We took an admiral on a tanker sortie and later delivered him at RAF Coningsby - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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We took an admiral on a tanker sortie and later delivered him at RAF Coningsby

On 11 December 1974, I was detailed to take Admiral Leach, Flag Officer First Flotilla (FOF1), on an in-flight refuelling sortie with some F4s from Coningsby. I knew that the Admiral had been briefed on the emergency escape procedures from a 6th seat facing forwards in the flight simulator but I went through them again with him, as the SOP required, at my pre-flight crew briefing. There were the usual VIP departure procedures. The Station Commander and various other senior officers were on hand to bid farewell to the Admiral, and there was the obligatory pre-flight crew photograph.
Above: left to right: Len Judd, John Price, Dave Andrew, Admiral Leach, John Hudspeth, Tony Cunnane

We took off from Marham in the early afternoon; I had the same co-pilot, navigator and AEO that I had had on the flight with General Ward. The weather was reasonable although it was forecast to get worse, with lowering cloud and heavy rain later on. We went first to Tow Line 5, a dedicated refuelling area over the North Sea. Once again we had submitted a VIP Flight Plan so no civilian air traffic delays were expected. I carried out a snake climb (loose line astern formation) behind another Marham tanker and levelled at 33,000 feet in the operating area where I demonstrated a number of 'dry' contacts - that is making contact with the other aircraft's centreline refuelling hose without actually taking on any fuel. I also demonstrated that it was quite feasible to maintain contact through a 180 degree turn at one end of the towline.

The Admiral seemed quite comfortable as I chatted to him during these manoeuvres. I then handed control to my young co-pilot to let him make a few approaches towards the other tanker's refuelling hose. When I twisted around in my seat to talk to the Admiral, I noticed that he had gone very quiet and was looking rather worried at such a young officer flying the aircraft so near to another: it was probably akin to allowing a sub-lieutenant on an aircraft carrier do a bit of RAS as far as the Admiral was concerned. I took control again from the co-pilot, who was actually an excellent pilot.

Several F4s from Coningsby's No 41 Squadron then came up on schedule to join us and the crew of one of them took a number of photographs of the formation. They planned to give Admiral Leach a photographic record of his tanking sortie within an hour of our landing at Coningsby. As the onset of night flying approached, the F4s broke away to return to Coningsby. I started our descent to Coningsby and the second Victor departed for other tasks.

We entered thick frontal cloud at about 10,000 feet on the approach and I didn't see the ground until 300 feet above the ground when I saw the airfield approach lights just about one mile from touchdown on Coningsby's Runway 27. For the last few miles we had been flying through darkness and torrential rain; the Victor's puny windscreen wipers were going full tilt and the inside surfaces of the windscreens misted up very badly - as they always did in those conditions. The Admiral went very quiet, thankfully, as he realised I and my co-pilot were working hard. We landed safely, without the need to stream our tail braking parachute because there was a 25 knot headwind component, and were instructed by ATC to continue to the end of the 9,000ft runway and turn right onto the taxiway.

It was now very dark. Visibility out of the cockpit was very poor, what with the mist on the inside and rain on the outside; however, the centre line of the taxiway was indicated by green 'glims' every hundred yards or so. One of my rear crew started getting Admiral Leach ready to disembark and unplugged him from the intercom so I could ask ATC what arrangements had been made to meet the Admiral. We were told we would be met by the Station Commander on a dispersal I had never heard of and which was not marked on our airfield chart. I asked for directions. ATC told us to continue along the taxiway and take the next right turn. I discovered later that the turn in question was not visible from the ATC tower so the Local Controller was not in a position to guide me and should have told me so.

Visibility through the Victor's tiny windscreens was always very limited at the best of times. This was not the best of times. I slowed to an absolute crawl and told ATC that I couldn't see a right turn but that I was following the green taxiway centreline markers which were still clearly visible in front. The navigator on the right hand side of my aircraft had his eyes skinned looking for the right turn when suddenly he shouted "Stop!" He reported that there was some sort of ground equipment close underneath our starboard wing (the Victor's wings were not visible from the pilots' positions). The Navigator then reported that he could see F4 aircraft parked close on our starboard side. I shut down the engines and told ATC that I would move no further.

After a few minutes a convoy of cars crossed in front of my aircraft and stopped. In their headlights I could see that I had apparently stopped the Victor in a car park. The Admiral left the aircraft and was driven off - without, I hoped, having been aware that anything was amiss. I got down from the aircraft to view the scene in the now pouring rain. The green centreline markers, meant to indicate taxiways safe for aircraft, continued ahead all the way through the car park towards a distant hangar. We had indeed parked in a car park, one that was occupied by many cars and other vehicles.

When the Wing Commander Operations approached me asking frostily why I hadn't turned right as instructed, I told him, equally frostily: "The right turn was not lit. If I had turned right when ATC ordered me to, I would have collided with several F4 aircraft and caused a lot of very expensive damage; and finally, sir, the green, centreline, taxiway lights are non-standard, dangerous and illegal since they lead, not along a taxiway, but through an active vehicle park."

The wing commander blustered and muttered that he had only just taken over the job and he wasn't aware of those failings. "Thank goodness the Admiral is OK," he said lamely, adding, "Will you be leaving as soon as possible?"

I asked him if he had any idea how I could turn my aircraft through 180 degrees on the narrow taxiway without colliding with, or blowing over, dozens of vehicles. There was no reply and he disappeared into the rain and I never saw him again.

Coningsby had no tug capable of manoeuvring a Victor aircraft, let alone a suitable towing bar, and there was no way we could turn round under our own engine power unless the car park was cleared of all vehicles. An inspection of our starboard wing showed that there was a small graze on the under-surface of the starboard refuelling pod which was only about 2 feet from the ground, but otherwise no damage. Thank goodness my navigator had been keeping a sharp lookout. I retired with my crew to a nearby squadron crew room where the F4 pilots and navigators thought the whole thing was hilarious.

The station started the process of clearing the car park of vehicles and I telephoned our own squadron engineers at Marham for a ground crew chief to come as soon as possible by road to assist us to turn the aircraft around - there was no way I was going to manoeuvre the aircraft without professional assistance from a reliable man on the external intercom. Marham didn't even ask for an explanation. It took over two hours before we were ready to start. By then the weather front had passed through: the rain had stopped and stars were visible. It seems all the station's personnel station had turned out to watch. I started the outboard engine on each side (No 1 and No 4) using the Victor's internal batteries and then gingerly moved forward under instructions from the Crew Chief, who walked in front of the aircraft on a very long communications lead and always in my sight, until we reached an area in front of the hangar where there was room to make a right-hand turn through 180 degrees. The noise outside must have been horrendous since it takes a lot of asymmetric engine power, even with the aid of the nose-wheel steering, to turn a Victor in such a confined space. It was essential to keep all 18 of the Victor's wheels turning during the manoeuvre to avoid scuffing and probable damage to the nose wheel assembly and the main undercarriage legs. At last we were pointing in the right direction. The crew chief climbed on board and settled himself into the 6th seat (he was authorised to fly in the seat facing forwards). I started the other two engines and we were soon on our way back to Marham - a flight lasting exactly 10 minutes from brakes off to touch down.

There was no mention at Marham of what had happened and no-one even asked me any questions - whether Station Commander Marham spoke to Station Commander Coningsby I never found out but I would wager that the runway lighting at Coningsby was very quickly brought up to NATO requirements. A few days later I received a very nice two-page handwritten letter from Admiral Leach thanking me for the most interesting trip. It was obvious that he had realised I had dropped him off in a car park but I think he thought that was amusing as well.

There was in fact a tragic corollary to these two VIP stories just a few short weeks later. On 24 March 1975, Flying Officer John Price (2nd from the left in the pic at the top of this page), my young and highly promising co-pilot on the sorties with General Ward and Admiral Leach, was killed when he was the co-pilot of Victor XH618 of 57 Sqn that was struck by a Buccaneer aircraft from RAF Honington while it was attempting to make a refuelling contact on Towline 5.

I was a member of the Board of Inquiry into the accident. The three rear crew members of the Victor and the co-pilot were killed when the Victor, minus its complete tail plane assembly, was seen by at least one of the Buccaneer crews to pitch vertically downwards, explode in a huge fireball, and crash vertically into the North Sea; it has never been recovered. The Victor captain, Flight Lieutenant Keith Handscomb survived. He told the Inquiry that he saw his co-pilot trying, but failing, to eject because the extreme negative 'g' when the aircraft tail broke off meant that he could reach neither the ejection seat handle between his legs nor the one on the top of the seat because that was behind his neck. Martin Baker experts later worked out that the pitch down was probably minus 12g. Medical and other evidence showed that the captain was involuntarily ejected from the aircraft, When the aircraft pitched down, the top latch, designed to keep the ejection seat in position until, or unless, a firing sequence is initiated, failed and the first pilot's seat slid, unhindered, up the rails and left the aircraft with the pilot still strapped to it and he eventually separated himself from the seat and deployed his parachute. Flight Lieutenant Handscomb was picked up by a merchant ship within an hour. He survived with serious injuries but later returned to flying. Keith Handscomb, a highly experienced and respected Victor operator, died of natural causes in 2009.

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