We flew a 4-star general on a tanking sortie and landed him at Farnborough in time for a golf match - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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We flew a 4-star general on a tanking sortie and landed him at Farnborough in time for a golf match

As the Flight Commander Air on 55 Squadron I now had many extra administrative duties which I will not go into here. I also had additional duties in the air: I was the Squadron QFI and also an Instrument Rating Examiner (IRE), which meant that I was responsible for carrying out periodic proficiency checks on the squadron captains and some senior co-pilots. In due course I also became the first choice captain for taking very senior officers up on demonstration air-to-air refuelling sorties.

Above: The normal pre-flight photo for visiting VIPs. The 4 stars painted on the side of the aircraft near the entrance door were just for this sortie.
On 1st November 1974 I was detailed, at very short notice, to fly General Sir Richard Ward, KCB DSO MC, the MoD Chief of Personnel  and Logistics (CPL), in the 6th seat facing forward to demonstrate the art of refuelling in-flight from another tanker. As I mentioned on an earlier page, the 6th seat could be fitted facing forwards or backwards but it had to be installed one way or the other before flight. When facing forward, the occupant's knees were very close to the shoulders of the two pilots, very matey, but there was an excellent view out of the front of the aircraft. Facing to the rear the 6th seat occupant had no view of anything very much and was used mainly by crew chiefs in transit between airfields or checking officers monitoring one of the rear crew.

To have a very senior officer in the 6th seat of a Victor facing forwards, was something the entire crew were less than happy about. According to the rules at the time, the only folk allowed to fly in that particular seat were Victor aircrew and crew chiefs and they were permitted to do so only when it was essential for their duties and when they had practised the in-flight escape procedures in a crew simulator. In the event of a dire emergency which required the crew to abandon aircraft, the occupant of the 6th seat facing forward had to be last of the four crew in the rear cabin to leave the aircraft - for complicated physical reasons which I won't go into here. If the 6th seat occupant did not act correctly he would probably prevent the other three from baling out. That would leave the captain with a real problem.

I was not involved in the General's visit to Marham but the Station Commander told me that General Ward had an afternoon golf engagement somewhere in the London area and needed to be dropped off at Farnborough. I took off 30 seconds behind another Victor and then we climbed in formation to 30,000 feet. When we had been airborne barely an hour, word came through that the weather at Farnborough was deteriorating considerably. I decided to cut short my air-to-air demonstrations and make our way through the crowded airspace of the London Control Zone - normally closed to military aircraft. We had filed a flight plan with VIP status and that guaranteed that we would get VIP service from ATC with precedence over other traffic and no delays.

As we approached Farnborough, where I had never landed before, the weather was reported as continuous heavy rain with the cloud base down to 300 feet - that equated to a forward visibility of about a mile but within my instrument rating limits. There was also a very strong, gusting crosswind from the left - well within the aircraft limits but it might make for a bumpy landing. I briefed my crew on the intercom. I told them that I would make one approach only. If the runway lights were not visible at my legal decision height of 200 feet, we would overshoot and return to Marham with the General; there would be no second attempt. I briefed my experienced co-pilot for what was known as a 'split approach'. Using that technique, the co-pilot flies the aircraft on instruments using the airfield's GCA radar talk down. When I had the runway in sight, I would take control and complete the landing. If I had not called runway in sight by the time we reached decision height, the co-pilot was automatically to initiate the missed approach procedure.

The General had gone very quiet, fortunately. The last thing I wanted at that stage was a conversation. As we were passing 250 feet and I was about to order the 'go-around', the runway lights suddenly appeared about 20 degrees off to the left, because of the drift due to the cross wind, and I saw the famous Farnborough aircraft hangars out of the corner of my eyes. I took control and landed in torrential rain. The entire procedure was perfectly safe but must have looked alarming to the General sitting between me and my co-pilot. He didn't have time to talk to me or my crew when we reached the parking place because a VIP reception party was waiting in the pouring rain to take him away. I did, however, receive a very nice thank you letter a few days later from General Ward.


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