Sir Geoffrey de Havilland
Strange though it may seem, Geoffrey de Havilland’s actual birthplace was only confirmed with certainty in 1999 when detective work by an inquisitive member of the Moth Club decided that the identity of the site should be established once and for all. The only published references were to ‘a village near High Wycombe’ but by diligent research and with help from County Records, David Scott established to his own satisfaction that a house known as Terriers’ Green House, Hazlemere, just north of High Wycombe, was the spot. A copy of Geoffrey de Havilland’s birth certificate located during the search named his birthplace as Magdala House, a name associated with the Abyssinian Wars, and a good example of Victorian taste.
The difficulty was to prove that Magdala House and Terriers’ Green House were one and the same. The house owner in 1999, Mr Alan Oldham, one of the country’s leading exponents of the anything but gentle game of croquet, was convinced the two names did not refer to the same place, and the search went off in another direction. However, more detective work seemed to indicate that Terriers’ Green House really was the target and David Scott prevailed upon Alan Oldham to examine any old deeds or documents in his possession. In an ‘Assent of Will’, a document relating to the sale of the property in 1917, were found in tiny script the magic words: ‘formerly known as Magdala House’.
The result was recognition of the site by the Wycombe District Council, the unveiling of a plaque on 27 July 2000, a flypast by 20 de Havilland aeroplanes, and the naming of a road on a newly built housing estate within 200 yards as ‘de Havilland Drive’. The wording on the plaque says simply and succinctly: ‘Aircraft Designer and Pioneer Aviator, Geoffrey de Havilland, born here 1882’.
Geoffrey’s father Charles, a graduate of Oxford University, was the curate of a local church. His older brother by three years, Ivon, was born at the family’s previous home at Wooburn, another village in the Chilterns, which often had been misidentified as the birthplace for GDH also.
In 1883 the de Havilland family moved to Nuneaton where Reverend Charles de Havilland became the second vicar of St Mary’s Abbey Church. The family lived in Midland House, Midland Road, whilst a vicarage was built alongside the church. This was described as a medieval style stone house set in three acres, designed by Mr Clapton Rolfe, and was completed in 1886 at a cost of £2,180 2s 9d. At about the same time, the vicar raised funds to build a Parish Room attached to the church. The sum realised covered the building at £160, school furniture supplied by Mr W. Green at £21 17s 6¾d, and what was described as ‘gas furniture’ provided by Mr C. Parsons at £2 7s 6d. In later life GDH and Ivon constructed an elaborate model railway layout in the Parish Room using steam locomotives they had built themselves.
At the Vicarage Ivon and Geoffrey were to be joined later by sisters Ione and Gladys, and another brother, Hereward. Mrs de Havilland, nee Alice Saunders, came from farming stock in Oxfordshire, and the guidance of her father, Jason Saunders, and his home at Medley Manor, was to have a profound effect on young Geoffrey from an early age.
The family always appeared to be short of money but were expected to support a household staff and two gardeners. Jason Saunders assisted with financial support on a regular basis during the 15 years that the de Havillands lived in Nuneaton.
Following home tutoring by a governess, young GDH was sent to a Dame School in the town and, from 1891, was a day pupil at King Edward VI Grammar School. The headmaster’s name was Samuel and GDH admitted that he hated the man whom he had never seen smile, let alone laugh. He endured the school for three years until 1894 when, at the age of 12, he was sent as a boarder to Oakfield Preparatory School, Rugby. Here he appears to have enjoyed some success as a slow bowler, before joining St Edwards School, Oxford, which he also disliked and described life as ‘suffering under a hard and unapproachable Warden who gave the whole place an unsatisfactory tone’.
“I never cared for St Edwards,” he wrote, “although I could at least, by breaking bounds, walk across Port Meadow to beloved Medley. During all my school years Medley meant more to me than any other place, and my grandfather remained the most important figure in my life. Medley provided me with almost all my early delights in natural history.”
During one summer holiday in Nuneaton, GDH flung a model parachute from an upper window of the vicarage and was astonished to see it caught in an air current and instead of a steady descent to earth watched with fascination as it was swept upwards to disappear over the stables. On another occasion, and from the same upper window, he and Ivon watched a balloon rise up, launched to the sound of a brass band from a local fairground.
“Fascinated, we watched it until it finally disappeared in the far distance and at a great height. Neither Ivon nor I ever forgot that balloon, and even when our time and interest were absorbed by the motor car and our plans to build one ourselves, we would talk about flying and the practicability of man one day conquering the air.”
The family assumption was that Geoffrey would enter the church, and in 1899 he left St Edwards School and was sent to live in a rectory near Gloucester where the parson coached boys. But his inclinations were more towards mechanical engineering and the design of motor cars. In Gloucester, the owners of a bicycle shop had purchased two 3.5hp Benz cars which could be hired with a driver and GDH and a friend saved the money to fund a trip to Newbury.
“It was an epic trip, sustaining speeds on level stretches at anything up to 15 mph,” he recorded. “After that short drive I knew that my future life lay in the world of mechanical travel. The fascination of independently powered and swift transportation from place to place had gained a hold which was never to relax through all my working life.”
Faced with daily worries over money, care of her children and the multitude of duties expected of a parson’s wife, Alice de Havilland began to suffer increasing attacks of exhaustion and depression. As a result, Jason Saunders bought Charles an advowson in the hamlet of Crux Easton, south of Newbury in Hampshire, so that his daughter could again enjoy the delights of country life. Crux Easton consisted of a rectory, village school, church, farmhouse and less than a dozen scattered cottages. The rectory was a Georgian stone building with ten bedrooms, one bathroom, septic tank drainage and pumped water. In 1896, before the family moved in, Geoffrey and Ivon at the ages of 14 and 17 respectively, took lodgings at a local farmhouse and, financed by their grandfather, installed a complete electrical system, powered by a steam driven dynamo.
Persuaded by the two older boys, Rev Charles de Havilland was encouraged to buy a motor car, and a second hand Panhard-Levasseur was delivered from London, but before it had reached the Rectory, due in part to its high centre of gravity, it turned over on a grass verge and was immediately carted off for repairs by a local coachbuilder. It was a difficult car to maintain and to drive, and soon was the subject of constant attention and experimental work undertaken by the de Havilland brothers which included lengthening the chassis to create greater stability and replacing tube ignition with electrics.
Charles de Havilland could not cope with the beast and the Panhard was sold in favour of a pony and trap. GDH and Ivon decided to build their own steam powered racing car including the three-cylinder engine, and fitted out the stable as an engineering workshop. Ivon even found a backer to provide finance on the understanding that the car might really be quite revolutionary, but well before it was finished the money ran out and the project was abandoned. It was a salutary lesson in the funding of prototypes that was not lost on GDH in later life.
In 1900, while Ivon went off to work in Rugby and later Loughborough, Oxford and London, pursuing a meteoric career in electrical and motor engineering, Geoffrey enrolled at the Crystal Palace Engineering School where he described the methods employed in the machine and fitting shops to be archaic even for those days. He spent a voluntary extra term in the machine shop building a motorcycle engine from plans published in a magazine, ‘The English Mechanic’. The frame was built at a local shop whose owner specialised in bicycle and shoe repairs, and GDH assembled it all at Crux Easton where it was tested, crashed and modified. GDH’s serious collision with the wall of the churchyard in which he was badly hurt almost ended the story before it had begun. The motorcycle was regularly used for journeys between Crux Easton and Crystal Palace and breakdowns merely served to provide additional knowledge.
After three years at the School which he thoroughly enjoyed, GDH was employed as a student apprentice at the Rugby works of Willans and Robinson, manufacturers of high precision steam engines, and later gas engines and steam turbines. In his digs in the evenings, he designed his own 450cc motorcycle engine. This was mated to a frame he also designed and which was built for him by the Superintendent of the Electrical Section at the Crystal Palace School, whose hobby-interest was cycling. The machine included a number of novel features and was very successful. Later it was taken over by younger brother Hereward but its eventual fate has never been established. At a time when he was short of funds, GDH sold the engine drawings and patterns to two fellow students who later used them as the basis for their own very successful business which became the Blackburne Engine Company.
In 1904 Geoffrey joined the drawing office of the Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Company at Adderley Park, Birmingham, as a draughtsman, but a year later he was restive and decided to leave to work on his own, but without any idea of what to do. Ivon had been ill and after a long convalescence at Crux Easton joined the Daimler Motor Company and then Legros and Knowles where he designed the Iris car. The display of the Iris at the 1905 Motor Show at Olympia co-incided with GDH’s leaving Wolseley, and the two brothers planned to work on the stand together, but Ivon was taken ill again and a few days later he died. For GDH the loss was overwhelming, but he had to carry on.
Disappointed with his experiences in the motor industry, he was seized with an ambition to build an aeroplane and an engine to power it. In the meantime he found a job in London with the Motor Omnibus Construction Company at Walthamstow, working on the design of buses, and it was not until 1908 at the age of 26, the year in which Wilbur Wright demonstrated his flying machine in France, that he decided to progress his aviation interest. He approached his grandfather, the dependable Jason Saunders, over the prospect of a loan, but instead was told he had been willed £1,000 which he might as well have there and then, but there would be nothing later.
Geoffrey recruited a young Cornish mining engineer then employed at the Dalton Bus Garage, Frank Hearle, and together they moved into a flat in Kensington with GDH’s sister Ione acting as housekeeper. An office was set up sharing an estate agents’ premises in Bedford Court Mansions, and a workshop was organised in a shed in Bothwell Street, Fulham. The rent on the workshop was £1 per week and it was fully equipped as an aeroplane factory for £20.
GDH designed what would be described as a flat four engine and it was manufactured for him by the Iris Car Company of Willesden for £220, complete. Whilst work on design and construction of the airframe was under way, in May 1909 GDH married Louie Thomas, one time governess to his younger siblings and companion to his mother at Crux Easton, and his new wife was immediately drawn into the project, visiting the workshop in Bothwell Street to sew fabric and make tea. A young lad was recruited for general errands, and early visitors included Mr A. V. Roe who had managed to hop his Triplane, and who invited the de Havilland team to his flying field at Lea Marshes.
Near Crux Easton, a field on Lord Carnarvon’s estate at Beacon Hill, Seven Barrows, had recently been used as a testing ground for a flying machine owned by Mr Moore-Brabazon, later Lord Brabazon of Tara. Thorndown Field was adequate and substantial sheds were empty and inviting, and eventually were purchased by GDH for £150. The timing, proximity and availability were just some of those happy co-incidences that occur in life. In November 1909, the first de Havilland aeroplane was loaded onto a lorry at Fulham and taken to Seven Barrows where assembly and much tinkering was necessary before the first engine runs were possible in December. There were many infuriating delays due to mechanical problems or weather, usually a wind strength that disturbed the lie of a hand-held handkerchief.
Eventually, all seemed to be right and, after a protracted series of taxy trials and fast runs, GDH attempted a take off.
“It was a mixture of impatience and sheer will power that finally got the first de Havilland machine off on its first flight,” DH later wrote, “and it was crass ignorance that caused it to come back again, violently and disastrously!”
The pilot had snatched the aircraft off the ground and into a steep climb from which attitude it immediately stalled and plunged back onto the earth in a shambles of wire, splintered wood and torn fabric. Amazingly, GDH was unhurt in the crash otherwise the story might, for a second time, have ended before it was allowed to develop. However, he did raise a hand to signal to Frank Hearle that he was well, and a still-rotating propeller gave him a sharp blow on the wrist as a reminder of his situation.
“We did not waste any time on regrets or prolonged farewells. We gave not a backward glance to the field and sheds. We would be back soon enough. A lorry was already on the way to collect the remnants of our first machine. At Fulham we could begin work at once. This time we knew we would build an aeroplane that would fly.”
Substantial redesign work was completed in the office at Bedford Square Mansions and the No 2 DH aeroplane which was completed at Fulham, was conveyed to the facilities at Seven Barrows in August 1910. The same engine was installed but now direct-driving a single propeller and dispensing with all the heavy shafts and gearing required for the twin bladed concept of the first design. After the inevitable taxying trials and with the experience gained from short hops, the aircraft was successfully taken off on a circuit of the field on 10 September 1910.
The success of the No 2 aeroplane gave GDH the necessary confidence, not only as a designer and engineer, but also as a self-taught pilot. Within a few flying hours, Frank Hearle had been carried aloft as a passenger, followed by Mrs Louie de Havilland clutching her son, the eight month old Geoffrey Junior, in her arms.
Jason Saunders lived to see what his cash advance had achieved, but he died the following year, as did Geoffrey’s mother, Alice.
With nearly all their money spent, GDH and Hearle needed to decide what to do next. It was all very well to have a machine capable of sustained flight, but there were now no resources with which to make further experiments. A chance meeting with an old friend at the 1910 Olympia Show was to prove absolutely vital. Fred Green had moved from Daimler Cars in Coventry to the Army Balloon Factory at Farnborough where he was involved with dirigible balloons. He told GDH that Farnborough was interested in working with aeroplanes too, and suggested he contact the Superintendent, Mervyn O’Gorman, and offer to sell him the DH No 2 aeroplane together with his own services as pilot.
Geoffrey met O’Gorman at his Chelsea home and took with him plans of the aeroplane and some poor photographs. O’Gorman asked how much money he wanted for the aeroplane. Unprepared for such a question GDH replied: “What about £400? Does that sound sensible?” O’Gorman thought it did, but suggested that the War Office people currently were more interested in airships, and that some form of demonstration might be demanded.
Not until a few days before Christmas 1910 did Farnborough make a formal offer. They would buy the No 2 aeroplane and employ GDH to fly it and also Frank Hearle to maintain it. Geoffrey noted:
“On my grandfather’s £1,000 I had designed and built two aeroplanes, complete with engine, one of which had flown successfully, paid a staff of two and kept myself and family, with a car, for some 18 months. With this £400 I now had a substantial credit in the bank.”
When GDH and Hearle arrived at Farnborough with their aeroplane, it was fairly clear that they were not welcome. The resident staff was associated only with balloons and airships and could anticipate that the introduction of aeroplanes might jeopardise their future. O’Gorman had sufficient power and influence at that time to get reversed a War Office directive ordering that all work on heavier than air machines should cease, and he quickly succeeded in changing the attitude at Farnborough. In April 1911 he amended the name of the organisation from Army Balloon Factory to Army Aircraft Factory and a year later to Royal Aircraft Factory. In 1918, Farnborough was to become the Royal Aircraft Establishment, RAE, to distinguish it from the Royal Air Force, RAF, under which designation the site established a world-wide reputation.
The aircraft industry, such as it was at that time, and referred to by GDH as ‘the trade’, was anxious that Farnborough should not be allowed to design aircraft, much less build them. The work there centred mainly on research, but there was no restriction on the repair and modification of aircraft, and the loophole was fully exploited.
Under a system of aircraft designations which GDH believed only seasoned civil servants really understood, at Farnborough the de Havilland No 2 aeroplane became the FE 1. Flying her in three 20 minute sessions on a bitterly cold day in January 1911, the aeroplane passed her acceptance test and GDH qualified for his Royal Aero Club certificate, No 4.
The FE 1 was ‘improved’ as the result of GDH’s first design task at Farnborough and re-appeared as the FE 2 with a cockpit enclosed with a light fabric covered structure, a small windscreen and a 50hp Gnome rotary engine. GDH flew her on a round trip cross-country exercise of 100 miles and then had to land within a prescribed area on the aerodrome having throttled down the engine at 1,000ft. Later, in 1911, the landing gear was removed and a plywood float substituted for trials off Fleet Pond about three miles from the Factory. It may have been this early association with floatplanes that caused the later de Havilland Aircraft Company to try almost all its products up to the post-war DH.104 Dove on floats at some time, however unlikely the commercial prospects may have seemed to causal observers.
The canard type aeroplane with pusher propeller had been much in favour until 1911 when attitudes changed and the tractor type took ascendency. Geoffrey de Havilland’s first new design was the BE 1, officially reconstructed from the wreckage of a Voisin monoplane, although in fact only the 60hp Wolseley engine was used. The configuration of the BE 1 and the almost identical BE 2, (fitted with a 70hp Renault engine) were very much as the majority of conventional aeroplanes were to look for the next decade: biplanes with an engine mounted in the nose of the fuselage, a tractor propeller, and a single pilot or two occupants sitting in tandem. During trials on Salisbury Plain in August 1912, and with Major Frederick Sykes, Commandant of the Royal Flying Corps as passenger, GDH and his BE 2 set a British Altitude record by climbing to 10,560ft. The flight had lasted three and a half hours by the time the aeroplane found her way home again and the record stood for three years.
During his time at Farnborough, GDH kept a log of all his flying activities, and the original document has survived. Amongst the records of flight time and distance travelled are notes on the tests being carried out, names of passengers, and design doodles, many of which later manifested into hardware. In common with the early pilots at Farnborough, GDH was entitled to flying pay based on the distance flown rather than time spent in the air, and between January and August 1911 he received £24 12s. 6d. Sadly there is no record of how this sum was calculated. The situation was regularised on Leap Year Day in February 1912 when he signed a contract to remain at Farnborough for three years until 1 March 1915, at an annual salary of £250. His basic terms of reference were ‘to work in the Drawing Office and flying tests’. In addition, a bonus limited to £49 per annum was offered ‘for actual flying time’.
There was plenty of opportunity for flying and pilots with a range of experience were allowed to conduct trials, sometimes, and almost inevitably it seems, with fatal results. By 1913 the aeroplanes and knowledge of them resulted in an indulgence in mild aerobatics but as such manoeuvres were officially regarded as stunts and could not be sanctioned by a Government establishment, they were performed first and talked about afterwards. Loops were most common, tried without the benefit of parachutes or safety harnesses, and in machines with limited power and structures that were barely adequate.
GDH’s only serious flying accident occurred at Farnborough in March 1913 when flying a BS 1, a single seat biplane ‘scout’ fitted with a double row, 14 cylinder, 100hp Gnome rotary engine. The aeroplane was a scaled down BE 2 and, when assembled, GDH realised that the rudder probably was not of adequate area. He commissioned a larger rudder but flew the aeroplane before it could be fitted. During a tight turning manoeuvre she entered a spin, fortunately at a height of less than 100ft, and went flat into the ground. GDH suffered a broken jaw and the loss of several teeth which were later recovered from the wreckage by a mechanic and sent to him in an envelope. He spent some time recovering in the Cambridge Hospital at Aldershot and later flew many hours on the reconstructed BS 1 before the aircraft was sent to France for use by the RFC as a front-line fighter.
Geoffrey de Havilland wrote that as a pilot he never sensed danger, but if he were tired or feeling unwell, he would sometimes be apprehensive about what usually was a most enjoyable way of life. His most worrying moment in his entire flying career, he admitted, was when he decided to fly an RE 1, an improved BE 2, on a foggy autumnal morning in 1913.
“Directly the wheels left the ground,” he wrote in his autobiography, Sky Fever, “I could see nothing but thick fog and knew it would be impossible to return to the aerodrome. The great airship shed was straight ahead so I turned left to avoid hitting it and flew on until a tree loomed up very close in front of the nose. Chimney pots on houses suddenly appeared in the same way and had to be jumped. After about ten minutes of this nightmare I realised it was far too risky so I started to climb steadily. By this time I understood as never before, the meaning of fear.”
Aeroplanes were robust enough now to be flown in most weather but there were no reliable instruments for flying blind, as on this occasion, and many accidents already had been caused by pilot disorientation. GDH continued to climb and broke through the top of the cloud at 3,000ft, into a new world of bright sunshine and an intense blue sky, but above a carpet of cloud that resembled a snow field and extended as far as he could see in every direction. He flew west towards what he knew to be an area of more open country and after about 15 minutes noticed a darker patch in the cloud which was a tiny break. He dived through the hole, saw an expansive area of flat ground and landed in the first available stubble field.
“It was a most frightening experience and one which taught me a lesson about fog which I could never forget. The adventure did not in the least diminish my love of flying, but the experience may have saved me from disaster in later years.”
In January 1914 the Aeronautical Inspection Directorate, AID, was formed; an independent organisation for the inspection of all aircraft and engines. Under pressure from high level, GDH was persuaded to take the position of Inspector of Aircraft, under the Chief Inspector. In his new appointment he was cut-off from design work and test flying, hated the situation and decided to resign.
George Holt Thomas, owner of the Aircraft Manufacturing Company, Airco, was a regular visitor to Farnborough. The usually shy GDH made a direct approach and asked him if he had ever considered opening his own design department rather than continuing to build other people’s aircraft under licence. The idea fell on fertile ground and, following further discussions, Holt Thomas offered GDH the job as Airco designer and test pilot. It was to be one of the most significant chapters in the de Havilland story.
The contract drawn up by Airco employed Geoffrey de Havilland at an annual salary of £600 plus very generous terms for commission based on the number of aircraft of any particular model sold in a twelve month period. After working out his notice at Farnborough, GDH joined Airco at Hendon on 2 July 1914. The de Havilland family which now included another son, Peter, born at Farnborough in 1913, moved to a house in Edgware and bought a new Model T Ford car, although GDH cycled the three miles to his office at Hendon on a second hand bicycle.
A month later Britain and Germany were at war and GDH was recalled to Farnborough in his capacity as an officer in the RFC Reserve, a position which had often required his flying with the Army during manoeuvres. Commissioned with the rank of Lieutenant he was immediately posted to Montrose in Scotland where he and another RFC pilot were allocated two Blériot monoplanes and told to patrol the East Coast between Aberdeen and the Firth of Forth, spotting for enemy shipping and submarines in particular. The Blériot had a top speed of 50mph, hardly any range, no armament or communications or parachute.
Not entirely impressed with this arrangement and believing, like others, that his talents could be better used elsewhere, GDH was soon posted back to Farnborough where it took a further 12 weeks for him to be released to Airco where he finally arrived with the Army Reserve rank of Captain.
Almost immediately, Airco was advised that the War Office was calling for a two seat fighter aircraft in a pusher configuration. The gunner was to sit in the front seat with an uninterrupted field of fire, with the pilot behind. Within Airco, and at the insistence of George Holt Thomas, this design became known as the DH.1, a nomination which flattered Geoffrey de Havilland but also embarrassed him. Holt Thomas thought it was an entirely appropriate designation and, when the War Office changed its specification to a single seat aircraft with fixed, forward firing guns, the Airco tender naturally became the DH.2, of which about 400 aircraft were manufactured. In their marketed form the aircraft were known as Airco DH.1 etc, a formal label of recognition that was to be maintained until GDH was designing aeroplanes for his own independent company after 1920 when the Airco name was no longer attached.
The DH.3 design was a twin engine bomber, but was put aside when the War Office moved the goal posts and attention was re-directed to the DH.4, a fast, single engine day fighter/bomber with a machine gun that could now be directed to fire through the arc of the propeller. The DH.4 was a huge success and led directly to the less successful DH.9 which was an improved version. The DH.4 was used by the American forces, was built in large numbers in the USA, and after the war became the cornerstone of the national network of Air Mail services, flown by hard-bitten pilots, many of whom were to become famous.
The DH.5 was an immensely strong single seat biplane fighter with back stagger. In plan view the top wings were set with the leading edges behind those of the lower wings. 550 aircraft were built. The DH.6 was a basic trainer superseded in 1917 by the classical Avro 504, but only after 2,282 DH.6s had been built by Airco and nine sub contractors. DH.7 was a fighter project, abandoned due to the lack of a suitable engine, and the DH.8 was a 1917 project to carry a single Coventry Ordnance Works one and a half pounder gun, abandoned due to the lack of a suitable engine and development problems with both the gun and its mounting.
Although a team of pilots was employed to test production aircraft, GDH took time off from the Drawing Office to make occasional flights too, but he was always concerned to know how the aircraft performed in service and made frequent visits to France with senior RFC officers. Not only was he to discover how current aircraft were coping under front line conditions, but what future requirements might be.
The last Airco project before the war ended was the DH.10, a re-design of the DH.3 twin engine bomber. 1,295 aircraft were ordered, but only eight had reached squadron service by November 1918 at which time the company was delivering completed aircraft at a rate in excess of 300 a month.
At the beginning of the war when aircraft were ordered at a level of magnitude not previously considered, GDH had reminded Holt Thomas of their agreement on royalties, feeling extremely uncomfortable about the situation. He was told that the agreement should stand, and subsequently received substantial sums of money. As a consequence, the family moved into a bigger house in Edgware where his third son, John, was born in October 1918. The house had a large garden in which they built a double garage; the Model T was sold and a six cylinder Buick acquired. It was a rare extravagance. But during the last summer of the war, the accumulation of concerns and long working hours resulted in GDH suffering what is now recognised as a nervous breakdown, and he was ordered to take several months’ complete rest.
The end of the First World War resulted in cancellation of almost all outstanding contracts for new military aircraft. Holt Thomas decided to explore the civil market and provide custom-built aircraft for airline traffic in competition with the somewhat crude conversions that had been applied to former military DH.4s and DH.9s. He started his own airline, Air Transport and Travel, better known then as ‘A. T. & T’, for which the DH.18 cabin biplane was specially designed. But the world was not quite ready and in 1919 the Airco business was sold to the Birmingham Small Arms Company, BSA, who only needed the machine tools and factory premises and immediately closed down all aviation activities.
Optimistically perhaps, GDH decided the time was as good as any to start his own company. Sadly, his father died on 7 May 1920 and did not see his son’s name attached to the factory gates. Holt Thomas agreed to transfer across all outstanding work and to invest £10,000 himself. GDH handpicked his management team from the ashes of Airco and specialists from all the required disciplines at Hendon, and the de Havilland Aircraft Company Ltd was incorporated on 25 September 1920.
Charles Walker became Chief of Aerodynamics and Stressing; Wilfred Nixon, who previously had been at Farnborough in a similar capacity, became Secretary and Head of Finance; Francis St. Barbe, head of sales at Airco before GDH joined the company was recruited as Business and Sales Manager. While GDH was at Farnborough, his friend and by now his brother-in-law, Frank Hearle, had been tempted away by the Deperdussin Aircraft Company in North London, but he later joined Vickers where, amongst other projects, he was responsible for setting up their factory at Weybridge where BE 2 aircraft were built under contract. After an abortive venture with Vickers in South America, Hearle returned to England and joined Airco, running the Experimental Shop and later becoming Works Manager. A young man from the Drawing Office who showed promise was also recruited. His name was Arthur Hagg, later to become a most influential Chief Designer. The first Chairman of the company, Arthur Turner, a nominee of Holt Thomas, proved to be a liability with interests in a number of other companies all of which seemed to be failing. He set up the company bank account with Barclays but left the business after about a year.
Stag Lane Aerodrome, just off the Edgware Road near Colindale and three miles from Hendon, had become vacant. Established in 1917 by the London and Provincial Aviation Company as a relief aerodrome for Hendon, Stag Lane Aerodrome was a training station for RFC pilots.’ L and P’ ventured into civil training and light aircraft design and manufacture after the war but fell foul of the plethora of new Air Regulations introduced in 1919. As a result the company abandoned aviation altogether, venturing into the manufacture of motor car components, furniture and eventually confectionary but finally closed down in 1919 and its assets were sold by auction in January 1920. Stag Lane Aerodrome was an almost ideal home for the new de Havilland Aircraft Company and they took up residence in October 1920.
The first job after cleaning up the site was to complete the two Airco DH.18s for A.T and T, and there was a smattering of DH.9 refurbishment for the RAF. An improved version of the DH.18, the DH.34, found favour with two British airlines: Daimler and Instone, who ordered a total of eight aircraft between them. The de Havilland Aircraft Company invested in additions and improvements to their spartan facilities at Stag Lane in order to fulfil the order, at which point their landlords, the L and P Company, who had retained ownership of the site, demanded that they should buy the premises for £20,000 and make an immediate down-payment of £7,500, else move away. de Havilland put up a smokescreen by starting a rumour that they were planning to relocate to Northolt anyway, but they were still faced with a dilemma.
Enter Alan Samuel Butler, a rich young sportsman, who had learned to fly at Hounslow and owned one of the first private aircraft, a Bristol Tourer, to be registered in the country after the war. He asked if the company could build him a two/three-seat touring aircraft to his own specification? Yes, they could, but it would cost him £3,500, an outrageous price he would either pay, else go away.
Alan Butler accepted the quotation and when work was about to start on what became the DH.37, he questioned whether they were looking for more capital and, following agreement, he invested £10,000 in the company. As a direct result, Stag Lane Aerodrome was purchased and the company was rescued from near certain bankruptcy. Alan Butler, also a yachtsman of great ability, was invited to join the board in 1921 when he made further heavy investments. In 1924 he was elected Chairman, a position he held for the next 26 years.
With spending on military projects at a minimum, the company was content to refurbish small batches of DH.9 aircraft for the RAF, and made occasional bids for prototype work which often resulted in a one or two machine order but nothing else. It was widely known in the industry that government contracts were often awarded on a ‘whose turn next?’ basis which ensured that work was spread around, but did not always result in the best product being chosen for Service use. It was true too that officialdom had a habit of changing its mind and interfering. A good example of this was when the DH.66 Hercules airliner built against a specification for Imperial Airways in 1926, was selected by what had become the Air Ministry, for development as a bomber. The Ministry insisted that the fabric-covered welded-tube fuselage should now be built of metal and that the position of the three engines be changed, and even the type of engine already specified be altered. In fact the engine type was changed three times before the completely re-designed prototype was finished. DH handed over all future development on sub-contract to another company, by which time the whole project was lagging so far behind contemporary practices that the single prototype was abandoned.
To protect themselves from further bureaucratic bungling and uninformed and unwarranted interference, the company diversified. It started an Aeroplane Hire Service using mostly converted DH,9s which it had acquired cheaply, and which were supplied complete with pilot and charged for by the mile. The de Havilland Aeroplane Hire Service was very successful and even experimented with a series of crop spraying trials in Kent in which they distributed arsenic compounds, but was shut down after some of the regular airlines, to whom the company was trying to sell new aeroplanes, cried foul and raised objections.
As an aeroplane manufacturer it seemed reasonable to start a flying school to teach potential owners how to fly, and the de Havilland School of Flying opened with a mixed fleet of DH.6s and Renault Avros, joined later by DH.9s from the Hire Service. Upgraded and with more modern engines the DH.9s remained the backbone of the school’s advanced flying fleet until the mid-1930s. When the Air Ministry established a Reserve of Air Force Officers in 1923 the de Havilland School of Flying was the first to be granted a contract. Although its operations were under the designation No 1 Reserve Flying School, subject to inspection by the military, the school was staffed and operated entirely by civilians. In the immediate pre Second World War days, the school had expanded enormously and although all their aircraft continued to be civil registered, the staff of about a dozen full time instructors all wore a ‘de Havilland’ uniform varying from the full RAF kit by little more than the initials on the buttons and the colour of the stripes. In September 1939 the uniforms were exchanged for the real thing and the aeroplanes disappeared under coats of camouflage paint.
The company also recognised the need to educate its expanding workforce and to draw young blood into the industry. In 1928, having firmly established itself, the de Havilland company set up its own Technical Training School, taking in premium apprentices and students who were asked to pay their way.
The second apprentice to join the scheme was a young man called Ron Bishop. A little over ten years later he was to head the design teams of two of the most significant aircraft in the history of aviation: the DH.98 Mosquito and the DH.106 Comet jet airliner.
Known throughout the business as ‘The Captain’, It was always Geoffrey de Havilland’s ideal to build civil aeroplanes, not only for commercial aviation, but for the ordinary man in the street. The DH.50 cabin biplane of 1923 had been very successful and had helped enhance the reputation of Alan Cobham who flew a DH.50 to and from Cape Town and on a return trip to Australia, a feat which earned him a knighthood. The type was later built in Australia, Belgium and Czeckoslavakia and served the airlines well for many years.
The DH.51 was an independent attempt to build a private owner aircraft based on surplus RAF 1 type engines, a number of which the company reputedly acquired for 14s 6d each (72.5p). The resultant machine was too big and too heavy for ideal private ownership and only three were built. A dual ignition system designed and fitted by DH in the interests of safety was not approved by the Air Ministry who insisted that it be removed, creating further conflict.
The Air Ministry had attempted to evolve a formula for a light aeroplane suitable to be used by a national network of government-sponsored flying clubs, although there was even intense debate over the definition of ‘light’. From 1922, they had sanctioned a series of Trials, firstly for gliders near Lewes in Sussex, during which a DH entry, the DH.52, had collapsed in spectacular manner during a bungee launch. Although DH entered their DH.53 Humming Bird for the 1923 Lympne Trials in Kent, it was patently obvious that the Trial specification had resulted in all the aircraft being far too small, almost completely impractical, and powered mostly by conversions of motor cycle engines operating at peek revs to produce barely adequate power. Of all the competitors, only the Humming Bird ever attracted a production order, and that for eight aircraft for the RAF to be used for quote ‘communications and cheap flying practise’ unquote. Two aircraft were involved in trials with Airship R33 in October 1925. Carried aloft attached to R33 by a trapeze, the DH.53 was launched and, after flying aerobatics, was recovered in flight.
GDH refused to take part in further Air Ministry Trials on the grounds that they were an expensive waste of time and effort, and concentrated on his own specification which had been distilled through practical and personal experience over 14 years. The greatest handicap for any new design, he acknowledged, was the lack of a suitable engine, which he estimated should develop a minimum of 60hp, suitable for a modestly performing two-seater. If there was no engine, the answer was to provide one with minimum effort and at least cost. The answer was to be found with the Aircraft Disposal Company at Croydon who had large stocks of war surplus and redundant Renault Vee-8 engines available at 25 shillings each (£1.25).
Enter Major Frank Halford, another ex-Farnborough man who had been sent off to the war in France, a brilliant engineer now working for Airdisco with a brief to convert stock engines to something more practical. The solution to creating the de Havilland ideal was simply to cut a Vee-8 Renault in two to create a four cylinder, in line, air cooled unit using the same crankshaft, cylinders and other parts, all packed into a new crankcase. They called the resultant unit the Cirrus and it developed 60hp.
With a suitable power unit assured, the airframe was designed in the little wooden shed at Stag Lane that GDH used as his office, and which has endured the ravages of time, currently to be preserved and in with de Havilland Support Ltd at Duxford. In his modest way the Chief Designer explained that he did all the main layout and GA drawings, but really it was a collective effort with all the members of the Drawing Office making a contribution.
Geoffrey de Havilland’s intense interest in natural history lead him to choose a name for the aeroplane from his knowledge of entomology, the study of insects.
“‘It suddenly struck me that the name Moth was just right. It had the right sound, was appropriate, easy to remember and might well lead to s aeries of Moths, all named after British insects: Gipsy Moth, Puss Moth, Tiger Moth, Fox Moth, Leopard Moth, Hornet Moth…”
Of the specification he wrote:
“Long before the design was started I had visualised the finished aeroplane, and the working drawings quickly began to appear. It was an all-wood biplane with four inter-wing struts in all, instead of the more usual eight.
The wings were arranged to fold back along the sides of the fuselage safely and easily, the time for the whole operation being two minutes.
The aeroplane could then be housed in a shed of normal garage size, or the tail could be attached to the rear of a car for towing. It had a plywood fuselage with very adequate cockpits for two people, the passenger being in the front, dual control, and, very important, a locker behind the pilot for light luggage and tool kit. The landing gear was simple and could take a bad landing. The petrol tank above the centre section held 1 gals and an extra tank could be fitted in the front cockpit.”
The prototype DH.60 Moth, G-EBKT, was flight tested by Captain de Havilland himself during the afternoon of Sunday 22 February 1925. The works was officially closed, and only a very essential few were present to witness the occasion, one of whom was freelance test pilot Hubert Broad. After the first flight GDH landed and a carburettor jet was changed. Broad then joined the Captain on board and they flew together for 15mins.
GDH flew nearly all the company’s prototype aircraft on their maiden flights until well after the move to Hatfield in 1930. He described the basic routine:
“My thoughts before opening the throttle for a first flight were about the tail setting. There were few wind tunnels to go by and the tail setting was usually a matter of a close guess. But if set at too great an angle it might result in the pilot not being able to hold the nose up, and if at too negative an angle, in not being able to hold it down. Once in the air I always felt much happier and could test elevator, aileron, rudder controls and engine revs at leisure. The first flight was always short, because it usually showed the need for small adjustments. Then I carried out a more extended flight intended to test stall performance, which was critically important in testing for wing-drop, then climbing to a good height to test spinning and recovery. Periodically I would fly straight and level for a few seconds to make notes on a knee pad. Finally, I ended up with a long, full throttle high speed run.”
Later as a permanent member of the team, it was Hubert Broad who was to complete much of the fine turning of de Havilland aeroplanes for another ten years before he was sacked in a dispute over the performance of the DH.87 Hornet Moth. As a freelance production test pilot, Hubert Broad was paid a flat fee for every aircraft he signed off. Ever cautious about money, the company accountants became alarmed when production began to run at four or even five aircraft per day, and eventually trained one of their own ground engineers, Jack Tyler, to cope with routine production tests.
Sadly, Jack Tyler was killed when the wings of a Moth which had not been properly locked into position before take-off, folded back in the air and the aircraft crashed into the roof of a local house. He was succeeded by another engineer with aptitude, Bob Waight, who rose to the position of Chief Test Pilot following the dismissal of Hubert Broad, and was responsible for the first flight of the DH.93 Albatross from Hatfield.
For an aeroplane designed for ‘a man in the street’ the initial price of £885 did limit its customer base, but the price was progressively reduced to £715 as sales increased. The facilities at Stag Lane had to be enlarged to cope with production, and soon requests were received from the sales agents and de Havilland associated companies established in Canada, Australia and South Africa, to consider building the aeroplanes from more robust materials better to cope with climatic inspired deterioration.
The answer was to design a fuselage structure that could be built from fabric covered steel tube. The new model known as the Metal Moth was, to casual inspection from a distance, hardly distinguishable from the wooden models.
In those days, aviation exhibitions all over Europe were held indoors, and in London the popular venue was Olympia. Another twist in the story, perhaps, as it was at Olympia in 1911 that Mr de Havilland was first advised to contact Farnborough.
Over the years, many changes were applied to the basic Moth and GDH spent hundreds of hours test flying in parallel with the work undertaken by Hubert Broad and others, all in addition to his work as designer and company director.
The most significant single advance made in 1928 was again to have a monumental effect on the future of the company. The supply of Cirrus engines was likely to be finite, and GDH realised that the company could easily be held to ransom if they continued to accept production from a single supplier. Would it not be better if they built suitable engines themselves? Discussions had begun with Frank Halford in 1926 and resulted in the 100hp Gipsy I engine of 1928 which was tested in an airframe built specially for the purpose, the DH.71 Tiger Moth.
This tiny aircraft was virtually built round the modest frame of Hubert Broad; The Captain himself was far too tall to have been able to fly her, much as he would have wanted. During the course of flight-testing the 135hp experimental Gipsy engine, the Tiger Moth set a world speed record for a 100km closed circuit at over 186mph. An attempt on the world altitude record saw Hubert Broad reach 19,191ft in 17mins, and the aircraft was still climbing at a rate of 1,000ft/min when he had to break off due to lack of oxygen.
As a practical demonstration of the reliability of the new engine, one random unit was sealed and flown around the country mounted in a DH.60 Moth to achieve a target flight time oh 600hrs with only normal servicing allowed. Pilots were drawn from the company, the Flying School or the London Aeroplane Club, and included Geoffrey de Havilland Jnr., who had learned to fly with the Reserve, and was an occasional instructor with the Club. During the 600 hour test, the aeroplane covered 50,000 miles, and the score was painted on the side of the fuselage at regular intervals.
GDH maintained his interest in the village of Crux Easton where he bought a small wooden bungalow. For relaxed weekends, he would fly from Stag Lane and land in an adjacent field, still known locally as ‘de Havilland Field’, from which he would fly any of the locals who ever asked for a ride.
The success and reliability of the Gipsy I and II series engines ensured continued development which created the Gipsy III and Gipsy Major, the first engines to run ‘inverted’ with the cylinders placed below the sump. The four pot engines were developed into the Gipsy Sixes and Queens of various marques for subsequent designs, and the ultimate 12 cylinder Vee arrangement of the Gipsy King for the four engined Albatross airliner.
GDH’s favourite Moth of all was the DH.85 Leopard Moth which first flew in May 1933. Six weeks later, flying the prototype with a standard Gipsy Major engine, he won the King’s Cup Air Race at an average speed of a little over 139mph. The type was selected for development as a high powered, fast touring aeroplane, fitted with a six cylinder engine. It would have been a potent machine, and although a prototype did fly, the company was nervous about the short-term future and the financial implications and the project was dropped, the airframe continuing in use as a flying test-bed for engine development.
Engines were manufactured at Stag Lane in new facilities built specially for what was known as the Engine Division of the de Havilland Aircraft Company, but the Division became a company in its own right in 1944, the same year that ‘Captain de Havilland’ became ‘Sir Geoffrey’, and eventually occupied the whole of the old Stag Lane works. New amenities were built within the company perimeter at Stag Lane including a design and research block called the Halford Laboratory.
The de Havilland Engine Company built its own jet engines, the Goblin and the Ghost which powered the DH.100 Vampire and the world’s first commercial jet airliner, the DH.106 Comet. It built what was at the time the world’s most powerful jet engine, the Gyron, and when the government cancelled the contract, it was scaled down and called the Gyron Junior. Following ‘Engines’, one of which was a most successful light marine unit called the Water Gipsy, there was the de Havilland Propeller Company which was later renamed ‘Dynamics’, and took the de Havilland name into space with the Blue Streak rocket.
At Stag Lane Aerodrome the company prospered, very largely due to its own initiatives, good management and strict observance of economy. The private and light commercial aircraft market around the world was theirs. Society travelled to Stag Lane to be seen at the fashionable London Aeroplane Club, whether they were interested in flying or not. But London was expanding all the time and when the Northern Line of the London Underground Railway was extended north to Edgware, the housing developers followed it. Stag Lane Aerodrome was progressively surrounded and with no possible escape, the de Havilland Aircraft Company accepted the inevitable and sold the aerodrome for £100,000. They gradually vacated the works, transferring the aeroplane business to Hatfield between 1930 and 1934, leaving the factory production facilities to the exclusive use of the Engine Company.
GDH himself made the last flight from Stag Lane Aerodrome on 28 July 1934, in a DH.87A Hornet Moth, a design to which he had agreed only after some persuasion. It was the day after his 52nd birthday, and the same year in which he was appointed CBE. He landed at Hatfield Aerodrome one hour later although a direct flight would have taken no more than 15mins.
A statue of Sir Geoffrey de Havilland was unveiled by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, at the Hatfield Campus of the University of Hertfordshire on 30 July 1997. A fleet of 43 de Havilland-related aeroplanes flew over in salute, thought to be the biggest flypast of civil aircraft held in the country since before the Second World War.
The de Havilland Aircraft Company name disappeared from official paperwork in 1959 when promises were broken following a take-over by Hawker-Siddeley. In 1962, at the age of 80, Sir Geoffrey de Havilland was inducted into the Order of Merit at the personal invitation of HM The Queen. He died in 1965 and his ashes were scattered over Thorndown Field, Seven Barrows, during a low pass by a DH.121 Trident airliner flown by Chief Test Pilot John Cunningham. It was fitting. It was where it had all begun.