The de Havilland Aircraft Company Ltd had huge success with its early Moth series of biplanes, but wanted to provide more comfort for both the pilot and passengers of their private aircraft, and in 1928 they produced the D.H.80 Puss Moth. This three-seater was only in production for three years, and there were some aerodynamic and structural problems, which lead to several crashes. In 1933, de Havilland’s decided to revisit the formula, and produced a more refined three-seater, aimed at the ‘luxury touring’ market. This model was designated as the D.H.85 Leopard Moth – conforming to the early company policy of naming their light aircraft after various members of the Lepidoptera families. The Leopard Moth was a three-seater, high wing cabin monoplane, with room for a single pilot and two passengers behind him on a bench seat. Structurally, it differed from the Puss Moth, in that the welded tubular steel fuselage construction was abandoned in favour of four spruce longerons covered with plywood sheet and forming a tapered box-like structure. The wing was also tapered, unlike that of the Puss Moth, but it did fold, like that of its predecessor, as you can see in the photograph; this saved a great deal of hangar space. One other feature that the Leopard Moth shared with the Puss Moth was the ability to turn the undercarriage leg fairings through 90°, and have them act as speed brakes. This decreased the glide ratio from 1 in 12 to 1 in 9, and was useful when on approach to small fields.
Captain Geoffrey de Havilland, the founder of the company, and a truly great figure in early British aviation, undertook the test flight of the D.H. 85 Leopard Moth himself from the company’s old headquarters aerodrome of Stag Lane, Edgware, just prior to their move to the new much larger quarters at Hatfield, on the outskirts of London. That first flight, on 27th May, 1933, was only the beginning. Powered by a 130 hp de Havilland Gipsy Major 1 engine, the Leopard Moth had a top speed of 137 mph – to give you something to compare this to, the Polish Air Force introduced a new frontline monoplane fighter in 1933, the PZL P.7, with an engine four times more powerful than that in the D.H. 85. The PZL P.7′s top speed? 203 mph. As with almost all de Havilland types, the Leopard Moth was a natural when it came to racing and record-breaking. Just six weeks after its first flight, Geoffrey de Havilland won the King’s Cup Race – Britain’s premier air race – at an average speed of 139.51 mph. Not only that, but the third machine off the production line finished third (somewhat appropriately), and another Leopard Moth came in sixth! After this the orders rolled in. Long distance flights of note included one undertaken by ‘Jimmy’ Broadbent who took off from Darwin, Australia on the 28th May, 1937 and landed at Lympne Airfield in Kent just 6 days, 8 hours and 25 minutes later.
Many prominent aviators of the day – Alex Henshaw of Spitfire fame, for example – business leaders and foreign buyers sought the luxurious tourer. No less than 60 of these handsome aircraft were sold abroad and the type was especially popular in Switzerland; others went to Australia, China, India, Holland, Portugal, Poland, South Africa, Spain and Belgium.
There were clouds gathering on the horizon, however, and for those who could read the signs, it seemed that a European war was once again inevitable. When the storm broke, on the morning of the 1st September, 1939, as the German tanks rolled across the Polish border, the Government closed private aviation down in the UK, and began to ‘impress’ (or requisition) many suitable civilian machines to aid in the war effort. The aircraft you can see above, G-ACMN, was the last of the second production batch of 25 machines laid down, and was delivered to Norman Holden of Selsey, in April, 1934. Sold to Personal Airlines Ltd of Croydon (the London Airport in 1936) in was taken over on the 24th September, 1939 by National Air Communications, a U.K. Government body which was organizing vital wartime air transport functions previously undertaken by private bodies. Initially, it was sent to No. 24 Squadron, RAF at Northolt, on the western edge of London, a unit that specialized in the transport of VIPs and senior officers. Wearing the RAF serial ‘X9381′, the aircraft was sent to No.6 Anti-aircraft Co-operation Unit at Ringway, Manchester in April, 1940, then after a year it went off to No.7 AACU at Castle Bromwich, Birmingham. When the first RAF airborne forces squadron, No. 297, was formed at RAF Netheravon, Wiltshire with A.W. Whitley Mk. V aircraft, they needed a communications machine, and X9381 was put on strength. Later, when the unit was joined by Nos. 295 and 296 Squadrons to form No. 38 Airborne Forces Wing, the Leopard Moth was transferred to the Netheravon Station Flight, and was used by all three Squadrons.
A change of scenery came in January, 1944, when X9381 was transferred to No.9 Group Communications Flight which was mostly equipped with Hawker Hurricanes and Airspeed Oxfords servicing various units in and around Lancashire from Samlesbury Aerodrome. A decision must have been made at this point that the Royal Air Force no longer need X9381 for active duty, for she was sent to No. 5 Maintenance Unit at RAF Kemble for storage. This RAF unit was starting to accumulate hundreds of light aircraft – some of them former civilian machines – prior to the now-famous Disposal Sales which were held there post-war. Fortunately, ‘our’ Leopard Moth gained a reprieve, and a ‘ticket home’ in a way, for on 13th August, 1944, X9381 was ‘released’ to de Havilland Aircraft at Witney in Oxfordshire. This former WW1 airfield was being used by de Havillands as a repair/modification center for D.H. 89 Dominies, as well as contract repair of non-company types such as the Spitfire. Key workers were transferred in from Hatfield, but local labor was also trained, as required.
With the end of the war, the Whitney facility was run-down; however, the Leopard Moth was not returned to No 5 MU for auction, but was bought by the parent firm and transferred to their Hatfield headquarters. After a spell of nearly eleven years acting as a de Havilland ‘hack’ with its civilian registration re-gained, the Leopard Moth was bought by another famous engineering concern, Alvis Limited, and based at Baginton Airfield, Coventry. Another ten years of company service followed, until it was purchased by a local pilot, John Parkes.
You might have thought that ‘our’ Leopard Moth would have settled for a quite life out of the limelight, but this was just not her style. G-ACMN was acquired by none other than Henry Labouchere, a pilot/engineer of the highest order, and an acknowledged expert on the Moth series of aircraft. Henry has repaired and rebuilt many Moths, from Australia to England, and I am sure that G-ACMN was in excellent hands from 1980 to 1997. The next owner could be counted as one of the most famous female exponents of the legendary Spitfire, ever. Yes, the Leopard Moth was bought by no less a person than Carolyn Grace, whose two-seat Spitfire T9 is based at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford Airfield. When finally sold to its current owners, Martin & Kathryn Slack, G-ACMN didn’t even have to move, as it is still based in Hangar 2N at Duxford. It has appeared at countless air shows, air rallies and other events, including the famous Moth Club Rally at Woburn Abbey, and the Moth Club Tour around British airfields.
This lovely Leopard Moth has seen it all, from pre-war air taxi work out of London’s classic Croydon Aerodrome, to hectic service throughout World War Two, and yet is still a delight to behold. Only 133 of the type were built from 1933 to 1936, yet the D.H. 98 left an indelible mark on the British aviation scene. The D.H. 85 Leopard Moth – ‘a gentleman’s aerial carriage’.