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De Havilland DH-4

The DH-4 was used by the U.S. Air Service in France during World War I primarily for observation, day bombing, and artillery spotting.

De Havilland DH-82A Tiger Moth

This classic British trainer made its first flight on October 26, 1931. It became popular with Air Forces throughout the United Kingdom as well as the civilian aviation market.

De Havilland DH-98 Mosquito

The famous British Mosquito was first flown on November 25, 1940. It entered production in mid-1941 and was produced until well after the end of World War II.

De Havilland Comet

The De Havilland Comet was the world's first jet airliner.

De Havilland Aircraft Company

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 British government.

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 the 1920s.

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 airliners.

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 later.

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 photo-reconnaissance.

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.

—T. A. Heppenheimer


Birtles, Philip. De Havilland. London: Jane's, 1984.

Davies, R. E. G. A History of the World's Airlines. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Dempster, Derek D. The Tale of the Comet. New York: David McKay, 1958.

Gunston, Bill. Fighters of the Fifties. Osceola, Wis.: Specialty Press, 1981.

Heppenheimer, T. A. Turbulent Skies: The History of Commercial Aviation. New York: John Wiley, 1995.

Jackson, A. J. De Havilland Aircraft Since 1915. London: Putnam, 1962.

____________. De Havilland Aircraft Since 1909. London: Putnam, 1987.

Sharp, C. Martin. D.H.: A History of de Havilland. Shrewsbury, England: Airlife, 1982.

Schlaifer, Robert, and Heron, S. D. Development of Aircraft Engines and Fuels. Boston: Harvard University, 1950.

Educational Organization

Standard Designation (where applicable

Content of Standard

National Council for Geographic Education

Standard 1

How to use maps and other geographic representations to acquire and process information.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 4

Students will develop an understanding of the social, economic, and political effects of technology/

International Technology Education Association

Standard 9

Students will develop an understanding of engineering technology.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 10

Students will develop an understanding of the role of experimentation in problem solving.