Few aviators have left such a profound mark on aircraft development as Geoffrey de Havilland. In a career that spanned from the dawn of aviation to the jet age, he moved from designing his first aero engine in 1908 to creating aviation icons like the outstanding Mosquito and the world-changing Comet.
Born in Buckinghamshire in July 1882, de Havilland attended schools in Nuneaton and Oxford before laying the foundation of his career at the Crystal Palace School of Engineering, graduating in 1903.
Young Geoffrey’s first jobs were in the automotive industry, but his ambitions were fixed on higher targets. At the time, aviation’s greatest limiting factor was an engine light and powerful enough to lift an airframe and pilot into the air. While working in the design office of the Motor Omnibus Construction Company, he began the design of an aero engine. The Wright Brothers’ power unit at the time developed 15hp. De Havilland was convinced that he could produce more power from a lighter unit. Unlike the Wrights’ in-line configuration, his engine was a flat-four “boxer”, allowing it to be shorter and hence more easily packaged. His brother, Ivon, introduced Geoffrey to Iris Cars, a small automotive manufacturer in Willesden. They built a total of six. Christened the de Havilland Iris, the engine produced 45hp, three times the output of the Wright.
Equipped with a powerful engine, Geoffrey was now able to approach his dream of flight with a reasonable ambition for success. His first attempt, the catchily named de Havilland Biplane 1, crashed almost immediately after takeoff on its maiden flight. Unhurt and undeterred, Geoffrey designed Biplane 2, which he flew in September 1910.
The success of biplane 2 resulted in its purchase by the British Army Balloon Factory, who also took on de Havilland as aircraft designer and pilot. In 1912, the Balloon Factory became the Royal Aircraft Factory, which would specialise in heavier-than-air machines.
De Havilland’s first notable design for the Factory was the BE2, a modern two seater with – for the time – good performance and pleasant flying characteristics. Geoffrey’s brother, Hereward, set a world altitude record in the type, taking it to 3,200 metres (10,500ft). The Royal Aircraft Factory's function was to experiment and innovate, both of which suited the designer's character ideally. The "E" in all of the Factory's types denoted "Experimental", while the "B" or "F" prefix stood for "Bleriot", to identify a tractor configuration such as the BE2, or "Farman" for a pusher like the FE2.
Geoffrey joined the RFC in 1912 as a probationary 2nd Lieutenant, becoming a reserve officer in November, and confirmed as 2nd Lieutenant on Christmas Day 1912. After a brief spell as inspector with the Aeronautical Inspection Directorate he joined Airco as Chief Designer. His DH2 pusher machine was instrumental in combating the "Fokker Scourge". At the time the British lacked a reliable interruptor gear, which allowed aircraft like the Fokker Eindecker to fire through the propeller disc. By adopting a pusher configuration, with the engine behind the pilot, de Havilland facilitated a forward-firing scout that could finally counter the Germans' air superiority.
Geoffrey’s designs would go on to perform a major role in WW1, as well as in the early passenger years between the wars. A great many of his delightful Dragon Rapides remain in daily service today.
WW2 saw what may be his greatest design. The outstanding Mosquito was faster than contemporary fighters but, in bomber form, could carry almost the same bomb load as a B17 flying fortress. Almost indestructible, the “wooden wonder” was loved by pilots and remains one of the all-time greats of combat aircraft.
By the end of WW2, de Havilland was a major corporation and Geoffrey had ceded much of his design duty to his chief designer, Ronald Bishop. But as an influential political figure, he persuaded the Brabazon Committee to sanction the development of a jet airliner. He worked with Bishop to create the DH.106, which would become the world’s first jet airliner. When the Comet first flew in July 1949, it completed a journey that had seen Geoffrey de Havilland blaze a trail of invention from the dawn of flight to the jet age.