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Aces of Aviation

De Havilland Mosquito NF Mark XVII of John Cunningham

De Havilland Mosquito NF Mark XVII of John Cunningham

De Havilland Mosquito NF Mark XVII from the 85th Squadron of the RAF, piloted by Wing Commander John Cunningham, in February 1944.

Wingspan: 16.51 meters.

Length: 12.55 meters.

Height: 4.65 meters.

Engine[s]: Two Rolls-Royce Merlin of 1635 horsepower.

Maximum speed: 608 kilometers/hour.

Service ceiling: 8535 meters.

Range: 1600 kilometers.

Armament: Four Hispano 20-millimeter cannons.

John Cunningham has been always associated with the airplanes produced by the De Havilland Aircraft Company in Hatfield, Hertfordshire. He was a Test Pilot of this company before the Second World War and a member of the 604th Squadron of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, which was based in Middlesex County and equipped with Hawker Demon biplanes. When called to service at the outreak of the war his squadron had been re-equipped with Bristol Blenheim light bombers, and he flew with C. F. Rawnsley as gunner.

After taking part in some diurnal skirmishes, the 604th Squadron was assigned to nocturnal service during the Battle of Britain, and by the winter of 1940-41 Cunningham was a night pilot of Bristol Beaufighter. Still teamed up with Rawnsley, who by then had become an expert radar operator, Cunningham continued piloting the Beaufighter until the summer of 1942, having achieved by then the command of the squadron. He had destroyed sixteen enemy bombers, of which all except two were Heinkel He 111, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Distinguished Service Order, this latter two times.

After a period of calm in the operations, while he was Commander of the Training Wing in the headquarters of the 81th Group, in January 1943 Cunningham was entrusted the command of the 85th Squadron based in Hunsdon, Norfolk, where he piloted the night fighter version of the De Havilland Mosquito II. During 1943 successive versions of the Mosquito appeared, including the Mark XII and Mark XV, an in November of that year the 85th Squadron received the first NF Mark XVII, which was equipped with the AI Mark X centimeter-wave radar.

This combination of aircraft and radar was expected to perform better than that of the Mosquito Mark XII and the AI Mark VIII, but despite trying it Cunningham could not claim any confirmed victory when flying with the new equipment. The 2nd January 1944 he achieved a victory against a Messerschmitt Me 410, but he was flying on a Mosquito Mark XII. However, the 20th February, while flying from West Malling, in Kent, onboard the Mosquito NF Mark XVII depicted in the illustration, Cunningham managed to shoot down a Junkers Ju 188, however without help from the radar, as this one had suffered a breakdown.

Shortly after that, Cunningham was promoted to the rank of Group Captain and sent to the headquarters of the 11th Group, not returning to the front during all the remaining time of the war. Later he returned to the De Havilland Aircraft Company, where he became Chief Test Pilot and earned prestige for his work in the development of the De Havilland Comet, the first turbojet airliner. In recognition of his military and civil contribution, in 1963 Cunningham was appointed Commander of the British Empire.

The following photograph shows the cockpit of a Mosquito aircraft fitted with the AI Mark VII interception radar. This device was replaced in November 1943 when the 85th Squadron was re-equipped with the Mosquito NF Mark XVII, which was fitted with the AI Mark X. Unlike the contemporary German aircraft-borne radars, this device used a parabolic antenna which housed in the nose of the aircraft did not hinder its top speed.

Cockpit of a Mosquito aircraft with onboard radar