Eagle Profile

Britain’s John Cunningham gained worldwide recognition as a civilian test pilot and leading Allied night-fighter ace during World War II. After joining the Auxiliary Air Force and learning to fly at age 18, he began working for the de Havilland Aircraft Company as a junior test pilot. His squadron was mobilized just before England entered the war in 1939 and soon converted to a night-fighting role in an effort to contain the German “blitz.” Within a year, they were flying Bristol Beaufighters equipped with the airborne interception system, the first form of airborne radar. On 19 November 1940, he and radar operator John Phillipson achieved the world’s first operational victory at night with the aid of airborne radar.

He went on to command a squadron of Mosquito night-fighters and, at the age of 26, he was promoted to the rank of group captain. Of 20 enemy aircraft destroyed, Cunningham shot down all but one of them at night. The majority of these victories were achieved while flying with radar operator Jimmy Rawnsley; they were the most successful Allied night-fighter team in the war. As de Havilland’s chief test pilot after the war, he helped develop many new jet fighter aircraft, broke the world’s speed record for a closed course, and established a new altitude record. In July 1949, he also piloted the maiden flight of the de Havilland Comet, the world’s first jet airliner. For his outstanding work with this aircraft, Cunningham was awarded the prestigious Harmon International Trophy for 1955. He retired in 1980 after spending a lifetime in aviation.

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1983 Lithograph

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Early in May 1941, Britain's King George VI visited No. 604 Squadron at its base in southern England. In a brief chat with John Cunningham and his radar operator Jimmy Rawnsley, the King asked them if they could "get another one tonight for me?" While the crews prepared for their mission, King George was taken to the Ground Controlled Intercept (GCI) facility to get a front-row seat for the "command performance." The GCI controller directed Cunningham's Beaufighter, shown in the painting, until it was within range for the airborne radar to "Pick up" the enemy bomber. Taking control three to four miles from the target, Rawnsley gave his pilot directions in heading, altitude, and speed until Cunningham could positively identify and visually bring his guns to bear on the enemy aircraft. King George stepped outside the GCI controller's hut in time to see Cunningham's twelfth victim fall in flames from the night sky.