De Havilland Aircraft Company Limited was a British aviation manufacturer established in late 1920 by Geoffrey de Havilland at Stag Lane Aerodrome Edgware on the outskirts of north London. Operations were later moved to Hatfield in Hertfordshire.
Known for its innovation, de Havilland were responsible for a number of important aircraft, including the Moth biplane which revolutionised general aviation in the 1920s, the 1930s Fox Moth, the first commercial transport able to operate without government subsidy, the wooden World War II Mosquito light bomber, and the passenger jet service pioneering Comet.
The De Havilland company became a member of the Hawker Siddeley group in 1960, but lost its separate identity in 1963. Today it is part of BAE Systems plc, the British aerospace and defence business.
In January 1920 Geoffrey de Havilland was working for Airco as technical director and chief designer. BSA bought Airco on 20 January 1920 from George Holt Thomas on the say-so of one BSA director, Percy Martin, having done inadequate due diligence. Within days BSA discovered Airco’s true circumstances and shut it down. The resulting losses were so great BSA was unable to pay a dividend for the next four years.
With Thomas’s help de Havilland took modest premises at the nearby Stag Lane Aerodrome and formed a limited liability company, De Havilland Aircraft Company Limited, incorporated 26 September 1920. The directors were de Havilland, Arthur E. Turner and chief engineer Charles Clement Walker. Nominal capital £50,000.
The real capital was from Geoffrey de Havilland (£3,000) and George Holt Thomas (£10,000), with various others adding a further £1,000. Banking on an order worth about £2,500 originally intended for Airco de Havilland brought in friends Charles Clement Walker (aerodynamics and stressing), Wilfred E. Nixon (company secretary), Francis E. N. St.Barbe (business and sales) and Frank Hearle (works manager). Hugh Burroughes went to the Gloster Aircraft Company. The fledgling enterprise was lucky to be approached the next year by a man wanting a new aeroplane built for him, Alan Samuel Butler. He invested heavily in the business. The first year’s turnover was £32,782 and net profit £2,387 and in early 1922 they bought Stag Lane aerodrome for £20,000 They survived until 1925 when de Havilland’s own design, the Moth (first flown 22 February 1925) proved to be just what the flying world was waiting for. In 1928 de Havilland Aircraft Company Limited went public.
Initially De Havilland concentrated on single and two-seat biplanes, continuing the DH line of aircraft built by Airco but adapting them for airline use, but then they introduced a series of smaller aircraft powered by de Havilland’s own Gipsy engines. These included the Gipsy Moth and Tiger Moth. These aircraft set many aviation records, many piloted by de Havilland himself. Amy Johnson flew solo from England to Australia in a Gipsy Moth in 1930.
The Moth series of aeroplanes continued with the more refined Hornet Moth, with enclosed accommodation, and the Moth Minor, a low-wing monoplane constructed of wood. One of de Havilland’s trademarks was that the name of the aircraft type was painted on using a particularly elegant Roman typeface, all in capital letters. When there was a strike at the plant, the artisans who painted the name on the planes used the same typeface to make the workers‘ protest signs.
The DH 84 Dragon was the first aeroplane purchased by Aer Lingus in 1936; they later operated the DH 86B Dragon Express and the DH 89 Dragon Rapide. De Havilland continued to produce high-performance aircraft including the twin-piston-engine DH 88 Comet racer, one of which became famous as the winner of the MacRobertson Air Race from England to Australia in 1934.
Building Mosquito aircraft at the de Havilland factory in Hatfield, 1943
The high-performance designs and wooden construction methods culminated in the Mosquito, constructed primarily of wood which avoided use of strategic materials such as aluminium during the Second World War. The company followed this with the even higher-performing Hornet fighter, which was one of the pioneers of the use of metal-wood and metal-metal bonding techniques.
The first de Havilland DH106 Comet prototype at Hatfield in 1949
After the Second World War de Havilland continued with advanced designs in both the military and civil fields, but several public disasters doomed the company as an independent entity. The experimental tailless jet-powered de Havilland DH 108 Swallow crashed in the Thames Estuary, killing Geoffrey de Havilland, Jr., son of the company’s founder. A large additional aircraft factory was acquired in 1948 at Hawarden Airport at Broughton near Chester, where production supplemented the Hatfield output. The De Havilland Comet was put into service in 1952 as the eagerly-anticipated first commercial jet airliner, twice as fast as previous alternatives and a source of British national pride. The Comet suffered three high-profile crashes in two years. Equally disastrous was the in-flight break-up of the DH 110 prototype during the 1952 Farnborough Airshow, which also killed members of the public.
Because of the structural problems of the Comet, in 1954 all remaining examples were withdrawn from service, with de Havilland launching a major effort to build a new version that would be both larger and stronger. This, the Comet 4, enabled the de Havilland airliner to return to the skies in 1958. By then the United States had its Boeing 707 jet and the Douglas DC-8, both of which were faster and more economical to operate. Orders for the Comet dried up.
Hawker Siddeley bought De Havilland in 1960 but kept it as a separate company until 1963. In that year it became the de Havilland Division of Hawker Siddeley Aviation and all types in production or development changed their designations from „DH‘ to „HS“ (see Hawker Siddeley Trident and BAe 125). The famous „DH“ and the de Havilland name live on, with several hundred Moths of various types and substantial numbers of many of the company’s other designs still flying all over the world.
De Havilland returned to the airline world in 1962 with a three-engine jetliner, the DH 121 Trident. However, the design was modified to be smaller to fit the needs of one airline—British European Airways. Other airlines found it unattractive and turned to a rival tri-jet: the Boeing 727 which was much the same size as the initial DH 121 design. de Havilland built only 117 Tridents, while Boeing went on to sell over 1,800 727s.
De Havilland also entered the field of long-range missiles, developing the liquid-fuelled 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 programme was cancelled, with Blue Streak dying as well. The last of them wound up in the hands of a farmer who used its fuel tanks to house his chickens.