Past Talks : October 2022

The de Havilland Company”, by Alistair Hodgson

Reviewed by Malcolm Smith

In a return visit to the SOFFAAM talks evenings, Alistair first said he was sorry if he did not cover your favourite DH aircraft. Geoffrey de Havilland was born in 1882 in Oxfordshire. He was an early flying enthusiast and taught himself to fly, gaining Private Pilot’s Licence no. 50. He built his own aircraft in 1909, which climbed to 100 feet before crashing. He was employed as an aircraft designer at Airco, but after the War there was very little demand for aircraft and Airco was taken over by the motorcycle company BSA. de Havilland left to form the eponymous Aircraft Company in September 1920 at Stag Lane aerodrome, Edgware. The newly formed company quickly produced its first design, the DH60 Moth, the name bestowed by Geoffrey, who was a keen lepidopterist. de Havilland’s friend and partner, Frank Halford, was a gifted engine designer and his first engine, the Gypsy, powered the Moth. The aircraft proved hugely successful and the Moth sold in large numbers.

The site at Edgeware soon became too crowded and de Havilland established a new factory at Hatfield, next to the Great North Road, famous for its art deco Headquarters building. The Moth was developed into the hugely successful Tiger Moth, procured by UK and other air forces as a basic trainer. In 1933, an air race from London the Melbourne was announced, for which the prize was £15,000. De Haviland contributed three purpose-built aircraft to the race. These were twin-engined, two seat aircraft, known as the DH88 Comet, and were constructed almost entirely of wood. All three were bought by private owners and one, named “Grosvenor House”, won the race. de Havilland followed up the design with the graceful DH91 Albatross airliner of similar wooden construction.

By 1936, rearmament in the UK was belatedly underway. de Havilland offered a fast twin-engined aircraft, to meet RAF specification P13/36. This used the proven wooden construction to make a relatively light, fast medium bomber design. The Air Ministry showed little interest, but de Havilland persisted and in 1939 commenced detail design of the DH 98. Championed by Air Marshall Wilfred Freeman, this design was accepted, to become the legendary multi-role Mosquito. Eventually, 7000 were delivered, manufactured by a mostly female work force in furniture factories. The Mosquito was followed by a lighter version, the Hornet, with the same Merlin engines as the Mosquito. This was adopted by the FAA as the Sea Hornet, but military piston-engined aircraft were being superseded by jet-powered machines. Frank Halford re-engineered Whittle’s turbojet design to produce de Havilland’s first jet engine, the Goblin, used to power the DH Vampire. This design was quickly followed by the Ghost-engined Venom.

The Sea Venom served as a stopgap for the RN while DH overcame serious design problems in the DH110, which eventually entered service as the Sea Vixen. DH also designed the graceful Comet airliner, with the potential to transform air travel. Test flown by John Cunningham in 1949, the Comet appeared to be hugely successful Sadly, two fatal crashes in 1954, caused by little-understood metal fatigue, resulted in the aircraft being grounded. A pioneering investigation at Farnborough revealed the causes of the crashes and de Havilland insisted that the findings be made public. The Comet was re-designed, but Britain’s lead in air travel was overtaken by American designs. In the 1960s consolidation of the aircraft industry, DH was absorbed into the Hawker Siddeley Group. After a complex history of delays, the DH146 small airliner eventually sold well, while the Trident medium airliner, produced to BEA’s specification, proved too small to compete with the Boeing 727, so that the Trident only sold in limited numbers.

Geoffrey de Havilland was knighted in 1944. He died in 1965, the factory named after him closing in 1994. The Administration block still stands, while the restaurant building is now the Hatfield Police Station. Alistair was instrumental in the conversion of a cellar under the Administration block into a Museum of de Havilland History, aimed at primary school children to encourage interest in Science. He is now the Curator of the museum and says that children love it.