De Havilland DH89A Dragon Rapide
PUBLISHED: 12:38 29 June 2011 | UPDATED: 14:07 10 October 2012
This twin-engined biplane from the Thirties is no monster, but it merits careful handling, especially as it has no dual controls
By Peter Turner (Pictures: Peter R March)
What is it about the de Havilland marque? Is it the beautiful designs the company created or just nostalgia? Perhaps a bit of each, I think.
Certainly everyone I’ve spoken to has nothing but admiration for the Dragon Rapide – from pilots who have flown it and passengers who have flown in it, to people who have worked on it or just viewed it from afar. The pilots seem to have forgotten its quirky ways and the passengers, its noisy, cramped cabin!
By taildragger standards the Rapide is a sizeable twin which simply exudes elegance and style, a veritable gentleman’s aerial conveyance. Indeed ’DL started its civilian life as precisely that, its first owner being Eric Leslie Gander Dower MP. Now, recently certified, fitted with ‘new’ engines and given a new paint scheme, Delta Lima looks stunning.
Its curvaceous lines and classic de Havilland fin and rudder are beautifully set off by the elegant Royal Air Force Transport Command livery. With the type's history of operating passenger services from small grass aerodromes it was decided that I would fly it from Husbands Bosworth, rather than ’DL’s Coventry base.
I would be flying with Classic Flight’s chief pilot, Jon Corley, a brave chap, since the Rapide doesn’t have dual controls. External pre-flight checks begin with dipping a graduated broom handle into the left tank – very effective, very Thirties, and essential to confirm the fuel gauge reading.
The filler cap is on top the engine nacelle. Port and starboard tanks each hold 38 imperial gallons and are located just aft of the engines. A ‘gotcha’ here is to drop the cap, which is normally, but not always, secured with a chain, down into the cavernous nacelle. Jon informs me he hasn’t done it yet but it’s only a matter of time.
Next, at the very aft of the nacelle is the oil filler cap and dipstick to check for quantity and security. Gipsy Queens love to burn oil, so a plentiful supply is always carried on extended trips away from base. The oil tank’s capacity is four imperial gallons with a halfgallon air space.
While in this area we check the condition of the small flaps, the underside of the wings, what can be seen of the closely faired-in undercarriage and the inboard struts and bracing wires. Apparently there is an F sharp when you twang a wire somewhere in the birdcage. Moving along the trailing edge we check the lower aileron, which is linked to the control column by the usual wires and pulleys and to the upper aileron by a push rod.
We carry on around the wingtip and leading edge to the port engine, all the while twanging bracing wires and checking the integrity of the surfaces and struts. The props on the Rapide are always pulled through two revolutions for the first flight of the day. This is essential on inverted engines, as any oil accumulated in the cylinders has to be purged prior to start to prevent a hydraulic lock damaging the con rods.
We also check the security of the cowlings, which are prone to coming open in flight. Jon tells me that a cowl once opened shortly after takeoff and wrapped itself around the leading edge, causing some control difficulty. Fortunately there was enough runway left to make an immediate safe landing.GENERATOR PROP STILL THERE?
We check the wind generator still has its propeller. This 150amp generator is all we have to charge the chunky 42amp battery in the baggage hold. Starboard checks are the same except for also checking the security of the baggage door. Continuing around the tail we check the castoring tailwheel, twang more wires check EASA-required strobe light and arrive back at the cabin door, ready to climb aboard.
Boarding is via a set of CAA-approved B&Q steps, enabling one to step on to a small area of reinforced trailing edge, grab the handle at the top of the door and step into the cabin. The steps are then hauled in, folded up and stowed under the rear seats.
The door catch is released from the strut and it is closed just like a Thirties car. The cabin floor slopes steeply to the flightdeck with quite a narrow aisle between the eight seats. These are surprisingly comfortable and tastefully upholstered, as is the rest of the cabin.
Large windows give a panoramic view of the countryside between the beautifully tapered, strutted wings. The cabin doesn’t enjoy the luxury of heating though there are fresh air vents for each seat.
As usual for aircraft of this vintage, there’s no dignified way to climb into the cockpit. When I do get seated I find that I can’t adjust the rudder pedals: it’s a two-handed job and my arms aren’t long enough. So I back out, adjust them and climb in again.
The seat, although comfortable, is non-adjustable and reminds me of the ‘sit up and beg’ seats in my father’s 1940-something Morris 8. Perhaps because I am rather short, the cockpit fits me nicely and I feel at home. The cockpit is the opposite of ergonomic, almost as if the various wires and cables were fed willy-nilly into the cockpit and only then was it decided how to connect them all up.
However, most things are within reasonably easy reach and the view over that elegantly shaped nose, out to the sides and even overhead is absolutely splendid… although in rain, forward visibility apparently becomes marginal at best.
You have to lean out of one of the side windows and get wet. The throttles are located on the left wall, below which is the large elevator trim wheel which wouldn’t look amiss in a Norfolk Broads cruiser. The rudder trim sits on the lower right side of the central pedestal.
Due to its location, other than setting it to neutral, I resolve not to use it unless we lose an engine. The two-position flap lever is located on the floor outboard of my right leg and to use it I have to bend forwards and sideways with my head below the top of the instrument panel, relying on the inertia-reel shoulder harness to give me the necessary freedom. It must have been impossible to operate it wearing the original four-point harness.
I resolve to have land flap selected by 500 feet on the approach. Various light switches are scattered about the cockpit. The triangular side windows slide fully down if you need to open them. There is no cockpit heat.COUGH, COUGH
The engine starting procedure is much like any modern piston-engine aeroplane. With the park brake and fuel cocks on, the throttles are set one inch open. The Ki-gas selector is set to the left engine and, with a cold engine, the plunger pumped six times.
It is then left charged and unlocked for additional strokes should the engine be reluctant to start. The ground/flight (master) switch is set to ‘flight’ and the strobe switched on. With a final check that the area is clear the port engine mags are switched on and the starter activated.
The engine turns over and with a cough or two fires up and settles into a steady beat. From here on fuel is supplied by the engine-driven mechanical pumps. At this point the revs are set by ear as the rpm gauges do not read below 1,300 (novel!). With the left oil pressure above 40lb/sq in, the same procedure can then be applied to the starboard engine, after which the primer is locked.
After at least four minutes’ warm up, we can switch on the radio, bearing in mind that until airborne we are running the electrics on battery alone. With the minimal after-start checks complete we taxi to the hold for Coventry’s Runway 23.
This is where the fun begins, because you really need three hands to taxi the Rapide: one to operate the brakes, another the throttles and a third to hold the stick back.
The recommended procedure needs a strong – and long – right arm. Your left hand controls the brake lever, which, when used in small amounts, brakes each wheel independently when the appropriate rudder is applied. Your right hand crosses the left and controls the throttles on the left hand cockpit wall. And if there’s any wind, your right arm needs to be crooked through the yoke’s left horn on its way to the throttles.
An alternative is to set the brake lever on one or two notches, but brake fade could prove awkward. With today’s 10kt breeze I can leave the yoke to its own devices.
With the power and takeoff checks complete we are cleared to backtrack the runway for a takeoff in stream behind the Cessna 172 camera ship. After a thumbs-up from Jon, I gently apply some power. As soon as I am happy that we’re tracking straight I steadily advance both throttles to the stops, gently apply forward stick to lift the tail and briefly check the rpms, Ts and Ps.
There is very little tendency to swing and the slight crosswind from the right is no problem. After a short roll of about 500m the aircraft levitates, rather than flies itself off, at about 60kt with no discernable input from me. The ground slowly falls away while I hold the aircraft down to allow it to accelerate through the 65kt takeoff safety speed (TOSS) for an 80kt climb.
I’m grinning. What a lovely aeroplane! At 500ft, at a prompt from Jon, I reduce power to 2100/2100 and we climb at an effortless 1000fpm, easily outperforming the 172 ahead. I initially level off just below 1,500ft to stay below Birmingham’s CTA and set the power to 2000/2000 which returned an IAS of 95kt. Engine synchronisation is achieved purely by ear.BARELY WORTH DISCUSSING
So how does this lovely biplane twin handle? Control harmonisation? Well yes, barely worth discussing really. The rudder is very light, the ailerons quite heavy and the elevator just about right. The elevator trim wheel needs a lot of winding to get any result, possibly because it’s changing the tailplane’s angle of incidence rather than moving a trim tab.
Well-balanced turns are easily achieved with just a little rudder input. All in all, what one would expect of an aircraft of this vintage. After familiarising myself with the handling we catch up with the 172 over Bruntingthorpe and close in for the air-to-air shots. With all of 15 minutes on type, this was going to be fun. However with an aeroplane of this size, really close stuff (half a wing span or so) isn’t required.
What is required is plenty of strength and after 20 minutes or so, with the pictures in the bag, I am thankful to ease off the controls. The stalls are what one might expect of this breed of aircraft. A bit of buffet about 2kt before the real thing, followed by a slight nose-drop and right wing drop.
The speeds are 48kt with flaps down and 50kt clean. Right on the book figures. Next I descend to 1,000ft, set up a climb at 80kt and pull the right engine back to idle. Reducing the speed to 74kt and applying full left rudder has us climbing at a paltry 250fpm. At a weight some 1,500lb below max this is certainly food for thought. The Pilot’s Notes advise that, ‘At full load it is barely possible to maintain height on one engine.
The recommended single-engine cruise speed is 74kt indicated. The aircraft can be trimmed hands and feet off at this speed’. I think ‘barely possible’ is probably a bit optimistic. Ready for the next challenge (my first landing on type) I head for Hus Bos. In the cruise the Rapide’s fuel consumption is 18gph and if you carry the full complement of eight passengers, the still air range with 45 minutes reserves is about 250nm.
Recommended cruise speed is 95kt. Careful not to fly over neighbouring villages I enter a wide 1,000ft circuit at 75kt and complete the downwind checks, leaving the flaps up for now. As this is my first effort I set myself up for a long final approach, maintain 75kt, select the flaps at 500ft and allow the speed to reduce to 65kt over the hedge.
It seems awfully slow for a fairly large aeroplane but feels OK. After crossing the boundary, I raise the nose and wheel her gently onto the smooth turf, applying a touch of forward elevator to keep her pinned. Due to those elegantly tapered wings, wheeled landings are the norm for the Rapide as an attempt at a three-pointer could result in wingtip stall with disastrous results. NO EFFORT
Staying straight is no effort and I allow the tail to come down gently until we are running on all three wheels. The landing distance from 50ft was about 600m with no need to use brakes on the grass surface. Magic, absolute magic! However on a gusty day, with those heavy ailerons, I can imagine a lot of work would be required to keep the act together.
More evidence that a long, strong right arm would be a definite asset in the Rapide. Taxiing back for another circuit I raise the flaps, reset the trim and all is ready. With flaps down the Rapide has very poor ground clearance so it is essential to raise them as soon as possible after the landing run to prevent possible damage.
The next circuit is more relaxed and so even more enjoyable. After another smooth landing it is time for a cup of tea and chat. I notice as we go into the clubhouse, people coming from all points of the compass, eager for a closer look at this beautiful old biplane – Rapides always did gather admirers. Refreshed by the break, we board for the short sector back to Coventry.
After takeoff it is good to sit back, follow the 172 and look at the scenery. I can’t help but be envious of the pilots who flew routes around the UK before and after the war in this aircraft. Their jobs can’t have been easy, but I imagine the job satisfaction must have been immense.
Rather more, perhaps, than my own career flying executive jets. All too soon we were on final approach for Runway 23. My first tarmac landing and with a light crosswind to boot. Once again the old girl looks after me and despite being 5kt hot over the hedge we sit down in good style. The landing isn’t as good as my earlier efforts on grass but, according to Jon, it is perfectly acceptable.
I am changing hands for the taxiing trick when ATC calls with the turn-off instructions. Busy on the brake and throttles I can’t decide which one to let go of to reach the transmit button on the yoke. Jon laughs and rescues me, using his remote transmit button. Just when you think you’re close to getting it hacked there is always something to put you in your place!
I have been a great fan of the Rapide since my early teens and always wanted to fly one. I had already sampled the Classic Collection’s Twin Pioneer for Pilot, but with no dual control I knew this would be different. There were times when I felt like the proverbial swan, calm on the surface, but paddling furiously below.
The Rapide is a beautiful, elegant lady full of charm and character. Despite her quirks she is a joy to fly. Visit www.classicflight.com for details of how you can fly in the back of the Air Atlantique Rapide featured in this article. You won’t be disappointed and will probably end up with a grin nearly as big as mine!
I wore it for days after the flight, producing an air-to-air photo and boring anyone within range at the slightest provocation. Yes, it’s that kind of aeroplane. I feel privileged to have flown it.