Saturday, February 9, 2008
The DH.86 "Dragon Express"
For the first new post of 4706 I thought I'd inaugurate a new series: interesting airplanes of the past.
I looked at a couple of candidates for the first post, including the Bristol Brabazon (which will probably be the next one), the ATL-98 "Carvair", or the DH.89 "Dragon Rapide". I was leaning towards the Dragon Rapide, but decided that it was too successful and not that unusual, even though it first flew in 1934. (Notice a trend? All Brit aircraft so far.)
The Express, however, is much more rare (I'm not sure any still exist), and has a much more interesting story.
The DH.86, not officially called the "Express" or "Express Air Liner", was designed and built by deHavilland in only slightly over four months in 1933, to fill a requirement for an airmail carrier and air liner in Australia and New Zealand. The first one flew in January 1934, and was operating with Quantas and Holyman Airlines in Australia by October 1934.
It was powered by four deHavilland "Gipsy Six" engines, producing only 200 HP each - although the Gipsy Six was the most powerful engine produced by deHavilland at the time. Construction was plywood and fabric - like most British airplanes at that time, although the US airline industry was already producing vastly superior stressed-aluminum designs. It was also unique in having a single-pilot cockpit in the original design. The British built many aircraft, both commercial and military, designed to be operated by a single pilot, which was unusual, except for fighter aircraft, in the US. The Express carried 17 passengers - a lot for only 800 horsepower.
The Express was rushed into production too quickly, and had serious handling deficiencies. It lacked much of anything in the way of lateral stability, and had bad center-of-gravity issues. The first one flying for Holyman Airlines lasted about two weeks before a fatal crash, killing Holyman's founder Victor Holyman. In 1936 the Express had its Airworthiness Certificate revoked. The famous British Airplane and Armament Experimental Establishment evaluated the Express and found it to be very dangerous.
The problems were eventually fixed, and the type went on to fly into World War II. 62 were eventually produced, compared to 731 of the smaller and vastly safer Dragon Rapide. I tried to figure out if there are any DH.86s still extant, and can find no evidence that there are. There might be one in a British Air Museum, but I doubt it.