Wartime Diaries of a de Havilland Engineer – Postscript Part 1

Richard (Dick) Whittingham spent all his working life at de Havilland, starting as an apprentice in 1935 and finishing up as a senior production engineer. Dick’s wartime diaries, adapted by his nephew Roger Coasby, have been serialised previously on this site, and you can read those previous instalments here. This is the first part of the postscript to those diaries and these postscripts cover the period from the latter part of the war to Dick’s retirement.

From Mosquito to Vampire

(Transcribed from audio)

At the same time as we were working on all these different types and variants of Mosquitos we had at that time almost completed the assembly of the first prototype Vampire.

LZ548 - DH.100 Vampire prototype
LZ548 – first of three DH.100 Vampire prototypes

It was done in the most secret manner, although it was in the experimental (Dept.) which was a different part of the factory entirely. It was screened off in the experimental itself and you had to have a special pass to get through the little door into the enclosure where it was being assembled. One day there was a knock on the door and I opened the door to see who it was and it was Sir Geoffrey de Havilland and he said “Do you think it would be alright if I came in, only I’ve got my friend Fred with me.” I said “Well I’m sure it’s alright for you to come in sir.” So I let him in and I had a look to see who his friend Fred was and I realised it was Sir Frederick Handley Page. Sir Geoffrey, he had a reputation for being a most polite and a real gentleman, and in my experience it was absolutely true and I’d got a lot of respect for him.

DH.100 Vampire prototype

Eventually the Vampire, the prototype, was finished and ready for flight, and the night before it flew I worked all night going over it right from one end to the other inspecting it really to the best of my ability. I was so tired the following morning when it flew that I was at home asleep and didn’t even see its first flight. But I came in again the following night after it flew and again I went all over it from beginning to end, took all the covers off and screwed them all back on again. I could hardly believe that at the time I was only 23 years old and I thought, you know, such a responsibility that at my age now, would I really trust anyone of that age to do it. I’m really not sure that I would but I think it was at a time when you thought nothing of it, because youngsters much younger than 23 – 18 or 19 years old – were flying great bombers to Berlin and back so perhaps it was a young persons period at that in those years.

Vampire F MkI
Vampire F Mk.I prototype TG278

There had always been a de Havilland tradition that the workforce should have an opportunity to see a new aircraft flying. In the case of the Vampire this tradition was continued and on one day in October 1943 we got the prototype ready to fly, pushed it out on the airfield, the hooter went and the whole workforce streamed out on to the field to watch the demonstration. Geoffrey de Havilland he said “Look how many people there are” and he said “Do you reckon we could do this after the war and make a business out of it? How many half crowns do you think there are here?” He wasn’t really a business man but that’s the only time I ever heard him say anything like that.

Another time when he hadn’t been flying the Vampire for very long, it could only stay up for half an hour, that was its maximum time it could stay up at that time, he was taxiing it out one day, and there was always a crowd of interested people turn out when they heard it start up and bearing in mind that he hadn’t really flown it for very long and he must have been really all worked up. He suddenly stopped as he was taxiing it out and he waved me over towards him and somebody said “You’d better go and see what’s up.” When I got over to him he said “How’s your wife?” Somebody must have told him that my wife was at that time seriously ill in Barnet hospital. When I think of Geoffrey now I always think of that gesture because he was perhaps thought of at that time as a hard-living, hard-drinking type of man, but there was a side of him that I saw then that other people wouldn’t know about.

DH’s Chief Designer Ronald E. Bishop

Geoffrey also liked to try and pull the leg of Bishop, Ronald Bishop the chief designer (who led the Mosquito design team – Ed.), who was a rather austere person, and one day he said to Bishop “You’ve got to do something about the weaving that the Vampire was doing. After you do a tight turn it just weaves from side to side and it’s some time before I can get it under control.” So they added a temporary extra fin – a dorsal fin – to put more fin area on it and that only made it worse. So they stood there discussing it and Geoffrey said “I think you’re going the wrong way. I think you want less fin area. How about taking one of the rudders off?” It had two rudders. Bishop said “Oh no we can’t do anything like that.” He said it’ll be alright so we took a rudder off and I remember signing it out for flight saying ‘With only one rudder as agreed test pilot’. So up it went and when it came down Geoffrey said “That’s absolutely right now. Leave it like that.” He was giving us some winks and Bishop said “No, no, you can’t have a twin finned aeroplane with only one rudder.” So Geoffrey said “Well let’s take a bit off the fin then.” They said they’d go back and work out where it could be done. One of the fitters listening in said “Well there’s only one place that you can cut it, it’s just above the top rib on the fin.” Geoffrey said “Well let’s do that then.” The design people were horrified. But anyway Geoffrey had got the bit between his teeth – I’m sure it wouldn’t happen now – but he said to the fitter “Have you got a hack saw – go and get it.” So the fitter came back with a hack saw and he sawed about 6 or 7 inches of the fin right off from front to back just above this rib and carried on right through the rudder as well and did it on the other side and the design staff they just went back to the office, they were disgusted. Anyway he took off like that and he came back and said “I don’t know what they’re going to do in the office, but this is how I want it, it’s absolutely perfect now.” So that is why when you see photographs of early Vampires they’ve got a flat topped tail assembly, but if you look at photographs of later Vampires they redesigned the whole fin and rudder so that the traditional DH shape was restored. And that’s the answer to that.

Part 2 of this Postscript will be published shortly.

Roger Coasby is a member of the de Havilland Aeronautical Technical School Association. You can find out more about the DHAeTSA, which has over 500 members, on our Affiliates page here.

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