Smoke On Go

A product of confidence – the De Havilland Chipmunk

Join us for another exciting adventure with Elton Bondi as we explore the realms of flight in the delightful De Havilland DHC 1 Chipmunk.

What can I say about that aeronautical masterpiece the famous De Havilland Chipmunk that most aviation enthusiasts don’t already know?

The first Chipmunk flew this month 76years ago and over that period many famous professional aviation writers have authored a plethora of excellent articles about that legendary aeroplane, most being published in leading global magazines.   Even an unknown local amateur like me has written at least two separate articles about the Chipmunk both of which have appeared in our South African aviation press over the years.

Regardless of who the author is, the central message is always the same, what an absolutely wonderful aeroplane.  It has flawless handling, pleasantly light and beautifully balanced controls which result in pure delight every time you fly one.  You don’t even have to aerobat the aircraft to feel nothing short of elation by simply cruising around the circuit. It really is that sweet to fly!

And on the negative side, people might write that the inverted mounted vintage Gipsy Major engine can be cantankerous to manage, and prone to plug fouling.  Others might comment on the tricky spin recovery due to a tailplane configuration that blankets the rudder, but this problem was sorted with the later addition of spin strakes. If you really wanted to stretch the negative you could claim that the idiosyncratic hand brake makes ground handling non-conventional.   But other than that, you would battle to fault this airplane; it is pure flying joy captured in an airframe.

Even its history is widely known.  It was built in 1946 after the war as a primary trainer to replace the ageing Tiger Moth.  It served in several air forces for many decades, but it really didn’t do anything historically significant, solely because this basic military trainer was built in an unremarkable time of relative peace.  

One did see a bit of hard-core frontline service for a short time in the 1950s when during the cold war a Chipmunk was attached to a front-line RAF jet squadron based in West Germany.  This aeroplane was regularly flown low level along the border between East and West Berlin to assert NATO airspace rights. There is even a photo of Soviet soldiers taking pot shots at one with their AK47s. 

Chipmunks were also used in military camouflage schemes during training. (Ryan Fletcher)

Another interesting snippet about its history include these facts –  in the late 1950’s a few were converted to single seat crop sprayers; and the famous Art Scholl flew a modified Super Chipmunk with a 260hp Continental engine in the aerobatic world championships in the 1960s.   The RAF sold their last one off in 1996, and around that time a couple of Chipmunks flew around the world.   Interestingly, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight still operate the Chipmunk which they use to train fast jet pilots to display Spitfires!   Today a few hundred remain flying in private hands, and they are all savoured by private owners around the world.  And that’s about all one can say about its history.

Art Scholl in his Super Chipmunk. (WcA42 – CC BY-SA 3.0)

There really is very little that the aviation enthusiast has not read about the DH Chipmunk, and yet I still could not leave this aircraft out of this series on interesting light aircraft.  It was the first aeroplane that I ever saw performing aerobatics; the first I experienced aerobatics in; the first I learnt aerobatics in; and the first I flew in both aerobatic competitions and airshows. Having logged over 700hrs in them I can attest that the Chipmunk is the absolute benchmark in aeroplane handling – a three-dimensional purity of control that belongs in the realm of poetry. This aeroplane not only taught me aerobatics, but also about the empathetic handling required when operating vintage technology.

….But perhaps there is a new perspective I can bring?

A few years ago, an accomplished aeronautical engineer and I were standing on an apron shooting the breeze, when a Chipmunk taxied past.  He told me that the pure engineering of that machine is worth far more than what these aircraft sell for today.  He went on to say that the design and the over-engineered construction were clearly the product of a military contract mind-set where engineers would be a little less sensitive to expenditure. He claimed that to produce one airframe like that today would cost many millions of Rand; at least 3 or 4 times that resale value of a typical Chipmunk.  In other words, its engineering asset value far exceeds is market value.  In his valuation he included the design engineering, the tooling as well as the time and materials to build a Chipmunk.  

This caused me to reflect on the context in which that aircraft was conceived.   

The 1920’s and 1930’s were the golden era of aviation, which was then regarded as a new high-tech fast-growth industry, and along with the United States, France, Italy, Germany and a few other countries, Britain was certainly a leading aviation nation.   At that time De Havilland was front and centre of the British aviation scene. Then came World War 2, De Havilland at their own cost initially, designed and built a prototype that went on to become one of the most widely used and successful warbirds of all time, that scintillating fighter-bomber, the De Havilland Mosquito. 

The De Havilland Mosquito in its natural environment

With its well-established dominance, its deep heritage of success, and in the wake of the Allied victory, the management and engineers of De Havilland would have been brimming with both pride and confidence, and so it was in such a context that the Chipmunk was designed, and aviation excellence reached.  I suppose much like Apple coming up with something as iconic as an iPhone.

It is little wonder why vintage warbirds remain safe dependable aircraft; they simply don’t make them like that anymore.




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