De Havilland Express

De Havilland Express

Infobox Aircraft
name = D.H.86 Express
type = Passenger transport / trainer
manufacturer = de Havilland

caption = A D.H.86B of the RAF
designer =
first flight = 14 January 1934
introduced = 1934
retired =
status =
primary user = Imperial Airways
more users = Qantas
Royal Air Force
Royal Australian Air Force
produced =
number built = 62
unit cost =
variants with their own articles =

The de Havilland Express was a four-engined passenger aircraft from the 1930s manufactured by the de Havilland Aircraft Company.


During 1933, talks between the governments of United Kingdom, India, Malaya, the Straits Settlements and Australia resulted in an agreement to establish an Empire Air Mail Service. The Australian Government called for tenders on 22 September 1933 for the Singapore-Australia legs of the route, continuing as far south as Tasmania. On the following day Qantas, anticipating success in contracting for the Singapore-Brisbane leg, placed an order with de Havillands for an as-yet non-existent aircraft to be designated the de Havilland 86, the prototype to fly by the end of January 1934. This order was soon followed by one from Holymans Airways of Launceston, Tasmania to operate the Bass Strait leg of the service. The D.H.86 was initially styled the Express or Express Air Liner although the name was soon discontinued.

The D.H.86 was conceptually a four-engined enlargement of the successful de Havilland Dragon, but of more streamlined appearance with tapered wings and extensive use of metal farings around struts and undercarriage. The most powerful engine made by de Havilland, the new 200 hp Gipsy Six, was selected. For long-range work the aircraft was to carry a single pilot in the streamlined nose, with a wireless operator behind. Maximum seating for ten passengers was provided in the long-range type, however the short-range Holyman aircraft were fitted with twelve seats.

The prototype D.H.86 first flew on 14 January 1934, but the Qantas representative Lester Brain immediately rejected the single pilot layout because he anticipated pilot fatigue over long stretches, and the fuselage was promptly redesigned with a dual-pilot nose. Only four examples of the single-pilot D.H.86 were built, and of these the prototype was rebuilt as the dual-pilot prototype. When she entered service in October 1934 the first production aircraft, Holymans' single-pilot D.H.86 "Miss Hobart", was the fastest British-built passenger aircraft operating anywhere in the world. Despite de Havilland's predictions to the contrary, the dual pilot type with its lengthened nose proved to be even faster.

Investigations in 1936 following a series of fatal crashes resulted in late production aircraft being built with additional fin area in the shape of vertical "Zulu Shield" extensions to the tail planes to improve lateral stability - these aircraft were designated D.H.86Bs.

Operational History


D.H.86s were also built for New Zealand's Union Airways, flying between Auckland, Palmerston North and Wellington. During World War II, the New Zealand aircraft were fitted with bomb racks and used by the Royal New Zealand Air Force to hunt German raiders and Japanese shipping. The survivors served with NAC post war.

A total of 15 D.H.86s, D.H.86As and D.H.86Bs operated commercially within Australia and New Guinea up to the outbreak of World War II. Eight D.H.86A and D.H.86B aircraft were impressed into the Royal Australian Air Force and served as A31-1 to A31-8 during the War. Some served as air ambulances in the Middle East, while others did sterling work as transport aircraft and air ambulances in Australia and New Guinea [ [ ADF Serials D.H.86 page] retrieved on 2007-09-13.] .

A total of 62 D.H.86s of all types were built. Most of those still flying in Europe at start of World War II were also taken into military service, mostly for communications and radio navigational training. Few survived the war.

Technical Deficiencies

"This section is largely sourced from the book" Air Crash, Volume One "by Macarthur Job" [cite book| author=Job, Macarthur| title=Air Crash, Volume One| edition=1991| publisher=Aerospace Publications | location=Canberra| year 1991| ] .

Seriously lacking in directional stability, the D.H.86s were frequently in trouble. On 19 October 1934 Holyman's VH-URN "Miss Hobart" was lost in Bass Strait with no survivors. Flotsam that may have been wreckage from the aircraft was seen from the air three days later but surface ships failed to locate it in rough seas; the aircraft had effectively vanished. At the time "Miss Hobart" disappeared the design of the aircraft was not suspect, and it was thought that an accident may had occurred when Captain Jenkins and the wireless operator/assistant pilot Victor Holyman (one of the proprietors of Holymans Airways) were swapping seats in mid flight. However following the loss of Qantas' VH-USG near Longreach four weeks later while on its delivery flight, it was found that the fin bias mechanisms of the crashed aircraft and at least one other were faulty, although it is doubtful that this had any direct bearing on the accidents other than perhaps adding to the aircraft’s lack of inherent stability. Further investigation revealed that VH-USG had been loaded with a spare engine in the rear of the cabin, and that one of the crew members was in the lavatory in the extreme aft of the cabin when control was lost. It was theorised that the aft centre of gravity condition that thus existed resulted in a loss-of-control at an altitude insufficient for recovery (the aircraft was at an estimated height of 1,000 feet prior to the crash).

On 2 October 1935 Holyman's VH-URT "Loina" was also lost in Bass Strait, again with no survivors. This time a significant amount of wreckage was recovered from the sea and from beaches on Flinders Island. Investigation of the wreckage revealed a section of charred carpet on a piece of cabin flooring from just ahead of the lavatory door. It was thought possible that a small fire from a dropped cigarette had led to someone running aft suddenly to stamp it out – the sort of sudden change in weight distribution that could set up a fatal loss of directional control while the aircraft was on a low-speed landing approach.

The Royal Air Force's Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment tested the D.H.86 design in 1936 following three fatal crashes in Europe. It would be forty years before the report was published – one of the most damning indictments ever written on the design of a commercial airliner put into series production. The D.H.86 had been rushed from design concept to test flight in a record four months to meet the deadlines set by the Australian airmail contracts, and a lot of attention to detail had been ignored. It was a big aircraft for its power, and as a result very lightly built. There was poor response to control movements in certain speed ranges, the wings were inclined to twist badly if the ailerons were used coarsely and, most seriously, the vertical tail surface was of inadequate area. The result was an aircraft that, although quite safe under normal conditions, could rapidly get out of control under certain flight regimes.

Although the control problems were overcome on later-manufactured D.H.86Bs, the results of the tests do not appear to have been communicated to Australia and the D.H.86s already in use were never modified to improve their safety. This lack of communication may have caused a number of later accidents including at least one of two further fatal disasters in commercial service. The mid-air break-up of Qantas' VH-USE "Sydney" in a thunderstorm near Brisbane in 1942 with the loss of nine lives was possibly unavoidable, however the fin was found almost a mile away from the main wreckage, which was burnt without an investigation being carried out. The accident involving MacRobertson Miller Airlines’ ex-Qantas aircraft VH-USF at Geraldton on 24 June 1945 most likely was entirely avoidable had the AaAEE report been communicated to Australia ["Air Crash Vol. II" pp107-111.] . On its first commercial flight for its new owners after military service, the pilot and a passenger were killed in a classic loss-of-control accident while taking off with a heavy load in gusty conditions.

Another D.H.86, VH-USW (the former Holyman Airways "Lepena"), was bought by MacRobertson Miller Airlines at much the same time as VH-USF and was the last of the type to fly in Australia. MMA sold the eleven-year-old aircraft to an English company late in 1946; it was abandoned in India in an "unsafe state" while on her delivery flight. Edgar Johnston, the Assistant Director General of the Australian Department of Civil Aviation, then had it scrapped at Australian Government expense to make sure that it never flew again ["Air Crash Vol. II" p111.] ["The Historic Civil Aircraft Register of Australia" VH-USW entry.] .

The Political and Commercial Consequences

Following the first three fatal Australian D.H.86 accidents and a forced landing to VH-USW "Lepena" on 13 December 1935 (a Friday) when the pilot believed his aircraft was about to break up in mid-air [It was later found that only a metal fairing had worked loose and was fluttering in the airflow, but this incident demonstrates the lack of confidence in the design held within the Australian aviation industry at the time.] , the Australian Government temporarily suspended the type's Certificate of Airworthiness. This caused outrage in Britain as it reflected on the whole British aircraft industry. In fact, the D.H.86 had approached the limits to which traditional "plywood and canvas" aircraft construction could be taken, and was obsolete compared to all-aluminium stressed-skin aircraft like the Boeing 247 and the Douglas DC-1 that were already flying before it was even designed (and the immortal Douglas DC-3 had its first flight just four days after the forced-landing of VH-USW). Under pressure from Holymans and other companies, the Australian Government rescinded its ban on the import of American aircraft during 1936, and for the next 25 years most large commercial aircraft imported into Australia were of American manufacture.


* D.H.86 : Four engined medium transport biplane. First production version with single-pilot cockpit.
* D.H.86A : Improved version with wider cockpit for two pilots.
* D.H.86B : Fitted with auxiliary endplate fins to the tailplane.


Civil Operators

*Union Airways;UK
*Imperial Airways

Military Operators

*Royal Australian Air Force;FIN
*Finnish Air Force;NZL
*Royal New Zealand Air Force
**No. 2 Squadron RNZAF
**No. 4 Squadron RNZAF
**No. 42 Squadron RNZAF;flag|Rhodesia;UK
*Royal Air Force
**No. 24 Squadron RAF
**No. 117 Squadron RAF
**No. 216 Squadron RAF

pecifications (D.H.86A)

aircraft specifications
plane or copter?=plane
jet or prop?=prop
crew=Two (pilot and co-pilot)
capacity= 10-12 passengers
payload main=
payload alt=
length main= 46 ft 1 in
length alt= 14.1 m
span main= 64 ft 6 in
span alt= 19.7 m
height main= 13 ft 3 in
height alt= 4 m
area main= 638 ft²
area alt= 59.3 m²
empty weight main= 6,250 lb
empty weight alt= 2,830 kg
loaded weight main= 10,250 lb
loaded weight alt= 4,650 kg
useful load main=
useful load alt=
max takeoff weight main=
max takeoff weight alt=
more general=
engine (prop)= de Havilland Gipsy Six
type of prop=inline engine
number of props=4
power main= 200 hp
power alt= 150 kW
power original=
max speed main=166 mph
max speed alt= 267 km/h, 144 kts
cruise speed main=
cruise speed alt=
stall speed main=
stall speed alt=
never exceed speed main=
never exceed speed alt=
range main= 748 miles
range alt= 1,200 km, 640 nm
ceiling main= 17,400 ft
ceiling alt= 5,300 m
climb rate main= 925 ft/min
climb rate alt= 280 m/min
loading main=
loading alt=
power/mass main=
power/mass alt=
more performance=


*cite book| author=Jackson, A. J.| title=British Civil Aircraft 1919-1972: Volume II| edition=1988| publisher=Putnam (Conway Maritime Press)| location=London| year 1988|
*cite book| author=Job, Macarthur| title=Air Crash, Volume Two| edition=1992| publisher=Aerospace Publications | location=Canberra| year 1992|
* Cookson, Bert. "The Historic Civil Aircraft Register of Australia (Pre War) G-AUAA to VH-UZZ". 1996, Toombul, Queensland: AustairData (privately published).

ee also

*de Havilland Dragon
*de Havilland Dragon Rapide

similar aircraft=

*List of aircraft of the RAF

see also=

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