De Havilland's groundbreaking jet the Vampire

By Willie Bodenstein Photos by Willie Bodenstein unless stated.


Development of another of de Haviland's "Wooden Wonders", the Vampire, began in 1941 during the Second World War. Intended as a replacement of wartime piston-engine fighter aircraft, the Vampire was to exploit the revolutionary innovation of jet propulsion

Aside from its propulsion system and twin-boom configuration as well as the substantial use of wood in the construction process, it was a relatively conventional aircraft. It was the second jet fighter to be operated by the RAF, after the Gloster Meteor and the first to be powered by a single Halford H.1 turbojet "straight through" centrifugal engine capable of generating 3,000 lb of thrust. (Later produced by Goblin).

The use of a twin boom enabled the jet pipe to be kept relatively short, which avoided the power loss that would have occurred if a long pipe was used, as would have been necessary in a conventional fuselage. It also put the tailplane clear of interference from the exhaust.

The First RAF Vampire at Boscombe Down 1945. Photo Wikipedia.

On 22 April 1942, the construction of two prototypes (serials LZ548 and LZ551) was authorised by the ministry and the company proceeded with the detailed design work phase of the DH.100 in early 1942. The construction of the aircraft exploited de Havilland's extensive experience in the use of molded plywood for aircraft construction, which had previously been used on the legendary Mosquito. Armament comprised of four 20 mm Hispano Mk V cannon located underneath the nose; from the onset of the design phase.

On 20 September 1943, the first DH.100 prototype piloted by Geoffrey de Havilland Jr., the company's chief test pilot and son of the company's founder, conducted its maiden flight from Hatfield Aerodrome. Testing showed the major issue was a problem with directional instability - the aircraft was "snaking", which was corrected by changes to the tail design.

On 13 May 1944, an initial production order for 120 Vampire Mk I aircraft was received and quickly increased to 300 aircraft. The production Vampire Mk I did not fly until April 1945. Only about half a dozen production aircraft had been built by the end of the Second World War.

Vampire FB9s of 213 Sqn RAF over Egypt 1952. Photo Wikipedia.

In total, 3,268 Vampires were built in 15 versions, including twin-seat night fighters, trainers and carrier-based Sea Vampires. The final variants of the Vampire were the T (trainer) aircraft. First flown from the old Airspeed Ltd factory at Christchurch, Hampshire on 15 November 1950, production deliveries of the Vampire trainer began in January 1952. Over 600 examples of the T.11 were produced.

First carrier landing and take-off. Photo Wikipedia.

The Vampire was a versatile aircraft, setting many aviation firsts and records, one being the first RAF fighter with a top speed in excess of 500 mph (800 km/h). On 3 December 1945, a Sea Vampire piloted by Captain Eric "Winkle" Brown became the first pure-jet aircraft to land on and take off from an aircraft carrier.

The Vampire was used by 31 air forces. Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and the U.S. were the only major Western powers not to use the aircraft.

The Rhodesian Air Force acquired 16 Vampire FB.9 fighters and a further 16 Vampire T.11 trainers in the early 1950s, its first jet aircraft, equipping two squadrons. These were regularly deployed to Aden between 1957 and 1961, supporting British counter-insurgency operations. Twenty-one more two-seaters and 13 single-seaters were supplied by South Africa in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Rhodesia operated Vampires until the end of the bush war in 1979. In 1977, six were pressed into service for Operation Dingo. They were eventually replaced by the BAE Hawk 60 in the early 1980s. After 30 years' service, they were the last Vampires used on operations anywhere.

The SAAF Museum's DH.115 T55-2 Vampire was one of those that went to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where on 13 December 1972, she flew her final sortie for the Rhodesian Air Force. She returned to South Africa early in 1979 where she was transferred to the museum and registered on the civilian register as ZU-DFH and on 4 September 2009, she once again took to the sky.

Operated by the air forces of 31 countries, some 28 examples survive with approximately ten being airworthy examples.

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