Chop Check - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Chop Check

This is the script of a short story I wrote in 1970. At the time of the broadcast I was ín a decompression chamber as part of my pre-training before starting flying Victor Tankers, so the BBC kindly sent me the "as broadcast" script  and my fee - a cheque for £20.

Jackson was already in the cockpit strapping into his ejection seat when the squadron commander arrived and climbed into the right hand seat.

“There you are, sir.” said Jackson.

“Yes, Jackson, here I am. Surely you weren’t hoping that I wouldn’t come?” The Squadron Commander realised that Jackson was nervous: students always were when they went up with the CO.

“Of course not, sir! Damn!”

“What’s the matter?”

“I forgot to hook one of the straps on; I shall have to start again. Sorry sir”.

Jackson was all fingers and thumbs and already beads of perspiration were standing out on his forehead. “Stop panicking!” said the CO. “There’s no hurry – we’ve got all day in front of us. I want to see how well you can fly, not how fast you can strap in.”

Jackson looked at the CO and smiled a sickly smile, but already the CO had finished strapping himself in and was testing his oxygen regulator. The ground airman, who was waiting to assist in starting the engine, was leaning with his back against the port wing, languidly watching the student and waiting for the signal. He didn’t care how long Jackson took, because when one aircraft taxied out there was always another waiting.

At last Jackson finished his preparations and proceeded to carry out the pre-start checks. The squadron commander noted with approval that Jackson carried these out quickly, accurately and without any omissions.

“Shall I start the engine now, sir?”

“Well, if you don’t we’ll never get airborne, will we?”

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, the CO regretted them. A sarcastic remark like that was no way to set a nervous student at ease. However, Jackson didn’t seem too perturbed by the remark; perhaps he had grown used to such remarks from his own instructor. The CO hoped not.

Jackson started the engine, carried out the next set of checks and obtained permission from the Tower to taxi out. The CO was thinking of the reports in the student’s folder. In particular he was thinking of the final report – which he’d read just before leaving his office: “Jackson has now flown 15 hours but I have not been able to send him solo. Although he has completed all the necessary exercises and can fly the aircraft quite competently, he has a tendency to panic when things do not happen as he expects them to. I do not believe he is the right material to make an RAF pilot. Recommend suspension check with the CO.”

The report was signed by Jackson’s own instructor, a very experienced instructor, but a stickler for accuracy, a hard man, difficult to please. The squadron commander hated this sort of trip –  “Chop Checks” the students called them, because if’ you did a bad trip with the CO you were “chopped” – suspended. He preferred to consider the other alternative: if the student flew a good sortie, he could be recommended for further training with another instructor.

The take-off was uneventful; Jackson carried out the radio procedures well enough and his actual flying of the aircraft was quite accurate. As they were climbing through three thousand feet it became obvious to the CO that Jackson was heading straight for a large, towering mass of cumulus cloud.

“Have you been taught instrument flying yet?”

“No, sir.”

“Then why are you heading for that mass of cloud?”
“I was waiting for you to tell me to turn, sir.”

The CO groaned inwardly. Why did some students never think for themselves?  “Look Jackson, I want you to fly this trip as though you were solo. You make all the decisions; I’m just here to watch. Understand?”

“Yessir! I’ll turn left and go round it.”

The CO interlocked his fingers and slowly twiddled his thumbs. Sarcasm again! Perhaps he had been in this game too long. He had flown this type of sortie so often and watched so many students make the same sort of mistake that it was easy to lose one’s patience. And that was unforgivable. After all, every student was a volunteer and each one had set his heart on becoming a pilot. It was the duty of all the instructors to do their best for the students and you could not do that by losing your temper or by making sarcastic remarks.

“Check your oxygen, sir.”

With a start, the CO realised that they had levelled off at ten thousand feet and the student was carrying out the routine check of oxygen. He hastily checked his own equipment.

“Oxygen checked.” He paused momentarily. Perhaps a word of’ praise might help. “That was a nice take-off and climb. How about showing me some turns now?”

“Very good, sir.”

For the next fifteen minutes or so, Jackson performed most of’ the basic flying manoeuvres and it became obvious to the CO that the instructor’s report was correct in one respect: Jackson could certainly fly the aircraft competently. He pondered over the next sentence of the report: “He has a tendency to panic when things do not happen as he expects them to”. Perhaps Jackson was still afraid of the aircraft? One way to find out whether that was so was to put him into a spin and see how he reacted. Although spinning was not normally covered until later in the course there was no reason why he should it do it now.

“I have control, Jackson. Let’s do something different for a change. I’ll teach you how to get into a spin and how to recover. OK?”

“Yes, sir.” Jackson did not sound very enthusiastic.

“Have you ever been in a spin?”

“No, sir.”

“Well, there’s nothing to worry about; it’s not at all unpleasant. We have to go up to twenty thousand feet before we start so we have plenty of height for recovery. We get into the spin by stalling the aircraft and then making it yaw by using full rudder in either direction.”

The CO went on to explain in detail the checks that had to be carried out before spinning and then described what would happen to the aircraft once it was in the spin. He noticed that, every now and again, Jackson tried to tighten his ejection seat straps a little more – a sure sign of nervousness.

At last they reached twenty thousand feet. Without wasting any time, the CO carried out the necessary safety checks and put the aircraft into the spin. The nose rose up steeply and the whole aircraft shuddered as the wings stalled. Then the left wing dropped gently and the aircraft started to roll slowly to the left. The nose had dropped below the horizon by the time they were upside down, but it came up again as they continued rolling. The aircraft started rolling faster and the next time the nose stayed well below the horizon. They began to lose height rapidly as the aircraft stabilised in a steep, spiral dive.

“Now we’re in a fully developed spin,” said the CO calmly. He pointed to the air speed indicator with a finger of his left hand. “You see, we are only doing about one hundred knots.” He transferred his finger to the altimeter: “But look how quickly we’re losing height.”

He glanced across the cockpit and saw that Jackson had his fingers tightly clenched. It was impossible to see the student’s eyes through the dark visor of his bone dome but he guessed that they were closed. “All right”, he said. “Recovering now.” The aircraft came out of the spin in a steep dive and he pulled back on the control column to gain height again. “Are you feeling all right, Jackson?”

“Er, yes, sir. Quite all right.”

“Good! Now we’ll go up again and you can try one.”

This time the CO allowed Jackson to put the aircraft into the spin but he seemed reluctant and had to be helped through the necessary actions. ”We’ll do just one more and then call it a day. This time I am not going to help you at all. You put the aircraft into the spin and when I say ‘recover’ I want you to get us back to straight and level. Are you quite clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

Jackson put the aircraft into the spin without any difficulty and waited for the CO’s instructions to recover. But the CO did not speak. Jackson looked across the cockpit and saw to his horror that the CO’s head was lolling forward and his hands were laying limply across his lap.

“Sir”, he shouted, “are you all right?” No reply. “Sir, wake up!”

Still no sign of life. Jackson looked out of the front of’ the cockpit as though seeking inspiration and began to feel dizzy as the earth rotated wildly in front of his eyes.

“Must recover,” said Jackson to himself in growing panic. “We’re getting too low.”

He applied full right rudder and the aircraft shuddered violently. After a short pause he pushed the stick forward and as he did so the nose of the aircraft dropped until it was pointing straight at the rapidly approaching ground. Then, very suddenly, the spin stopped. He quickly centralised the rudders and pulled back on the stick to ease out of the dive. When he had got the aircraft back into straight and level flight he saw that they were at only five thousand feet. And there was still no movement from the CO. “I must get back on the ground as quickly as possible,” Jackson thought. He pressed the button on the throttle that switched on the radio transmitter and made a great effort to speak normally. “This is Romeo Three Two. I am at five thousand feet about ten miles south of base. My instructor is unconscious. Request priority landing.”

“Roger, Romeo Three Two. You are clear to join for runway zero nine, the QFE is one zero one four millibars.”

The controller sounded very concerned and warned all other aircraft to stay clear. Jackson adjusted his altimeter so that it showed his exact height above the runway and then started to descend towards base. He felt excited but he was now quite calm.

“Please have a doctor standing by, my instructor is still unconscious.”

“Roger, Three Two, that’s all been arranged.”

He recognised that voice! It was his own instructor. He must be the duty pilot today. There was always an instructor on duty in Air Traffic Control just in case a student got into difficulties while flying solo.

“Romeo Three Two, just join the circuit in the usual way and make a normal approach and landing and you’ll be all right.”


He levelled off’ one thousand feet above the ground, reduced speed and lowered his undercarriage. He was not going to make the basic mistake of landing without wheels! Good: three green lights – the undercarriage was now safely locked down. He noticed that he was now at nine hundred feet – one hundred feet low – still that did not matter too much and in any case the speed was correct.

He looked back over the left wing and saw that it was time to start turning onto final approach. He throttled back slightly and the aircraft started slowly losing height in the turn.

“Three Two, finals with three greens for landing.”

“Three Two you are cleared to land.”

He rolled the wings level when the aircraft was in line with the runway and was vaguely surprised to find that he was at the correct height and speed. “A good landing always starts with a good approach” – so his instructor was always saying. This one had to be a good landing. It was — one of the beet he had ever made. As he started braking his instructor spoke again over the radio from the Control Tower.

“Well done Three Two. Turn onto the disused runway and close down. The ambulance and doctor will be waiting there.”

Jackson brought the aircraft to a stop, shut down the engine and opened the canopy. He pushed his visor up and brushed the sweat from his eyes.

Suddenly the CO sat up straight and spoke. “Well done. You were one hundred feet low downwind but apart from that I thought you handled a nasty situation very well indeed. Yes, I was very much awake. I just wanted to test your reactions.”

The CO looked over the side of’ the canopy as an ambulance drew alongside with its siren wailing. “I didn’t warn anyone I was going to do it, either, so I suppose I will have some explaining to do.” He raised his visor and winked at Jackson. “By the way, Jackson, you’ve passed!”
* * * *
My local newspaper, Wakefield Express, duly reported the broadcast. I did not file the story so it must have been a keen PRO somewhere.

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