British aviation pioneer and aircraft engineer Captain Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, OM, CBE, AFC, RDI, FRAeS, was born 27 July 1882 at Magdala House, Terriers, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. He was educated at Nuneaton Grammar School, St Edward’s School, Oxford and the Crystal Palace School of Engineering (from 1900 to 1903).Upon graduating from engineering training, de Havilland pursued a career in automotive engineering, building cars and motorcycles. He took an apprenticeship with engine manufacturers Willans & Robinson of Rugby, after which he worked as a draughtsman for The Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Company Limited in Birmingham, He then spent two years working in the design office of Motor Omnibus Construction Company Limited in Walthamstow. While there he designed his first aero engine and had the first prototype made by Iris Motor Company of Willesden.
He married in 1909 and almost immediately embarked on the career of designing, building and flying aircraft to which he devoted the rest of his life. Geoffrey de Havilland’s first aircraft took two years to build before he crashed it during its first very short flight at Seven Barrows near Litchfield, Hampshire in 1910. A memorial marks the event. Subsequent designs were more successful: in 1912 he established a new British altitude record of 10,500 feet (3.2 km) in an aircraft of his design, the B.E.2. De Havilland was the designer and his brother Hereward the test pilot. In December 1910, de Havilland joined HM Balloon Factory at Farnborough, which was to become the Royal Aircraft Factory.
He sold his second aeroplane (which he had used to teach himself to fly) to his new employer for £400. It became the F.E.1, the first aircraft to bear an official Royal Aircraft Factory designation. For the next three years de Havilland designed, or participated in the design of, a number of experimental types at the “Factory”. In January 1914, de Havilland was appointed an inspector of aircraft in the Aeronautical Inspection Directorate. Unhappy at leaving design work, in May he was recruited to become the Chief Designer at Airco, in Hendon. He designed many aircraft for Airco, all designated by his initials, DH. Large numbers of de Havilland designed aircraft were used during the First World War, flown by the Royal Flying Corps and later the Royal Air Force.Airco was bought by the BSA Company, but BSA was only interested in using the company factories for car production.
Raising £20,000, de Havilland bought the relevant assets he needed and in 1920 formed the de Havilland Aircraft Company at Stag Lane Aerodrome, Edgware, where he and his company designed and built a large number of aircraft, including the Moth family. In 1933 the company moved to Hatfield Aerodrome, in Hertfordshire. One of his roles was as test pilot for the company’s aircraft, in all of which he liked to fly. He was believed to have said “we could have had jets” in reference to the ignoring of jet engine possibilities prior to the start of the 1939-45 world war. The company’s aircraft, particularly the Mosquito, played a formidable role in the Second World War and the Mosquito was considered by some to be the most versatile warplane ever built, until in 1960 The De Havilland Aircraft Company was bought by the Hawker Siddeley Company.
Geoffrey De Havilland also developed and built the The de Havilland DH 106 Comet which was the first production commercial Jetliner at its Hatfield headquarters. The Comet 1 prototype first flew on 27 July 1949. It featured an aerodynamically clean design with four de Havilland Ghost turbojet engines buried in the wings, a pressurised fuselage, and large square windows. For the era, it offered a relatively quiet, comfortable passenger cabin and showed signs of being a commercial success at its 1952 debut. Sadly a year after entering commercial service the Comets began suffering problems, with three of them breaking up during mid-flight in well-publicised accidents. This was later found to be due to catastrophic metal fatigue, not well understood at the time, in the airframes. The Comet was subsequently withdrawn from service and extensively tested to discover the cause; after the first incident was incorrectly blamed on adverse weather.
However Design flaws, including dangerous stresses at the corners of the square windows and installation methodology, were ultimately identified; consequently the Comet was extensively redesigned with oval windows, structural reinforcement and other changes. Rival manufacturers heeded the lessons learned from the Comet while developing their own aircraft. Although sales never fully recovered, the improved Comet 2 and the prototype Comet 3 culminated in the redesigned Comet 4 series which debuted in 1958 and had a productive career of over 30 years. The Comet was adapted for a variety of military roles such as VIP, medical and passenger transport, as well as surveillance; the most extensive modification resulted in a specialised maritime patrol aircraft variant, the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod, which remained in service with the Royal Air Force (RAF) until June 2011, over 60 years after the Comet’s first flight. Geoffrey, de Havilland retired from active involvement in his company, in 1955, though remaining as president and continued flying until the age of 70.
Throughout his life De Havilland garnered many awards. In 1918, de Havilland was made an OBE and CBE in 1934. He received the Air Force Cross in 1919, in recognition of his service in theFirst World War, and was knighted in 1944. He was appointed to the Order of Merit in 1962. He received numerous national and international gold and silver medals and honorary fellowships of learned and engineering societies. A statue of de Havilland was erected in July 1997 near the entrance to the College Lane campus of the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield. He was in effect a benefactor of the university, as in 1951 the de Havilland company had given land adjoining the A1 toHertfordshire County Council for educational use in perpetuity; the Hatfield Technical College then founded was a precursor of today’s university. The statue was unveiled by His Royal Highness, The Duke of Edinburgh. De Havilland sadly died aged 82, of a cerebral haemorrhage, on 21 May 1965 at Watford Peace Memorial Hospital, Hertfordshire.