We were prowling the rows of vintage aircraft at EAA AirVenture where, amid the rows of high-wing tube and fabric machines, we spotted a low-wing job that had a decidedly military look to it.
“That kind of looks like a warbird,” I remarked to photographer Justin Moore as we looked at a polished metal low-wing airplane with the registration of G-AKDN.
The man standing next to the plane with a shine rag and the aircraft’s identification placard in his hand laughed. “That’s because it kind of is a warbird!” said Dave Gillespie, co-owner of the DHC-1, also known as a de Havilland Chipmunk.
“Kind of?” I asked.
“There’s a story there, a complicated story,” Gillespie continued, and it was a story he was more than willing to tell.
Gillespie owns the airplane with James Brooke. Both men are from Sasketoon, Saskatchewan. Their DHC-1 is a 1947 de Havilland Chipmunk, Serial No. 11, made by de Havilland Canada.
According to Gillespie, the Chipmunk came into their lives when Brooke and his son were looking for a British aircraft that had been used as a trainer by the military.
“They came into my shop and they were looking at late-model Bulldogs,” Gillespie recalled, “but in the back of the publication they were looking in there was an advertisement for an auction that included a listing for this airplane. I said ‘of all the Chipmunks in the world to get, this would be the one.’
“At the time this airplane was made, de Havilland United Kingdom contracted with de Havilland Canada to design the next military trainer to replace the Tiger Moth,” he continued. “They designed the Chipmunk. This is the very first all-Canadian-designed de Havilland.”
According to Gillespie, serial numbers one through 10 went to the United Kingdom for de Havilland to test. No. 11 was the factory demonstrator. “It was the one that they used to persuade the government to buy the aircraft,” he said. “It also was used by the factory in an air race. It won the King’s Cup Race in 1953 and I think it won the Goodyear Trophy as well. The factory used that publicity and sold the model to Australia, Portugal and a few other countries that adopted the aircraft as the basic trainer for their militaries. Subsequently the Royal Canadian Air Force saw the results and, with some modifications to the design like the addition of a bubble canopy and a different sized rudder, they accepted it as the next official training aircraft for the Air Force.”
BRINGING IT HOME
When Gillespie and Brooke made the decision to bid on the airplane, a snag arose. The owner had pulled it from the block.
“We found out that the owner was Phil Derry, who is related to John Derry, who was the first test pilot who flew it,” noted Gillespie.
Because the aircraft was in England, Gillespie and Brooke went there to test fly it and to persuade Derry to let them buy it. “He is still a partner in it,” Gillespie added.
Brooke and Gillespie had the aircraft placed in a container and shipped back to Canada.
“We spent the next two years stripping the parts off of it and putting new fabric on it,” Gillespie recalled. “But other than that it has been licensed and flying for the last 60 years.”
The lines of the aircraft give it a decidedly 1940s look, said Brooke, noting that confuses some people.
“It is not a World War II warbird, technically speaking, since it was designed after World War II, but it was designed as a military trainer, of course, so it has the reputation of a military aircraft,” he said. “For those who know the Chipmunk type, they assume it is a British Chipmunk because of the registration. People are quite intrigued when they learn of its history and the role that No. 11 played in the later development of the type as a military trainer — and hence for military instruction in the British Commonwealth after World War II.”
The plane’s history isn’t the only thing that attracts crowds. “People love the paint scheme,” he continued. “The polished aluminum with the 1940’s colors and lines really grabs them!”
The decision to leave the aircraft in British registry was discussed and debated, according to Gillespie.
“We knew changing the registration of this airplane would make it obscure,” he said. “It would be lost. It would be like refinishing an antique piece of furniture. We couldn’t do that.”
So DHC-1, Serial No. 11, G-AKDN, remains in British registry. That means the plane’s owners have to bring an engineer over from Britain every year to do the annual inspection and Gillespie had to be authorized by Transport Canada to be the official test pilot after the inspections.
“It has been a mountain of paperwork,” said Gillespie.
“But worth it,” Brooke chimed in. “What we have is a time machine. When you fly it you step back in time about 59 years. Think of all the history! From time to time we think about the people who have flown it before us. It is beautiful on the controls and a nice mechanical feel along with the historical lines. It is sort of double-whammy beautiful.”
But hold on, Gillespie added. It’s not too easy to fly.
“If you land it right there are no surprises, but it can be challenging,” he said. “They didn’t want it to be too girlie because it was a trainer. It washed some of the air cadets out of the program.”