Someone fed a very tacky, and totally untrue, story to the Sun newspaper - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Someone fed a very tacky, and totally untrue, story to the Sun newspaper

The Red Arrows flew off to Cyprus for Exercise Springhawk as scheduled on 6 April. However, any stories about the Red Arrows were now of interest to the national press so I was not altogether surprised when, on 9 April, I had another call from an official in the Defence Press Office. An informant, who was known to the Defence Press Office and whom the official described as "a disgruntled former MoD employee, we know his name but dare not pass it on to you", had allegedly sold a story to the Sun newspaper to the effect that the Chief of the Air Staff had stepped in to prevent the Red Arrows dedicating one of their 1998 manoeuvres to Princess Diana. The MoD man had already checked with the Chief of the Air Staff’s office and they had denied the story as well. The official wondered if I could throw any light on the matter. I was able to tell the MoD spokesman that there was no truth in the story but I added there might be three possible reasons for the confusion.

Firstly, at Langkawi in Malaysia on 1 December 1997, the first 'World AIDS Day', the Team Manager in his public commentary during the Red Arrows display dedicated the red Synchro Heart manoeuvre to the memory of Diana, Princess of Wales, in recognition of the work she had done during her life for AIDS foundations around the world. I told the official that the heart manoeuvre had been a routine part of the 1997 display and that nothing was altered specially for the event. That dedication had received considerable positive publicity in the Far East and possibly nearer home. Secondly, someone who had been in our briefing room earlier in the year may have seen the Delta Roll described as Diana Roll on the wall display where the pilots worked out the sequence of manoeuvres. I told the man at the Ministry that the name ‘Diana’ had been merely a tentative thought at a very early part of the training season as an alternative for what had always before been known as the Delta Roll (because it resembled the Greek letter delta). The pilots themselves had eventually dropped the idea because they thought it very tacky. There was actually a third possibility. It could have been a deliberate ploy on the part of the informant to try and sell to the Sun what would have undoubtedly been an eminently saleable story - had it been true.

The national media always like a political angle to any story about the armed services and the Red Arrows are not immune from that sort of treatment. Some years earlier, when Squadron Leader Miller was the Team Leader, there had been several spurious stories about the Tango Roll, a manoeuvre resembling the letter T. One national newspaper declared that the T was for Thatcher and that the manoeuvre was the pilots’ tribute to the Prime Minister of the day - the implication, presumably, being that all officers, or at least all Red Arrows, are Conservatives. The next day another newspaper had declared that it was nothing to do with Thatcher: it was a tribute to then Team Leader - Tim Miller. In fact the real reason was much less inventive: ‘Tango’ is the internationally recognised phonetic pronunciation of the letter T.

Halfway through April, I was able to file the following story with the RAF News and all my other media contacts:

"The Team’s Springhawk detachment is now about halfway through. Work on the new crowd front show has been progressing well in the excellent Cyprus weather - quite different from the appalling wintry conditions there have been at Cranwell. Instead of the traditional crowd rear arrival, the Red Arrows will now arrive from crowd left in Big Nine and change into a Diamond loop in front of the crowd. The Team has been practising a new version of the Vixen Break which starts from a point further away from the crowd. This should allow all aircraft to break hard to left and right to avoid them over-flying the crowd. In good weather the Team Leader will pull vertically upwards from the Vixen and then re-join the others; when the cloud base is too low for that, he will break to the left after the other aircraft on the left have broken. The Heart manoeuvre, a real crowd favourite, has been retained for 1998. This year the Heart, formed by Reds 6 and 7, will be 'speared' by Red 8 to add variety. One manoeuvre brought back into the show after an absence of several years is the one we call Delta. It is a triangular shape with one of the flat sides leading, formed by Reds 1 to 5 in line abreast and Reds 6 to 9 completing the triangle. The manoeuvre is called Delta because the shape closely resembles the Greek letter of that name."

After six weeks of concentrated rehearsals in sunny Cyprus, Air Chief Marshal Sir David Cousins, the Commander-in-Chief, was an audience of one at RAF Akrotiri on 13 May while Squadron Leader Simon Meade led his pilots through the 23-minute display.

"Essentially, I have to consider two things," said Sir David just before the display. "First, I must be entirely satisfied that the flying is safe - not just for the pilots but also for the public who will be watching. Then, I have to be satisfied that the display routine itself is up to the very high standard that the public has come to expect of the RAF Aerobatic Team. Only if I am satisfied on both counts will I award the Team’s Public Display Authority." He was, and he did.

It turned out that the new display was not, as some feared it might have been, less exciting to watch. In fact the reverse turned out to be true. The Team now arrived from crowd left instead of crowd rear. On a clear day the aircraft could be seen running in a good minute before they eventually 'whooshed' over the display site, giving Red 10 plenty of time to drum up the excitement. The modified Vixen Break, starting a little bit further away from the crowd than in previous years, was just as exciting as it had always been. There was added excitement to the finale because, just as the seven aircraft in the main section broke upwards and outwards in front of the crowd, the Synchro Pair roared past at low level from opposite ends of the display line.

During the year the Team had comments from a huge number of people, including many very senior officers and air display aficionados, saying how brilliant they thought the 1998 display was. Some people even opined that it was the best display ever. It is certainly a credit to the Leader and his pilots that they were able to design, and then hone to perfection, an entirely new display in five or six short weeks.

The new crowd front show removed the obstacle that had prevented the Team appearing in France and the Netherlands. No sooner had word leaked out about the new show, which was long after the 1998 schedule had been finalised and published to the world, than invitations arrived from both France and the Netherlands. It was not possible to fit in the Dutch request for 4 July because the Red Arrows were already scheduled to display at Koksijde in Belgium on that date. However, a deal was worked out by the two display organisers themselves whereby Leeuwarden in Holland was substituted for Koksijde. The Team’s programme had a suitable gap on 13 and 14 July and so the French invitation to display at Evreux, just west of Paris, was accepted. It speaks volumes for the Team’s international reputation that these invitations were forthcoming so quickly.

Unfortunately whilst taking off from Brize Norton for the transit to Evreux, Flight Lieutenant Dave Stobie, number 6 in a stream of 10 aircraft taking off, had a major bird strike just as his aircraft became airborne and whilst the undercarriage was travelling up. Dave made a split-second decision to put the aircraft back on the ground rather than eject. The aircraft came to rest on the edge of the runway after sliding spectacularly for about 1,000 metres on its belly. It is reported that Dave and his Circus back-seater were seen hugging each other after vacating their aircraft unaided - and uninjured. The Team re-grouped and flew on to Evreux later that same day but arrived too late for the first scheduled display. The following day, French National Day, the Red Arrows gave their 50th display in France, the first since the one at Toulouse on 29 September 1987. Dave’s decision to put his aircraft back on the ground rather than ejecting, saved a valuable and irreplaceable aircraft from destruction and he was subsequently awarded a Green Endorsement. That Hawk was back in service with the Team a few weeks later.

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