Aviation Historian 13
D.Crotty - The Singapore Express
The prototype D.H.86 “Express Air Liner” with its B Conditions registration E.2 around the time of its first flight in January 1934, a mere four months after the decision was taken to proceed with the design. Note the original single-pilot “Roman” nose. Later examples were fitted with dual controls and a revised longer nose profile.
Named Canberra in QEA service, VH-USC (c/n 2307) was fitted with dual controls and the revised nose profile, as were all six of QEA’s examples. The aircraft went to MacRobertson-Miller Aviation in July 1938 and was impressed by the RAAF as A31-5 on the outbreak of war, during which it undertook supply flights in New Guinea.
Originally built to an Imperial Airways order as G-ACWE, D.H.86 VH-UUA (c/n 2306) was transferred to QEA after the loss of VH-USG, and became Adelaide in QEA service. It later went to India to operate with Tata Airlines as VT-AKM and was impressed into RAF service as HX789 in July 1942.
With its inner Gipsy Six engines stopped to minimise wear and tear and conserve fuel, VH-USC taxies in under the guidance of QEA chief pilot Lester Brain at Darmo aerodrome in Sourabaya on Java during its ferry flight from the UK in October 1934. The second and third QEA D.H.86s were delivered by sea rather than flown.
Despite QEA's input into the design of the D.H.86, the first example in Australia was the first production machine, the single-pilot VH-URN, named Miss Hobart, for Holyman’s Airways, which was delivered in July 1934. The aircraft operated between Melbourne and Hobart on Tasmania until it was lost in the Bass Strait that October.
A superb illustration of the rather primitive facilities the D.H.86 had to face on the Brisbane-Singapore service, this Shell Company photograph shows VH-USC at Talang Betutu aerodrome at Palembang on Sumatra. The first of QEA’s D.H.86s was returned to QEA in May 1942 but was lost in a crash at Darwin on October 10, 1944.
Lester Brain (middle) poses with First Officer R.U. Price (left) at Talang Betutu during the delivery flight of VH-USC in October 1934. Brain had joined Qantas in 1924, becoming the airline’s chief pilot in 1930, and went on to become the linchpin for Qantas operations during World War Two before joining de Havilland after the war.
The first of QEA’s D.H.86s, VH-USC, at Cairo on September 26, 1934, on its eastbound flight from the UK to Australia. The aircraft arrived in Brisbane on October 13, having covered 12,819 miles (20,630km).
The cabin of QEA's D.H.86s could accommodate up to ten passengers and a mail load, with dual controls for the Captain and First Officer. The fuselage structure of the Express followed standard de Havilland practice, incorporating the usual unobstructed plywood box with spruce stiffening members and soundproofing material on the outside covered over with fabric.
The dual cockpit fitted within the elongated nose of the QEA D.H.86s was relatively simple, with the throttles for the four Gipsy Six engines located centrally, the basic flying instruments ranged to the left for the pilot in charge and - unusually for the time - ribbon indicators for the engine r.p.m. on the panel directly in front of the First Officer’s seat.
The remains of D.H.86 VH-USG near Longreach in Queensland following its crash on November 15, 1934, during its ferry flight from the UK. Capt D.R. Prendergast and his crew, plus a Shell representative, were killed, causing an investigation into the type’s fin-trim mechanism.