All photos by the author unless noted
In 1934 the de Havilland Aircraft Company launched the DH89 Dragon Rapide, based on their previous twin-engine light transport design, the DH84 Dragon. The Dragon Rapide and its military variant, the Dominie, were produced until 1946 by which time 737 examples had been built. The Dragon had itself succeeded the single-engine DH83 Fox Moth and was a big success for the company, indeed it had been the type used to operate the inaugural service for the Irish airline Aer Lingus. However, it became apparent that something bigger, more powerful and modern-looking would sell well, and from this came the six to eight seat Dragon Rapide. Its more powerful six-cylinder engines, redesigned undercarriage and elegant tapered wings gave it an increased cruising speed of 125 mph.
Many English companies and airlines operated these aeroplanes before WW2 and most of them were taken over for RAF service as soon as war had broken out. The RAF placed orders for further Rapides (or Dominies, as they were called by the military) for use as radio and navigation trainers and for communications purposes.
Post-war, Rapides were used extensively by small and start-up airline companies which found that their cheap operating costs and ability to use small undeveloped airfields made them a better economic proposition than the larger and heavier Douglas DC-3, which was better suited to longer routes with a greater number of passengers to carry. The same economic considerations meant that Rapides were in use throughout the world to bring air services to previously remote communities.
In 1947, nearly all the small airlines in England were nationalised by the Labour government of the time, and were incorporated into British European Airways.
So where does DAS fit into this story? DAS was founded in 1975 and started its collection of iconic British Airliners that were to become the British Airliner Collection we know today. One of the first aeroplanes to arrive at Duxford was the Bristol Britannia. It was parts for this aeroplane that saw Acquisitions Officer Mike Donelan visiting Biggin Hill to check out the Air Spain Brits that were being broken up there. Whilst rummaging about for cabin parts Mike happened to see parked in the long grass a rather sad and neglected de Havilland Rapide. Being told by an engineer at Biggin that its future was dire and it would soon be turned into a bonfire, he went for a closer look and could not believe his eyes when he saw it was G-AGJG – the aircraft in which he had taken his first pleasure flight as a young boy at London Airport.
How had GJG ended up at Heathrow? Built as a Dominie she was delivered to the RAF in 1941, who released her in 1943 to Scottish Airways to fly internal Highlands and Islands routes in Scotland. It is this wartime Scottish Airways paint scheme she wears today. Landing on the beach at Barra even required pilots to consult tide tables as well their normal schedules! Twin Otters still use the beach there as a runway.
In 1947 GJG joined the new state airline BEA but remained with them for just one year before being sold on to Adie Aviation at Croydon. BEA continued its Scottish services using war reparation Ju52s, but found they were very unreliable and that spares were no longer to be had from the devastated German aircraft industry. GJG meanwhile became part of ex-ATA pilot Monique Agazarian’s Island Air Services fleet, which was based at Croydon and operated joy rides from both Croydon and Heathrow Airport, which is where young Mike Donelan had his first taste of flying.
Like most surviving Rapides, she spent time during the 1960s carrying parachutists aloft at places such as Thruxton and Halfpenny Green. Finally she was parked outside at Biggin awaiting her fate, with the cost of a Certificate of Airworthiness renewal exceeding the value of the aircraft, when Mike was reacquainted with her. Thinking she would make a good addition to the collection he made further enquiries with a view to DAS restoring the Rapide to provide air experience flights to its members. After some investigation and contacting the owner a deal was struck that would see the aeroplane coming to DAS on a twenty-year lease with the requirement that an airworthy aeroplane be returned to the owner at the end of that time.
This seemed a great plan that would give the newly formed DAS an aircraft to restore back to flight and then enjoy the fruits of their labours for a few years. The Rapide was patched up by a local company at Biggin and flown to Duxford in August 1975. And that was when reality kicked in! Following a detailed inspection and horror when it became clear just how much work was required for a safe return to the air, GJG was more or less left untouched by DAS for two years.
Thereafter, DAS entered into another loan agreement on a second Rapide, registered G-AGTM but marked as NF875 of the Royal Navy. This aircraft was operated until the end of the 1980 season, flown often by the Society’s founder Chairman, Don Selway.
Meanwhile father and son team David and Mark Miller had started working on G-AGJG’s airframe and with the help of several of the Duxford engineers, managed to make some progress for a number of years, However, the DAS board could not see the project being finished before it had to be returned to the owner under the conditions of the lease, so DAS had to abandon its plans to make it airworthy. Mark Miller had moved to London while a student and was able to make regular attempts to see the owner with a view to him and his Dad purchasing the aeroplane outright. This they finally achieved in 1986, so after eleven years at DAS the Rapide got away to owners new!
With the Rapide now housed in Building 63 at Duxford, David and Mark continued the restoration until, 27 years after it had arrived at Duxford, G-AGJG took to the air once more in 2004, an example of superb engineering, tenacity and determination to finish the job they had started all those years ago. Not content with just finishing the job Mark then took it upon himself to organise a gathering of as many Rapides as he could for the 2004 Flying Legends air show. In the end six Rapides joined in formation for a gentle flypast to show the crowd what these early British airliners looked and sounded like.
As well as the Millers’ GJG at Duxford we are lucky to have the pleasure flying group Classic Wings operating from here as well. They have a fleet of three Rapides and rides can be taken throughout the summer months. After the demise of Air Atlantique, who also had a number of Rapides, Classic Wings are now the largest operator of the type. In fact the longevity of Classic Wings’ Rapide operations now far exceeds those of BEA!
A recent addition to the pleasure flying scene is Scillonia Airways. Following a very lengthy rebuild of their machine G-AHAG, they started offering flights a few years ago. Based at Membury on the M4 their beautiful Rapide is finished in the scheme it wore when it was in service with Scillonia Airways flying between Lands End and the Scilly Isles
Despite DAS letting not one but two Rapides slip through their fingers, you can see there was a good outcome for GJG in the end. With so few Rapides left flying we are lucky to still be able to sample what it was like to be an airline passenger in the 1930s and1940s thanks to the operators that still offer pleasure flights. Long may this continue. I’ll finish with thanks to Mark and David Miller and Mike Donelan for their help with this article and a final look at G-AGJG; ‘The one that got away’.
Till the next time, Keith