Brian Kenyon Burnett was born on March 10 1913 in Hyderabad, India, where his father was principal of Nizam College. He was educated at Charterhouse School, Heidelberg University and Wadham College, Oxford, gaining a degree in Modern Languages. An outstanding sportsman, he gained a double blue at squash and tennis and also represented the university at hockey. In the 1933 tennis match against Cambridge University, he beat his elder brother Douglas.
After learning to fly with the Oxford University Air Squadron, Burnett joined the RAF in September 1934. On gaining his wings he was posted to No 18 Squadron to fly the biplane Hart bomber – the beginning of a long association with RAF bombers. Following completion of a specialist navigation course, Burnett was selected to join the LRDU in December 1937.
Burnett’s name came to world prominence in 1938, when he was the navigator and second pilot of a Wellesley bomber that completed a record-breaking non-stop flight from Ismailia in Egypt to Darwin in Australia. On October 24 four single-engine Wellesley aircraft of the RAF’s Long Range Development Unit (LRDU) arrived in Ismailia to prepare for the flight. Three were selected for the record attempt, and these included Burnett’s aircraft, whose first pilot was Flight Lieutenant Andrew Combe, with Sergeant Gray as the third pilot and wireless operator. Each took it in turns to fly the aircraft during the epic journey.
The three aircraft took off at dawn on November 5. There were immediate problems as the undercarriage of Burnett’s Wellesley would not retract. For an hour the crew cut a hole in the side of the aircraft through which they thrust the long arm of a fishing net (carried to pass messages between them in the narrow fuselage). After some wiggling, the undercarriage retracted. The route took the aircraft over the Persian Gulf, India and Singapore. Over Timor, one aircraft was forced to land with a shortage of fuel.
The two remaining aircraft arrived at Darwin with 20 gallons of fuel, having completed the non-stop flight of 7,158 miles in just over 48 hours to establish a new world record. The crews were decorated, Burnett being awarded an AFC.
At the outbreak of war, Burnett left for France with the Advanced Air Striking Force, based at Rheims, returning to HQ 4 (Bomber) Group in 1940. Anxious to gain operational experience, he was posted as the flight commander of a Whitley bomber squadron and attacked the docks at Kiel and Hamburg before bombing the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at Brest. Promoted wing commander in May 1941, he took command of No 51 Squadron.
According to one of his crew Burnett soon established a reputation as a “press on type”. On a final bombing run over Hamburg, for example, his Whitley was caught in searchlights and he had to take violent evasive action to escape. Forced to abandon the run, he told his startled crew he was making another attempt. The majority of aircraft had left, and his aircraft attracted the attention of all the searchlights and anti-aircraft fire. He completed the attack and flew his damaged bomber back to base.
After seven months in command, Burnett was awarded a DFC and left for Canada to command an air navigation school. In the early postwar years, tennis continued to feature large in his life. He was captain of the RAF team that beat the Army, played in the Wimbledon Championships and was selected for an England team that toured Germany.
After three years in New York on the staff of the United Nations Military Staff Committee, Burnett returned to the Ministry of Defence on the Joint Planning Staff, helping with the implementation of the Marshall Plan and the establishment of Nato. He found time to win the RAF squash championship for the fifth time and beat his brother in the inter-service championships. In 1950 he and his brother had the rare distinction of being Army and RAF champions in the same season.
In 1951 Burnett returned to the bomber role as the senior air staff officer at No 3 Group, at a time when the RAF’s first jet bomber, the Canberra, was entering service and preparations were being made for the introduction of the V-bombers. In June 1954 he took command of RAF Gaydon as it opened as the RAF’s first V-bomber base .
With his promotion to air commodore and appointment as Director of Bomber Operations at the Air Ministry in June 1956, Burnett’s steady rise to the top continued. He observed the dropping of Britain’s first thermonuclear bomb at Christmas Island and was heavily engaged in the policy aspects of bomber operations during the Suez Crisis.
Senior appointments at HQ Bomber Command and as Air Officer Commanding No 3 Group followed, during which Burnett had the opportunity to fly the Victor bomber. In 1964 he was appointed Vice-Chief of the Air Staff.
During Burnett’s time as VCAS there were many significant new developments in the RAF’s capabilities and tasks, including planning for the introduction of a new generation of combat aircraft. In addition, following Denis Healey’s decision not to replace the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers, Burnett was charged with developing policy to provide land-based air support for the Fleet.
Three years as the Air Secretary responsible for the career planning, promotion and appointments of RAF officers was followed by promotion to Air Chief Marshal and an appointment as Commander-in-Chief Far East in May 1970. Based in Singapore for this tri-Service appointment, Burnett had a huge parish extending from the Beira Patrol off East Africa to Australia and New Zealand.
He arrived just after it was announced that the Wilson government planned to withdraw British Forces from the Far East. While his main task was to implement this, he was ordered to organise a small UK, Australian, and New Zealand (ANZUK) force in conjunction with the Malaysian and Singapore Armed Forces. He was also the British representative at the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) conferences.
As the time for withdrawal approached, the company of Burnett and his wife was in great demand among political and military leaders in the region. Finally, on October 29 1971, he took the salute at the final closure of the Command at a multinational parade and fly-past. Two days later 16 ships of the Far East Fleet steamed past while Fleet Air Arm aircraft flew overhead. In March 1972 Burnett retired from the RAF.
His services were much sought after and, in April 1974, he was appointed chairman of the All England Lawn Tennis Club. A year earlier, 81 players of the Association of Tennis Professionals had boycotted the Wimbledon Championships, and relations between the players and the club were still strained. Burnett’s calm manner and his patient and tactful approach smoothed the way for reconciliation.
He made it clear more than once that he questioned the wisdom of escalating prize money but he, like Wimbledon, was reluctantly forced to go along with the American-led trend. There were times when, with his military background, he found it difficult to accept indiscipline as players increasingly flaunted their new found independence. However, what many players and their representatives regarded as coolness towards them on his part stemmed from a basic shyness, which masked a generosity of spirit and many acts of kindness.
In 1977, when the 17-year-old John McEnroe arrived at Wimbledon for the first time, it was Burnett who tried to steer him in the right direction as umpires repeatedly reported him to the referee’s office for his extravagant outbursts. Burnett was also keen that the Royal Box should be utilised when members of the Royal family were not in attendance. On one occasion there was an IRA scare at the box, with a bomb apparently timed to detonate at 3pm. But a search found nothing, so Burnett remained in situ with some of his guests and, with one minute to go, calmly suggested that they should take off their spectacles to avoid flying glass.
Much was achieved to develop Wimbledon before Burnett finally retired in March 1984 after 10 years’ service as chairman of the Championships Committee. He finally gave up skiing at 80, golf at 88 and tennis at 94. In 2009 he published his memoirs, A Pilot at Wimbledon. An avid bridge player, he played twice a week until he died on September 16, having just returned from a holiday in the south of France.
Burnett was appointed CB (1961), KCB (1965) and GCB (1970). In 1969 he was appointed Grand Officer of the Order of the White Rose of Finland.