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FEATURE – Perpetual Motion: the Dragon Rapide story

Photo: DH.84 Dragon G-ACIT at the former Hillman's Airways base in Abridge, Essex, in 1971 shortly before its last ever flight. It is now held in store by the Science Museum. KEN ELLIS COLLECTION


Still earning its keep after 80 years, the Rapide is an enduring workhorse, as Ken Ellis explains

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That adage must have occurred to de Havilland chief designer Arthur Hagg, when he was told to improve on his twin-engined DH.84 Dragon. Essex-based bus and coach operator Edward Hillman had diversified into air travel and was delighted with the six-passenger Dragon, which had been created with his needs in mind.

The prototype was flown for the first time on November 12, 1932 at Stag Lane, Edgware, Middlesex. It was granted its certificate of airworthiness 34 days later and handed over to an eager Mr Hillman in January 1933. Introducing an airliner to service was far easier in those days! The reliable, utilitarian DH.84 soon racked up an impressive order book, but Hillman clamoured for extra seats and increased speed, and he was not alone in these demands.

Meanwhile, Hagg and his team had turned to a joint British and Australian requirement for a ten-seat long-range airliner. In just four months they came up with the elegant DH.86 Express biplane, powered by four of the new 200hp (149kW) DH Gipsy Queen six-cylinder inline engines.

Hagg then scaled down the DH.86 to create the new twin, designated DH.89. This retained the ruggedness of the Dragon while offering two more seats, greater payload, speed and range, and was a much cleaner design than its somewhat angular forebear. Wanting to stress the family links while emphasising its enhanced performance, the DH marketing team called the new machine the Dragon Rapide.

By the time the first DH.89 was ready for testing DH had moved to its new headquarters, Hatfield in Hertfordshire, and it was from there that the new type had its maiden flight, on April 17, 1934. Airlines, charter companies, governments and private owners from all over the world flocked to order the new type.

Arthur Hagg need not have worried that the fledgling DH.84 would be eclipsed by the DH.89; the former remained in production in Britain until 1936. It also enjoyed a renaissance in 1943 to meet an urgent Royal Australian Air Force need for crew trainers (see the panel for a DH.84/DH.89 comparison).

Founder airlines

Launch customer Hillman’s Airways was not the first to accept a Rapide; it was pipped to the post. With its job done, ever frugal DH handed over the prototype to a Swiss customer on July 18, 1934. Hillman’s received its inaugural Rapide nine days later at its Abridge, Essex, base.

Railway Air Services (RAS) took delivery of an eventual total of 22 Rapides at Croydon, Surrey, in September 1934. Sounding like a contradiction in terms, RAS had been formed by a consortium of major railway companies the previous March, to compete with the emerging regional airlines…

The rest of this feature can be read in the current FlyPast, in UK shops now, or available at

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