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The De Havilland Dragon Rapide

By Garth Calitz

In late 1933, a team at de Havilland, led by aircraft designer Arthur Ernest Hagg, began working on a new design intended to be a faster and more comfortable successor to the earlier DH.84 Dragon. The new aircraft was, in effect, a twin-engine, scaled-down version of the four-engine DH.86 Express. It shared many common features with the earlier DH.86 Express, including its tapered wings, streamlined fairings and fuselage, as well as the same Gipsy Six engines. However, the DH.89 demonstrated none of the operational vices of the Express.

On April 17, 1934, the prototype of the DH.89 conducted its first flight at Hatfield Aerodrome, Hertfordshire. It was flown by senior de Havilland test pilot H.S. Broad and was powered by a pair of 200 hp Gypsy Six engines. Even before the prototype's first flight, plans for serial production had already been approved. In May 1934, airworthiness trials began at RAF Martlesham Heath using the prototype. During one of these flights, when the aircraft reached a speed of approximately 175 MPH, the tip of the aircraft's nose buckled. In response to this, a maximum permissible speed of 160 MPH was implemented for all DH89 aircraft. After the trials, the prototype was sold.

In July 1934, the first production of Rapide, G-ACPM, made its public debut at Hatfield during the 1934 King's Cup Race. The aircraft achieved an average speed of 158 MPH but had to be withdrawn from the race during Heat 9 of Round 2 due to wing damage caused by hail while flying over Waddington, Lincolnshire. Another purpose-built Rapide, ZK'-ACO, participated in the 1934 MacRobertson Air Race. It was equipped with three additional fuel tanks within the fuselage, extending the aircraft's range to 1,000 miles. The aircraft, piloted by Squadron Leader J.D. Hewett and Mr C.E. Kay, finished sixth in the handicap race and fifth in the speed race.

Railway Air Services (RAS) operated a fleet of Dragon Rapides from August 1934 on routes connecting London, northern England, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. The RAS DH.89s were named after places on the network, such as "Star of Lancashire". Isle of Man Air Services also used Rapides for scheduled flights from Ronaldsway Airport near Castletown to airports in northwest England, including Blackpool, Liverpool, and Manchester. Railway Air Services had previously operated some of its aircraft.

In November 1934, the series production of the Rapide had reached full swing. Initially known as the "Dragon Six", the aircraft was first marketed as the "Dragon Rapide", but later became popularly referred to as simply the "Rapide". Before the Second World War outbreak, two hundred and five aircraft were manufactured for airlines and other private owners worldwide. The Rapide is considered to be the most successful British-built short-haul commercial passenger aircraft produced during the 1930s.

In late 1935, 16 Rapides were sent to the manufacturer's Canadian branch, de Havilland Canada, for modification and re-sale purposes. The Canadian aircraft underwent various changes, including an extended dorsal fin and a modified undercarriage. On January 30, 1942, the major Canadian operators were amalgamated into Canadian Pacific Air Lines, which continued to use the type. More Rapides were sold in Canada during and after the end of the Second World War.

After the British Air Ministry issued Specification G.18/35, de Havilland chose to create a single prototype of a modified Rapide for coastal reconnaissance. Trials for the prototype, known as K4772, took place between April and June 1935 at RAF Martlesham Heath and RAF Gosport. The K4772 ultimately lost out to its rival, the Avro Anson. It was later used by the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) in automatic landing trials before being broken down for spares. The work on a militarized version of the Rapide was not wasted, as multiple sales were soon completed with other military customers. The first sale was to the Spanish government in December 1935.

de Havilland continued to modify the design of the Rapide to meet demand, creating refinements and new derivatives. One such derivative was the DH.90 Dragonfly, a smaller, lighter, and faster version of the Rapide. However, the DH.90 did not sell as well as the Rapide, and production was stopped in 1938 after sixty-seven aircraft were completed. In November 1935, the 60th airframe, G-ADWZ, was modified by de Havilland for trials. The modifications included elongated rear windows, cabin heating, thickened wingtips, and a strengthened airframe to support a higher gross weight of 5,500 lb. After successful trials at Martlesham Heath, the higher gross weight was approved for service use.

When an air race was announced between Britain and Johannesburg, South Africa, de Havilland's design team created a specialized version of the Rapid, called the DH.92 Dolphin. This unique variant had a retractable undercarriage, a wider wingspan of 16.33 meters, a modified nose section, and a higher all-up weight of 6,600 lb. However, flight tests in August 1936 showed that there was no performance improvement over the standard Rapide. As a result, the sole Dolphin was scrapped a few months later.

De Havilland responded to suggestions that adding flaps would help with landing. In February 1937, they modified a single Rapide to test this idea. Based on the results, de Havilland announced that all production aircraft from that year onwards would be fitted with flaps. Other improvements, such as a downwards-facing recognition light and metal propellers, could be added as options. From 1937, aircraft with improved trailing edge flaps were designated as DH.89A. Older Rapides were often retrofitted with these upgrades during their service life.

In 1938, British operator Airwork Limited ordered nine Rapides to use as navigation trainers in response to policy changes within the British Air Ministry. More orders were placed by Airwork before the Second World War, at which point the Royal Air Force (RAF) took over the entire fleet of Rapides.

Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII), owned a single Dragon Rapide (G-ADDD), which he frequently used for carrying out his royal duties. He flew this aircraft to London on his accession as king in 1936, making him the first British monarch to fly.

One famous incident involving the Rapide occurred in July 1936 when a pair of British SIS agents, Cecil Bebb and Major Hugh Pollard, flew Francisco Franco in Rapide G-ACYR from the Canary Islands to Spanish Morocco, at the start of the military rebellion which began the Spanish Civil War. The aircraft involved has since been placed on public display in the Museo del Aire, Madrid, Spain.

During the early days of the Second World War in September 1939, the British Ministry of Aircraft Production requisitioned all civil transport aircraft. Some Dragon Rapides were used for internal flights under the control of National Air Communications (NAC). One significant use of the Rapide during the war was in May and June 1940, during the Battle of France. Rapides of No. 24 Squadron served as aerial couriers between Britain and France. Out of 24 aircraft, 10 Rapides were lost during this intense period of fighting.

Following the closure of the NAC network, Dragon Rapides continued to fly for British airlines during the war as part of the Associated Airways Joint Committee (AAJC). Upon the outbreak of war, all civil services had been halted, however, some routes were progressively returned to operation as and when they were deemed of value to the war effort or found to be in the national interest. The AAJC coordinated the majority of the UK's wartime scheduled services, which were entirely operated on over-water routes.

Other Dragon Rapides were impressed into service with the British armed forces as communications aircraft and training aircraft; Australian Rapides were also impressed by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).

The final production of the Rapide was completed in November 1941. Instead of continuing to produce the Rapide, de Havilland focused on producing the military-oriented Dominie variant exclusively. Over 500 additional Dominies were manufactured for military use, and they were powered by improved Gipsy Queen engines. By the end of production in July 1946, a total of 727 aircraft (combining both Rapides and Dominies) had been manufactured.

During the war, de Havilland and Brush Coachworks Ltd were responsible for Dominie production, with the latter being responsible for the majority of the work. The Dominies were mainly used by the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Navy for radio and navigation training, as well as for passenger and communications missions.

During the war, civilian Rapides were gradually replaced by Dominies as more Dominies became available. The Rapides were either used for passenger operations or converted for other purposes, such as air ambulances. By the end of the conflict, only nine impressed Rapides were restored to their civilian registrations. However, many Dominies, which were considered surplus, were also added to the civilian fleet.

After the conflict, many ex-RAF survivors quickly transitioned to commercial service. According to aviation author Peter W. Moss, a typical Dominie-to-Rapide conversion by de Havilland included repainting the exterior (replacing the wartime camouflage scheme) and installing soundproofing, upholstered seats, and a new cabin decor. Additionally, various third-party companies such as Field Aircraft Services, Airwork Limited, Air Enterprises, W.A. Rollason Limited, and the Lancashire Aircraft Corporation (LAC) offered their conversion schemes. By 1958, 81 examples were still flying on the British register.

De Havilland established a basic mark number system to distinguish between the different standards of Rapides available in the post-war environment. Pre-war constructed aircraft were designated as Mk 1, while ex-military conversions to a six-passenger cabin and eight-passenger cabin were designated as Mk 2 and Mk 3, respectively. Aircraft that were re-engined with a pair of de Havilland Gipsy Queen engines, giving the aircraft an increased all-up weight to 6,000 lb along with improved climb, cruise speed, and single-engine performance, were referred to as Mk 4s.

In 1966, the use of the Rapide declined, and many large operators had completely phased out the aircraft. Due to the decreasing availability of spare parts, individual Rapides were often dismantled to scavenge parts for maintaining other active aircraft.

The DH.89 proved an economical and durable aircraft, despite its relatively primitive plywood construction and many were still flying in the early 2000s. Several Dragon Rapides are operational in the UK, while multiple operators, including Classic Wings and Plane Heritage, offer pleasure flights in them to the general public. Shortly after the end of the Second World War, de Havilland introduced a Dragon Rapide replacement, the de Havilland Dove.

One example of the 35 odd that were operational remains in flying condition in South Africa, ZS-JGV was last flown in 1996. It was purchased, in early 2011, by Mark Sahd custodian of The Historic Wings Collection (HWC) in Queenstown in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, and painstakingly restored to flying condition by Dave Heart of Air Heart in East London.



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