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John Cunningham
27 July 1917 - 21 July 2002
John Cunningham at an airshow in 1979
Nickname Cats Eyes
Allegiance United Kingdom United Kingdom
Service/branch  Royal Air Force
Rank Group Captain
Unit No.604 Squadron RAF
No. 85 Squadron RAF
Battles/wars World War II:
Awards Commander of the Order of the British Empire
Distinguished Service Order
Distinguished Flying Cross & Bar

Group Captain John "Cat's Eyes" Cunningham CBE, DSO & Two Bars, DFC & Bar, (27 July 1917 – 21 July 2002), was a British Royal Air Force night fighter ace during World War II and a test pilot, both before and after the war. He was credited with 20 kills, of which 19 were claimed at night.


Military career

Cunningham joined de Havilland Aircraft in 1938 and lived in one of the four blocks of flats across the road from the headquarters building. He came through the de Havilland Aeronautical Technical School and worked for the company as a test pilot until the outbreak of World War II when he joined the Royal Air Force. Flying first Blenheims and then the powerful Bristol Beaufighter with No. 604 Squadron RAF, by the end of the Blitz in May 1941 he had become the most famous night fighter pilot, successfully claiming 14 night raiders using AI (Airborne Interception - the aircraft version of what later became known as radar.)

His nickname of Cat's Eyes came from British propaganda explanations in order to cover up the use of AI. It was claimed a special group of British pilots ate carrots for many years to develop superior night vision. Cunningham himself, a self-effacing and modest individual, detested this nickname.[1]

Later serving as Commanding Officer of No. 85 Squadron RAF in 1943-44 flying Mosquitoes, Cunningham survived the war as a Group Captain with 20 claims.

Cunningham returned to de Havilland after the war as a test pilot, and his standards were supposed to be really high for that time. In 1946, he succeeded Geoffrey de Havilland Jr as chief test pilot, following the latter's death whilst test-flying the DH.108 Swallow over the Thames estuary. He went on to test the de Havilland Comet, the world's first jet airliner which first flew in 1949. He also test flew the re-built Comet 3 and 4 in the late 1950s and the de Havilland (later Hawker Siddeley) Trident in 1962. He continued test flying Tridents, with another milestone being the first flight of the Trident 3 in 1969.

Cunningham had one serious accident whilst flying, on 20 November 1975 at Dunsfold, Surrey when a flock of birds were ingested by the engines on his HS-125 aircraft just after takeoff. The aircraft came down and left the perimeter of the airfield where it collided with a car carrying 6 passengers who were killed although no-one died onboard the HS-125. He remained chief test pilot at Hawker Siddeley (Hatfield) until 1978 when British Aerospace was formed. He was awarded the Segrave Trophy in 1978.

The autobiography of his most frequent AI operator C.F. (Jimmy) Rawnsley, Night Fighter (co-authored by Robert Wright, published by Ballantine Books in 1957), includes vivid descriptions of several of Cunningham's battles and incidental biographical information about him.

Later life

In 2003 Cunningham was honoured with having a street named after him, [2] Cunningham Avenue is one of the main residential streets which make up Salisbury Village, a new development currently being built on the former de Havilland site in Hatfield

Member of the Air Squadron.

See also



  • Golley, John. John "Cat's-Eyes" Cunningham: The Aviation Legend. Shrewsbury, Shropshire, UK: Airlife Publishing Ltd., 1999. ISBN 1-84037-059-9.


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