“His night-fighter status in the war was unrivalled and comparable to the best of the best daytime fighter pilots”
‘Group Captain John ‘Cat’s Eyes’ Cunningham, who has died aged 84, was a night fighter ace and later a consummate test pilot whose name guaranteed the reputation of British aviation.
After destroying at least 20 enemy aircraft, Cunningham piloted the maiden flight of the Comet, which became the world’s first passenger jet airliner.
When the plane was involved in a series of dramatic crashes, Cunningham took a model off the production line, and tested it to the point of destruction. He then ushered its amended successors into both airline and Service use.
The RAF’s continuing employment of Nimrod, the Comet’s maritime reconnaissance derivative, is a reminder of the debt owed to Cunningham for his lead in the exhaustive test programmes.
All this was far in the future when Cunningham, already a de Havilland junior test pilot and an Auxiliary Air Force weekend flier with No 604 (County of Middlesex) Squadron, was called up to full-time service shortly before the outbreak of war in 1939.
Equipped with the two-engine Bristol Blenheim, which had to search hopelessly for night raiders, Cunningham and his fellow pilots had little more to help them than training, eyesight and instinct.
“We didn’t look on the so-called fighter version of the Blenheim as a very attractive aircraft,” he recalled. “As we went off to war we thought ‘We are not going to last long against the Me 109.’ ”
During the early stages of the Battle of Britain in 1940, Cunningham was relieved to be asked to experiment with a photo-electric bomb, devised to be dropped from above on heavy enemy bomber formations. When this project was abandoned, experimental airborne radar was beginning to become available for trial.
On the night of November 19 1940, Cunningham bagged his first Ju 88. After exchanging his make-do Blenheim for a two-engine Bristol Beaufighter he shot down a Heinkel 111 bomber over the Channel and another over Lyme Bay.
As Cunningham’s score mounted the story was spread that his success owed much to a hearty consumption of carrots, which were said to sharpen his eyesight; and henceforth he was known as “Cat’s Eyes”.
The deception, which was aimed at the enemy, also helped Lord Woolton, the food minister, to get across the value of vegetables, particularly carrots, in the rationed wartime diet.
No allusion was made to the primary reason for Cunningham’s success, the introduction of airborne radar and its operators; Jimmy Rawnsley, Cunningham’s re-trained air-gunner, was one of the best.
Cunningham later mused: “It would have been easier had the carrots worked. In fact, it was a long, hard grind and very frustrating. It was a struggle to continue flying on instruments at night.
“The essential was teamwork – not just between pilot and radar operator. A night fighter crew was at the top of a pyramid, ground control radar and searchlights at the base, and up there an aircraft with two chaps in it. Unless they were competent and compatible all that great effort was wasted.”
In mid-April 1941, Cunningham and Rawnsley destroyed three enemy bombers in one night, and when Cunningham left 604 for a staff appointment, the squadron had shot down twice as many enemy aircraft as any other night fighter unit.
Cunningham returned to operations early in 1943, when he received command of No 85, a Mosquito night fighter squadron. After adding several more kills to his score – including four fast FW 190 fighter bombers – Cunningham joined Fighter Command’s No 11 Group headquarters as a group captain aged 26, still with a baby face and twinkling blue eyes.
John Cunningham was born on July 27 1917, the son of the company secretary of the Dunlop Rubber Company. At nine, he had a joyride in an Avro 504 biplane, and was immediately captivated by the idea of flying. His ambitions were further stimulated at Whitgift School by its proximity to Croydon airport. He then joined the de Havilland apprenticeship scheme.
This early association with de Havilland gave Cunningham a head start when, as the war ended, he opted to pass up the opportunity of a glittering peacetime career in the RAF and return to civil aviation.
Exchanging a group captain’s brass hat for a test pilot’s overalls, he took over flight development of the company’s Goblin turbojet engine. Within a year the death, in a crash, of Geoffrey de Havilland, son of the company’s founder Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, cleared the way for Cunningham to become the company’s chief test pilot.
Cunningham took over the major responsibility for investigating the characteristics of the single-seat DH 108’s swept-wing design and also for obtaining basic data for the future DH 106 Comet and the naval fighter Sea Vixen.
Meanwhile, work had started on the Comet, and Cunningham, accompanying BOAC crews on five transatlantic flights and two round trips to Australia, also began to gain experience of the requirements of airline crews.
On July 27 1949, his 32nd birthday, he was conducting taxiing trials when, with no fuss, he made an unannounced 35-minute maiden flight. But within three years de Havilland began to pay the price of hastening the Comet into service.
On October 26 1952, a BOAC Comet taking off from Rome failed to become airborne; there were no casualties, but the aircraft was damaged beyond repair.
Although the pilot was wrongly blamed, Cunningham was not satisfied. But his exhaustive take-off tests proved fruitless; and the accident was repeated the following March when a Canadian Pacific Airlines Comet was destroyed at Karachi.
In each accident, as Cunningham was to discover, the nose had lifted too high too early, resulting in a great increase in drag. Following further tests, the leading edge of the wing was revised, along with Cunningham’s advice on take-offs to pilots.
Despite a further take-off accident in May, when a BOAC Comet crashed shortly after take-off from Calcutta due to poor weather, all was fairly plain sailing until January 1954, when the first production Comet disintegrated at 35,000 feet off Elba.
In April a similar break-up took place south of Naples over the volcanic island of Stromboli, and it was decided to test an entire Comet fuselage for fatigue in a water tank at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough.
Although Farnborough’s findings centred on the fatal flaw of metal fatigue in a pressurised hull, the likelihood of potential disaster had arguably been heightened by design shortcuts and economies which had been made to ensure that the Comet became the world’s first passenger jet.
Cunningham immediately busied himself with remedial action. He flew to Canada to bring back two RCAF Comet 1As; and after their fuselages were rebuilt took them home again.
In December 1955, Cunningham made a world tour, in which Comet III’s performance was flawless. The next year President Eisenhower presented him with the Harmon Trophy, the highest American honour for services to aviation, in recognition of his contribution to jet transport.
Honour was slower at home; and he was not elevated to the de Havilland Board until 1958 when BOAC put Comet IV on to the London-New York route.
When, during this period, de Havilland became a division of Hawker Siddeley, Cunningham, always ready to get on with the job in hand, was not fazed. Sir Geoffrey de Havilland noted that Cunningham, a bachelor, was “test pilot, demonstration pilot and ambassador all in one and has made some sensational flights. He can do thousands of miles for many days and at the end of the flight can be charming, unruffled and apparently as fresh as ever when discussing points raised by a host of officials, Pressmen and others.”
While Trident, which was to become so successful with British European Airways and elsewhere, was on the way in 1960 and 1961, Cunningham remained busy testing Comet versions.
Eventually he was involved with Trident’s initial trials and with colleagues saw it through more than 1,800 hours of testing before the first Trident was certified airworthy in 1964.
One of Cunningham’s greatest assets was his relationship with overseas buyers and his talented training of foreign pilots. After delivering Tridents to Pakistan he became extremely busy with a substantial order for China.
From 1972 he began to deliver Tridents, one by one, to Kwangchow. Part of the deal was that he had to do a test flight with a Chinese crew on each aircraft from Kwangchow to Shanghai.
So far, other than a 1939 bale-out from a Moth Minor, Cunningham had led a charmed life; but in 1975 he was piloting a DH 125 executive jet, conveying a party of Chinese visitors from the Hawker Siddeley airfield at Dunsfold to Hatfield, when a huge flock of plovers was ingested by his engines.
Barely off the runway, Cunningham touched down at some 130 mph. The jet shot across a road, colliding with a car and killing four passengers before halting in a field where it caught fire.
Cunningham sustained two crushed vertebrae, but none of his passengers were killed, and within a year he resumed flying. Trident deliveries to China had three years to run and his Chinese customers asked him to see the contract out.
Cunningham remained chief test pilot after Hawker Siddeley had been merged into British Aerospace, where he was an executive director from 1978 until he retired in 1980.
With more time available, he enjoyed looking after the grounds of his home, not far from the former de Havilland airfield and factory in Hertfordshire, and devoted much time and effort to the nearby museum housing the prototype Mosquito and other historic de Havilland equipment and memorabilia.
He also supported fundraising efforts for a variety of organisations. These included the RAF Benevolent Fund, the de Havilland Flying Foundation and the Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire Aircrew Association and 604 and 85 Squadron associations, of which he was president.
Additionally, Cunningham was a Liveryman of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators and much involved with the Battle of Britain Fighter Association and a staunch supporter of the RAF Club.
It was the more unfortunate that, following the collapse of Lloyds in 1988, he was faced with heavy financial commitments having been a Name in the organisation. Even though he re-mortgaged his property and was left with a much reduced income, he remained buoyant in the face of illness.
Cunningham was appointed OBE in 1951 and CBE in 1963. He was awarded the DSO in 1941 and Bars in 1942 and 1944; the DFC and Bar in 1941, also the Air Efficiency Award (AE). He also held the Soviet Order of Patriotic War 1st Class and the US Silver Star.
Cunningham was Deputy Lieutenant for Middlesex in 1948 and Greater London in 1965. He was awarded the Derry and Richards Memorial Medal in 1965, the Segrave Trophy in 1969 and the Air League Founders Medal in 1979.’ (Obituary courtesy of The Daily Telegraph)