British Airways B747-400 G-BNLT - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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British Airways B747-400 G-BNLT

The week before the concert was recorded David Jason, 'Del Boy' in the popular TV series Only Fools and Horses, came to fly with the Red Arrows. During the Gulf War, David and his co-star Nicholas Lyndhurst had done a lot of welfare work on behalf of British Forces then serving on active service in the Gulf. They had, for instance, bought a three-wheeler yellow Reliant and had it painted up like the Trotters' vehicle in the TV series. They had filled the vehicle with goodies, including food and videos, and had it flown out at their own expense to the Middle East. To say an official thank you for their generosity, the Commander-in-Chief of Strike Command had invited David and Nicholas to lunch at his HQ in High Wycombe. During the meal the C-in-C asked them if there was something he could do in return. David Jason immediately replied that what he would really like was a trip with the Red Arrows.

It turned out that this change of plan rather upset the Strike Command Commander-in-Chief - or so I was told! He had expected, and hoped, that the pair would ask for a trip in a Strike Command aircraft such as the Harrier or Tornado. That would have made a good PR story for his command. However, he did the decent thing and arranged matters with the Support Command C-in-C who did own Scampton and the Red Arrows. Unfortunately Nicholas Lyndhurst was appearing in the West End at the time of the visit and his manager would not allow Nicholas to undertake what he, the manager, perceived as a dangerous activity. No such problem with David: he thoroughly enjoyed his 30 minute flight in Red One's back seat, a full nine-aircraft practice of the display routine, a very rare privilege for a non-pilot, let alone a civilian.

"David discovered where the radio press-to-transmit button was," said Team Leader Adrian Thurley to me after the flight. "I could hardly get a word in edgeways to control the display. David kept transmitting 'Come in number two', 'You're too close Red Three' and similar remarks. It was amazing. I've never flown a civilian passenger in any jet who was so at ease as David Jason was."

I had not arranged a media facility because David had particularly requested that it should be a private visit. I was on the flight line with my own camera when they landed and took a few black and white photographs for the Team's diaries. David rushed along the flight line with seemingly boundless energy, shaking hands and sharing jokes with all the pilots. He then disappeared into the ground crew coffee bar and entertained them with non-stop jokes and stories for about half an hour. It was greatly appreciated. What a good thing it had been the last sortie of the day because the Hawks turn-round servicings were delayed for quite some time.

There was much excitement as soon as I let it be known to the local and regional media that the City of Lincoln Boeing 747 would be landing at Scampton immediately after the official naming ceremony at Coningsby. The Dash 400 Boeing 747 was still quite a rare bird in 1991 and it would be by far the largest aircraft ever to touch down on our runway. There had to be many measurements and calculations to make sure the runway was strong enough, and the taxiways wide enough, to accommodate the aircraft and I had to initiate negotiations to get aircraft landing charges waived.

All was well and the aircraft landed safely after flying around the local area at low level to make sure as many people as possible could get a good view of it. The width of the Scampton runway was not a problem because the enormous main undercarriage legs of the 747 are steerable and that enables the aircraft to turn in its own length - literally. I met the flight crew on Echo dispersal when they disembarked and, determined to get some Red Arrows involvement, I took them down to 4 Hangar for refreshments and to meet the Red Arrows while the British Airways engineers, who had travelled by road from Heathrow, worked on the aircraft. That was the start of a long Red Arrows' association with the pilots on the British Airways 747 Fleet.

The aircraft had been delivered from the factory in Seattle just a couple of days earlier and looked immaculate. The Lancaster looked equally imposing inside the hangar placed centrally amongst the audience of about 2,000 packed into the hangar, more than twice the originally planned number - and there was still room to spare. I did several interviews in the hangar with the local media, newspapers, radio and TV, during a break between rehearsal and recording. It was the first time I had had such a large live audience for any of my media interviews.

Above: This was the first rehearsal for the Band Concert.
The band concert was a great success and Lima Tango was a really impressive sight parked on Echo dispersal, lit with sodium floodlights. With the recording 'in the can' for broadcast 24 hours later, anyone who wanted, and most people did want, had conducted tours of the inside of the pristine B747, walking up the steps at the rear and exiting down the steps at the front. As soon as the last visitor had left the Boeing, the aircraft took off for Heathrow just before midnight and six hours later was on its way to Los Angeles on its very first commercial service. What a pity the concert was not seen on television. RAF Scampton got a lot of excellent PR out of the concert but the real stars were the two City of Lincoln aeroplanes.

Above: It was a bit of a tight squeeze along the taxiway: note the white-suited marshaller on the grass with his hand up. I had taken some of the media photographers to the top of No 1 Hangar to get this pic. (The TV crews preferred to stay at ground level.) My office at that time was in the building at the bottom left of this image.
As a thank-you for my part in organising and publicising the British Airways participation, I was invited by the British Airways Chief Pilot to take a trip in the cockpit anywhere on the BA world route network. I chose South Africa and a few weeks later I flew to Johannesburg and Cape Town in the cockpit of one of the other B747-400s with Captain Peter Lewis, who had flown Lima Tango to Scampton, in command. The main flights were Heathrow to Cape Town and back (about 12 hours each) but on the third day there was a day trip to Cape Town and back, roughly 2 flying hours each way with barely two hours on the ground.

"Check the tyres, light the fires, last one airborne's ****" was an old RAF pilot saying. That's me at Cape Town waiting while the captain did his own walk around.

I was, of course, properly authorised to fly in the cockpit for the entire trip although I did have in my pocket a business class return ticket for the trip - that ensured that I could go back into the passenger cabin to have meals as and when required.

Of course I took full advantage of that although, being a pilot myself and because I spent most of my time on the flight deck, I chose not to consume any alcohol at all during the flights.

 GBNLT next visited RAF Scampton in 1993 for an even bigger event, and my next trip to South Africa was as part of the Red Arrows World Tour in 1995.

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