The long journey to the Far East gets under way - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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The long journey to the Far East gets under way

In June 1972 my crew was allocated a 10-day Lone Ranger trip to Singapore and back. My crew members were: Alan Skelton (Co-pilot), Paul Chessal (Navigator Plotter), Ken Hulse (Navigator Radar), Neil Flowerdew (AEO) and Pete Hogg (Crew Chief). The aircraft allocated to our crew, Victor B1A K2P XH667, was one of the two-point interim tankers I described on an earlier page. Our route, which was dictated mainly by geo-political considerations, would take us from Marham to Akrotiri in Cyprus on the first day, then on to Masirah in the Gulf, Gan in the Maldives, and Singapore on successive days: roughly five hours flying on the first, second and fourth days, but only about 4 hours on the third day from Masirah to Gan. The only difference on the way back was that instead of Masirah we would stage through Dubai, one component of the then newly-created federation of United Arab Emirates. This was because in our under-powered Mark 1 Victor we couldn't take off from Masirah's only runway with sufficient fuel to reach Akrotiri. Even in 1972 Dubai had an enormous 13,000ft (3,960m) runway stretching out into the limitless desert, years before it became one of the favourite duty-free airports in the Middle East. We could safely uplift a maximum fuel load from Dubai on the hottest of days. In 1972 Dubai was manned entirely by civilians; RAF crews really did have to look after themselves - as we found out to our cost on the way home.

Day 1 was Monday 12 June 1972 and we departed from RAF Marham on schedule in high spirits. We didn't routinely fly in the civilian airways in those days; we flew well above them, keeping in UHF contact with military radar stations - when available. Our Air Traffic Control flight plans submitted before take-off on each leg showed our status as Operational Air Traffic (OAT) and included details of our diplomatic clearances needed for over-flying certain countries. The five-hour flight to Akrotiri, Cyprus, was uneventful. On day 2 we flew on to Masirah, the large island at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula; it is part of the Sultanate of Oman whose capital is Muscat, roughly 450kms to the north on the mainland. We weren't permitted to fly a direct route from Cyprus to Masirah for political reasons which I explain on a later page; we had to take a much longer route via Turkey and Iran. A disadvantage of using Masirah in 1972, from the aircrew point of view, was that there was only one runway. That runway was a mere 7,500 feet (2,300 metres) long which was just about long enough for transport aircraft and anything smaller but barely long enough for Mark 1 Victor tankers.

This was XH667 shortly after our arrival at RAF Masirah (as it then was) from RAF Akrotiri on 13 June 1972. It had a nasty surprise in store for us - as we found out the following morning.

After a pleasant but quiet night in Masirah, we arrived at our aircraft at about 0700hrs. The Flight Line consisted of a few tin huts and a large expanse of poor quality concrete surrounded on three sides by desert. We needed an early departure before the outside air temperature started to climb too much. We had to uplift as much fuel as possible for our long flight down the Indian Ocean and over the Equator to the Maldives and the tiny atoll that was Gan, aiming to arrive overhead with sufficient fuel for what was known as 'island holding'. There being no diversion airfield within many hundreds of miles of Gan, aircraft were required to arrive overhead the island with 10,000lbs of fuel above normal reserves, sufficient for holding off for up to 60 minutes in case one of the almost daily thunderstorms was in progress.

Taking off in a high temperature on a short runway always required a delicate 'balancing' act. In the Victor tankers we very occasionally had to take off when our lift-off speed (typically 160 knots = 185 mph) was higher than our stopping speed. In those rare circumstances there was an awkward and worrying gap in the middle of the take-off run where, had we suffered an engine failure or other major emergency, we were going too fast to stop in the remaining length of runway and yet not fast enough to get airborne. Fortunately, civilian airliners were not allowed to operate under such conditions - or so I understand. As a matter of fact, I doubt if any RAF aircraft operate, or need to operate, under such conditions these days either.

In accordance with normal pre-flight practice Pete Hogg, our own crew chief, supervised the engine starting procedures from outside the aircraft while he was connected to the aircraft's intercom by means of a long communications lead so that he could talk to me. Once all four engines were running, he unplugged himself and started to climb into the aircraft to occupy his seat behind the navigator. Suddenly I heard his voice on the intercom again.

"Hang on a minute, Skipper", called Pete urgently, "there's someone pulling my leg." A few seconds later, the Crew Chief was back on the intercom. "You'd better close down quickly, captain," he said, breathlessly, "there's a bloody great hole burnt in the top of the starboard wing."

I needed no second bidding: you don't wait around too long when a fully-loaded tanker aircraft is on fire. Pausing only to give Air Traffic Control an emergency call on the radio to let them know that we were on fire, I ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft with the immortal words, "Everybody OUT." But I was talking to myself - the three rear crew members and my co-pilot were already on their way. I pulled the four throttle levers back through the safety gate, thereby shutting off the fuel supply to the engines. After rapidly disconnecting myself from my ejection seat, I switched off everything else in sight before following my crew out onto the dispersal where we all congregated in a safe position upwind of our aircraft. I can't now be certain after 40-odd years, but I suspect neither my co-pilot nor I replaced our ejection seat safety pins (two for each seat) before hastily vacating the aircraft.

The fire crews had deployed their equipment in a most efficient and expeditious manner but the firemen seemed rather disappointed to find that the aircraft was not going up in flames. However, there was indeed a hole burnt through the top surface of the starboard wing. I dissuaded the firemen from emptying their entire supply of foam down the hole and thereby sank lower in their estimation. When the danger had clearly passed, I told my co-pilot, or maybe it was the crew chief, to check that the ejection seats were safe. By that time most of the station's personnel had heard the emergency messages on the public address system and were turning out to watch.

The hole in the starboard wing was on top of number 3 engine - the inboard one. We guessed, incorrectly as it later transpired, that an engine turbine blade had broken off and smashed its way to freedom through the upper wing surface. Victors had been known to shed engine turbine blades on rare occasions in the past. However it turned out, once the engine had been removed from the airframe, that the engine had not shed a turbine blade but one of the burners inside the engine combustion chamber. As a result, very hot air could spray around inside the engine casing and, eventually out of the top of the wing.

Two off-duty airmen had been nearby on the dispersal watching us preparing to depart. Life was so boring at Masirah that watching a Victor start its engines was probably one of the highlights of their day. I learned later that one of those two airmen had just arrived on posting from the UK but the other was an old hand showing the new boy around. New Boy had noticed some black smoke issuing forth from the top surface of the Victor's starboard wing and he had pointed this out to Old Hand.

"That's quite normal", Old Hand had said, confidently. "It's the liquid oxygen blowing off."

But New Boy knew that the Victor Mark 1 didn't use liquid oxygen - and in any case who had ever heard of black oxygen? It was he who had run across the dispersal to our aircraft and grabbed hold of my crew chief's leg just as he was disappearing inside the cabin.

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