23 March 1948

John Cunningham with the record-setting de Havilland DH.110 Vampire (BNPS).
John Cunningham with the record-setting de Havilland DH.110 Vampire F.1, TG/278. Note the metal canopy with porthole. (BNPS).

23 March 1948: During a 45-minute flight over Hatfield, Hertfordshire, England, the de Havilland Aircraft Company chief test pilot, Group Captain John Cunningham, DSO, flew a modified DH.100 Vampire F.1 fighter to a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) World Record for Altitude of 18,119 meters (59,445.5 feet) (FAI Record File Number 9844) Cunningham broke the record set ten years earlier by Colonel Mario Pezzi in a Caproni Ca.161 biplane. (See This Day in Aviation, 22 October 1938)

DH.100 Vampire F.1 TG/278 prior to high-altitude modifications. (de Havilland)
DH.100 Vampire F.1 TG/278 prior to high-altitude modifications. (de Havilland)

The de Havilland DH.100 Vampire F.1 flown by Cunningham was the fifth production aircraft, TG/278. It was built by the English Electric Company at Preston, Lancashire, with final assembly at Samlesbury Aerodrome, and made its first flight in August 1945. It was intended as a prototype photo reconnaissance airplane. The cockpit was heated and pressurized for high altitude, and a metal canopy installed.

The photo reconnaissance project was dropped and TG/278 became a test bed for the de Havilland Engine Company Ghost turbojet, which produced 4,500 pounds of thrust. The Vampire could take the Ghost engine to altitudes beyond the reach of the Avro Lancaster/Ghost test bed already in use. The airplane’s wing tips were each extended 4 feet (1.219 meters) to increase lift.

De Havilland DH.100 Vampire F.1 TG/278 before the record flight. (De Havilland)
De Havilland DH.100 Vampire F.1 TG/278 after modifications. (De Havilland)

The aircraft was stripped of paint to reduce weight. Smaller batteries were used and placed in normal ballast locations. At takeoff, the Vampire carried 202 gallons (765 liters) of fuel, 40 gallons less than maximum, sufficient for only one hour of flight. The takeoff weight of TG/278 was 8,400 pounds (3,810 kilograms).

John Cunningham had previously flown TG/278 to a world record 496.876 miles per hour (799.644 kilometers per hour) over a 100 kilometer course at Lympne Airport, 31 August 1947. (FAI record file number 8884)

TG/278 continued as a test aircraft until it was damaged by an engine fire in October 1950. It was used as an instructional airframe at RAF Halton.

De Havilland DH.100 F Mk 1 Vampire TG/278 after high-altitude modifications (Vic Flintham)
De Havilland DH.100 Vampire F.1 TG/278 with high altitude modifications (De Havilland)

A standard Vampire F.1 was 9.370 meters (30 feet, 8.9 inches) long with a wingspan of 12.192 meters (40 feet, 0 inches) and overall height of 2.700 meters (8 feet, 10.3 inches). The fighter had an empty weight of 6,380 pounds (2,894 kilograms) and gross weight of 8,587 pounds (3,895 kilograms). The basic Vampire F.1 was powered by a de havilland Goblin turbojet engine producing 2,700 pounds of thrust. It had a maximum speed of 540 miles per hour (869 kilometers per hour), a service ceiling of 41,000 feet (12,497 meters) and range of 730 miles (1,175 kilometers).

The Vampire F.1 was armed with four 20 mm Hispano autocannon in the nose, with 150 rounds of ammunition per gun.

Group Captain John Cunningham, Royal Air Force. (Daily Mail)
Group Captain John Cunningham, Royal Air Force. (Daily Mail)

Group Captain John Cunningham CBE, DSO and Two Bars, DFC and Bar, AE, was born 1917 and educated at Croydon. In 1935 he became an apprentice at De Havilland’s and also joined the Auxiliary Air Force, where he trained as a pilot. Cunningham was called to active duty in August 1939, just before World War II began.

Promoted to Group Captain in 1944, Cunningham was the highest scoring Royal Air Force night fighter pilot of World War II, credited with shooting down 20 enemy airplanes. He was responsible for the myth that eating carrots would improve night vision.

Following the War, John Cunningham returned to de Havilland as a test pilot. Following the death of Geoffrey Raoul de Havilland, Jr., in 1946, Cunningham became the de Havilland’s chief test pilot. He remained with the firm through a series of mergers, finally retiring in 1980.

Group Captain Cunningham died 21 July 2002 at the age of 84 years.

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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