Remembering the life of daring test pilot Geoffrey de Havilland Jr - 75 years on from his tragic death
- Credit: Barry Guess/Wikimedia Commons
75 years ago this week, Geoffrey de Havilland Jr, daring test pilot and a key player in a defining era for British aviation, tragically lost his life. This is his story.
As the son Sir Geoffrey de Havilland, founder of the de Havilland Aircraft Company, Geoffrey Jr was born to fly, taking his first flight at just eight months old, carried in his mother's arms with his father at the controls.
The bond between the de Havilland family and flying was so strong that a teenage Geoffrey Jr would receive visits from his parents while at Stowe School, but they would travel in a DH.60 Moth rather than by road, landing on a field in the school grounds.
He would join the de Havilland Aircraft company in 1928 as an apprentice working in the engineering department and drawing office.
Somewhat inevitably, he also learned to fly, qualifying at the Royal Air Force Reserve School based at Stag Lane Aerodrome, getting his first job as a pilot in 1932, carrying out surveying work for the Aircraft Operating Company in South Africa.
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He would return to the UK six months later though, becoming a flying instructor at the de Havilland Aeronautical Technical School and later at the Hatfield-based London Aeroplane Club, roles that would help him secure a career-defining role.
With production at the de Havilland plant increasing rapidly throughout the mid-1930s, Geoffrey Jr was drafted in as a test pilot, assisting Hubert Broad and Robert Waight.
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In an age where aviation technology and design were rapidly advancing, the role of a test pilot was a dangerous one, with many losing their lives in accidents.
This was the fate of Waight, who died aged just 27, when in 1937 the de Havilland T.K.4 racing aircraft he was flying crashed during a 100km class record attempt.
With Broad having left the company two years prior to Waight’s death, Geoffrey Jr stepped into the role of chief test pilot, a position that would secure him a place in aviation history and ultimately cost him his life like many before him.
His first assignment saw him thrown in at the deep end, testing the DH.91 Albatross, a four-engine transport aircraft much bigger than anything he had flown before. But this experience would help him when testing de Havilland’s most iconic work.
With his father having designed and built the DH.98 Mosquito, a revolutionary unarmed, wooden bomber, it was up to Geoffrey Jr to see how it would fly, taking it to the skies for the first time on November 25, 1940.
During these important tests, he would help refine the 'Wooden Wonder’ by correcting issues with the undercarriage and tail. The final design would impress the RAF so much that upon witnessing it in flight, they would place an initial order for more than 1,300 of them.
The Mosquito would go on to help swing the Second World War in favour of the Allies, going down among Britain’s most iconic and versatile aircraft designs, operating in a number of roles including high-speed, low-level precision bombing mission.
Geoffrey Jr would then become a key player in the evolution of the jet age, test flying the DH.100 Vampire – the RAF’s second jet fighter – on September 20, 1943, becoming just the third British test pilot to conduct the maiden flight of a jet-powered aircraft.
He almost didn’t make it that far though, with two incidents nearly costing him his life.
Firstly, on April 11, 1939, Geoffrey Jr and fellow pilot John Cunningham were flying a Moth Minor when it stalled at 8,000ft and entered an uncontrollable spin, with both men bailing out and parachuting to safety.
Then, while flying a repaired Hawker Hurricane in mid-1940, the fighter’s entire canopy detached at 4,000ft, hitting Geoffrey in the face, blinding him and leaving him with permanent scars on his nose. With limited vision, he somehow managed to land the aircraft and lived to tell the tale.
But his luck would run out on September 27, 1946 when testing the DH 108 Swallow, Britain’s first swept-winged and tailless jet aircraft.
While flying over the Thames Estuary, the aircraft experience violent longitudinal oscillations which caused de Havilland’s head to strike the cockpit canopy, breaking his neck. The Swallow then broke up, with the remains landing in Egypt Bay near Gravesend, Kent, while Geoffrey’s body was discovered on the mud flats at Whitstable.
Renowned test pilot, Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, believed de Havilland’s height played a part in his death at the age of just 36. Brown had experienced similar problems when flying the DH 108, but due to his short stature, his head did not strike the cockpit.
While Geoffrey Sr is remembered as the brains behind The de Havilland Aircraft Company, his son devoted his life to helping bring his father’s work to life and advancing British aviation. Although he tragically lost his life at such a young age, his daring work should be remembered.