The De Havilland DH88 was produced by De Havilland Aircraft Company to ensure that a competitive British entry would be available for the 1934 MacRobertson Air Race between England and Australia.
The race was sponsored by Australian confectionary giant Macpherson Robertson to celebrate 100th anniversary of the State of Victoria. Despite British successes in air races such as the Schneider Trophy, the UK aircraft industry did not have a suitable contender and so Geoffrey de Havilland, who was determined that the race should have a British winner, took on the challenge.
Initial estimates placed the cost at around £50,000 per aircraft and with little prospect of individual customers nor a chance of any form of production run, the De Havilland Board based their decision to finance the project purely on prestige and any resulting research data.
Each aircraft was sold for £5,000, provided they were ordered before February 1934. Three aircraft were actually ordered for the race, the first aircraft being E-1 (G-ACSP) which flew on 8th September 1934, just six weeks before the start.
Designed by Arthur Hagg, the cantilever monoplane was powered by two 230 hp Gipsy Six R engines, driving Ratier two-position propellers that changed the pitch from fine to coarse automatically as airspeed increased.
Two crew would be seated in tandem behind three large fuel tanks which provided a maximum range of nearly 3,000 miles. The airframe featuring a retractable undercarriage to enhance the aerodynamics and the overall light-weight construction resulted in the aircraft being made almost entirely made of wood. The only metal being used within the fuselage being in load bearing components.
The three 'Race Planes' were the black and gold liveried ‘Black Magic’ (G-ACSP), flown by Jim and Amy Mollinson (nee Amy Johnson); the British Racing green (G-ACSR), flown by Owen Cathcart and Ken Waller although the aircraft was actually paid for by racing driver Bernard Rubin,; and the red and white (G-ACSS) ‘Grosvenor House’ flown by CWA Scott and Tom Campbell Black which was named by its owner (Mr AO Edwards) after the London Hotel where he was Managing Director.
The race started on 20th October 1934 from RAF Mildenhall and attracted a large entry of racing, commercial and private aircraft.
The intimate details of the race can be found elsewhere on the internet but an indication of the superior range of the DH88 Comet Racer was that both 'Black Magic' (G-ACSP) and 'Grosvenor House' (G-ACSS) flew to Baghdad non-stop. Although the Mollinsons led in Black Magic during the early stages, it was G-Grosvenor House that reached Melbourne in first place, after just 70 hr 54 min.
In the overall race classifications, they were followed by a KLM Douglas DC-2, albeit nearly 9¼ hours behind.
'Black Magic' (G-ACSP) eventually retired when a piston seized after the Mollinsons had been forced to use contaminated fuel, sourced from the local bus company in Jobbolpore.
Cathcart & Waller (G-ACSR) came fourth and returned to England soon after, carrying newsreel film and completed the round trip in a record of thirteen and a half days.
Upon its return, 'Grosvenor House' (G-ACSS) was commandeered by the Air Ministry who flew it to Martlesham Heath for evaluation trials. It was repainted silver and re-designated (K-5084) before being written off during a heavy landing. It was sold for scrap before being acquired by Essex Aero who rebuilt it with Gypsy Six series II engines and used it for a number of further record breaking flights. It had been renamed as ‘The Burberry’ when Arthur Clouston and Victor Ricketts took it on an outstanding flight from Gravesend to Blenheim, New Zealand and back between 15th and 26th March 1938, covering the 26,450 miles in 10 days, 21 hours 22 minutes.
G-ACSR was renamed Reine Astrid before being sold to France as F-ANPY and where it also broke several point to point records. This led to a further aircraft being ordered (F-ANPZ) although both aircraft were later destroyed in a hangar fire at Istres in 1940.
'Black Magic' (G-ACSP) went to Portugal as CS-AAJ ‘Salazar’ where it also subsequently set record flying times between Lisbon and London. After it was retired it was found in a very sorry state in a barn in Portugal during 1979. Thankfully, it is now undergoing restoration at Derby Airfield, Egginton. A certain amount of mystery still remains about the whereabouts of the aircraft prior to 1979 and anyone with any information are asked to contact www.cometracerproject.co.uk.
The fifth and final DH88 was ‘Boomerang’ (G-ADEF) which was actually flown by Tom Campbell Black in an attempt on the record between London and Cape Town. It managed to reach Cairo in a record 11 hrs 18 minutes but the attempt had to be abandoned after the aircraft developed oil troubles. During 1935, it sadly crashed in the Sudan with the crew only surviving by virtue of their parachutes.
The DH88 Comet Racer was by any measure a significant aircraft in the history of both air racing and aviation development because it demonstrated what could be achieved once a clear goal is set.
De Havilland Aircraft Company could have continued on their corporate path, developing civil and military aircraft in great numbers.
Thankfully, Geoffrey de Havilland could not resist that competitive urge to create another unique design and produce an aircraft which would beat the world.
|Powerplant||Two 230 hp De Havilland Gipsy Six R|
|Span||44 ft 0 in|
|Maximum Weight||5,550 lb|
|Capacity||Two crew – pilot and navigator|
|Maximum Speed||237 mph|
|Cruising Seed||220 mph|
Number Built & Survivors
|G-ACSP||‘Black Magic’ has been rediscovered is with the Comet Racer Project Group, Derby Airfield for restoration to flying condition.|
|G-ACSR||No longer extant.|
|G-ACSS||‘Grosvenor House’ rebuilt by de Havilland apprentices and has subsequently been restored to flying condition at The Shuttleworth Trust.|
|F-ANPZ||No longer extant|
|G-ADEF||‘Boomerang’ destroyed in the Sudan September 1935|
|NX88D||A full-size replica of G-ACSS is flying in the United States.|
|G-RCSR||A further full-size flying replica DH88 is being built in the UK by Ken Fern|