I recently took a slightly turbulent ride in an original de Haviland Dragon Ripide - here's how that experience went.
The Duxford Imperial War Museum - located near the city of Cambridge in the UK - is, quite simply, an aviation paradise. As well as being full of aircraft from all eras, the museum offers pleasure flights in vintage airplanes. Naturally, I couldn't say no, so just an hour into my impromptu visit to the Duxford museum I found myself flying through a bright summer sky strapped into in a 70-year-old plywood biplane. If you've ever wondered what that's like, you've clicked on the right article.
Brief History of the Ripide
The de Haviland Dragon Ripide was introduced in 1934 as a passenger aircraft. It could hold up to eight passengers and fly short hall flights all over the world. The aircraft was made primarily of rather old-fashioned plywood, even for 1934's standards. Despite this, the plane was one of the most successful passenger aircraft of the 30s and went on to be used by the British Royal Air Force during WW2.
A fun fact about this plane is that one particular aircraft was actually owned by royalty. Edward VIII, who was king of England for a short time in 1936, actually flew a Rapide regularly to carry out his royal duties! This makes the airplane the first aircraft to be piloted by a monarch.
The Experience at Duxford
Upon arriving at the Duxford Imperial War Museum, I was immediately surrounded by a vibrance of aviation and aviation history. The place was buzzing with life, not just with people but with aircraft in action from the moment you step through the doors. As soon as you walk out of the main reception building, you're at the flight line. Just as I had started exploring, suddenly there was the howl of a Merlin engine. A Spitfire took off and banked around overhead.
Shortly afterwards, a different Spitfire appeared, screeched past and then landed. What a superb place to spend a day.
After turning up without pre-booking, purchasing a ticket for a reasonable £45 (around $60), I had just an hour to wait before my flight. The airplane I would be flying in was called Nettie. It was all decked out in RAF colors hinting that it may have been one of the planes requisitioned by the air force at the beginning of WW2. This one, however, was built after the war in 1946.
Inside the cockpit, which only has room for one pilot, there was an array of instruments typical of an aircraft of this era. It seemed like quite a straightforward setup. The IAS dial was written in knots, which the same for most British aircraft old and new. The greenhouse-style canopy gave excellent visibility all around.
Climbing into the vintage airliner as a passenger was a little challenging. As the biplane is a tail-dragger, the whole thing is set at an angle. The door is quite small too, so you really have to squeeze yourself in and try not to overbalance while doing so. To help, there was actually a piece of knotted rope to hold onto! How high-tech.
As the two engines started, I could see the cowling of one vibrating as the 200hp engine thumped below. Before take off, the Rapide taxied about for a while before sitting at the top end of the runway to warm its engines. The ride over the grass was quite bumpy to say the least, but not exactly unpleasant. It's kind of expected as all part of it when you're in a plane this old. Skipping along the hard runway, the lightweight aircraft got airborne fairly quickly. We were up! As we banked around to see the museum from the air, a Spitfire took off on the main runway. It was quite a sight to see one raise up to race above the fields, its shadow chasing in tow.
I had a good view of the cockpit. On this warm summers day, there were plenty of thermals and turbulent air to contend with for the pilot. Although there was little wind, it seemed like he had his work cut out to keep the plane straight and level when we reached our max height of around 3,000ft. Looking out over the dual wings of the biplane, which is an odd sight, you could see the lower ailerons working to counteract the buffeting air. I don't think I'd like to spend several hours in this thing straight after eating lunch.
After around fifteen minutes up at altitude, it was time to return to the airfield. Lower down, coming in for a landing at just 70 or 80 knots, the air was calmer. The engines idled as we turned to establish a decent path towards Duxford. With a squeal, the two main wheels touched the runway. It was quite surprising to feel the plane slow and lean backward to make contact with its tail wheel. Although I've flown in tail draggers before, to be in a passenger aircraft I somehow expected the plane to lower its nose after flairing. Maybe I just needed to turn my brain on.
If you really want to get the best sense of what it's like to fly in one of these vintage aircraft, this video should provide you with the next best thing to being there.
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Article by James Whomsley
Editor of FliteTest.com