As a test pilot with the RAF in the second half of the 1950s, Geoffrey Cairns found himself in the middle of an exciting — and dangerous — phase of British fighter aircraft development at the Aeroplane & Armament Experimental Establishment at Boscombe Down, Wiltshire.The RAF had by then left the straight-wing Vampires and Meteors of the postwar period behind it and for its frontline fighters was progressing through the development of its transonic swept-wing types such as the Hawker Hunter, Supermarine Swift and Gloster Javelin en route to the truly supersonic age represented by the awesomely fast English Electric P1 (later to become the Lightning).It was an era of rapid change in which the development of materials used in air frames struggled to keep up with dramatic increases in engine power, as had earlier been starkly demonstrated when a DH110 (later to enter naval service as the Sea Vixen) broke up in the air over the Farnborough air display of 1952 killing its two crew and 30 spectators on the ground. At Boscombe Down Cairns flew many weapons testing trials in the Hunter, the RAF’s outstanding fighter of the transonic period, as well as the Swift and the delta-wing Javelin.Then, at the end of his first year at Boscombe Down, he was appointed project officer for the P1, which, with its twin Rolls-Royce Avon engines delivering more than 32,000lb static thrust — more than three times the power of the Hunter — represented a quantum leap in fighter performance for the RAF.Cairns was soon conducting trials of the aircraft, which proved it to be capable of Mach 2, twice the speed of sound, and of a service ceiling of well over 65,000ft, an experience that, as he himself admitted, had its alarming moments. The P1 was to enter RAF service with the Central Fighter Establishment as the Lightning at the end of December 1959.Cairns was to remain at A&AEE from 1957 to 1960, an unusually long tour. For the range and breadth of his contribution to flight testing at a crucial period of the Cold War when the RAF and Navy were much exercised with keeping pace with Soviet aircraft developments, Cairns was awarded the Air Force Cross at the end of his time at Boscombe Down in 1960.
Geoffrey Crerar Cairns was born in 1926 in Yorkshire and educated at Loretto School, Musselburgh, and the University of Cambridge, where he took a special short wartime course in mathematics.He also joined the University Air Squadron from which it was a short step to an RAF commission. The war had just ended by the time he received his first posting, to 43 Squadron, which was then operating Spitfires from Italy and then Austria. He was subsequently appointed to 73 Squadron, then based in Malta, and he moved with it to Cyprus, where he converted to Vampires. Back in the UK, after a period as a flight commander with 72 Squadron at RAF Odiham he became a flying instructor on Meteors.One of his most enjoyable postings in this early stage of his career was as Adjutant to the Royal Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force between 1953 and 1956. This “mini-air force” operated eight late-mark Spitfires that were finally withdrawn from service in 1955. On that occasion Cairns led the RHKAA’s farewell Spitfire flypast, making sure he touched down last, as the “last man” to fly a service Spitfire.
On his return home he reported to the Empire Test Pilot’s School at Farnborough where his record on the exacting year-long course made him a natural candidate as a test pilot at A&AEE Boscombe Down. During his RAF career he was to spend a total of seven important years in this cradle of RAF aircraft development.His first tour there completed, he converted to helicopters after a spell at the MoD, and was appointed chief instructor on helicopters at the Central Flying School, RAF Turnhill, in 1963. This slotted in perfectly with his return to Boscombe Down as Superintendent of Flying in 1968, when he was involved in several Anglo-French helicopter projects.He also air-tested the V/STOL Harrier, to become famous since that time for its performance both as a fighter and ground attack aircraft in a number of conflicts around the world, and the American Mach 2 McDonnell Douglas Phantom, which was acquired, as a “stop-gap” by both the Royal Navy and the RAF in the 1960s. After a further period at MoD on defence operational requirements, he was appointed CBE in 1970.
Cairns was to return to Boscombe Down for a second time as commandant, 1972-74, again in an era of rapidly evolving test flying.After a further spell, 1974-76, as Assistant Chief of the Air Staff (Operational Requirements) in which he was involved in the debate over whether to evolve a fighter variant of the multinational Panavia Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA, later to become familiar as the Tornado) or opt for one of the proven American air superiority fighters (he himself preferred a US aircraft).Cairns ended his career in what had been the old Coastal Command (by then reconstituted as 18 Group). He was its Chief of Staff, 1978-80, and was elected FRAeS in 1979.In retirement Cairns was an avionics industry consultant and also, from 1982 to 1987, a director of Trago Mills (Aircraft Division). As such he test flew the Trago Mills SAH 1, a light aircraft, which was the brainchild of the retail entrepreneur Mike Robertson who had started his remarkable all-purpose store, Trago Mills, in a shed alongside the A38 near Liskeard in Cornwall, and seen it grow to cover several sites in Devon and Cornwall. Cairns demonstrated the Trago SAH 1 at Farnborough, and he continued flying until 1994. By the end of his career he had flown 118 aircraft types, ranging from light piston-engined aircraft to the four-jet Nimrod maritime reconnaissance aircraft and Mach 2 fighters.