Planning for the visit to UK by the 'Russian Knights' aerobatic team - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Planning for the visit to UK by the 'Russian Knights' aerobatic team

"Hope to see you in Scampton," had been the cry as the RAF pilots said farewell to the Soviet MiG-29 pilots at Borispol in Ukraine in June 1990 when the Red Arrows started home after their highly successful six day tour of Leningrad (Saint Petersburg), Kiev and Budapest.

It was the sort of thing you often say on leaving new-found friends even when you don't expect it to happen. But happen it did - just fifteen months later. The Russian Knights (Русские Витязи – Russkiye Veetyazee) in their mighty Sukhoi-27 fighter bombers, known to NATO as Flanker, came to Scampton. In Russian folklore a young warrior famous for his strength and his ability to defend his Motherland was called a Veetyaz, equivalent to an English Knight. Hence the name for the Team. But was it the Russian Aerobatic Team or the Soviet Aerobatic Team? So much had been happening on the international stage, especially in the three short eventful weeks before the scheduled start of the visit, that we did not know and no-one could enlighten us. The Soviet Union was rapidly disintegrating and the entire world was watching with bated breath. However, no-one at Scampton really cared about the politics - all that mattered was that they were coming.

I was heavily involved in planning the arrangements for the Russian Knights' visit. Knowing how fond the Russians are for ceremonies, I had recommended that the Russians should be greeted with a formal arrival ceremony to mark what would have been a historic occasion even without the break-up of the Soviet Union. My suggestion was greeted with not a little scepticism and alarm. Long gone are the days when RAF stations used to have regular parades, so long gone that most officers and airmen never parade again after graduating from initial training schools. However, that was not the sort of parade I wanted. I reckoned there should be a marching band and a saluting base from which the leading players could make their speeches of welcome. I wanted a formal line up of Red Arrows' aircraft and pilots opposite the Soviets. I wanted the pilots to walk across the tarmac from opposite sides of the dispersal so that they could be photographed and filmed greeting each other halfway. Most importantly, I wanted our own Commander-in-Chief to be the senor host! Oh, and I wanted lots of media on hand to record it all.

Some months before the actual visit by the Russian Knights, a small Soviet delegation flew in to RAF Scampton for a preliminary planning meeting. Probably without realising the irony of the situation, the Scampton hierarchy had decided to park the Soviet AN-72 transport aircraft on a remote and normally disused dispersal that for many years had been the place where Blue Steel missiles were loaded onto Vulcan bombers. The prospect of a Soviet military aircraft on the ground in Lincolnshire was so unusual that I invited the regional media to Scampton to cover the event even though we had no clear idea what to expect - I knew it was an opportunity none of them was likely to miss.

BBC Radio Lincolnshire sent along their popular presenter Chris Jones to do a live outside broadcast and, as a result, Chris made broadcasting history. Out of the Soviet aircraft popped a serving Soviet Air Force three-star general. We had not been expecting such a high powered general to turn up for a planning visit. Speaking in English, I persuaded the General to be interviewed live through an official RAF Interpreter. I was astonished that he, the General, readily agreed to do the interview but some of his aides seemed quite worried. I assured them that Radio Lincolnshire was a family radio station and that there would be no political questions. And so, for the first time ever we think, a serving Soviet general was interviewed live on a western radio station without any advance notification and without a script or a prepared list of questions. It was a great success and Chris was a minor celebrity in the BBC. I imagine news and defence reporters around the country were rather miffed.

Later, we took the visitors to the Officers' Mess for lunch. While I was in a toilet cubicle, I overheard a conversation in the adjacent wash room. One of the Russians, presumably a security man, was saying in a hushed voice to the General, "Comrade General, be very careful what you say in front of their public relations officer - he can speak Russian!" That Russian had broken one of the most elementary rules of espionage: if you have something private to say, make sure you say it in private. I then had to remain in the toilet until I was quite certain that all the Russians had left the wash room.

The Russian Knights visit started on 18 September 1991 and I got the arrival ceremony that I had wanted. Conscious of the fact that when the Red Arrows visited the Soviet Union in 1990 our senior officer, Air Vice-Marshal Mike Pilkington, had been outranked by the escorting Soviet three-star general, it had been arranged that our Commander-in-Chief, Sir John Thomson, a three-star air marshal, would head the welcoming committee for the Russian Knights. Once again Chris Jones was on hand with the BBC Radio Lincolnshire radio car, broadcasting live during the early part of the morning drumming up interest and excitement. From time to time I introduced other station personnel to be interviewed by Chris. He is a master at this sort of thing; he can always think of something useful or sensible to say when his interviewee dries up.

It was a warm early autumn morning but the visibility was rather poor - anticyclonic gloom the meteorologists call it. The Red Arrows' Hawks were drawn up along one side of Echo Dispersal. The pilots stood around in their red suits waiting expectantly. The Commander-in-Chief was there with all the usual hangers-on. The security and intelligence men kept themselves to themselves trying, and failing, to look inconspicuous. The forty-plus professional musicians of the Band of the RAF Regiment marched onto Echo Dispersal playing the official march of the Central Flying School, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, followed by the Dam Busters' March, and took up their allotted position close to the dais. They were resplendent in their ceremonial uniforms. In addition to most of the station families, around 100 members of the media were on hand to record every historic second, while roads outside Scampton were blocked with countless sightseers who filled every lay-by and vantage point for miles around.

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