Story: Kay, Cyril Eyton

Page 1 - Biography

Kay, Cyril Eyton

1902–1993

Aviator, military leader

This biography was written by Brian Lockstone and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Cyril Eyton Kay was born in Auckland on 25 June 1902 to David Kay, an accountant, and his wife, Mary Butts. He lived as a child in Devonport before moving to Mangere. His first flight with one of the early barnstormers, while at Seddon Memorial Technical College, shaped his determination to be a pilot. He tried farming before attempting to join the air force. Told that only refresher training was available, he worked his passage to Britain and tried to enlist in the Royal Air Force. Given only limited prospects, he turned to the former New Zealand governor general, Lord Jellicoe, against whom he had once won a sailing race. Jellicoe wrote, ‘if Cyril Kay is as good in the air as he is on the sea, he will be an acquisition to the Royal Air Force’. Kay entered the RAF on a five-year short-service commission on 14 July 1926.

Serving on army co-operation squadrons, Kay earned an ‘above average’ pass from the prestigious Central Flying School. He specialised in navigation and meteorology and in 1928 was elected a fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society. In 1929 he flew at the showcase displays at Hendon. Determined to break the England-to-Australia record of 15½ days, he flew a tiny Desoutter monoplane, with a New Zealander, Flying Officer Harold Piper, from Croydon to Darwin in February 1930. Bad weather, mechanical problems and emergency landings turned this into an epic of six weeks and two days.

Kay studied gliding in Germany in 1931 and became an instructor at the flying school in Digby, Lincolnshire. On 21 April 1932, in London, he married Florence Beatrice Winifred Armfield; they were to have two daughters. Kay worked briefly in commercial aviation before entering the 1934 London-to-Melbourne race with another New Zealander, J. D. Hewett. With wireless operator Frank Stewart, they flew a twin-engined de Havilland Dragon Rapide into fifth place. They then flew to New Zealand, completing the first direct flight from England.

Kay then applied to join the Royal New Zealand Air Force. On 8 July 1935 he was accepted with the rank of flying officer, later writing: ‘the offer … was one not perhaps to enthuse over, and yet I accepted readily, for it had long been my ambition to join the Air Force of my country and take some part, however small, in the building of its traditions’. Granted a permanent commission in January 1938, he became chief navigation instructor at Wigram six months later. In May 1939 Kay travelled to Britain to join the New Zealand Flight as a flight commander and navigation leader. It had been formed to ferry 30 Vickers-Armstrongs Wellington I bombers back to New Zealand, but with the outbreak of the Second World War it remained in Britain and became the nucleus of No 75 (New Zealand) Squadron.

Kay led the squadron’s first operational mission, which dropped propaganda leaflets over northern Germany on the night of 27–28 March 1940. He was awarded the DFC for an attack against German units near Baileux in Belgium on 7 June 1940. The London Gazette recorded: ‘Kay has conducted a number of operations in recent weeks and has shown daring, determination and outstanding ability’. Between November 1940 and September 1941 he commanded the squadron on intensive operations against transport and fuel installations in Germany and occupied countries, earning the respect of his crews for his fatherly approach. After headquarters appointments he returned to New Zealand in October 1942 where his operational experience was invaluable. He commanded training establishments at New Plymouth, home of the navigation school (1942–43), Ohakea (1943–44) and Wigram (1944–46). Usually known as Cyrus, the stockily built Kay was described as a superb instructor and a brilliant and daring pilot.

After the war he attended the Imperial Defence College, then joined the Air Board as air member for supply and was promoted to the rank of air commodore in 1947. He had a major role in determining the shape of the post-war RNZAF and in the introduction of jet aircraft in 1951–52. After a posting to London, where he became air officer commanding at the RNZAF London Headquarters in 1951, he returned to become air member for personnel in 1953. In May 1956 Kay led a goodwill mission to the United States. On 5 June he was promoted to air vice marshal, and appointed chief of the air staff and air officer commanding. The 1957 Review of Defence Policy, which disbanded the territorial squadrons and ended the involvement of the air force in compulsory military training, was his last major policy contribution before retirement on 30 June 1958.

Reserved and deliberate, Kay was not without critics for his cautious leadership. His autobiography, The restless sky , appeared in 1964. He played golf and in retirement lived in Wellington and Britain. He died in London on 29 April 1993, survived by his wife.