Vintage Aircraft: Outline of de Havilland's Dragon

Following on from the Tiger Moth feature which included only a snippet of the amazing backstory of aviation pioneer Geoffrey de Haviland, the ideas for more aircraft to write about were frankly too numerous to count. Fortunately, we had another of de Havilland’s master plan(e)s available at TASC Vintage: the majestic Dragon Rapide!

AvBuyer  |  13th January 2022
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    De Havilland Dragon Rapide taking off

    Designed as an updated and, most notably, faster version of de Havilland’s commercial aircraft the DH.84 'Dragon Moth’ (which following testing was simply called the ‘Dragon’) de Havilland succeeded to develop the ‘Rapide’ almost as quick as the name suggested. Here's the story of that plane...

    From the winter of 1932 when the ‘Dragon’ first flew, de Havilland kept the pressure on his production team who turned out just over 200 aircraft. But he needed more from the aircraft to suit the growing interest in short-haul passenger carriage. And, as ever, de Havilland was all over it!

    Keeping to the well-proven design, he stuck with a plywood and fabric construction but changed to tapered wings in order to reduce drag. To be fair, it needed all the help it could get given there were four large wings, large wing struts, and their respective bracing wires, all competing with the designer’s aerodynamic ambitions — but literally holding it back from a drag point of view. 

    However, nothing would slow de Havilland down! His team streamlined everything they could and incorporated concepts from the DH.86 Express, included ideas of blending the engine fairings toward the undercarriage and wheels. A pair of smart-looking (aerodynamic) ‘trousers’, some said.

    And it worked; not only was it a truly majestic looking aircraft (and from the Tiger Moth issue, we all know he liked a thing to “look right”), but he had indeed added a good portion of ‘Rapide’ to the Dragon. For the just sub-110 mph cruise was now nicely over 130 mph! The range was also up from 460 miles to nearly 600! And the gross weight got a boost too; from the Dragon’s 4,200-lb limit to the Rapide’s 5,500-lb takeoff weight.

    The prototype was called the DH.89 ‘Dragon Six’ (named so due to the engine upgrade from the 4- cylinder ‘Gypsy Major’ to the 6-cylinder ‘Gypsy Six’). The test aircraft first flew on 17th April 1934 from Hatfield Aerodrome following de Havilland’s essential move from Stag Lane.

    Dragon’s Den

    During a period that Stag Lane was under increasing pressure from housing development (the same pressure so many airfields have fallen victim to since), Geoffrey de Havilland did what he always did; he got on with the job.

    In 1930 he bought some farmland near Hatfield, prepared a strip, and got flying. By 1933 it was fully operational and known by the name ‘Hatfield Aerodrome’. Substantial development followed in 1934 and aircraft production moved over in the same year. Not long after, the Dragon Six was airborne.

    de Havilland’s move caused a long-term chain reaction for Hatfield Aerodrome which continued to develop well into the jet era with state-of-the-art facilities being built, including multiple R&D sites, test facilities, and a windtunnel! The aerodrome eventually closed in 1994 but, even then, it made a name for itself as the film set for Saving Private Ryan and the television series Band of Brothers.

    The Original ‘Air-Bus’

    Prior to the outbreak of WWII, 205 Rapides had been manufactured by de Havilland for airlines and various other private owners around the world. Indeed, it was considered by many as the most successful British built short-haul aircraft of the 30s and is said to it has been operated in almost every country in the world.

    The first operator was Hillman’s Airways (already an operator of several DH aircraft including the Dragon). Hillman’s was a coach company from Essex, literally with the intention to use aircraft as a bus in the air (Hillman’s was later merged with Spartan Air Lines and United Airways to form British Airways).

    From Hillman’s base at Stapleford, you could proudly depart in their ‘Dragon Rapide’ (name update from the Dragon Six), or just ‘Rapide’ for short, bound for Paris for £4.00 (return) to arrive in comfort around three and half hours later (2 hrs airborne, plus the included coach service each end).

    The cabin was designed to take 6 to 8 passengers (+ 1 pilot) and for its time, really looked the part. Remember, this wasn’t the era of plastic preform interior panels. This was still wood and fabric, the seats had no fold-down tray tables and unlike today, there were no meals or drinks served, which is a good job, as there was no toilet! And the emergency exit was a hatch in the roof, opened by taking hold of a small handle and pulling it around in a circle — the handle was attached to a blade which cut a hole in the fabric. Et voila, an exit!

    Small improvements continued to benefit the Rapide’s form; in 1937 flaps were added to production aircraft (from then on, the aircraft was designated as the DH.89A) and many earlier models had the flaps retrofitted. Meanwhile, a few thousand miles away over at de Havilland Canada, they had them on floats!

    As a side note, and just because it’s just too much of an interesting fact not to mention; in July 1936, pilot Cecil Bebb flew Spanish nationalist General Francisco Franco from the Canary Islands to Morocco (a Spanish territory). A Spanish uprising was about to take hold and the arrival of Franco marked the opening move that started the Spanish Civil War. 

    Not that de Havilland had anything to do with it, but the ripples through history amaze me. This relatively little aircraft (by today’s airliner standards) was anything but little in the history books.

    The Master

    During 1938, nine Rapides were purchased in response to a need for military navigational training as WWII approached. More orders followed and as WWII erupted the RAF adopted all pending and ongoing orders with de Havilland. The RAF version was called the ‘Dominie’ (from the Latin 'Domine', originally understood to mean 'Master' but in the language of the 1930s had evolved to mean ‘Teacher’). 

    The RAF continued to use the aircraft for navigational training (aka their ‘Teacher’), as well as in multiple comms roles, military transport and during 1940 in the Battle of France; as an aerial courier (during which 10 of 24 aircraft were lost in conflict).

    Due to substantial pressure being put on de Havilland to roll out its ‘wooden wonder’, the mighty ‘Mosquito’, the production was moved from Hatfield to Brush Coachworks in Loughborough.

    In total, 728 Rapides were built, some 500 of which were Dominies.

    For King and Country

    The first member of the British Royal Family to ever become a qualified pilot was Edward, Prince of Wales. He departed Hendon on 8th June 1935 in his very own Dragon Rapide, which he flew regularly. The Prince became King Edward VIII on 20th January 1936 and flew himself to London (in his Rapide) to take the throne!

    Production eventually ended in July 1946 and, as ever, the Rapide was like so many aircraft from de Havilland; he had paid attention and listened to the needs of his customers (and indeed his country!). He always pushed the envelope. He even tried for an extra rapid Rapide which had

    retractable undercarriage, a greater wingspan and an increased take-off weight. But the one thing the extras didn’t add was speed. It didn’t go any faster.

    Post war, the Rapide (many of which were converted back from Dominies to civil aircraft) were taken on swiftly by several well-known airlines who collectively operated the aircraft throughout the world. London to Cape Town was a mere 10-day flight (hopefully with one or two comfort stops along the way!). And R&D at Hatfield stayed busy with the birth of the DH.104 Dove. 

    The Rapide was essentially superseded by this very different looking aircraft. The Dove was another de Havilland success story, but for me the majestic Dragon had that something extra special about it. Some classics just can’t be beaten!

    Our picture aircraft is a beautiful 1944 built ‘Dominie’. The aircraft was delivered to the Royal Air Force, Halton Station Flight as NR750 in January 1945 and was coded ‘THA-F’. Following retirement from military service in 1947, the aircraft was sold to A Hamson & Son which registered the aircraft as a civilian DH-89A ‘Rapide’. 

    Not long after it was sold to Manx Air Charters Ltd (which later changed to Manx Airlines) on the Isle of Man. From there it changed hands several times with various domestic airlines and operators. It also did a stint in Norway between 1971 and 1973, and in 1974 (back in the UK) even made a TV appearance in ‘South Riding’ (dressed in costume as G-ADAE), which scored 8.5 on IMDB by the way!

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