The Dragon Rapide is remembered fondly by a generation of passengers to whom it gave their first taste of flying. Developed from the four-engined DH.86 Dragon Express, this elegant old lady is still to be seen in flight throughout the UK and several other countries.
The Express was an attractive biplane, and the new Gipsy Six engines were a notable improvement on the earlier Gipsy Majors that powered the visually similar DH Dragon. However, its appealing lines concealed numerous vices, not least of which was a tendency to "tip stall" on landing.
Faced the commercial difficulty of offering the choice between a dated twin-engined aircraft and a newer four-engined development with flawed handling, de Havilland set about designing a new machine.Arthur Hagg headed the design team on a smaller version of the Express, to be powered by a pair of the new Gipsy Sixes. Designated the DH.89, the new machine flew for the first time on 17th April 1934.
The DH.89 was anything but innovative. Douglas had already flown the larger, faster and more modern DC-1 prototype, and the first flight of its full-production successor, the DC-2, was less than a month away. Where the Douglas was a streamlined, all-metal monoplane, the DH.89 was a traditional wood and fabric biplane. The American machine boasted retractable undercarriage and three-blade variable-pitch propellers. The British opted for faired-in fixed undercarriage and simple, fixed-pitch, two-blade propellers.
But the new de Havilland, initially named the Dragon Six, was a finely judged product. European airlines wanted a small and simple, low-cost airliner for short-hauls. This little biplane fitted the bill perfectly. It was infinitely better tempered than the Dragon Express (though some tendency to tip-stall remained due to the narrow chord of the wings), and it achieved almost the same performance from half as many engines.
To highlight the DH.89's higher performance than the original Dragon, it was renamed from Dragon Six to Dragon Rapide, later to be known simply as Rapide.
At the outbreak of WW2, the Rapide was requisitioned by the Ministry of aircraft Production for use as a communications, light transport, training and reconnaiisance aircraft. Renamed the Dominie, this military version was initially identical to the civil type. But de Havilland switched production to the war effort and began manufacturing purpose-built Dominies. These were fitted with uprated Gipsy Queen engines and other, more minor, variations to suit them for their military role.
As hostilities ceased, many Dominies were re-converted for civil use. The type continued in regular airline use well into the 1960s. In total, over 700 were built and nine remain airworthy, with more being restored with a return to flight in view.
The Rapide can be seen as an anachronism, given its primitive design when compared to contemporary aircraft. But its success can't be questioned. This pretty, robust little aeroplane has a heart many times its diminutive size.
|DH.89 Rapide by numbers|
|First Flight:||17 April 1934|
|Powerplant:||2 × de Havilland Gipsy Six inline engines of 149 kW (200hp)|
|Maximum Speed:||253km/h (157mph)|
|Length:||10.5m (34ft 6in)|
|Wingspan:||14.6m (48ft 0in)|
|Height:||3.1m (10ft 3in)|