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De Havilland DH-9, E-8894

Original, undiscovered 1st World War aircraft survivors are extraordinarily rare, so I was very intrigued to be shown, about 20-years ago, what amounted to a treasure map of the location of not one but three such aircraft out of sight inside a fortress in Rajasthan, in the town of Bikaner. To check this rumour out, I contacted an Indian friend of mine, who had the time and inclination, being a pilot himself, to go to Bikaner and discover if this story was true. When his photos arrived, I could not believe what I was seeing. Two derelict but mainly complete though dismantled DH9 bombers in a disused elephant stable and a third imaginatively restored and on display in the fortress museum. I had to try and acquire at least the two derelict and engineless airframes and save these remains before the termites had eaten them completely away. Quite a challenge as it turned out.

The DH9 was designed to be a replacement for the DH4, which had a number of weaknesses not the least being the large gap – filled by a fuel tank - between gunner and pilot, leading to communication difficulties between the pilot and gunner thereby reducing the defensive ability of the aircraft. The lack of space in the fuselage also preventing it being able to carry an internal bomb load. Apart from this, it was arguably a better aeroplane than its replacement, the DH9, mainly due to the excellent Rolls-Royce Eagle engine.

The DH9 was designed from the outset for strategic bombing, as by then the Zeppelins and Gotha bombers were making life rather frightening on the UK mainland, so something had to be done to bring the war to the German homeland and give the Germans a taste of their own medicine. So – the strategic bomber was borne and the DH9 became the first in a long line that extends to today's air forces throughout the world.

The aircraft was not a great success initially with large numbers shot down or more often, force landed having suffered engine failure. They also were unable to carry their designed heavier bomb load due to the limited power from the 200 BHP or Puma engine (they were basically the same power-plant, with minor differences and made by different manufacturers). In time, after these engines were developed and modified, it became a moderately good aeroplane but too late, for the war had ended by then – and in any case a successor, the DH9a with a better and more powerful engine – either the American Liberty engine or the British Rolls-Royce Eagle - was beginning to be introduced into R.A.F. service.

So - how did these aeroplanes arrive in this far-flung corner of the British Empire? It is an intriguing and perhaps in today's more cynical world, an inglorious story. It is not that well known that large contingents of indigenous young men from our Empire countries were recruited to help support Belgium and France in their struggle against the invading Germans in the First World War. Very large numbers were killed during that wasteful conflict, never to return to their homeland. Following the cessation of the war, huge quantities of obsolete military equipment were donated to these countries, perhaps in slight recompense, through the then-named Imperial Gift Scheme.

These DH9 aircraft and a quantity of other obsolete guns and military equipment were given to the Maharaja Ganga Sing of Bikaner to start an embryonic military defence force as part of the Imperial Gift Scheme. However, the aircraft were not equipped with bomb release gear or guns, and neither was there any flying training given to prospective local pilots, so these aircraft lay unused. One also suspects that this lack of training and incomplete equipment was deliberately done in order to avoid being attacked by our own weapons in any future uprising! From physical evidence in our DH9 we know this equipment was never fitted, though bizarrely, the extremely rare if not unique surviving Negative Lens bomb sights, were in place (probably because they were long obsolete by 1918) as was the interrupter gear for the forward firing machine gun - but no gun! The mountings, though, remaining unused.

Almost no First World War bombers survive, and this type, one of the most produced in Great Britain, the first strategic bomber we made and a good-looking aeroplane from all angles, had to be brought back and restored. Guy Black's plan was to persuade the Imperial War Museum (IWM) to have one (serial number D-5649, made by the furniture factories of Waring & Gillow, and now on display in the Super Hangar) and to bring the second aircraft back to flight – serial number E-8894, made by the Aircraft Manufacturing Co. The purchase alone took three years to conclude, and it took a further 17 years to complete the restorations.

We could find no record of either aircraft being used in action during the First World War, as most individual aircraft records were destroyed during the Blitz and there is some evidence that these aircraft could have been held in storage or in reserve as both were known to be held at a depot at Biggin Hill in early 1918. There were no engines when we found them, the original BHP motors having been used on an irrigation scheme in Rajasthan, but in service use, the engine was initially a very poor design and unsurprisingly almost none had survived. Fortunately, IWM had one in their inventory and we were able to find another one in Canada – which we were firmly told was not available, being in store in the then-named National Aviation Museum. 'No' in this case simply represents a challenge to be met and so this engine eventually arrived in the UK to be joined with the restored airframe, after extensive modification and restoration.

Both aircraft were given to Retrotec Ltd at Westfield, near Hastings in East Sussex being the restoration 'arm' of Historic Aircraft Collection (HAC) consisting of some of the most experienced people in the industry, having tackled in the past the restoration to flight of many unique types such as the Hawker Nimrod II and Hawker Fury single-seat biplanes for HAC – also on display at Duxford. The static aircraft was chosen from the best of the two simply because a useful proportion of the non-airworthy wooden structure could be conserved and used again, though the termites had feasted well and the flier had to have a greater input of new wood, but in the end, there was as much original material used as there is in most modern restorations of flying aircraft as safety is paramount. You can see the result usually in Hangar 3, Duxford.

As related earlier, the DH9 had a disastrous introduction to Royal Flying Corps service life due to the very poor engine that had been rushed into service before being properly developed, it being a redesign already of the even more unsuccessful engine, the Galloway 230 BHP. Our engine, a 200 BHP (BHP standing for Beardmore, Halford and Pullinger) was an unused unit and was not a much better design. A thorough search through contemporary documents told us of the sorry tale where for example, conrod failures were common, all breaking where the part number and ironically, the Aeronautical Inspectorate Directorate (AID) inspector's stamp was embossed – so new conrods had to be made without these markings. There were a number of other modifications we incorporated where known weaknesses had been identified (we found over 140 recorded modifications), but even so the aircraft will be only very occasionally demonstrated to keep the flying hours down.

Its first public event is to be an evening demonstration on 22 June 2019, at Duxford, but the timing is dependant very much on flight testing the aircraft and reaching agreement with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) over the all-important paperwork; they have been incredibly supportive and we are not anticipating any problems, but no one has ever flown behind a Puma engine for nearly 100 years so we need to be exceptionally cautious. When it is airborne, this very rare survivor will be the only original 1st World War bomber flying in the world – and incredibly rare event. Its post-restoration maiden flight was made on 13 May 2019 at Duxford.

Further details of this first public flight will be announced on HAC website and on their social media pages.

For those intrigued to follow this story in detail, will soon be able to, when a book - DH9: From Ruin to Restoration - on this epic journey and first flight will be published 30 June 2019 by Grubb Street Publishing.

Keeping this historic aircraft going is an extremely expensive activity and as a result of a number of requests where visitors have asked how they can help, we have made this a little easier. By the DH9, at IWM, Duxford, is a First World War Bomb converted to a donations box (empty of explosives we hasten to add!) and we welcome any help.

First engine runs were held at Duxford on 19 October 2018.


De Havilland DH9

Type : Two-seater day bomber.
Wing Span : 42ft 6" (12.90 m).
Length : 30ft 9½" (10.04 m).
All up Weight : 3669 lbs (1667 kg).
Power-plant : 230hp Siddeley Puma.
Bomb load : Internally in fuselage 12 x 20 lb.
external bomb load capacity also available.
Armament : Forward firing .303 Vickers and
for bomb-aimer/gunner flexible Lewis .303.
Designer : De Havilland but built by The Aircraft Manufacturing Co..
Manufacture No : 21414.
Serial No : E-8894.
Year Built : 1918.
Civilian Reg. : G-CDLI.

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