Volunteers at the Historic Flight Foundation wheel out the newest addition to the collection, a de Havilland Dragon Rapide. The wood-and-fabric airplane was a popular airliner in the 1930s and saw extensive military service with the Royal Air Force during World War II. Only 12 of the 731 built remain. (Dan Catchpole / The Herald)

Paine Field museum scores rare 1930s de Havilland airplane

MUKILTEO — One of the rarest aircraft in the world recently landed at Paine Field’s Historic Flight Foundation in Mukilteo. The museum added a 1930s-era airliner, the de Havilland Dragon Rapide.

The sleek airplane is a jewel in the foundation’s collection of vintage airplanes, which date from the end of the barnstormer days in the late 1920s to the beginning of commercial jet age in the late 1950s. The Dragon Rapide “defines the end of an era” when planes were made with wood and fabric, said John Sessions, the Historic Flight Foundation’s owner and founder.

The plane’s durability and reliability meant airlines could stick to regularly scheduled flights, launching a new era of air travel, he said.

The Dragon Rapide first flew April 17, 1934, at the Hatfield Aerodrome north of London. It was designed by Geoffrey de Havilland, one of the most influential airplane designers of the 20th century. It quickly proved popular with airlines and even with a member of the United Kingdom’s royal family. Edward, Prince of Wales, used one of the twin-engine biplanes for official travel, including to fly to London for his coronation (as Edward VIII) in 1936.

De Havilland built 731 of the airplanes. Many were delivered to the Royal Air Force during World War II. The military version was dubbed the Dominie.

The airplane, which had one pilot and carried eight passengers, helped connect the farflung British Empire. The flight from London to Cape Town, South Africa, took 10 days with 23 stops, but was still faster than going by boat.

They surely were “intrepid passengers,” Sessions said. “Some of those stops must have been pretty sketchy.”

Sessions opened the Historic Flight Foundation in 2010 to celebrate the innovation and creativity that fueled a golden age of propeller-powered airplanes. The period is bookmarked by pivotal moments — Charles Lindbergh’s crossing of the Atlantic in 1927 and the development of Boeing’s 707, the first commercially successful jetliner in the 1950s.

The museum is open to the public year round. All the planes in the collection have been restored to original flying condition.

The foundation’s Dragon Rapide was built in 1944 for the Royal Air Force. After the war, it was converted into an airliner and used by British European Airways until 1953. For the next 18 years, it was used for aerial surveying of major public projects, such as highway and seaport construction. The aging plane was next shipped across the Atlantic in 1971, to the Experimental Aircraft Association Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The Dragon Rapide remained on display until late 1997, when a private collector in California, William ‘Bud’ Field, bought it and moved it to the West Coast.

After Field died in 2010, the plane stayed in storage as part of his estate.

When Sessions learned of the airplane’s existence, he contacted Field’s family and asked about acquiring the historic airplane. He declined to say how much he paid for the plane.

Earlier this year, he took off in the Dragon Rapide from Davis, California, and turned north. Flying into Oregon, he felt an unusual vibration. He set down in Medford, and inspected the plane. A key part of the left engine had failed, causing a significant drop in power. The plane stayed in Medford until spare parts arrived from the U.K. Sessions flew it to Paine Field in early spring.

The Dragon Rapide is slated to head out soon to British Columbia, where it will be overhauled by a restoration company, Sealand Aviation. The plane will be painted in either its World War II colors or as it would have looked during its days with British European Airways.

Mechanics also will painstakingly inspect the airplane and replace any questionable parts, Sessions said. “You can only be wrong once in these old airplanes.”

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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