Níce Sleep - Tony Cunnane's Afterthoughts

Tony Cunnane's Afterthoughts
Go to content

Níce Sleep

I eventually got around to writing this anecdote in mid-October 2009

I read with interest the news reports last week about airline pilots’ crew duty hours – how long they can be on duty in any 24 hour period from first reporting for duty to their final landing. It reminded me of an incident I was involved in, in 1972, whilst in my early years as a Victor Tanker captain. The following account was written for my archives long after I had left the Victor Tanker Force, but I never put it on my website. I have not edited that original article except to delete precise dates and times that would identify my crew members. They knew who they were. However, as Captain of the aircraft I was entirely responsible for what happened.

Above: I took this pic over the Franch Alps from the right hand pilot's seat of another Victor Tanker on another occasion in the mid-1970s when we were escorting fighter aircraft between UK and the Middle East.

On the incident in this story, we were returning to base at RAF Marham on our third five-hour trip in a 24-hour period. On each sortie we, and several other Victor tankers, flew under military radar control to a point over the Mediterranean Sea south-east of Nice where we gave a final refuel to a variety of Lightning and Phantom fighters before casting them off to fly on, unescorted. to either Malta or Cyprus where they would protect British interests in one of those largely forgotten international emergencies that tended to crop up during the early 70s. After bidding farewell to our fighters, we turned about and headed back towards Nice where we had flight-planned to join the normal civilian airways system for the return to UK.

I handed control of the aircraft to my relatively inexperienced co-pilot in the right hand seat and I took charge of the fuel system from him, scavenging our remaining fuel from the many wing and fuselage tanks into the single bomb bay tank. The scavenge drill was a standard procedure and it would give me a short break before I took over to make the approach and landing at base. I calculated that our remaining fuel would be a bit tight, but we had done similar sorties twice before in the previous 18 hours, so no sweat. The flight had become very mundane and we were all exhausted. The aircraft cabin was very dark apart from the dim lights on the flight instrument panel and a couple of small anglepoise lights in the rear cabin needed so the navigator and AEO could see what they were doing. As soon as the scavenge was complete, I fell asleep.

I woke, with a guilty start, some time later to find that the auto-pilot was in charge and the rest of my crew were fast asleep. I estimated that we could all have been asleep for about 8 to 10 minutes because the south coast of France was now very close, looking spectacular from 41,000 feet on a gin clear night. With a start, I remembered that a mandatory flight level change was needed as we approached the major airways complex at Nice! The insistent voice of the French Air Traffic Controller was asking for a radio check. It was the AEO's job to deal with the radio but, since he had not responded, I called the Controller myself and requested our flight-planned climb to 43,000 feet. By that time the other four members of the crew had woken up but were guiltily silent.

One thing led to another. Radiation fog suddenly closed both Marham and our planned alternate, Manston in Kent. Surely the possibility of fog had not been mentioned at the pre-flight briefing? The Met Officer must have got it wrong again! Then I remembered that I’d not had an updated weather forecast before leaving Marham for this third sortie of the night – there had been a quick turn round, less than an hour on the ground between the second and third sorties but, after all, they were operational sorties! Marham Operations came up on the radio and gave us a Grade One mandatory diversion to RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire – quite a bit further on – because Marham and all other suitable airfields in south-east England were now closed due to the radiation fog.

One of the Victor’s inboard engines shut itself down on final approach to Waddington, about 15 miles from touchdown (fuel pump drive failure, we discovered later, but for a few seconds I wondered if we were out of fuel) and we made an uneventful three-engined landing on minimum fuel just as dawn broke. Less than an hour later, after a short refuel and while we waíted for an engineer to arrive by road from Marham to replace the failed engine fuel pump, we were ordered by our Headquarters to return to Marham, “as soon as possible”, on three engines! In normal circumstances we would never have been authorised to take off on three engines however light we were but the aircraft was required back at Marham urgently for another operational flight to Cyprus and so, as soon as we got the news that the fog at Marham was clearing, we took off on the short 15 minute flight to Marham.

I did not report to anyone that the entire crew had been asleep at a crucial phase of the flight – what good would that do, I asked myself. As far as I am aware, the rest of my crew never realised that we had all been asleep at the same time. We certainly never discussed the matter! In those days there was no such thing as a confidential occurrence report and confessing to my crew’s lapse of concentration would undoubtedly have resulted in comments on another sort of confidential report.

The incident gave me much pause for thought, Two years later, by which time I was the Boss of the Victor Standardisation Unit, attention to pre-flight briefings and routine in-flight crew checks became just two of the items high on my list when checking out other crews.

That sort of thing doesn't happen these days, does it? I mean lapses of concentration and failing to report incidents that might be instructive for others.

Back to content