Airspeed Horsa at Christchurch 1948
Airspeed Horsa at Christchurch 1948
The Airspeed AS.51 Horsa was primarily a wooden troop-carrying glider, designed and built by Airspeed (1934) Limited, specifically for use during World War II. 
The Air Ministry issued Specification X.26/40 calling for a large glider aircraft, capable of accommodating up to 30 fully-equipped paratroopers, destined for operations in Northern France. Amongst the particulars was the instruction that the aircraft should make use of wood as its main construction material, in order to conserve critical supplies of metals and alloys.

Airspeed (1934) Ltd were amongst the companies receiving the specification, and it produced initial designs at Hatfield, under the leadership of A Hessell-Tiltman. The war effort was in full swing at the parent company (De Havilland Aircraft Company), who had recently acquired a controlling interest in Airspeed, and so the team were based within the classrooms of the De Havilland Technical School.

This was never ideal due to the constant threat of air raid attacks and so they were relocated to Salisbury Hall, at nearby London Colney. Salisbury Hall was the home of the DH98 Mosquito Design Team, working under the likes of Ralph Hare and Ron Bishop. The DH98 Mosquito was subsequently dubbed ‘The Wooden Wonder’ and so the synergy between the two projects was of great benefit.

The final design for the new glider were completed within just 11 months, an extraordinary achievement given that Britain was at the height of its conflict with Germany, and that the Battle of Britain was being fought over the skies of London and the South of England.

With the designs complete, the first two prototypes were built at Salisbury Hall before being transported to the Fairey Aviation Works at Hayes, alongside the Great West Aerodrome.
The first prototype (DG597) flew on 12th September 1940 in the capable hands of George Errington. It was towed into the skies over West London and Berkshire by an Armstrong Whitworth Whitley, and after a short period,, it returned to ground with very little difficulties of note. Allocated the designation Airspeed AS.51, the type was also christened ‘Horsa’, after the legendary 5th-century conqueror of southern Britain.

Five additional prototypes were then quickly assembled and flown at the Airspeed Works, Christchurch in Dorset.

As soon as production began, a number of suggested improvements and refinements were made by expert sub-contractors, some with decades of wooden furniture experience. These resulted in the design of the Airspeed AS58 Horsa II.
This was a modified design featuring a reinforced floor, together with a hinged nose section in order to accommodate the carriage of military vehicles for both transport and combat roles. Another significant upgrade was the fitment of a stronger twin nose wheel, plus a modified tow attachment. All of these added to an increased all-up weight capability of 15,750 pounds (7,140 kg). It should be noted that although Airspeed (1934) Limited were responsible for most aspects of the Airspeed AS53 Horsa II, they never manufactured or assembled any aircraft of this marque.

With seating for up to 30 troops, the Airspeed Horsa was much bigger than its U.S. contemporary (the Waco CG-4A) which only had a capacity of just 12.

By far the most famous sortie carried out by six Horsa Gliders was the delivery of an advance force the 80 Paratroopers. Codenamed ‘Operation Deadstick’ took place on the evening of 5th June 1944, the night before the D-Day landings.

These men, from the D Company of the 2nd Oxfordshire & Buckingham Light Infantry, were transported by the Glider Pilot Regiment into the countryside, just 4 miles from the Normandy coast. Under the cover of darkness and after an almost silent approach, they were responsible for successfully securing the strategically important bridge at Bénouville, over the Caen Canal in Normandy (now known as Pegasus Bridge).

The Airspeed Horsa was a major factor in a number of major operations that followed the successful Normandy assault. These included Operation Dragoon and Operation Market Garden, which involve 1,205 gliders in 1944. A year later Airspeed Horsa gliders were involved in Operation Varsity (March 1945) where 440 aircraft carried soldiers of the 6th Airborne Division across the Rhine. This was to be they types final active operation of the war.
Airspeed Horsa Paratroopers boarding in 1942
Paratroopers boarding a Horsa Glider in 1942
After the conflict, a small number of Airspeed AS58 Horsa Mk IIs were acquired by the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) with evaluation trials held at Canadian Air Force Base in Manitoba.  Three of these aircraft were subsequently purchased as surplus in the early 1950s and ended up in Matlock, Manitoba, where they were eventually scrapped.
All told, nearly 3,800 were built, with extensive sub-contracting to furniture manufacturers. Airspeed built some 700 (695 at Christchurch), the Harris Lebus ‘group’ adding around 2,700 others and Austin Motors Ltd a further 365.
Once manufactured, the various components were sent to various RAF Maintenance Units around the UK. The potential production of a further 400 being produced in India was investigated but abandoned as the cost of importing the necessary wood became cost-prohibitive.
Due to the dispersed manufacturing of the sub-components before final assembly at various RAF Maintenance Units around the UK, it is difficult to accurately identify a final production number but estimates of completed aircraft appear to vary between 3,799 and 4,000 units.
Despite this, only one complete example survives.

Specification (Horsa 1)

Nil (Transport Glider)  
88 ft 0 in
Maximum Weight
15,500 lb Horsa I, 15,750 lb Horsa II
Pilot and 20-25 equipped troops
Maximum Tow Speed
150 mph
Glide Speed
100 mph


Number built

Airspeed AS.51 Horsa 1
7 Prototype &
256 Production built (Minimum)
Production aircraft with cable attachment points on main landing gear                                                                                
Airspeed AS.52 Horsa
Never built
Project design for bomb-carrying
Airspeed AS.53 Horsa
Never built
Project - Never completed
Airspeed AS.58 Horsa II Hinged nose, twin nose-wheel and modified towing strop



Airspeed Horsa II
Museum of Army Flying, Middle Wallop, Hampshire, UK
Airspeed Horsa 1 (Replica) Memorial Pegasus, Avenue du Major Howard 14860 Ranville, France
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BAE Systems
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