de Havilland 100: School of Excellence

DH Aeronautical Technical School

To be able to say you were trained by the de Havilland Aeronautical Technical School was to confirm an outstanding grounding in aviation engineering — and, as one former student recalls, it benefited the wider industry 

DHAeTS students undergo a tin-bashing exercise as part of the sheet metal element of the course. 

By 1928 de Havilland was well established, employing some 1,500 people. It was foreseen, primarily by Geoffrey de Havilland’s original partner Frank Hearle, that a training scheme was needed to ensure a supply of skilled engineers. The existing facilities for premium and trade apprentices gave limited experience and did not provide training leading to qualifications. The company established an evening school where instruction was provided for those wanting to obtain Air Ministry licences for airframe and aero engine maintenance. This was the foundation of the de Havilland Aeronautical Technical School. Flight recorded in 1932, “It is the pioneer civil aeronautical technical school in the world, and its activities have been officially recognised by the Air Council, Board of Education and Middlesex Education Committee.”

Initially the course length varied from three to five years, depending on a student’s age at entry, and fees were payable. Many of the early students were from overseas. Design studies were added to the curriculum in 1932, enabling students to sit Royal Aeronautical Society examinations. Three years later a production engineering course had been added to cover the requirements of the Institute of Production Engineers. Tuition was provided almost entirely by DH company staff, ensuring it was given by current practitioners.

Overall management of the school and the training of aircraft students was transferred to Hatfield in 1934, but engine and propeller students continued to be trained at Stag Lane. During World War Two the Stag Lane training workshops were moved to Kingsbury Works, where coachbuilders Vanden Plas were engaged in building Tiger Moths and Mosquito wings.

From the outset the emphasis was on practical work on aeroplanes. In 1931 a DH9J was built as a full-scale exercise, and in the next two years three Gipsy Moths were assembled. After the move to Hatfield, three Tiger Moths and a Moth Major were constructed. Most went to customers. Under the guidance of instructors, students designed and built their own series of aeroplanes, starting at Stag Lane in 1933 with the TK1 which was soon followed by the TK2 and later, at Hatfield, the TK4. The TK series is a story of its own. Why TK? A Dutch student labelled his drawings ‘Tekniese Kollege’ and the initials stuck.

When World War Two broke out, the school was located in the Moth Minor production building, known as the 94 shop after the DH94 designation, at Hatfield. It was just east of where the Comet hangar, now a leisure centre, was later erected. The school was reduced to a low ebb in the first months of war by the departure of apprentices and instructors to join the forces. Early in 1940 the Moth Minor drawings, jigs and tools, finished and unfinished airframes were shipped to the DH plant at Bankstown, Australia to make way for the manufacture of Mosquito parts. The 94 shop was destroyed on 3 October 1940 by bombs dropped from a Junkers Ju 88. It was shot down by the aerodrome defences, the crew surviving. Twenty-one employees, including a student and an apprentice, were killed. The Mosquito work in progress was largely destroyed and school records were lost.

Located temporarily in Welwyn Garden City, the school moved to Salisbury Hall, near St Albans, during 1941. The Mosquito design team had been established there in late 1939. The student workshop at Salisbury Hall was located in the hangar built for the construction of the first two Airspeed Horsa gliders. The site is now the home of the de Havilland Aircraft Museum.

Indentured apprentices were exempted from military service until the age of 20, so it was necessary to condense the training course into about three years ending at that age. Many students had their training interrupted by entry to the armed forces. Some returned after the war to resume their training. Some 140 students and apprentices served in the forces, of whom 17 lost their lives.

In 1943 the de Havilland Education Board was set up with about 20 representatives from around the company. By 1950 there were around 60, essentially the departmental managers who were the potential employers of young engineers. The board was overseen by a council of four executives chaired by the managing director, W. E. Nixon. Major expansion in the decade from the late 1930s to the late 1940s resulted in de Havilland acquiring sites at Lostock, Leavesden and Chester. Schools were set up at all these sites, providing at least workshop training. After the takeover of Airspeed in 1951, the schools at Christchurch and Portsmouth became part of the DHAeTS.

The school’s Hatfield workshop during 1938. 

A new HQ was established in 1948 at Astwick Manor, just off Hatfield aerodrome. The Horsa hangar was relocated there and set up as a training workshop. In addition to providing initial technical training for students, the school now assumed responsibility for the training of all trade apprentices at Hatfield. Students, much to their dismay, became known as engineering apprentices; they were, however, now entitled to wages, and a scholarship scheme meant that by the mid 1950s there were few fee-paying entrants. Trade apprentices showing particular ability were upgraded and given an engineering scholarship.

By this time the indentured period was five years. The age at which apprentices were taken on varied slightly over time. From 1947 the school leaving age was 15 and aspiring trade apprentices could be taken on as pre-apprentices, working in the factory until they reached 16 and began proper training. Engineering apprentices were usually not taken on until the age of 17 or 18.

The initial training was much the same in all the schools. Typically about three months each was spent being taught fitting, sheet metal work and machine tool operation. Woodwork continued to be taught at most schools, the primary object being to make one’s own toolbox — many are still in use today! There is a display of apprentices’ workpieces and school information at the DH Aircraft Museum. Practical training and experience took place within the factories, typically with three months in each department: design, production or maintenance as appropriate. A later innovation was a commercial apprenticeship covering business studies.

The general pattern post-war was that engineering apprentices continued to be educated in-house directly towards membership of a relevant organisation, although this did vary from site to site. By the 1950s it had changed to progression at technical colleges through the Ordinary National Certificate to the Higher National Certificate, a course which contributed towards graduate membership of one of the learned societies — aeronautical, mechanical or production. Trade apprentices were expected to attain the ONC; those showing aptitude were eligible for upgrading to an engineering apprenticeship and would continue to HNC level. An alternative for trade apprentices was the courses administered by the City and Guilds of London Institute. These provided a greater bias towards practical training than did the ONC. In the late 1950s the Diploma of Technology was introduced, intended to be closer to a university degree than the HNC. A small number of apprentices were placed on external degree courses. Some attended the Cranfield College of Aeronautics.

TK2 G-ADNO with Geoffrey de Havilland Jr around 1938.

There was the opportunity for students to benefit from subsidised flying with the London Aeroplane Club, which had been formed at Stag Lane in 1925 and was later based at Hatfield. After the war, flying was resumed in 1947 at Panshanger under the aegis of the school. This arrangement ended at the time of the Comet disasters.

The mid-1950s probably saw the maximum size of the school with some 500 engineering apprentices and 1,900 trade apprentices, across all sites. There was a system of awards, some site-based and others open to all. The premier one was the August 23rd Memorial Prize, commemorating the four who lost their lives in a Mosquito collision near St Albans in 1943, one of whom was John de Havilland.

It was never taken for granted that people would remain with the company. Rather, it was considered a good thing that they sought to broaden their horizons. Some did stay on and found their natural niche, be it at modest level or the highest. Others went to airlines or to other manufacturers — in the 1960s, a great many to North America’s aerospace industry. Some set up their own companies, and not necessarily to do with aviation: for example, motor racing and yacht manufacture. Three Hatfield chief test pilots in succession were former students: Geoffrey de Havilland Jr, John Cunningham and Mike Goodfellow. No matter what, a frequently expressed sentiment is that the tech school years were the formative ones.

One did not ‘graduate’ from the tech school or acquire some sort of ‘DH diploma’. The certificate of due service entered on the back of one’s apprenticeship agreement, listing all the training one had received, was the vital record, along with whatever academic certificates had been gained along the way.

The TK series of aircraft was not continued after the war, but the design and manufacture of a single-blade helicopter with an athodyd ramjet engine at the blade tip and a counter-balanced rotor was begun in 1946. Designated TS1, the project did not reach fruition although some testing was done.

Significant contributions were made to the preservation of aviation heritage. In 1948, a full-scale replica of the original Wright ‘Flyer’ was built at Salisbury Hall for display in the Science Museum, to replace the original which was returned to the USA. It was fitted initially with a wooden dummy engine, but a working replica powerplant built by engine company apprentices was installed in 1951. The latter year saw Hatfield apprentices rebuilding DH60 Cirrus Moth G-EBLV, which today is owned by BAE Systems, kept at the Shuttleworth Collection and flown regularly. Chester apprentices, meanwhile, restored DH88 Comet G-ACSS from a very derelict state to exhibition standard for display at the Festival of Britain. A Hucks Starter, once belonging to Airco at Hendon and later used at Stag Lane, was reconditioned at Hatfield in 1953 and is now also with Shuttleworth. DH53 Humming Bird G-EBHX was restored to flight in 1960 for the Old Warden-based collection, while in 1961 apprentices at Leavesden built a functional replica of Geoffrey de Havilland’s Iris engine, which can be found with the Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust at Patchway, Bristol.

The range of projects conducted during the 1950s gives an indication of the opportunities available to students. A 2ft-diameter, 15ft-long wind tunnel was made of wood at Christchurch for Bournemouth Municipal College in 1955. From that year until 1958 a Druine Turbi, G-AOTK, was built by a group of apprentices, with company encouragement and mostly in their own time. Major components were assembled at Hatfield Technical College and some small items were made at Astwick Manor. The engine, 20 years old but new and unused, was overhauled by Stag Lane apprentices. Pat Fillingham, a former student, made the first flight in August 1958. It was the first amateur-built ultralight project to be initiated in the UK post-war and G-AOTK is still airworthy. A four-man bobsleigh, designed by former student Mike Costin of Lotus and Cosworth fame, was made at Astwick Manor for the 1958 British Winter Olympics team.

An advert for the school, dating from 1938, and carried in its magazine The Pylon.

The Hatfield Man-powered Aircraft Club was set up in 1960 to compete for the Henry Kremer prize. Senior staff of all necessary disciplines, many of them former students, were involved. Apprentices and retired craftsmen made the aircraft at Astwick Manor. Puffin I flew in 1961 and Puffin II in 1965.

No account is complete without mention of the school magazine The Pylon. The first issue appeared in 1933 and it continued sporadically until 1970. It was a vehicle for learned articles and vivid accounts of student life, which — surprise, surprise — was not a case of all work and no play.

Apprentice training continued in much the same manner at all former DH sites under Hawker Siddeley and later British Aerospace, until one by one they closed. An Old Boys’ Association was inaugurated in March 1951. Despite the name, there always had been a few female students and some remain members of the present de Havilland Aeronautical Technical School Association. Remarkably, in 2020 some 450 people belong to the association, almost all from the de Havilland era. Regular newsletters and occasional modern issues of The Pylon are published. New members continually appear from the woodwork, and perhaps this article will produce more!

There is a website at www.dhaetsa. with articles of interest including more history of DHAeTS.

The TK2 goes through its paces at Lympne in August 1937. First flown on 16 August 1935, the attractive racer was used as a DH company ‘hack’ during wartime and resumed competition briefly post-war, setting a class closed-circuit record in 1947 before being scrapped. 
The Christmas 1938 edition of The Pylon.
The Salisbury Hall premises in 1945, including part of what is now the de Havilland Aircraft Museum site. 
The life of the TK4, G-AETK, was sadly short. After a maiden flight on 30 July 1937, it crashed fatally during a record attempt on 1 October that year.