Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, visits and causes a collision in the hangar - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, visits and causes a collision in the hangar

His Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, made a formal visit to RAF Valley while I was there. There were many rehearsals. Everything had to be just right because the Duke had a bit of a reputation for turning on senior officers and chastising them on the spot if something displeased him. Quite right too, you might think.
Since the weather for the day of the Royal Visit was forecast to be poor, it was decided that a group of flying students should stand in front of a selection of aircraft in a hangar. I was detailed to pose in front of one of the Hunter F6 aircraft. Accordingly I was issued with a brand new flying suit and ordered to polish my best black Oxfords - our standard issue flying boots were deemed unsuitable to appear before royalty. Quite why we had to wear our best SD hats and a lifesaving jacket, and clutch our bone dome under our left arm, was a mystery.

On the walkabout Prince Philip was closely followed, as was normal, by a long train of VIPs and hangers-on, all trying to keep in step with him as he marched briskly around. And march briskly he did. He stopped briefly in front of each aircraft and shook hands with the student pilot in attendance. We had been briefed to bow from the neck not from the waist, not to speak unless spoken to, and to address him as Your Royal Highness if the need arose to speak to him at all. The need did arise. Just as the entire procession started to move on from me towards the next exhibit, Prince Philip suddenly did an abrupt about turn and returned to me with a quizzical look on his face. All those following him found they could not stop in time and there was an almighty kerfuffle as they all collided with each other in a very undignified manner. Completely ignoring the entourage as they tried to regain their positions and composure, HRH pointed to the rank badges on my shoulders. He couldn't see my pilot's Wings because they were hidden underneath the life-saving jacket I was wearing.

"You can't be a student - you're too old. What's a flight lieutenant doing as a student pilot?"

I had to explain that I was a re-tread having already served 14 years in the RAF, eight of them as an Air Electronics Officer. I added that I was probably the oldest ever student pilot in the RAF.

"That's very interesting, good luck to you," he said. Then, turning to his left, he barked at his entourage,

"Come along you lot, get yourselves sorted out." With a farewell grin at me, he marched on. He knew exactly what he was doing.

Incidentally, when one of my teenage great nephews saw the picture of me with the Duke of Edinburgh for the first time, he asked me, "Who's that man shaking hands with you?" I replied: "That's Prince Philip - you know, the Duke of Edinburgh - the Queen's husband." Blank looks. Then TGN asked, "Does that mean he's the King, then?" What do they teach them these days?

Towards the end of the course, I flew very fast and very close to Blackpool tower in a Hunter F6 (XF509) on a solo navigation sortie. After an uneventful departure from RAF Valley, I had set out across the Irish Sea at 250 feet and 360 kts (440 mph) aiming for Barrow-in-Furness in the Lake District. Suddenly, forward visibility reduced to virtually zero in a totally unexpected heavy rain shower. There was absolutely nothing to see except the waves flashing by below. I checked my map to make sure there was no land directly ahead and continued. Big mistake!

Without any warning, Blackpool Tower loomed out of the gloom where it shouldn't have been – about 20 degrees on my starboard side at a range of only 3 or 4 miles – far too close for comfort when flying at 6 nautical miles a minute well below the height of the top of the Tower! Clearly I had allowed the aircraft to wander off course while consulting my map. A quick zoom to about 1,000 feet and the sunlit Lake District hills suddenly became clearly visible off to the left! I completed the route without further incident.

After landing back at Valley my Instructor, Flight Lieutenant John Swain, was waiting to debrief me, as he did after every solo sortie. He wondered if I'd had any problem caused by the rain showers over the Irish Sea. I lied. I think he knew I'd lied. I felt bad about that. Very sorry, John.

Long before I graduated from Valley I had realised that I was not cut out to be an operational fast jet pilot. To put it bluntly, I was too old. I think it was probably the first time in my life, but by no means the last, when I accepted that I was too old for something I really wanted to do and so I wanted to make the most of the final solo low level navigation sortie. It was exciting roaring down the runway, gaining more speed than was really necessary before pulling up into a steep climb - up, up and away. It was awesome (to use the meaning that 21st Century teenagers attach to the word) swanning around at high speed before returning to Anglesey through the A5 mountain pass in Snowdonia, pulling 6.5g to get round the tightest of the corners, and waving back at tourists on the summit of Snowdon.

As the Valley course neared its end, I and all my contemporaries on both the Hunter and the Gnat streams were 'sweating' on our next posting, the one that would determine the pattern of our future flying career in the RAF. The RAF personnel staff allocated 'slots' for students graduating from Valley according to the RAF's needs rather than the capabilities or wishes of the students. Of the six of us on my Hunter course, three were selected to fill slots at the Hunter school at RAF Chivenor in north Devon for further training with a view to a posting to an operational fast jet squadron. They were delighted. One was sent off for helicopter training, which is what he had always wanted. Another was sent to Oakington with a view to a posting to the V Force as a co-pilot, which is most definitely not what he wanted. I was posted to the Central Flying School (CFS) at RAF Little Rissington for training as a Qualified Flying Instructor (QFI). When I expressed my disappointment, it was pointed out that the RAF regularly selected a small number of newly-trained pilots to go straight on to CFS for training as flying instructors.

"Young student pilots often feel more at home with an instructor who's just finished his own training," the Chief Instructor told me, not entirely convincingly. "It gives them something to aim for. The RAF has always done this. First tourist QFIs are known as 'Creamed-Off' QFIs, usually abbreviated to 'Creamies' - because they've been creamed off for the better job."

I had never heard of creamed-off QFIs and I was not convinced. "At my age, I'll not be so much creamed off as skimmed off" I complained.

"Be that as it may, that's where you're going." snapped the Chief Instructor.

On 30 August, 20 days after my Final Handling Test on 10 August, there was a day when there was nothing scheduled for the Hunter students at Valley. (We had all finished before the Gnat students.) I rather cheekily asked if I could take a Hunter F6 to Leeming for a day out and, to my great surprise, the squadron commander said I could. I flew in XG274 above the very busy civilian airways in the Midlands and landed at Leeming after a run and break. After spending an hour chatting to my former instructors and their latest students I flew back to Valley, the last time I would ever fly a Hunter.

So it was that just four weeks after completing my own pilot training I was flying my first sortie at Little Rissington, now in the right hand seat of the Jet Provost, at the start of my 10-month course learning how to be a flying instructor. From CFS I was posted to the RAF College at Cranwell with my B2 (Probationary) instructor category.

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