canadian Air Force and the United States Air Force. The average high temperature stays below freezing for five months of the year and the low does so for eight months. Snowfall is very heavy, averaging nearly 460 centimetres (180 in) per year, and occurs in all months except July and August. During the long sub-Arctic winter the only way into and out of the Goose Bay area was by air. The USAF operated their Strategic Air Command B52 nuclear heavy bombers from a vast dispersed site on the base. The B52s were held on permanent readiness, as they were throughout the Cold War, to counter any Soviet nuclear attack coming over the North Pole. The RAF had a small permanent detachment at Goose Bay to assist the Victor tanker crews and other Bomber and Strike Command aircraft that used to operate in, and across, Canada and USA.

Above: I took this pic of the approach from the east to Goose Bay in March 1973. The natural large magnetic variation meant that the compass was reading about 25 degrees west of the true direction - all I can remember is that this was the view pointing roughly west and I was on the runway centre-line about five miles from touchdown. Very confusing for pilots - but the navigators always said they understood it!

On one occasion, when we were on the way home from Goose Bay to Marham, my crew departed very late in the evening after being delayed on the ground with a minor problem. As a result we would have an all-night flight across the North Atlantic back to our home base at RAF Marham. The Met Officer had warned us that we could expect to encounter extensive cumulonimbus (thunderstorm) cloud, from shortly after take-off all the way up to 35,000 feet and for at least the first hour of our flight. Because of that we flight planned to climb to and maintain 43,000 feet and use the most northerly of the several approved routes across the Atlantic Ocean. At that height we would have stronger tail winds from the high level jet stream and therefore a shorter transit time; furthermore I would not have to be concerned about the severe turbulence that is usually experienced when flying in or close to cumulonimbus cloud.

We crossed the Canadian coast shortly after take-off heading initially towards the southern tip of Greenland. Since the southern tip of Greenland is roughly 60 degrees North but Goose Bay at 53.19 degrees North and RAF Marham at 52.65 degrees North are roughly on the same line of latitude, that may seem a long way round but it's an illusion caused by the Mercator's Projection of the maps we normally look at in atlases and books. We were flying a near Great Circle track - that's the shortest distance between any two points on the Earth.

At our cruising level I and my co-pilot occasionally saw the clouds beneath us lit up brightly by lightning flashes within them. Where we were, above all the cloud, we were in smooth, clear air with a brilliant display of stars overhead. Our part of the aircraft cabin was in complete darkness, except for the dim instrument lights - no digital displays in those days. A full-length curtain shielded the rear crew members from us so that their lights, which they needed for doing their work, didn't affect our night vision. We also had on board, in the 6th seat facing to the rear, Pete Hogg our Crew Chief - but he was probably asleep. It was actually rather boring.

Suddenly I thought I could see through the windscreen faint signs of the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) away in the distance, due north of our position. I pointed with my left hand to draw my co-pilot's attention. As the tip of my left index finger, which was covered as it always was in flight by the standard issue white cape leather flying glove, touched the windscreen it, my finger tip, immediately lit up and glowed white. I withdrew my finger, startled, but a white luminescent substance remained attached to my finger tip. My co-pilot said something like, "What're you doing, Tony?" , or words to that effect. That, naturally attracted the attention of the four crew members in the rear cabin who all immediately woke up and demanded to know what was going on 'up front'. The co-pilot and I then both noticed that a bluish-white fluorescent glow was slowly but inexorably spreading across the windscreen and along the main instrument panel.

I had vaguely heard of St Elmo's Fire but I had never experienced it before. I found that I could 'wipe' more of the luminous plasma onto my glove but then I discovered that I couldn't get rid of it. The more I tried to wipe it off, the more of it gathered on my glove. After a few minutes it started to fade - from my glove and from the windscreen, and soon everything was back to normal. Only then did it occur to me that it might have been wiser not to gather the stuff on my flying glove in the first place. However, I never felt any electrical tingle so I assumed that the electrical bonding that all aircraft have to protect them from lightning strikes had done what it was supposed to do.

We didn't see any further sign of anything out of the ordinary and by the time our navigator assured us that we were passing close to the southern tip of Greenland there was still complete cloud cover beneath us. We saw nothing of Scotland either when we crossed the coast near Prestwick - indeed we didn't see any ground at all until we were five miles from touchdown on a straight-in radar approach to Marham's Runway 06. From take-off at Goose Bay to touchdown at Marham, that flight lasted 4 hrs 40 mins - about average.

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