Pilot Report, The deHavilland DH4
A Trip Back In Time

by Addison Pemberton

DeHavilland DH-4

NOTE If your screen is jumping, stop the slide show at the bottom of the page!

From single to triple engine crafts, biplanes to single wingled airplanes, an assortment of airplanes were used to carry the mail. Only eight years after the Wright Brothers' historic flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, airplanes were carrying mail on experimental, semi-official trips. Fred Wiseman and Earle Ovington of the U.S. both piloted mail in 1911. The same year, Henri Pequet carried airmail in India, while Gustav Hamel flew mail in England. The fad of carrying mail through the air had moved from balloon to heavier than air craft, and was about to take its next steps.

After World War I, surplus army airplanes were donated to the Post Office Department for airmail use. These JN-4 "Jennies" and de Havilland airplanes, originally designed for military use, had to be modified to meet the demands of regularly scheduled airmail service.

First the postal service, then private companies, commissioned airplanes designed for the rigorous demands of Air Mail Service. Some, like the twin de Havilland and Junkers-Larsen JL-6, proved deadly to the service's pilots. Other aircraft, manufactured by companies such as Douglas, Ford and Boeing, helped provide airmail with the steady reliability that was needed to make the service something Americans could count on day in and day out.

First of all I want to thank Al Stix the owner of the DH4 and Glenn Peck the restorer of the airplane for one of my most memorable flying experiences of my 38 years and 10,000+ hours of flight time (mostly in the old stuff).

This wonderful gift was deeply felt with emotion and careful thought. The vision of looking down that long DH nose at Lambert Field from 1000 ft over St Louis is burned into in my brain for the rest of my life. I had flash backs to Lindbergh, Jack Knight ,Dean Smith and "Wild" Bill Hopson flying these aircraft cross county on daily mail runs. I do not think that any other aircraft could have prepared me better for my pending Boeing 40C test flight in a few months.

After a wonderful Creve Coeur Sunday lunch prepared by Al Stix and announced by the familiar dinner bell we made our way to Glenn Pecks hanger and the awaiting 1919 deHavilland DH4-M2 mail plane. The aircraft is magnificent and restored to a high standard in Robertson mail plane livery. Glenn's craftsmanship and Al's vision is impressive. This was my 3rd trip to see the airplane in the last 3 years.

Glenn climbed over the side easily finding the step below the long exhaust stack (he has done this before) and plopped into the seat. He went through the start sequence and the engine lit up almost instantly after a very slow crank speed. I was standing on the step with my head in the cockpit and my leg mindful of the soon to be very hot exhaust stack. The engine sounds unique with the exhaust bark coming from behind the cockpit and all the machine engine sounds you do not want to hear coming from up front. The big prop ticks over easy at 400 RPM and Glenn starts the taxi to one of big cushy grass runways at Creve Couer. My son Jay, friend Andy Bradford, Don Parsons and troop follow trotting on foot. The airplane taxi's easily and appears to be very controllable to this I find great comfort.

At the runway Glenn gives the big Liberty V12 (1610 cubes) the needle and is airborne after a short 500 foot grass run. There is some missing (plugs) with the engine but Al Stix who has now arrived says that this will clear up quickly. By down wind the engine is running smooth and sounds just like a Peterbuilt 18 wheeler going down the high way. Glenn does a conservative and professional low pass down the runway followed by a smooth graceful landing in front of us.

I get the wave and I head to the now empty pilot seat and manage to get seated without burning my leg on the long exhaust stack over the prop wash of the ticking V12 16 ft ahead of my eyeballs. Now every word that Glenn, Al, Don and Phil have told me about flying the airplane runs thought my mind. Glenn has told me that the only reason the airplane has ailerons is because Orville and Wilber said there supposed to be there. They do not move very far only 1-2 inches up and maybe 3 inches down. The aileron control cables are not very tight so as to prevent binding. The tack is interesting as every power change is displayed by a vertical strip gage retuning to zero and clocking up to the new power setting with each throttle input.

Radiator shutter open, spark advanced and throttle slowly open and I am off into 1927. The 1st thing you notice is the exhaust noise is coming from over your shoulders not form up front and the machine engine noises disappear with the wind noise. The airplane is comfortable and noticeably smooth. Every thing you need is easy to reach and intuitive. There is very little wind and flying with the goggles up is comfortable. As soon as possible I turn left and head for the soccer field my first off airport option if needed followed by many fields north of the airport. The heavy elevator now feels pleasant and the rudder is delightful. The ailerons are terrible and very stiff and almost ineffective. Don Parsons had said the airplane "will telegraph" it's needs and it does that very well. By the downwind I am very comfortable with the airplane and we are making friends fast. I love this! The airplane is wonderful and very stable and likes to fly. I start to make a race track pattern over the airport. I am in trust of a priceless living artifact and will not risk leaving the safety of the airport environment even though I am been approved to do so.

The roll control is very interesting and the airplane has considerable roll inertia. I look up to see the upper aileron balance cables loose, it seems that in flight the ailerons fly up tight and the balance cable is only provided to keep the ailerons from falling down when the aircraft is on the ground. This fact is very relevant to my Boeing 40 as the aileron control system is nearly identical to the DH. Once a bank is started roll arrest must be implemented soon there after to prevent an undesired high bank angle. The adverse yaw is extreme (but not as bad a Robin) and just like Glenn has told me you quickly except skid turns with rudder bias as the preferred method of turn.

I even try Dutch rolls with two hands on the heavy stick and find that control is effective with some unconventional inputs. I slow and find that drag quickly mounts with high angle of attack. Cruise is at 1450 RPM with 95-100 indicated and still pleasant cockpit wind. As the power comes up above 1650 RPM a slow tork roll starts to the left which aileron can not compensate for. I find that by adding power I can make better left turns and that by reducing power I can make better right turns.

This is fun! I make a deliberate conservative low pass down the wide grass runway for the camera followed by a tight pattern an easy landing. At 70 over the fence and no hint of PIO and a little sugar (power) the airplane settles in tail low transport style with ease and almost lands itself requiring the pilot to just hold a desired attitude until you hear and feel the flump of the gear on the grass and then you saw off the power and it tracks arrow straight with little rudder input and no breaks.

I make an easy 180 and taxi back up to the small crowd at the approach end of the runway and am told to taxi the airplane back to the museum. I was told that the brakes are only required to prevent the airplane from rolling into the gas pump. I shut down and sit quite and soak in the last 21 minutes which will stay with me for a life time. What a privilege what a joy. I am told I am now one of the highest time living DH pilots in the world. I think I was born to be a mail pilot and have the smile to prove it!

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See Historic Aircraft Restoration Museum
Smithsonian National Postal Museum
Dauster Flying Field
Air Mail Pioneers