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The Test Pilots — from De Havilland Comet — The plane that changed the world

John Cunningham by Cuthbert Orde

Group Captain John Cunningham, who commanded the Comet’s first flight on his 30th birthday, was one of several post-war test pilots who became household names. He had originally joined de Havilland before the war as an engineering trainee, but later qualified as a pilot and joined the RAF, becoming both a night fighter ace and a test pilot. During the war he was dubbed ‘Cat’s Eyes’ by journalists to explain his remarkable level of success at night, and to avoid giving away the existence of airborne radar to the Germans. He was credited with shooting down 13 enemy aircraft and reached the rank of group captain. After the war, he returned to de Havilland as a test pilot, and following the death of Geoffrey de Havilland Jr. in 1946, became chief test pilot.

In writing of John Cunningham today, it is easy to forget that test pilots of his era were as famous as Formula One racing drivers are today. They did a highly skilled job, took considerable risks and not infrequently paid with their lives. Cunningham also had the advantage, quite apart from the glamour of his work, of being good-looking and urbane with a natural, easy-going charm. Test pilots of the era including Neville Duke, Peter Twiss, and Joseph ‘Mutt’ Summers became media stars and their spectacular flying displays drew large crowds to Farnborough and other major air shows. Films including The Sound Barrier (1952) and The Man in the Sky (1957) portrayed test pilots as death-defying heroes. Brian Trubshaw, Britain’s chief test pilot for Concorde, was perhaps the last of his profession to have celebrity status.

Cunningham (left) at the controls of a Comet 4

One of Cunningham’s colleagues, John Derry, was killed during the 1952 Farnborough Airshow while demonstrating the de Havilland DH.110. The jet disintegrated above the airfield during an aerobatic manoeuvre, causing the deaths of both Derry and his flight test observer Anthony Richards. Debris from the aircraft, as well as the engines, fell into a dense crowd of spectators on Observation Hill, killing 29 people and injuring 60. The cause of the break-up was later found to be structural failure due to a design flaw in the wing’s leading edge. The show was not halted, and Neville Duke followed the crash by demonstrating a double sonic boom in a Hawker Hunter. ‘My dear Duke’, the Prime Minister wrote to him the next day, ‘It was characteristic of you to go up yesterday after the shocking accident. Accept my salute. Yours, in grief, Winston Churchill.’ All DH.110s were initially grounded, but after modifications to its design, the type went into service with the Royal Navy as the Sea Vixen. Strict safety procedures were subsequently brought in for UK air shows and there were no further spectator fatalities until the 2015 Shoreham Air Show crash in which 11 people died.

The prototype Comet was registered G-ALVG just before she was publicly displayed at the 1949 Farnborough Airshow prior to the start of flight trials. The aircraft now entered a phase of intensive testing, flying four or five times per day. Any number of records were quickly broken. An early flight from London Airport to Ciampino Airport in Rome, became an official record, having been completed in two hours, two minutes and 52 seconds at an average speed of 447 miles per hour. Tragically, Ciampino would later play a darker role in the Comet’s history when no less than three scheduled flights from the airport crashed, two of them with no survivors. Another record-breaking flight to Copenhagen included a party of air correspondents who enjoyed lunch at Kastrup Airport, returning to Hatfield on the same day in time for tea.

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