Was it a clever move to test the political waters? - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Was it a clever move to test the political waters?

Simon went downstairs to his office to take the Commander-in-Chief’s call in private. It was not surprising, therefore, that during his absence there was much speculation about the reason for the high-ranking intervention. It just so happened that I was sitting in on that particular briefing with a group of corporate visitors from Breitling, the watch people. The presence of the visitors inhibited the rest of us from trying to guess out aloud the real reason for the interruption but it is fair to say that none of us would have got anywhere near the real reason. It was a good 20 minutes before Simon returned, smiling disarmingly. He continued with the briefing without saying anything to anyone about the telephone call. It was infuriating and Simon knew full well that we were all intensely interested to know what the Commander-in-Chief had wanted to say that was so important that it could not wait until after the sortie. But Simon, always the professional, was more concerned with the job in hand.

I was then off sick for two days and completely forgot about the incident. Late on the Thursday the Manager, Squadron Leader Mike Williams, telephoned me at home. He wanted to know if I would be fit enough to go to work on Friday because the Boss had something to tell me that could not be discussed on the phone. Although I was intrigued, I didn't connect this summons with the Commander-in-Chief’s call to Simon earlier in the week. I said that I would be there on the following day. I started work on Friday morning at my usual time, just after 6am, and got on with dealing with the ordinary mail and the fax messages and e-mails that had accumulated during my two-day absence. The time passed quickly as it always did at that peaceful time in the morning. By the time Simon arrived at his usual time, about 7.50am, I had almost forgotten that I had been asked to come in especially so that he could talk to me. He came into my office and closed the door. That was unusual because my office door was rarely closed.

"The CinC told me on Tuesday that with immediate effect the Team is to be reduced from nine to seven," Simon announced, without any preamble. I was flabbergasted! "That’s ridiculous," I said.

"The reason he gave," continued Simon, with the little smile that I knew so well hovering on his lips, "is the shortage of Hawk airframes forecast for the next couple of years while the engineers get on with some major work involving the main spar of all the Hawks. It seems the CinC has a difficulty with letting the Red Arrows keep 13 Hawks while the flying training school at Valley is struggling to keep their training throughput going. I told the CinC that we were about to fly our first nine ship practice on Wednesday. Of course, he understands how psychologically important that is - especially for the FNGs." (FNG was the Team's rather rude acronym for the new guys - the pilots who were preparing for their first season.)

"I asked him," continued Simon, "in the interests of good morale if nothing else, to let me at least fly the first nine. He agreed - a bit reluctantly I think. I then asked if I could programme a nine-ship practice for Thursday as well - just in case something cropped up to spoil the Wednesday flight. He finally agreed to that as well. The CinC told me that he thought it was likely that the seven aircraft Team would continue for up to five years and after that it might be possible to revert to nine."

"I don’t believe a word of it," I said. "Once they reduce the Team to seven aircraft they will never allow it to go back to nine - there'll always be a reason to keep it at seven. If you want my opinion, and if the RAF is really so desperately short of Hawk aircraft, I think the Team should be disbanded altogether. At least that way the Red Arrows can go out on a high note."

"Give the matter some more thought," said the Boss, rising to leave. "I’ve got a lot to do."

The ‘more thought’ I gave to the matter, inevitably reminded me of the day before my interview for the Red Arrows job when my friend at the Ministry had told me that certain elements were always looking for cast-iron excuses to disband the Red Arrows altogether.

The Team did fly their first nine-ship of the season on the Wednesday and another one the following day. Only after that did Simon tell his pilots of the decision to reduce the Team. Thus, whatever else came to pass, the three first-year pilots in the 1998 Team, Flight Lieutenants Andy Evans, Andy Lewis and Ian Smith, had at least flown twice in a nine-ship formation.

A couple of days later, Simon told me that he thought someone at MoD might have already leaked the news to the media - but he would not be drawn. Had someone told Simon to tell me that? Was it a veiled suggestion to me that I should leak the news to the press? Surely not! They knew me better than that. Simon merely said he wanted me to be ready with a suitable story in case the media got in touch with me, and they surely would when the local spotters saw the Team practising with seven aircraft again so soon after the first nine ship sorties.

I racked my brains. What story could I put out? The idea of reducing the world-famous Red Arrows to a team of just seven aircraft was both humiliating and extremely bad PR for the RAF - and for UK plc. It would reduce the Red Arrows to a second-rate team in the eyes of professional aviators the world over. I thought it highly unlikely that British Aerospace would wish to continue their long association with the Team and that it was probable that there would be no more overseas tours sponsored by British Industry. As for the suggestion that the Team would be restored to nine aircraft a few years downstream - well no-one, but no-one, would believe that.

Having spent years working in military intelligence, I always assumed that all my telephone calls were monitored: paranoia maybe, but it was a habit I had got into. I frequently used to make joke comments in the middle of a telephone call to colleagues such as, "I’ll just say that again slowly for the tape." So, when I spoke to John Turner, the current Command Public Relations Officer, about half an hour after Simon had hinted about the possibility of an MoD leak, I did so in guarded terms. It immediately became obvious, however, that John knew what I was talking about and that he had already been involved in some sort of briefing at Command HQ. John’s immediate advice, when I mentioned a possible leak at MoD, was that we should deny any knowledge of the matter - in other words I was to tell lies, something I have never done in all my time as a PRO. I told him I was not at all happy with that suggestion and he agreed to seek further advice.

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