By John Crook, EAA 1203173, Salmon Arm, British Columbia
By 1932 in Canada, wood and fabric de Havilland aircraft, like the Tiger Moth and Fox Moth, provided vital training and air services across Canada for northern communities, mining regions, and as early air mail flights on wheels, skis, and floats.
By the mid-1930s, a variety of de Havilland Moths, single-engine Bellancas, Fairchilds, Fokkers, Wacos, Stinsons, and Junkers, amongst others, flew rugged Canadian operations over demanding uncharted geography and through unpredictable, often extreme weather. Nevertheless, more capacity and safety was needed.
In response, de Havilland promoted a larger twin-engine successor. English aircraft designer Arthur Ernest Hagg took Hillman’s Airways’ specifications and combined them with the needs of the Iraqi Air Force, resulting in the medium transport DH.84, Dragon 1 biplane. It became one of the first truly economical regional airliners.
The Dragon was a simple, light design with a plywood box fuselage using the same de Havilland Gipsy Major engine and outer wing sections of the Fox Moth. The first prototype flew at Stag Lane Aerodrome, England, on November 12, 1932.
Between the two English factories at Stag Lane and Hatfield, 115 Dragons were built in England. During World War II, another 87 Dragons were built in Australia under license for training and bush flying. During and after the war, Canadian Dragons were assembled in Toronto at de Havilland Aircraft of Canada.
The first Dragon 1 to grace the Canadian sky was CF-APJ (SN. 6024). Initially, it flew in the Maritimes for Canadian Airways in May 1933. Dragon 1s were easily distinguished from the Dragon 2. They had no frames around the cabin windows, which provided uninterrupted vision for passengers while the main wheels were exposed or used streamlined spats. On APJ the nose landing light appeared to be a novel afterthought. APJ carried mail between Moncton, New Brunswick, and Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, for nearly 10 years. By 1939 it was braving winter weather carrying mail to the Madeleine Islands in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.
The “Trail of the Caribou,” CF-CJM (SN. 6049) flight, is remarkable. Following a successful east-west trans-Atlantic flight in 1932, in June 1933, aviatrix Amy Johnson and Jim Mollison attempted take off from Wasaga Beach, Ontario, for a west-east crossing to Baghdad, Iraq, with G-ACJM, Seafarer II. The normal DH.84 range was 460 miles (740 km.), so Seafarer was fitted with fuel bladders in the cabin, which raised its gross weight to 7,334 pounds (3,326 kg) — double that of a normal Dragon. Consequently, the undercarriage collapsed.
In May 1934, James R. Ayling (English) and Captain Leonard Reid (Canadian) bought G-AJM. They rechristened it Trail of the Caribou and registered it in Canada as CF-CJM. After strengthening the undercarriage, on August 8, 1934, its early morning takeoff from Wasaga Beach used nearly a mile (1.6 km.), rather than the normal 546 feet (166 m). They crossed the Atlantic in 30 hours, 55 minutes, to land in Heston Airfield near London, thus becoming the first successful direct flight from mainland Canada to England, as opposed to the earlier Alcock and Brown flight from Newfoundland to Ireland in 1919. Newfoundland was to join Canada much later, in 1949.
Ayling and Reid were concerned about excessive fuel burn caused by fog and carburetor icing during the flight and put down in England. In fact, they had enough fuel to reach Baghdad, but were unable to measure it in flight.
Fox Newsreels interviewed the pilots and recorded their takeoff, while Pathé News filmed them after the flight. At both ends of the crossing the pilots wore ties and jackets during their interviews. One wonders if these clothes were worn throughout the crossing.
Sadly, CJM only lasted three more days after her historic flight. When Reid returned to Hamble on August 12 with a passenger, he crash landed and wrote off the Caribou.
AVD (SN. 6086) started with Quebec Airways in February 1935, then on to Canadian Airways in August, on west coast and maritime routes. An extended dorsal fin was needed to compensate for the effect of the Canadian Fairchild floats. This Dragon continued its service with Canadian Airways and Canadian Pacific Airlines in February 1942, but was finally damaged beyond repair in a gusty crosswind on May 26, 1944, after stalling on takeoff at Baie Comeau, Quebec.
In October 1935 CF-AVI (SN. 6093) started with Consolidated Mining and Smelting at Trail, British Columbia, before being traded in 1937 for a new DH.89 Rapide from de Havilland. It ended up with Howard Watt of North Shore Airways Ltd., headquartered at Trinity Bay, Quebec. There it ferried forestry workers across the St. Lawrence when river ice was forming or breaking up. Sadly, AVI was destroyed at Godbout, Quebec, in January 1941 while on skis. A wind storm broke it free of its moorings, then swept it over the adjacent dam into the river below.
In July 1984, the only Dragon flying in North America, N34DH/G-ADDI (SN. 6096), flew from Washington state across the Rockies to a de Havilland fly-in in Wetaskiwin, Alberta. G-ADDI is the same aircraft that the author’s grandparents first flew on in 1935 during its inaugural year at Speke Airfield near Liverpool, England. Subsequently, the author flew on it in 2013 at its home base in Washington.
After a long history in the U.K, first with Railway Air Services as the City of Cardiff and subsequently with a string of British operators, G-ADDI was commandeered during World War II as a communications aircraft. After the war, in Chrisair’s flashy red and white colours, it dropped sport parachutists and provided joy rides around Blackpool, north Wales, and the Isle of Wight.
In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, G-ADDI was flown for almost 15 years by Claire Roberts who established the Ninety-Nines women’s flying association in the U.K. This put her on a par with Lorna deBlicquy in Canada, and Amelia Earhart as leading women leaders of the Ninety-Nines.
As interest in Dragons subsided in Britain, in 1972 G-ADDI was shipped to the Perlitch Museum in California. It languished there until restored to flying condition by Mike Kimbrel in Washington state, where it still flies in Chrisair colours.
The author’s flight on DDI
John is a member of the Canadian Aviation Historical Association (CAHS) and the Moth Club in the U.K. He has also written a feature film script called “The Dragon’s Touch,” which is a family friendly, intergenerational story centred around a family matriarch and her great niece going on a quest to find the Dragon, G-ADDI. He was a volunteer guide at Vintage Wings of Canada in Gatineau, Quebec, before going out to Salmon Arm, British Columbia, and worked as a summer student in the early 1970s at the Canadian Aviation Museum in Ottawa.– Ed.