Geoffrey de Havilland, born in 1882, was
in his late twenties in 1909. He had a strong and enthusiastic interest in
flying machines, but he was working in London as a draftsman, a job that
did not allow him to express his enthusiasm for airplanes. Fortunately, he
had a wealthy grandfather, and he invested £1000 with young de Havilland
for the design and construction of his first airplane.
Aviation then was much in the news. De
Havilland proceeded to build an engine, while Frank Hearle, the brother of
his fiancée, helped to construct the aircraft. While its wing broke on
takeoff, a second airplane in 1910 was far more successful. It passed
acceptance tests and became the first such craft to be purchased by the
De Havilland joined His Majesty's
Balloon Factory in Farnborough in 1910 and set to work designing new
airplanes. In 1914, only a month before the outbreak of World War I, he
transferred to private industry and became chief designer at the Aircraft
Manufacturing Company (Airco). He stayed at Airco through the war.
There he achieved his first major
success: the DH-4, a two-seat bomber that first flew in August 1916.
Highly maneuverable and with a top speed of 143 miles per hour (230
kilometers per hour), it could outfly most fighters. In 1917, when the
United States entered the war, officials in Washington selected it for
production and built nearly 5,000 of them. DH-4s carried the early U.S.
airmail; some also carried passengers. They remained in service through
After 1918, the end of the war brought a
sharp falloff in demand for new aircraft. The assets of Airco plunged in
value, and de Havilland bought the company. With Airco now in his hands,
he renamed it the De Havilland Aircraft Company. Incorporated in September
1920, it overhauled existing planes while constructing a small number of
new designs for the Air Ministry and for newly formed airlines.
Good aircraft need good engines, and De
Havilland was dissatisfied with those that were available. His longtime
friend, the engine designer Frank Halford, modified a French motor and
came up with one that was lighter in weight and simpler in design. The
company then set up a strong in-house engine division. Its motors powered
De Havilland's highly successful Moth family of aircraft.
The first such airplane flew in 1925,
ushering in a line that stayed in production through World War II. These
included the Gipsy Moth that used Halford's Gipsy engine, the Giant Moth,
Hawk Moth, Puss Moth, Swallow Moth, Tiger Moth, Fox Moth, Leopard Moth,
and Hornet Moth. They served as private planes, trainers, and light
In 1934, De Havilland's Comet Racer won
an air race that ran halfway around the world, from London to Melbourne,
Australia. This Comet beat a highly touted U.S. entry, the Douglas DC-2.
In an era when boxy biplanes still were common, the Comet showed a highly
streamlined form that foreshadowed the speedy fighter aircraft of a decade
All-aluminum designs had not yet become
standard, and the Comet was built with plywood. De Havilland used the same
construction in an early four-engine airliner, the Albatross, which flew
in 1937. Drawing on this experience, the company proceeded to use plywood
in crafting one of the outstanding aircraft of World War II: the Mosquito.
There were plenty of woodworkers in
England, which made them easy to construct. During much of the war, the
Mosquito was the fastest airplane on either side. Nearly 7,000 of these
twin-engine craft were built during the war. They performed superbly as
fighters, light bombers, and in camera-carrying versions used for
An advanced version, the Hornet,
remained in production until 1952—well into the jet age—and stayed in
service until 1959.
De Havilland also took the lead in
building jets. The inventor Frank Whittle constructed an early jet engine
prior to the war. In January 1941, the senior British aviation official
Sir Henry Tizard asked Halford and De Havilland to design a new jet
interceptor and a new engine. Halford simplified Whittle's design,
crafting a successful engine called the Goblin. It powered the Vampire
fighter, which first flew in September 1943. This led the company to build
postwar jet fighters: the Venom and the Sea Vixen.
In 1944, De Havilland was knighted and
became Sir Geoffrey. This high point in his life coincided with the high
point in his company's fortunes. In the postwar world, with America
ascendant, he continued to pioneer but lost repeatedly to the Yankees.
He built the DH-108, an experimental jet
powered by a Goblin that was to break the sound barrier. One of them broke
up in flight, killing the pilot—his son, Geoffrey, Jr. A DH-108 indeed
flew supersonically in September 1948. But by then America's Chuck Yeager
had already done this in the rocket-powered X-1, and George Welch had done
so as well in the XP-86, which went into production as a fighter.
De Havilland built the world's first jet
airliner: the Comet, named for the 1934 racing plane. Fitted with four of
Halford's more powerful Ghost jet engines, the Comet entered test flight
in 1949 and first carried paying passengers in May 1952. People fell in
love with it. Its speed of 480 mph was unrivaled. It flew at high
altitude, avoiding discomforts of the weather. Its engines ran smoothly,
eliminating the harsh vibration of conventional motors. Orders poured in.
But during 1954, two Comets broke up in
midair. Investigation showed that this airliner was subject to a new and
unanticipated type of structural weakness. All remaining Comets were
withdrawn from service, with De Havilland launching a major effort to
build a new version that would be both larger and stronger. This one, the
Comet 4, enabled De Havilland to return to the skies in 1958. By then,
though, it was too late. The United States had its Boeing 707 jetliner
along with the Douglas DC-8, both of which were faster and less costly to
operate. The Comet soon faded, as orders dried up.
De Havilland also pushed into the new
field of long-range missiles, developing the liquid-fueled Blue Streak. It
did not enter military service but became the first stage of Europa, a
launch vehicle for use in space flight. In flight tests, the Blue Streak
performed well—but the upper stages, built in France and Germany,
repeatedly failed. In 1973 the Europa program was canceled, with Blue
Streak dying as well. The last of them wound up in the hands of a farmer
who used its commodious fuel tanks to house his chickens.
De Havilland returned to the airline
world in 1962 with a three-engine jetliner, the Trident. However, he
designed it to fit the needs of one airline and one man: Lord Sholto
Douglas, chairman of British European Airways. Other airlines found it
unattractive and turned to a rival tri-jet: the Boeing 727. De Havilland
built only 117 Tridents, while Boeing went on to sell over 1,800 727s.
In 1959, De Havilland Aircraft merged
with the firm of Hawker Siddeley Aviation, while the engine division
became part of Bristol Siddeley. Sir Geoffrey died in 1965. He had
pioneered from aviation's earliest days until well into the 1950s. But
after the war, competing with the United States, he repeatedly fell short.