The youngest foreign student is killed when he fails to use his ejection seat - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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The youngest foreign student is killed when he fails to use his ejection seat

The youngest student on the junior entry was an Iraqi called Hatam; he was a very shy young man but popular with all the staff and students. One day, when he was flying a solo aerobatic sortie over Charsadda, his aircraft entered a spin at about 18,000 feet, presumably inadvertently since solo spinning was not permitted and this particular student was not one to break the rules. The air traffic voice recording revealed that for exactly 95 seconds Hatam transmitted a Mayday distress message over and over again in English, his second language. His last words, just before his aircraft struck the ground, sounded like "Dive, dive, dive", although some members of the Board of Enquiry listening to the tape recording thought it was "Die, die, die."

There was no doubt the aircraft was in what is known as a 'flat' spin when it crashed because it struck the ground with its wings level and at a very low forward speed. Before the day was out, an Iraqi military Hercules had flown in from Baghdad. All personnel of the College paraded on the airfield as Hatam's body was loaded into the Hercules between a Guard of Honour and with the appropriate Muslim rites. It was very distressing for everyone. The subsequent Board of Enquiry, after several days of deliberations, concluded that the student had failed to recover from a spin following mishandling of the controls and he then failed to use his ejection seat because he was concentrating on transmitting the Mayday message in his second language. However, I thought there might have been a different explanation why Hatam had not used his ejection seat to save himself. Let me explain.

On my first day as a QFI at the RAF College Cranwell I'd I had a welcoming interview with the Assistant Commandant, Air Commodore R G Wakeford. I can't now remember his exact words but the following is the gist of what he said: "Always remember that you will be more than a flying instructor to your cadets; you will be their mentor. You should encourage them to come to you informally when they have any personal problems because any cadet who takes personal problems with him into the air will not be at his best and could become a danger to himself. One final thing you should know: pilots always remember for the rest of their life the instructor who sent them on their first solo."

I mention that interview because a deputation of about a dozen of the foreign students, not just the Iraqis, tearfully confronted me soon after Hatam's body had been repatriated. (Some of them were literally crying.) They insisted that Hatam hadn't used his ejection seat because none of the foreign students at Risalpur had any faith in the American ejection seat fitted to the T37. "We only trust Martin Baker seats," their spokesman told me as the remainder nodded their agreement.

It was the first time I'd heard that from them or anyone else. Apparently all the jets in their own air forces were fitted with Martin Baker ejection seats. I told them that I had complete confidence in the American ejection seat and that if I hadn't I would not fly in the T37. I also told them that if their own air forces did not have confidence in the T37 and all its equipment they would not have contracted the Pakistani government to provide their pilot training. Finally, I pointed out how pointless it would be not to use the ejection seat in any aircraft if the aircraft they were flying was about to crash. I'm not sure they were convinced but I did not tell either the Commandant or my squadron commander about that conversation. Why not? Because their attitude would have been interpreted as what is known in the RAF as LMF - lack of moral fibre - and the Pakistan Academy would very likely have declined to continue their training.

An incident  a few weeks later, when I was flying with an Iranian student called Khusro, made me question whether their lack of faith in the ejection seat was the real problem. When I had met that student for the very first time, I had not been able to pronounce his name correctly. The ‘kh’ is one of the difficult consonants for an Englishman, especially at the beginning of a word: it has to be voiced very strongly and is similar to the guttural ‘ch’ in the Scottish pronunciation of ‘loch’ or the Glaswegian ‘och aye!’ – but even stronger. I couldn’t understand why all the students, and not just the Iranians, broke into howls of laughter whenever I summoned Khusro from the students’ crew room for a briefing. They put me out of my ignorance only when I was half way through my first term. Unfortunately there is a word ‘kusro’ in Farsi and it is a particularly foul expletive with an equally foul four-letter English equivalent beginning with ‘c’. As a result, “Come along Khusro, let’s go flying,” in my pronunciation, came out all wrong!

Khusro turned out to be an excellent, aggressive pilot and a delightful personality. At a squadron barbecue he tried, and failed, to persuade me to sample the grilled house sparrow he had prepared - he assured me it was an Iranian delicacy. (That is Khusro on the left with a barbecued sparrow on a plate.) A few days after Hatam's fatal accident I flew with Khusro on a progress check flight that included stalls and spins as a matter of routine. Instead of recovering from a practice spin when I told him to do so, he took his hands and feet completely off the controls and looked across the cockpit at me with what I can only describe as an air of resignation.

"Inshaa'allah, Allah has control," he said simply, raising his hands as far as he could in the confined cockpit.

"No he hasn't, I have control!" I said, hastily grabbing the controls as the T37 started to wind itself up into a high rotational spin. "Allah may look after you but he won't look after me." Fearing that the deeply religious student might have thought that I was making mock of his religion, something I would never do to anyone of any religious persuasion, I discussed the incident with him during the debriefing after landing.

"You were quite right to take control of the aircraft, sir, because you are an infidel," Khusro said in all seriousness. He truly believed that his God would save him from the spin should he wish to do so and, of course, no Muslim would ever question the will of Allah. There was, however, perhaps a non-religious reason for Khusro, and perhaps also Hatam, to believe that leaving control of the aircraft in the hands of Allah was the right thing to do. As I wrote on an earlier page, sometimes - but only sometimes - simply letting go of all the controls, including taking your feet off the rudder pedals, would induce a T37 aircraft to recover from a spin itself to controlled flight, usually in a dive from which any pilot could easily recover. It was not a technique I would put my trust in and certainly not something I ever taught or even mentioned to students.

I persuaded Khusro that some things he had to do for himself without waiting for divine intervention. It was then that I discovered, when discussing the incident with my fellow instructors, that they always kept their hands and feet on the flying controls when supervising their students carrying out spins. I was amazed at that and said so! It was a practice definitely frowned upon by the RAF's Central Flying School; how could a student get confidence in his own ability if he could clearly see that his instructor never let go of the controls?

When initially teaching spinning to a student I always asked him to "follow me through" by keeping his hands and feet on the control column and rudder pedals so that he could feel what I was doing. However, when it was the student's turn to practise a full or incipient spin, I always kept my hands in full view of the student either on my knees or on the coaming above the instrument panel. Only by doing that would the student understand that it was he, not me, who got the aircraft out of the spin. There was a general shrugging of shoulders in the QFI's coffee bar when I explained my methods but, recalling the Defence Advisor's advice on our first meeting about not going on about the way we did things in the RAF, I dropped the subject. When I discussed both Hatam's and Khusro's stories at my regular weekend meetings with Group Captain Johns at the British High Commission, he told me that he would talk to the Commandant about the matter.

Please note. I trust this story will not offend any of my many Muslim readers but if it does I apologise. I took advice from Muslim friends before I put it on my website several years ago and they all assured me it would not cause offence. I heard, many years after I left Pakistan, that Lt Khusro was executed because he was out favour with the new government, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, that had overthrown the Shah in 1979. I was told that several of the other Iranian students who trained in Pakistan may have suffered the same fate.

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