Our aircraft is struck by over 100 birds - all suffering from botulism - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Our aircraft is struck by over 100 birds - all suffering from botulism

On the long August Bank Holiday weekend in 1975, I went as Detachment Commander to RAF Leuchars for an ‘enhanced’ Operation Dragonfly, which is when a detachment of up to four Victors and associated groundcrew would deploy to Leuchars and operate from there for several days. On this occasion, I had ‘volunteered’ for what was really a station duty because it helped Marham out on a bank holiday weekend and it was also a good opportunity for me to get some left-hand seat flying. The Leuchars runway was just short of 9,000ft long and orientated east/west (09/27). There were operational readiness platforms (ORP) at each end but the resident fighter squadrons normally used the one at the western end and the Victors the one at the eastern end down near St Andrews beach. On each ORP there were landlines providing instant communications between the Strike Command Controller and the aircrew.

The first sortie I flew from Leuchars very early on the Saturday morning was very worrying for the pilot of the single Lightning we were supporting. When we had been flying a racetrack pattern near the Faroe Islands for over half an hour waiting for 'trade', the RAF air defence station at Saxa Vord on the island of Unst, one of the Shetland Islands (surprisingly further north than St Petersburg and on the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska) reported that there was a contact about 100 nautical miles north of our position. The Lightning pilot immediately came behind one of our refuelling hoses with the aim of filling his tanks to full. The pilot was so keen to take on fuel that he approached too fast, caused the hose to whip - and it snapped off the business part of his aircraft's refuelling probe. Very embarrassing for him - and also very worrying because we were then 550 nautical miles from the nearest airfield - Kinloss. The pilot asked us to alert his base that he was returning and would be short of fuel. We learned later that the standby search and rescue aircraft was also brought to immediate readiness in case the Lightning jock ran out of fuel before reaching an airfield.

The Soviets seemed to know all about British holiday weekends and apparently took great delight in spoiling them for us. For example, in 1991 at RAF Scampton during a Red Arrows' dinner in honour of the visiting Russian Air Force Aerobatic Team, a retired Russian Air Force colonel introduced himself to me - 16 years after that broken probe incident, He told me used to fly missions in UK airspace and he confirmed to me that they knew all about our activities and our holiday weekends. He told me that he had been the command pilot of the Soviet TU-95 aircraft on the sortie where the Lightning pilot had broken off his refuelling probe and he gave me some very convincing details of the incident to prove what he said - and he even set a little trap for me! (More of that on a later page.)

Two days after the abortive Lightning sortie, my crew was summoned at about 0300hrs from our beds in the Officers Mess at the western end of the station, to ‘cockpit readiness’. A call from bed straight to cockpit readiness implied that we were very likely be ordered to take off within minutes. The three Victors were parked on the operational readiness platform (ORP) at the eastern end of the Leuchars single runway. Our Victor, XH650, was at a state known as Combat Ready, an expression that was really a hangover from the V Bomber days. Combat Ready meant that all the pre-flight checks had already been completed earlier in the day and so we could, if necessary, start engines and be airborne within about five minutes of boarding the aircraft.

It was not only pitch dark but very foggy and it took several minutes longer than usual to drive along the taxiway past Air Traffic Control and then find Victor XH650. As we were checking in with Strike Command Operations, we heard, but never saw, two Phantom F4s taking off on Runway 09 from the ORP at the other end of the runway. It was an ear-shattering noise. Seconds later, while we were still strapping ourselves in, we were ordered to scramble. I recall idling wondering at the time whether the Strike Command Controller realised that we and the F4s had been parked at opposite ends of the only runway!

In foggy conditions, Víctor Standard Operating Procedures required both pilots to agree, once we were lined up on the runway and ready to take off, on how many runway lights we could see. For it to be legal to take-off, even on an operational sortie, we had to be able to see clearly a minimum of three. We reckoned, that is to say I reckoned, that the co-pilot and I could just about see three: the third ones came and went as the fog swirled around and that meant the horizontal visibility was something like 200 metres. I elected to do the take-off myself.

There is something unnatural about charging down a narrow strip of concrete in a heavy tanker aircraft at speeds eventually reaching the lift-off speed of about 180 kts (210 mph) when you can’t see where you are going. Fortunately, if the aircraft is carefully lined up on the runway centreline before releasing the brakes, and with a calm wind such as we had that morning, the Victor would stay on course. When the aircraft rudder becomes effective at about 100 knots, it may be used very carefully to make any small direction corrections that may be needed. Had there been even a few knots of cross wind, and had it not been an operational scramble, I would not have attempted to take off in such marginal visibility.

In normal conditions, we liked using Runway 27 on such early morning occasions because it meant that we passed very close to the Officers Mess just off to the right as we left the ground on full power. On this occasion we were airborne at 0320 GMT. We came out on top of the fog layer at about 200 feet above the ground and I immediately turned the aircraft to the right and headed north as instructed by the Controller in his scramble message. If we had to be awake, why shouldn’t everyone else be awake? Childish, perhaps, but fun. In any case, the pair of Phantoms that had launched with full reheat into the fog shortly before us had almost certainly made far more noise than we did.

The F4s were already somewhere high above the Shetland Islands as we headed out over the north coast of Scotland near Cape Wrath. We met up with them over the Faeroe Islands. We trailed our refuelling hoses from the pods underneath each wing and the two Phantoms simultaneously and greedily drank about three tons of fuel each. They didn't actually need fuel at that stage but it was sound policy to keep their tanks as full as possible. After that, we three aírcraft went into a holding orbit at around 30,000 feet to await further instructions from the air defence controller at RAF Saxa Vord. There were no clouds and the heavens were magnificently lit up with the sort of stellar display that can only be seen when viewed in complete darkness.

Time passed. We watched the dawn start to come up - it comes up earlier when you are six miles high than it does on the ground. Life was getting a little boring - as it often did on Dragonfly sorties. Although I could have talked to the F4 pilots had I wanted to, it was official policy to maintain radio silence except for essential messages just in case the Soviets were listening (and they usually were). I remember getting my sandwiches out; they'd been in a box in the aircraft since the previous day so they were not at their best. I teased the two-man crew of the Phantom flying close on my port wing by illuminating my sandwiches with a torch. The Phantom pilot expressed his feelings by performing a tight barrel roll around us - thereby causing my co-pilot to spill some of his coffee as he caught a sudden glimpse, out of the corner of his eye, of the upside-down Phantom arriving unexpectedly on his side of the aircraft.

After quite a long time flying around in elongated racetrack patterns over the white-capped waters of the Iceland-Faeroes Gap, the ground controller came up on the short-range radio to tell us that an unidentified aircraft, assumed to be Soviet, was heading in our direction. (He didn't use those words but that is what the message meant.) The Soviet aircraft was still a couple of hundred miles north of our position so we filled up the Phantoms once more before they set off at high speed to intercept the intruder. This second refuelling had used up most of our remaining fuel so there was no longer any point in our hanging around. We turned south to recover to Leuchars - and a proper breakfast. It was daylight but still very dank and misty when we arrived back on the airfield approach. Since I had done the take-off, I decided to let the co-pilot, Dave Butterworth, do the approach and landing. We made an instrument approach from the sea end, leaving the still sleeping inhabitants of St Andrews and the deserted Royal and Ancient Golf Course on our port side, and we landed on the same runway from which we had taken off 2 hours 50 minutes earlier.

As soon as the co-pilot touched down from a well-flown approach, I closed the four throttles and streamed the huge braking parachute. Then I saw something ahead on the runway which put all thoughts of breakfast right out of my mind. The runway surface was littered with seagulls: many were obviously dead but others were flapping around in great distress. I took control of the aircraft, applied maximum braking - to the great surprise of my co-pilot - and brought the aircraft to a complete and shuddering halt with about one third of the runway still in front of us. At my request, a vehicle came out from Air Traffic Control to see if the driver could disperse the live birds and clear a way for us to taxi back to the dispersal without running over any carcasses. In due course the driver advised us that most of the live birds had already moved away from the runway onto the grass verges but he added that there were hundreds of dead and injured birds on the runway and on the edges at either side of the runway and they appeared to be suffering from some sort of disease.

When we got back into dispersal and had closed down our engines, the ground crew pointed out that there were signs on our airframe of many bird strikes; well over a hundred strikes were counted later. Some birds had clearly gone down the engine intakes, others had struck the airframe in various places, including the undercarriage legs and the landing flaps. We must have hit those birds on the take-off run three hours earlier when our undercarriage was still down and the flaps partially extended but there had been no indication whatsoever to us in the cockpit and the engines had behaved quite normally throughout the flight.

Extract from my official flying logbook showing this sortie on 25 August 1975
We were told that the aircraft would have to be placed in quarantine and advised that no-one should touch any part of it until the local health inspector had examined the dead and dying birds. A civilian health inspector arrived surprisingly quickly. Strange really: I'd never imagined such a person would be on call - particularly over a holiday weekend. He immediately diagnosed that the seagulls were suffering from some kind of botulism - probably highly contagious and dangerous to humans. Presumably the birds had been on the airfield all night but, because of their illness and confused by the fog, many of them had been unable to fly out of the way as they usually did when they heard an aircraft bearing down on them. Incidentally, neither of the Phantoms had hit any birds. Curious that, but they had taken off from the western end and had not used up much runway. They must have left the ground just before reaching the birds. The Victor would have to be disinfected before anyone was allowed to touch it, said the inspector. It was decided that the holes and dents in the airframe would need specialist repairs not available at Leuchars and so I would have to fly the aircraft back to Marham at slow speed with the undercarriage and flaps extended and avoid flying over towns and villages en route in case bits dropped off.

"You might as well take off as soon as possible", said the 57 Squadron ground engineering officer, who was obviously anxious to get rid of us without delay. He assured me that the aircraft was safe to fly - after all we had just flown it for nearly three hours in that condition. The logic of his argument was lost on me: if the aircraft was safe to fly, then why did I have to leave the undercarriage down? That certainly was not normal practice. But I had long ago learned not to question engineers' decisions. If you do you're likely to get involved in pointless arguments on the following lines:

Engineer: "I don't tell you how to fly the aircraft; don't you tell me how to do my job."
Pilot: "But you've just told me how to fly the aircraft - with the undercarriage and flaps down."
Engineer: "That's not telling you how to fly the aircraft - that's an engineering recommendation."

So the aircraft was refuelled with just sufficient for the short flight to Marham - the refuelling operators, wisely, being extremely careful not to touch the airframe - and within the hour we were on our way - just after our pair of Phantoms landed having successfully intercepted and photographed a Soviet Bear Delta.

I think everyone at Leuchars was glad to see the back of us. On the transit back to Marham we stayed out over the sea for as long as possible to avoid any contamination falling onto land. The engineers at Marham were not at all happy about being called out on a Bank Holiday Monday morning to decontaminate an aircraft that was infected with botulism. At least they'd had breakfast: my crew never did that day. 65 minutes after landing at Marham we were on our way back to Leuchars in a spare aircraft - XA936.

The following day, 26 August 1975, I was airborne again, at 0952 hrs, with the same crew on another Dragonfly sortie. It was a rather boring sortie with no sign of any Soviet intruders. However, when we were 100 nautical miles east of Wick, the leader of our pair of F4 Phantoms said he was descending to low level to investigate a very large surface contact they had on radar. A couple of minutes later he was back alongside and announced on the radio: "That's USS Nimitz. What she's doing out here all on her own with no escorts?"

After landing, my crew, and presumably the two Phantom crews, were officially told to forget that we had seen the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, CVN68, which had been commissioned into service only a few weeks earlier on 3 May 1975. So, we did. (The handwritten comment about USS Nimitz, on my Logbook page above, was added many months later.)

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