Someone high up in the RAF doesn't like the Red Arrows - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Someone high up in the RAF doesn't like the Red Arrows

The reduction from a nine to a seven aircraft team would have an important impact on a television company’s plans. Walkabout Film and Television, a company based in the West Country, had earlier been given approval to make a fly-on-the-wall video over a 15-month period covering the entire selection process through to the first public display of 1999. I had worked with this company on Red Arrows’ projects before and the two directors, David Fitzgerald and Mark Twittey, had become good friends of mine and the Team as a whole. I knew that they had committed a lot of money to their project and already had interviews in the can with quite a few of the pilots who had applied to join the 1999 Team. My problem was that I could not yet tell them that the Team was going to be reduced in size and that much of their material might be wasted.

There were other problems that had to be dealt with. Michael Heath, who had recently set up the Red Arrows Merchandising Company, would soon discover that all his Diamond Nine logos and, therefore, lots of his highly popular merchandise, were out of date - but of course I was not allowed to tell him that. There was also a problem for the Team Manager; he had completed work on the 1998 glossy brochure which included pictures and mini-biographies of the new pilots. The finished art work was already at the printers, indeed the first print run might already have been made. Finally, and probably the most difficult and time-consuming of all, the Team Leader would have to completely re-design the 1998 display routine on which he had been working for months and which was just about settled.

All things considered, the decision to reduce the size of the Team could hardly have been made at a more difficult time and it appeared to me, not by any means for the first time, that someone, somewhere up on high, had it in for the Red Arrows. On Friday afternoon of that dark and wintry week, John Turner at Command HQ and I had another guarded conversation. John told me that the most senior civil servant in the Command Secretariat, the group of civil servants that advises the Commander-in-Chief, had decided that we PROs should not tell outright lies. That was very decent of him, I thought! The senior civil servant apparently recommended that, if questioned, I should say something on the lines of, "Yes, I've heard the story about the Red Arrows reducing from nine to seven aircraft but I’m unable to confirm or deny it since decisions of that nature rest with Ministers."

To my mind that was a lengthy way of saying "No comment" and passing the buck. I told John that I preferred not to make any reference to Ministers - they were the prerogative of the Ministry of Defence PROs, not one at station level. Eventually it was agreed that, if asked about the reduction, I would say that I had heard the story and that I was waiting for further information from our HQ. John and I both knew that if reporters got wind of the story from any source, they would telephone both of us and the Ministry of Defence Press Office to check if we were all putting out the same line. It was all part of the PR game.

By now, a few people around RAF Cranwell legitimately knew that the Red Arrows were going to be reduced from nine display aircraft to seven. Some time on that same busy Friday afternoon a rumour started going around Cranwell which postulated that the whole story about the Red Arrows having to reduce to seven aircraft had been invented to test reactions to the idea within the RAF and amongst the general public. It was even suggested that ‘they’ actually wanted the story to be leaked to the media to achieve that very aim. A concurrent variant on that rumour said that the decision to reduce to seven had been taken by the full Air Force Board but the air marshals wanted the announcement to be made by the Minister for the Armed Forces, thereby absolving the Air Force Board of all blame. Intriguing thought! Simon Meade asked me to keep him informed of any media enquiries or other developments over the weekend.

In the meantime I suddenly remembered that I had made some arrangements that would have to be changed. Doug Nicolson, a staff photographer on the Dundee Courier, had been waiting for a photographic trip with the Red Arrows for about six months. He had flown on a couple of air-to-air photographic sorties in F4s from RAF Leuchars, just across the Tay Estuary from Dundee, and had sent me some beautiful air-to-air and air-to-ground pictures of Tornados to press his case. I could see that he was an excellent photographer and, having survived a number of sorties in Tornados, he was not likely to be airsick flying in the back of a Red Arrow.

The photographs I distributed to the media and display organisers for pre-season publicity each year were usually taken in Cyprus during the Springhawk detachment and most of them had either a scorched earth background or featured the acres of orange groves just outside the Akrotiri base. We had the photographs taken in Cyprus each year because all nine display pilots were flying together, because the weather conditions were more reliable than in the English spring and therefore likely to produce nicer pictures, and because there was usually a bit of slack in the flying programme to give us the luxury of flying a tenth aircraft around the formation with a visiting professional photographer in the back seat.

I had kept putting Doug off during the winter training season until I reckoned the 1998 Team would have started flying nine-ship formations. I wanted to make use of Doug to get a selection of pictures with a UK theme and Simon had readily agreed to lead the nine aircraft over some national landmarks and tourist spots. In late February I had telephoned Doug to invite him to fly with the Manager on Monday 9 March and I had kept my fingers crossed for good weather. He had readily agreed and said he would drive south on the Sunday ready for a very early start on the Monday.

Although Doug did not know it, that plan had already had to change even before the nine-to-seven bombshell because at short notice Simon was now scheduled to be away from base on that day on other business and that meant the full formation could not fly. I did not want to put off Doug any longer but, because of the imminent reductions and with Simon away for the day, I agreed with the Engineering Officer’s request to utilise only two aircraft, with Doug flying in Red 10’s back seat and Wing Commander Dick Johnston flying the second aircraft. That would at least have provided me with air-to-air shots of one red Hawk. However, when he heard of that plan, Simon decided that it would be an unwarranted nuisance for the ground crew to prepare two aircraft to fly on what would otherwise be a non-flying day. The ground crew had a backlog of work that needed a maximum effort in the hangar so it was reluctantly decided that I would have to cancel Doug’s visit.

I rang Doug late on that Friday evening and suggested that he should postpone his trip because there was no longer any possibility of his getting any air-to-air photographs of the Red Arrows. He didn't seem too put out and I promised that I would keep him at the top of the list of people waiting to fly with the Team and that it might still be possible to fit him in for a sortie before the end of March. Of course, what I didn't tell him was that he might be the first photographer to get some pictures of the new seven-aircraft team - that might be his exclusive and would no doubt be adequate recompense for him!

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