de Havilland Aircraft Company Ltd.: A Brief History
Arguably the most prolific of British aircraft manufacturers, the de Havilland Aircraft Company Ltd is also recognised as one of the most innovative. From one of the most successful families of light aircraft in the inter-war years through to research into guided weapons systems in the 1960s, there are few nations in the world that haven’t been influenced by de Havilland in the field of aeronautics.
The company’s founder, Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, knighted for his services to British Aviation in 1944, was mechanically minded and a keen engineer in his youth. In 1910, Geoffrey constructed and flew his first successful airplane. Due to its merits, this machine was purchased by the War Office for £400 a year later. The money earned was used by de Havilland to obtain Royal Aero Club Certificate No.53.
Employment by the government run H.M. Balloon Factory at Farnborough, Hampshire, as designer/pilot soon followed, along with a number of innovative aircraft built for the military. After three years of inspiring work, the young engineer became Chief Designer with the Aircraft Manufacturing Company Ltd, or Airco in 1914, where he designed some of the most significant warplanes used by the Allies over the next four years. Successful designs included the outstanding D.H.4 light bomber and derivative, the D.H.9, both of which saw widespread use post-war as civilian transports. It was a converted D.H.4 that flew the world’s first scheduled international passenger flight, between Hounslow, England and Le Bourget, France in 1919.
After the end of the war, de Havilland established his own manufacturing firm at Stag Lane, Edgware; by 1921 the de Havilland Aircraft Company Ltd operated its own airplane hire service and flying school. 1921 also saw employment of designer R. E. Bishop, a talented engineer responsible for several generations of fine de Havilland products.
By far the best-known de Havilland machines of the period were the ‘Moth’ family; the first to appear was the D.H.60 in 1925. With the founder of the firm being a keen lepidopterist, a generation of light planes was named after species of moths; by far the most recognized was the D.H.82A Tiger Moth primary trainer. By the end of the 1930s there were few places in the world that had not been overflown by a de Havilland Moth of one type or another.
The DH.60 and its siblings were mostly powered by derivatives of the Gipsy in-line motor, renowned the world over for its reliability. Built by gifted engineer Frank Halford, formerly of the Aircraft Disposal Company (Airdisco), Halford’s work for de Havilland saw him produce one of Britain’s first gas turbine engines, the Halford H.1, renamed the de Havilland Goblin. This engine was the powerplant of Britain’s second jet fighter, the D.H.100 Vampire, and the prototype of the first American jet to see service, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star.
However, when the rest of the world was turning to all metal aircraft structures in the early 1930s, de Havilland’s innovative use of wood gained them respect. The 1934 MacRobertson England-to-Australia air race won acclaim for the American aircraft industry with the entry of two all-metal airliners; Col. Roscoe Turner's Boeing 247 and the KLM Royal Dutch Airlines DC-2 ‘Uiver’. The winner was a purpose built racing plane of wooden construction, the sleek de Havilland D.H.88 Comet 'Grosvenor House'. These impressive machines failed to sell in the commercial sector, but their wooden monocoque construction went into the controversial, but successful, D.H.98 Mosquito fighter-bomber.
Built in complete secrecy in 1940, the Mosquito was a maverick in concept, and the establishment was initially adamant about the machine’s abilities. The ‘high speed unarmed bomber’ concept eventually won supporters and the Mosquito was in demand by all the air commands of the British armed forces. R. E. Bishop’s ‘Wooden Wonder’ was eventually pressed into service carrying out virtually every task expected of aircraft in wartime.
By mid 1943, the high-pitched whine of gas turbine spools winding up was echoing through de Havilland test centers, as by the end of September that year, the Spider Crab jet fighter had flown for the first time. Renamed ‘Vampire’, the introduction of the little machine into service in 1946 meant de Havilland became a major supplier of military equipment to the world. The construction of the Vampire and Venom relied on de Havilland’s continuing use of wooden manufacturing techniques, the forward fuselage ahead of the engine was made of the same materials as those used in the Mosquito.
It was in the airline industry that de Havilland was generating publicity, however. In 1949, the D.H.106 Comet heralded in the jet age as the first jet powered passenger aircraft, thus securing the British industry as world leaders. But disaster struck with a series of crashes of British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) Comet 1s, from which the Comet and the British civil aircraft industry never recovered. The effects of metal fatigue from high pressurization rates in the fuselages of these pioneering airliners were literally blowing them apart. In spite of the negative effect on the company and the industry, the Comet crashes brought new levels of crash investigation and flight safety testing into the aircraft industry.
Behind closed doors, the de Havilland Propellers division was carrying out research into rocketry and guided missiles, which included building the first effective British infra-red, heat seeking, air-to-air missile the Fire Streak. Based on the Convair Atlas ICBM, de Havilland propellers were also responsible for the Blue Streak rocket, Britain’s own nuclear missile. Although cancelled in 1960 as a weapon, the technology went into providing Europe with an unsuccessful indigenous satellite launcher. The Blue Streak, first stage of the Europa rocket, performed flawlessly with every flight and bears the distinction of being the only rocket to have a 100% success rate in test firing.
With a realization that the British airspace industry fielded too many independent companies for its needs, the government instigated a merger of these firms and formed the British Aircraft Corporation and Hawker Siddeley in 1960, the latter incorporating de Havilland. Current de Havilland products came under the Hawker Siddeley banner and the famous ‘DH’ disappeared from the British aircraft manufacturing industry forever.
Due to a worldwide interest in vintage and classic aircraft, the de Havilland name still flies proudly in many countries today. Hosts of better-than-new D.H. Fox, Gipsy, Hornet, Leopard and Tiger Moths are pampered by their owners and can be seen at fly-ins and air events across the globe, evoking nostalgia from when ‘DH’ ruled over the world of aviation.