Air Marshal Sir John Sutton, who has died aged 82, was a Cold War fighter pilot and later held
a series of senior appointments at the Ministry of Defence.
Shortly before his 45th birthday in 1977, Sutton was promoted to air vice-marshal to become Assistant
Chief of the Air Staff (Policy) , responsible for the future size and shape of the RAF. He arranged to
move a small team, whose task was to review long-term plans and potential capability gaps, into his
When, a few months later, his team proposed a package of radical initiatives such as self-defence
aids for attack aircraft, in-flight refueling for some transport aircraft and anti-ship missiles
for the anti-submarine force of Nimrods, MoD procurement staff claimed it was too expensive and
that trials would take three years. In 1982, as the aircraft were deployed to the Falklands, all
the proposals were implemented in 10 days.
John Matthias Dobson Sutton was born on July 9 1932 at Alford, Lincolnshire, where he attended
the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School. After a year as a police cadet he was called up for National
Service in the RAF. He trained as a pilot, and within two years was flying Meteor day fighters
from Leuchars in Fife. He decided to make the RAF his career and spent the next few years flying
Hunter fighters in Germany and the UK. Assessed as above average, he joined the staff of the Day
Fighter Combat School, teaching advanced fighter tactics and leadership to potential squadron and
In 1964 he took command of No 249 Squadron, stationed at Akrotiri in Cyprus, where he developed
a series of trials designed to change the tactics of the four Canberra squadrons based there by
training their crews in ground attack, using rockets and bombs released from low level.
The RAFs Canberra squadrons reinforced those of the Far East Air Force during the Indonesian
Confrontation and, in 1965, No 249 left for a jungle airstrip at Kuantan on the Malaysian
mainland. There, for three months, Sutton and his crews provided a deterrent force and flew
operations over Borneo.
After two years, Sutton left for the first of his tours at the MoD when he was appointed to
the Secretariat of the Chiefs of Staff Committee.
In 1970 he assumed command of No 14 Squadron, the first RAF Phantom squadron to be based in
Germany, and on June 1 that year he flew the first aircraft into Bruggen, the RAFs largest
operational airfield in West Germany. His time on the Phantom was cut short when he was
promoted to group captain and left for the 2nd Tactical Air Force HQ at Rheindahlen, where
he was responsible for operational plans.
Sutton returned to the MoD as personal briefing officer to the Chief of Defence Staff,
Field Marshal (later Lord) Carver. On promotion to air commodore, he became Commandant
of the Central Flying School [*see below], where he also had responsibility for the Red Arrows,
giving him the opportunity to fly with the aerobatic team.
After his policy appointment at the MoD, in 1980 he returned to RAF Germany as
Deputy Commander, responsible for four large RAF stations and 15 operational squadrons.
He flew the combat aircraft himself, and mixed with the air and ground crews, giving his
men the confidence that their chief understood their business and the pressures they
faced. By the late summer of 1982, however, he was back at the ministry as Assistant
Chief of the Defence Staff (Commitments), responsible for all operational activities
involving more than one service.
While Nato's area was relatively stable, there was considerable activity in the South
Atlantic: in the aftermath of the Falklands conflict, it was necessary to decide on
permanent force levels on the island and a new strategic airfield. Other important
matters included disturbances in Lebanon, and sensitive issues in Belize. After 18
months it was recognised that Sutton's responsibilities were too broad, so a second
two-star officer took on responsibility for home defence and Nato, leaving Sutton
free to concentrate on everything else.
Suttons final appointment in the RAF was as Commander-in-Chief of Support Command,
with responsibility for all flying and ground training units and specialist professional
He was appointed CB in 1981 and KCB in 1986.
In 1990, a year after his retirement, Sutton was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Jersey.
He expected his duties to be mainly representational, but he was soon involved in a
controversy surrounding the removal (orchestrated by Whitehall) of the bailiwicks Deputy
Bailiff, which attracted critical local press coverage, leading to Suttons being booed
and heckled in the streets. Once the full story of the affair was made public, however,
he won praise for his handling of a delicate situation and received a letter of thanks
from the Home Office.
After five years he settled in Rutland, and chaired the governing body of Northampton
University . In 2002 he was appointed president of the Royal Air Force Association.
John Sutton's marriage in 1954 to Cherry Woodward was dissolved. He married secondly,
in 1969, Angela Gray, who survives him with their son and a son and daughter of his
first marriage. His youngest son, Mark, parachuted into the London Olympic Arena at
the climax of the official opening of the games by the Queen in 2012. He died in a
parachuting accident a year later.
[Web Master writes: "It is not generally known that Sir John was the only Commandant
of Central Flying School who had never been a Qualified Flying Instructor. Some
senior officers in the RAF at the time, wanted to save money by disbanding the Central
Flying School. They needed someone to give them an assessment of its value who was
not "biased" by having been a QFI himself. After a year he wrote to the MoD
that they didn't realise what a gem they had in CFS and not to touch it. I know this
as I was his OC Examining Wing at the time."]
Wg Cdr Barry Dove said:
"The photo was taken at EL Adem in 1965 where 249 Sqn (the RAF's only Marker Sqn) were trialing
the Swedish Lepus flare to replace the 4.5 inch WW2 flare in use at the time on the Canberra B16."