A dangerous way to get into the bomb bay - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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A dangerous way to get into the bomb bay

I could sense the relief outside, but now I needed relief of a different sort: I urgently needed a pee. It was quite a while before someone pushed the first cable up the tube and I, metaphorically, had to keep my legs crossed - as well as my fingers. I grabbed the bulldog clamp on the end of the cable and pulled a good length through. "That one's the negative cable," shouted the Crew Chief helpfully. "Don't get them mixed up otherwise you'll likely explode the aircraft battery."

Only then did it occur to me, and probably the rest of the crew, that we had not considered the problem of how I was going to fix the cables onto the battery terminals. The Canadian connectors were not compatible with our batteries and, in any case, I didn't have a suitable spanner. The Crew Chief, as usual, had the answer. "Not much current is needed to operate the battery master contactor so you just have to hold the cable ends onto the battery terminals. 24 volts won't hurt you. As soon as I get 24 volts in the cockpit, I'll switch the 96 volt battery on and then I can operate the bomb doors."

Great idea - except that I was standing on the bomb doors. I had momentarily forgotten that only one bomb door would open but, as it happens it would have made no difference if I had remembered because the door that would open was the one nearest the 24 volt battery pack. I collected the second cable passed to me through the chaff tube and I then held them both tightly as I clambered up, off the bomb doors and onto the very narrow battery shelf, muttering to myself, "negative left hand, positive right".

Fortunately by that time my eyes had grown accustomed to the limited amount of light filtering into the bomb bay and I could just about see what I was doing without the aid of the torch. After using the torch to double-check which battery terminal was which, I stuffed the torch inside my flying suit and then held the cable ends as tightly as I could onto the terminals and shouted down that I was ready. I heard someone relay the message to the crew chief who, of course, had now moved inside the aircraft.

There was a loud clunk as the 24 volt contactor in the organ loft above my head closed. The noise momentarily startled me; my hands gave an involuntary jerk and a large spark flashed across one of the battery terminals. I almost let go of both cables but I just managed to hold them in place. "Hurry up," I shouted in some desperation. "Get the bloody bomb doors open before I drop the cables."

A few seconds later there was another loud clunk, which I assumed was the 96 volt contactor above my head closing, and almost immediately I heard the bomb door motors start up. As I recall it there were four motors spaced equally along the length of the door so it was quite noisy. A huge gap opened up underneath me as the bomb door slowly wound itself up the ratchet rails and into the upper fuselage. I must have been temporarily frozen into immobility because, after what seemed an age, the captain appeared under the open door and said, quietly with a grin on his face, "You can come down from your perch now, Tony - if you want".

Things moved swiftly after that - the fastest being me going to the edge of the runway for a pee notwith-standing the large crowd of spectators, some of whom applauded.

The captain started the first aircraft engine using the internal batteries and then the crew chief switched that generator on line. This immediately provided a reliable source of 28 and 112 volts. The captain and crew chief started the three remaining engines and taxied the aircraft off the runway on its own power onto a nearby dispersal. The captain kept the engines running for about 30 minutes to give the internal batteries time to charge up to a reasonable level before we even thought about setting off on the flight to Goose Bay.

Another airport vehicle with flashing lights arrived suddenly. The driver came over to us clutching a piece of paper. "Here's a top priority signal for you just arrived from your Bomber Command. Our Senior Ops Officer had telephoned through to UK to tell them your batteries were flat and that you couldn't start the engines."

The co-pilot took the flimsy piece of paper and read it to himself before passing it into the cockpit for the captain. He told us, the navigator, signaller, crew chief and me, what it said. "Instructions from HQ Bomber Command. We're not to fly out. We're not to touch anything. They're sending an engineer on a Vulcan with new batteries and a Board of Enquiry team is flying out civil air to find out why the battery went flat overnight. They'll arrive in a couple of days."

"I know why the 24 volt battery went flat overnight," said the Crew Chief a few minutes later when the Valiant was once again standing silently on the dispersal. "I must have left the bomb bay lights on when I closed everything else down yesterday. When you switch the 24 volt battery master switch off in the cockpit, everything goes off - except the bomb bay lights. They have their own switch in the bomb bay. It's a bomber main force thing: something to do with armourers needing to check the nukes without having to go into the cockpit."

So that was it. The two members of the Board of Enquiry, although happy to have an unexpected trip to Montreal, were not impressed either with the cause or with the way we'd handled the problem. The airport authorities were not impressed either because we'd held up civilian flights for a couple of hours. I was certainly not impressed when the senior engineering officer, who arrived two days later as a passenger in another Vulcan from UK, told me that the large spark I created when my hand jerked was quite potent enough to have ignited the fuel vapour I had smelled in the bomb bay.

"That spark," said the senior engineering officer," could have been sufficient to explode the aircraft, its full load of fuel, you inside the bomb bay, and all those outside standing in the vicinity. St Hubert airport authorities would have been very impressed at that. I imagine their runway would have been out of action for more than a few hours."

We flew back to UK a few days later: 2 hrs 20 mins to Goose Bay on 1 August and 4 hrs 40 mins on 2 August direct to Finningley. It seemed as though the entire squadron had turned out to watch our arrival. The very first comment I heard was, "Tony, did you really have a pee in front of the crowd at the Montreal air display?" Word travelled fast in the V-Force.

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