Australian Flight Test History
Air Commodore Derek Randal ("Jell") Cuming OBE AFC and Bar
Born 12 February 1917, Jell Cuming entered Melbourne University in 1938, commencing a degree course in Mechanical Engineering. At the end of his first year he learned of a vacation offer by the Royal Victorian Aeroclub - for the deposit of One Pound, the Club would provide an hour of flight familiarisation in a Moth aircraft, and he would be considered for inclusion among six finalists to be subsequently assessed by the then CFI at Point Cook, one George Jones who later became Chief of the Air Staff, RAAF.
Jell not only made the six finalists, but was selected as the most promising by George Jones. This earned Jell the sum of one hundred pounds, which he proceeded to spend on further Moth flights, acquiring some 25 hours.
Out of funds, the prospects for further flying were bleak until one of his University contemporaries suggested he apply to join the Citizen Air Force. He did, and along with two other Air Cadets, he joined No 21 Squadron at Laverton, Victoria, on Boxing Day, 1938.
21 Squadron had only one QFI and since Jell had the princely total of about 25 hours, the QFI concentrated totally on the two ab-initio pilots-to-be, sending Jell off to practice various sequences. This lasted until September 1939 when they were posted to 1 Flying Training School, Point Cook.
The outbreak of WW II interrupted normal training and brief periods were spent at Newcastle Aero Club and RAAF Richmond, before returning to Point Cook to graduate in March 1940. Although his enlistment arrangement made provision for him to complete his degree course in the event of war being declared, Jell chose not to take this option and he continued with the RAAF.
The next three years were spent on operations in the Pacific before he returned to Laverton (No 1 Aircraft Depot and the forerunner of ARDU: No 1 Aircraft Performance Unit). Here his engineering aptitude was put to good use in flying and evaluating captured Japanese aircraft. During this time he showed the rare ability to talk with people on a person to person basis, regardless of rank difference, and he became renowned for trouble shooting and problem solving for RAAF aircraft. Whilst at 1 Aircraft Performance Unit he flew a great many experimental and exploratory flights. One notable example was his evaluation of the feasibility of using a Mk 8 Spitfire to tow three 8-man gliders for covert insertion. In 1944, he was awarded the Air Force Cross.
In 1945, he completed No 3 course, Empire Test Pilots School at Farnborough, UK, winning the McKenna Trophy as dux of the course.
He returned to Point Cook to join the Aircraft Research and Development Unit (ARDU) and remained with that unit when it moved to Laverton in October 1948. In the previous month, Jell transferred from General Duties/ Pilot Branch to the Technical Branch of the RAAF. His continuing experimental flying included the evaluation of the ARL-designed "Suction Wing" glider. This aircraft had a wing with a "tadpole" cross-section with slots and manifolds for a suction system to control the boundary layer. A side-valve V8 engine drove the suction pump. He discovered that when the V8 failed the aircraft had the gliding angle of a broken brick.
In early 1950 he was awarded a Bar to his AFC and he spent the remainder of that year in UK completing the RAF Staff College course. At this stage, he had flown nearly 4,000 hours in command on 62 different types of aircraft.
A further period followed at ARDU until mid-1954 when he commenced a series of staff appointments.
This last period at ARDU included organising and supervising difficult instructional courses in the basics of test flying for other pilots at the unit, managing exploratory flight test programs, and mounting and managing Australia's entry in the London to Christchurch Air Race, in which he flew one of the two RAAF Canberras, and for which he was awarded the OBE.
This period also saw this tale become set in concrete - Jell was returning to Laverton late one afternoon in his own car and wearing civilian clothes and was duly stopped at the guard gate. As the airman on guard duty approached, Jell identified himself with the words " Wing Commander Cuming ". The airman guard responded with " Thanks mate, I'll keep an eye out for the bastard!”
It was also during this period that Jell's reputation spread well beyond the boundaries of Laverton and he became something of a legendary figure, with his name recognised throughout the RAAF and his expertise accepted widely.
His relationship with his pilots, however, was something very special. Air Commodore V.J.Hill (Retd), an ETPS graduate who worked for Jell for some years, expressed the situation succinctly when, on being told of Jell's departure, wrote:
"Of his private circumstances I can't recall knowing anything. But as to his professional life during and after my time at ARDU, I held him in a mixture of awe and affection. We probably all did: awe at his empathy with aircraft of any type, at his papal infallibility in R&D matters, at his brilliant mind; and affection for the way he imbued in us a feeling for belonging to his special clan of pilots with responsibilities, skills and privileges. And so often he stood between us (me for sure) and the likely consequences of our follies. A sort of wise and kindly uncle with a proprietary interest in those for whom he held some hope."
Former Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal J.W.Newham (Retd), offered these words (in part) when advised of Jell's departure:
"Then GpCapt Cuming was CO of 481 Maintenance Squadron at Williamtown in the mid 1960s during my two postings at the base. Over that period, I got to know him well, and to like him for the good reason that he was a genial and honest character, also a thorough professional both as a pilot and the senior engineer on the base.
In the early 1970s, AIRCDRE Cuming was Senior Engineering Staff Officer at Headquarters Support Command; I was briefly CO ARDU then OC RAAF Laverton. The same easy close working relationship was established, with me receiving the best of the arrangement. Jell was as ever essentially practical and straightforward; one could confidently rely on good advice; he never let me down nor imposed rigid rules on my task in either job. It was an honour to have met and worked with a great RAAF officer."
Jell's down-to-earth approach provided a valuable input into the Australian contribution towards solving the structural problems of the F-111 in the late 1960s. During that period, Harry Walton recalled:
"Jell came to Washington when we were there in 1968. I always remember his comment when we were both walking down the street and an airliner flew overhead en route to Andrews or nearby. We both looked up and he commented that he could recognise an aviator because they always looked up at a passing aircraft no matter how many times they had seen it before. I also remember the day he flew the F111 for the first time at Fort Worth. I believe it was an A model, and he commented on the surprise of the pilot he flew with to his request to fly it upside down."
Jell retired from the RAAF in February Air Commodore Derek Randal ("Jell") Cuming OBE AFC and Bar1975.
During his retirement, he became a gliding enthusiast, owning his own aircraft and competing at National level regularly at Waikerie and Narromine. His ability to fly with incredible precision for extended periods enabled him to make his mark on these events into his 80s. (On a personal note, I only flew with him once, in 1963, as safety pilot in a dual Vampire while he practiced instrument flying. During a steep turn, I had the temerity to lean across and tap the altimeter - it appeared to be stuck. His voice on the intercom said something like "do you have a problem?". The altimeter was quite serviceable.)
He was a long time member of the Flight Test Society of Australia, and although he noted more than once, "I finished my test flying before telemetry was even thought of", he nevertheless was a regular attendee at the Society Annual Symposium and was comfortable in the company of pilots much younger than himself. To borrow further from Air Marshal Newham: "In his puckish way, he would turn the conversation to serious matters mostly involving flying and seek views, then proffer another point of view, most instructive in its content and clarity. This was his way of engendering a spirit of inquiry and deeper consideration of all sorts of issues, in short, a warning about the dangers of slavishly accepting the status quo or the obvious."
Many of us knew him personally and are familiar with the anecdotes that abounded about his exceptional ability as a pilot, test pilot and character. This had us holding him in a sort of universal regard, which was never challenged in the places where these things are best discussed.
We have not had many legends in Australian aviation. On 20 December 2001, we lost one.
Flight Test Society of Australia
18 January 2002