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Airco DH.6

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Title: Airco DH.6  
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Airco DH.6

Role Trainer / General second line duties
Manufacturer Airco
Designer Geoffrey de Havilland
First flight 1916
Primary users Royal Flying Corps
Royal Air Force
Number built >2,280

The Airco DH.6 was a British military trainer biplane used by the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War. Known by various nicknames, including the "Skyhook", the trainer became a widely used light civil aircraft in the postwar era.[1]

Design and development

The DH.6 was specifically designed as a military trainer, at a time when it was usual for obsolete service types to be used in this role.[2] Geoffrey de Havilland seems to have had two design criteria in mind.[3] The first was that it should be cheap and easy to build, and above all, simple to repair after the mishaps common in ab initio training. The top and bottom wings were "brutally" square cut, and were interchangeable. (Hence the roundels in unconventional positions on many wartime photographs of the type.) They were heavily cambered, and braced with cables rather than streamlined wires. On the original version of the type there was no stagger. Even the rudder, on the prototype of the usual curved de Havilland outline, was on production machines cut square. The fuselage structure was a straight box with no attempt at refinement of outline – instructor and pupil sat in tandem on basketwork seats in a single cockpit that was Spartan even by the standards of the time.[3] The standard engine was the ubiquitous and readily available 90 hp (67 kW) RAF 1a. Because of its use in the B.E.2[4] the engine had the advantage of being very familiar indeed to RFC mechanics. It was stuck onto the front of the DH.6 in the most straightforward way possible, without any type of cowling, and the usual crudely upswept exhaust pipes of this type of engine were fitted. Eventually even stocks of the RAF 1a ran short, and various other engines were fitted to DH.6s, including the 90 hp (67 kW) Curtiss OX-5 and the 80 hp (60 kW) Renault.

This was an era when instructors in the RFC referred to their pupils as “Huns” (the term used for enemy airmen) and casualties at training schools were high.[5] The second design criterion was that the new trainer should be "safe" to fly, both for a new pupil and his instructor. One way to obtain this safety was a "decouple" on the dual controls so that the instructor could take control at any time without having to wrestle with a panicking pupil.[3] Another route to the desired safety was through the new trainer’s flying characteristics. De Havilland’s work at the stall or spin, in fact it was able to maintain sustained flight at speeds as low as 30 miles per hour (48 km/h).[6]

In fact, the DH.6 has been frequently described as "too safe" to make a good trainer;[7] this referred to its gentle reaction to inexpert piloting rather than to excessive stability however, as it was designed with a degree of inherent instability about all three axes.[6]

With the "Skyhook's" low power, strong but rather heavy construction and lack of streamlining, its maximum speed was naturally very low, even by the standards of the time.

Wartime production

At least 2,282 DH.6s were built in the UK during the war, out of orders totalling about 3,000. Besides Airco, batches were built by Savages, Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies, and Gloucestershire. A single DH.6 was constructed in July 1917 by Canadian Aeroplanes Ltd. as a prototype for projected production should availability of the Curtiss JN-4 prove inadequate; it was the first British-designed aircraft built in Canada. In the event, there was no shortage of "Jennies", and it remained a one-off.[8]

Operational history

In 1917, training of RFC pilots began to receive a long overdue overhaul. The School of Special Flying at Gosport in Hampshire was established by Maj. Robert R. Smith-Barry with the aim of making flight instructors into specially trained experts – rather than entrusting the role to novices who had barely completed their own training,[9] and operational pilots being "rested" to recover from combat fatigue. The Avro 504K was adopted as the standard trainer by the end of 1917, with the DH.6 becoming surplus as far as the training role was concerned.[8]

At the end of 1917, about 300 DH.6s were transferred to the RNAS for anti-submarine patrols. While far from ideal for this work, the type proved surprisingly "seaworthy", being known to float for as long as ten hours after ditching.[10] On operations, the underpowered trainer could not carry both an observer and weaponry. The majority of patrols were flown solo, allowing a token bomb load and a lightweight radio installation to be carried, although convoy escort missions generally carried an observer who could communicate with ships using an Aldis lamp.[8][11] The "built in" instability designed to keep a student pilot alert proved tiring for pilots on long patrols over water, and experimental changes were made in mid-1918 to improve stability. These included the introduction of 10 in (25 cm) of back-stagger to wings of reduced chord and camber, with narrower elevators and rudder. DH.6s modified to this standard were unofficially dubbed "DH 6As".[10]

Over 1,000 DH.6s were still in service in second line roles with the RAF at the end of the war.


Many RFC/RAF aircraft of this period received nicknames (some of which, like the "zoo" names of Sopwith types, reached semi-official status) but the DH.6 must hold the record for the number and variety of humorous but highly disrespectful epithets. The "skyhook", a favourite appellation of Australian airmen, probably referred to its lack of speed, although the shape of the exhaust pipes has also been mentioned. Other nicknames for the type included "crab," "clockwork mouse," "flying coffin" and "dung hunter" (these last two on account of the shape of the plywood cockpit, thought to resemble either a coffin or an outside toilet).[12] The type’s strange flight characteristics were probably behind yet another nickname, the "clutching hand," although this may also have been associated with its notorious lack of speed.[7]

Postwar and civil use

There was no place for the DH.6 in the postwar RAF, and survivors of the type became surplus. In 1919, many were sold to civilian operators – especially for "joy riding". Some were exported as far as South Africa and Australia, where they could be found flying into the late 1930s.

Some 60 aircraft were licence-built in Spain from 1921 onward with Hispano-Suiza 8 engines, refined fuselages that included separate cockpits, and rounded "de Havilland style" rudder/fin assemblies. At least some of these found their way into the inventory of two Spanish Air Force training establishments.[13]

A D.H.6 became the first powered aircraft to be owned by a British Scout Troop, when it was presented to 3rd Hampden (Middlesex) Scouts in 1921.[14]


Two-seat training aircraft.
Modified to improve stability for patrol duties.


 AustraliaAustralian Flying Corps
 United Kingdom

Specifications (DH.6)

Data from De Havilland Aircraft since 1909[15]

General characteristics
  • Crew: As trainer: two, pilot and instructor
As patrol aircraft : one
As postwar joy riding aircraft: up to three, pilot plus one or two passengers
  • Length: 27 ft 3½ in (8.32 m)
  • Wingspan: 35 ft 11 in (10.95 m)
  • Height: 10 ft 9½ in (3.29 m)
  • Wing area: 436 ft² (40.5 m²)
  • Empty weight: 1,460 lb (664 kg)
  • Loaded weight: 2,030 lb (923 kg)
  • Powerplant: 1 × RAF 1a air-cooled V8 engine, 90 hp (70 kW)



Usually none – although a few small bombs sometimes carried on anti-submarine patrol.

See also

Related lists



  1. ^ Boughton 1963, p. 10.
  2. ^ Baker 1990, p. 24
  3. ^ a b c d Jackson 1962, p. 53.
  4. ^ Cheeseman 1962, p. 48.
  5. ^ Lee 1968
  6. ^ a b Jackson 1987, p. 86.
  7. ^ a b Cheeseman 1962, p. 60.
  8. ^ a b c Jackson 1987, p. 87.
  9. ^ W.E. Johns, later the creator of "Biggles" was one of many such "instructors"
  10. ^ a b Jackson 1987, p. 88.
  11. ^ Jones 1937, p. 332.
  12. ^ see Australian War Memorial site in external links below
  13. ^ Jackson 1987, p. 89.
  14. ^ Scouting Milestones Archived February 7, 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  15. ^ Jackson 1987, p.92.


  • Baker, David. William Avery "Billy" Bishop: The Man and the Aircraft He Flew. London: The Outline Press, 1990. ISBN 978-1-871547-07-8.
  • Boughton, Terence. The Story of the British Light Aeroplane. London: John Murray, 1963.
  • Cheesman, E.F. Reconnaissance and Bomber Aircraft of the 1914–1918 War. Letchworth, UK: Harleyford Publications, 1962.
  • Jackson, A.J. De Havilland Aircraft since 1909. London: Putnam & Company Ltd., 1987. ISBN 978-0-87021-896-5.
  • Jackson, A.J. De Havilland Aircraft since 1915. London: Putnam & Company Ltd., 1962. No ISBN.
  • Jones, H.A. The War In The Air: Being the story of the part played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force: Volume VI. London: Clarendon Press, 1937.
  • Lee, Arthur Gould. No Parachute. London, Jarrolds, 1968.
  • Lewis, Cecil. Sagittarius Rising. London, Peter Davies, 1936.
  • Robertson, Bruce. AMC DH6 (Windsock Datafile 103). Berkhamsted, Herts, UK: Albatros Productions, Ltd., 2004. ISBN 978-1-902207-58-2.
  • Taylor, John W.R. "Airco DH.6". Combat Aircraft of the World from 1909 to the Present. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1969. ISBN 978-0-425-03633-4.
  • Taylor, Michael J.H. Jane's Encyclopedia of Aviation. London: Studio Editions, 1989, p. 45. ISBN 978-0-517-10316-6.

External links

  • Australian War Museum website
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