Reproduced with permission from G3DQY!
The De Havilland Dominie
Many of our ex-aircrew members were trained on Yatesbury’s De Havilland Dominies and they recall the experience with mixed feelings. She has been called a ‘joke aeroplane’ by one member in Phil Tomaselli’s book, RAF Yatesbury – the History, while others remember her with a great deal of affection as the machine that introduced them to the world of flight. Many are still flying and are often referred to as reminders of the golden age of flying! This is the story of the Dominie, the RAF version of the Rapide civil airliner.
The Rapide was the brainchild of Edward Hillman, a coach operator based at Romford in Essex, whose vehicles ran from there to the coastal resorts of Clacton, Southend and Margate, and the Channel ports. In 1931 he decided to offer an air service to these places, cutting the journey time by over 85%. He started off with a single-engined De Havilland Puss Moth which carried a pilot and two passengers. This was so successful that, by the following summer, he had acquired three more Puss Moths and three Fox Moths, the latter carrying four passengers. He based the aircraft at Maylands, a small airfield three miles from Romford in Essex and took over the aerodrome licence. He then set his sights on competing with the might Imperial Airways for the continental routes. He wanted an eight-passenger, twin-engined aircraft, that would use the DH Gypsy Major engines that he had found so reliable in his Fox Moths. He approached Geoffrey DeHavilland with the specification and the result was that the DeHavilland Dragon was specifically designed, using extended Tiger Moth wings, for Hillman’s Airways.
The Dragon cost £2,800 and Hillman ordered four off the drawing board. Even undercutting Imperial Airways and Air France on the Romford-Paris route, it was more profitable than the Fox Moth. Soon Maylands became too small and he needed a larger aircraft. He acquired the aerodrome and the nearby village of Stapleford Tawney and bought the first seven of the updated version of the DH Dragon which DeHavilland had developed as a result of the Dragon’s commercial success.
This was the DH89 Dragon Rapide powered by the more powerful Gypsy Queen engines. It took eight passengers and was powered by two Gypsy Six Engines. Soon Hillman’s Rapides were flying passengers and mail from Stapleford Tawney to Paris and Brussels, and on internal routes to Liverpool, Manchester, Hull, Belfast, the Isle of Man and Glasgow.
The war brought the need for the RAF to train Wireless Operators so the military version of the DH89 Rapide, the RAF Dominie, was brought into being, either by converting existing Rapides or building them from new. The wartime Dominie can be distinguished from the Rapide by the D/F loop which was installed on the roof. By June 1941, Yatesbury had acquired 26 Dominie flying classrooms.
The Dominie carried a pilot, a Corporal Instructor and five or seven trainees. Frank Swan recalls, “Looking back makes me think of how those cabins smelt of sick, primarily because it was mostly the cadets’ first flight in a shabby old aircraft which already smelt”. L Butler, writing in “RAF Yatesbury – the History” reminisces about the biscuit tin which was kept on board. “It was odds-on that least one of the seven trainees would be sick. When queuing up to take your turn to fly, you would almost inevitably see one trainee coming off the plane holding the biscuit tin. He would have been the one who had been sick and it would cost half-a-crown to pay the ground crew to clean it out”.
The trainees would carry out exercises during the flight. But these flights were sometimes almost as terrifying as anything that they eventually encountered on operations. The pilots were usually those who had complete a tour of ops or were waiting to be posted to an operational squadron and were not too happy flying a Dominie. Members tell of hair-raising rides flying in between canyons of clouds, mock dogfights with other Dominies and Proctors, flying alongside a flight of B17 bombers, flying under the Clifton suspension bridge, dodging balloon cables over London for ‘fun’ and chasing sheep on the downs. It was as a result of sheep-chasing that one Dominie crashed killing all seven on board. The pilot was a civilian.
After the war, some Dominies stayed in the RAF and some were converted back to Rapide specification. Louis Roskell, our cartoonist, recalls his first flight:
One momentous day in the fifties – I suppose I was about twelve years old – during an air show at RAF Hornchurch, my Uncle Gilbert took me on a flight in a De Havilland Dragon Rapide, a twin-engined silver biplane of pre-war design owned by Olley Air Services. It was a never-to-be-forgotten moment which I absorbed with every sense.
I climbed the three or four steps and noted the stretched and doped fabric of the fuselage and the taut, criss-crossed rigging wires which emerged from the wings. As we took off, I sat in absolute fascination watching the spinning propeller and the grass rushing past until it was a green blur. Noting the precise moment that the wheels lifted from the ground, I looked beyond to see the perimeter fence and road rush past. To the south, the silver strip of the Thames meandered beneath a broken mass of blue-grey clouds and divided the marshy flatness of riverside Essex from the hills of Kent. Through the windows, occasionally streaked with beads of rain, I could see for the first time, the countryside and the smoky expanse of my home town of Romford in the context of that corner of the country.
One of our Yatesbury Dominies is flying with Classic Wings and Duxford, giving joy-rides. Phil Tomaselli, our Membership Secretary, took his family up for a nostalgic flight last summer.
In July this year, I spent a week in Cambridgeshire with my daughter, her husband and four of my grandchildren. We spent one day at the museum at RAF Duxford. I persuaded my son-in-law and three of the grandchildren to go up with in Yatesbury’s old Dominie. They were a little worried when I explained that it was over 60 years old! So, in due course, we presented ourselves and boarded the Dominie with two other passengers, so there were seven of us on board. There was not a lot of room so it made me realise how difficult it must have been with the radio equipment on in those days. It is vastly different from flying in a commercial jet as you are really close to, and almost part of, all the action. You can see the pilot and feel the vibration and hear the noise of the engines. The take-off and landing from a grass strip is worth the money alone. The trip is fifteen minutes and is a figure of eight around the station at about 1000 feet. Other, longer trips over Cambridge and London are also available.
Over 700 DH89 Rapide/Dominies were built and many are still flying today. DeHavillands replaced the Rapide with the Dove. Maylands Airfield, where it all began, is now Maylands Golf Course which you can see on the left as you drive anti-clockwise between Junctions 28 and 27 on the M25. Further round on the left, Stapleford Tawney, which was a satellite airfield of RAF Hornchurch during the war, is still in operation.
Thanks to John G3DQY for letting me have this article.