DH 89a Dragon Rapide, B.E.A., Old Warden

Building on the commercial success of the De Havilland DH 84 Dragon, and filling the need for a faster, more capable aircraft, De Havilland came up with the DH 89 Dragon Six – sometimes called the Dragon Rapide, and later just Rapide – the prototype first flying in April 1934. With its DH Gipsy Major 6 engines of 200hp, and capable of carrying eight passengers, it was an instant success in the civil market. The De Havilland factory at Hatfield was soon occupied with orders for companies, and airlines such as Olley Air Services and Hillman Airways Ltd. In response to requests to improve landing performance, De Havilland fitted small flaps under the lower wings from 1936, these steepened the glide angle and prevented the problem of ‘floating’ which had affected the Rapide.

The Royal Air Force ordered two DH 89a aircraft as communication machines for No. 24 Squadron in 1938, but this was just the start of the flood! With the outbreak of war, orders flooded in for aircraft for navigation training, ‘wireless’ operator training, air ambulances and more communications machines. These military aircraft were called Dominie T.1, and given the designation of DH 89b; they joined no less than 205 civilian machines which had been ‘impressed’ for both RAF and Royal Navy use. With Hatfield starting to concentrate on building the impressive, new, Mosquito, De Havillands needed a sub-contractor to build the Dominie. They chose Brush Coachworks Ltd of Loughborough, Leicestershire, a company who normally built ‘bus bodies (which used a great deal of wood framework), and had built Avro 504 aircraft during WW1. The Dominie was a true work horse during WW2, with some even being supplied to USAAF units in the UK in a form of ‘reverse Lend-Lease’!

The shape of British commercial aviation following the Second World War was to have been dictated by the Brabazon Report. However, some of the recommended ‘Brabazon Types’ were slow coming into service, and the newly formed nationalized airline ‘British European Airways’, brought into being by the new Labour Government, had to launch with a diverse mix of ex-RAF Dakotas, captured ex-Luftwaffe Ju52/3m  aircraft (!), and the ever-reliable ‘demobbed’ Dominies, now converted to civilian DH 89a standard. Formed in 1946, B.E.A. started absorbing the small independent airlines like West Coast Air Services and Scottish Airways, and their fleets of Rapides; in fact, so many were acquired that B.E.A. had to start selling excess aircraft off. Finally, 19 of them were formed into the ‘Islander Class’ in 1950 and, in the fashion of the day, given names including ‘R.M.A. Cecil John Rhodes’ and ‘R.M.A. Rudyard Kipling’ (R.M.A. meaning ‘Royal Mail Aircraft’, being authorized to carry mail). The ‘Islander’ Class were used on short ‘thin’ routes such as those serving the Scottish Highlands and Islands, the Channel Islands and the Scilly Isles, sometimes operating from flat, hard stretches of beach.

Here we see the immaculately restored G-AGSH, c/n 6884, formerly ‘NR808’ in military service, on display at the Shuttleworth Trust, Old Warden, Bedfordshire. It is in B.E.A. silver and red livery, and bore the ‘Islander’ Class name of  ‘R.M.A. James Kier Hardie’ – a prominent Scottish politician and one of the founders of the Labour Party – it is now  named ‘Gemma Meeson’, a very nice family tribute. Sierra Hotel has been operated by Channel Island Airways, been on the Irish Register (as EI-AJO), and operated by the RAF Parachuting Association. Finally it has come to roost at Old Warden, in the competent hands of Phillip Meeson, and we can all enjoy this survivor of the early days of post-war European flying, particularly at the wonderful airshows that the Shuttleworth Trust produces.

6 comments on “DH 89a Dragon Rapide, B.E.A., Old Warden”

  1. Ross, I’ve always thought that the Rapide was a terribly elegant design but I never knew before that they served in the utility transport role for the USAAF. It turns out that the USAF museum out at WPAFB has got one – albeit not one of the actual a/c that served, but one of type tricked out for the part.

    It looks good in Army Green…thanks for the pointer.



    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Frank. I have sent you a pdf with three side views of USAAF Dominies (two feature the same aircraft). They actually give some ‘where/when’ data. Enjoy! Ross


  2. Thanks, Ross. And there was a beautiful Rapide featured in that recent BA advert that had some currency on the web.

    The first view in your pdf carries the number X7454, which is the same number that graces the USAF museum’s a/c in its present colors as seen in the link in my earlier comment.

    Keep well,



  3. I also agree that this is one of the most graceful of aircraft designs to have flown.


  4. There are 3 Rapides as part of the AIRBASE Museum , Baginton, Coventry, one of which is available for pleasure flights over Warwick Castle , etc.


    • I was fortunate enough to visit AirBase last summer, and will, hopefully, be showing more of their collection!


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