de Havilland Dragon Rapide Takes Flight in New Zealand

Dragon Rapide ZK-AKU on approach to landing from her second post-restoration flight at Ardmore, New Zealand on February 23rd, 2023. (photo by Nigel Hitchman)
Aircorps Art Dec 2019


by Nigel Hitchman & James Kightly

The team from Avspecs Ltd. has just flown de Havilland DH.89 Dragon Rapide ZK-AKU following a multi-year rebuild effort at Ardmore Airport in Auckland, New ZealandRyan Southam took the vintage aircraft up for its first post-restoration flight on February  23rd, 2023. Southam is no stranger to the type, having already accumulated many hours in New Zealand’s other airworthy Dragon Rapide (ZK-AKY) and a rare DH.90 Dragonfly.

Dragon Rapide ZK-AKU just after takeoff on her first post-restoration flight at Ardmore, New Zealand. (photo by Nigel Hitchman)

Like most Dragon Rapides, this aircraft rolled off de Havilland’s production line during WWII as a DH.89B Dominie, the type’s military variant. Built to a Royal Air Force contract as HG663, the Royal New Zealand Air Force took her on strength as NZ528 in November, 1943; she served in communications and navigation training roles. Demobbed in 1946, the aircraft underwent conversion into a Dragon Rapide for civilian service with the New Zealand National Airways Corporation (NAC), registered as ZK-AKU. NAC nicknamed the aircraft Tawaka and flew it on short-haul passenger routes until 1962.

A sister-ship to the subject aircraft of this article, ZK-AKT appears in the NAC livery similar to that which Dragon Rapide ZK-AKU wore at the time this image was captured in September, 1954. This other Deagon Rapide joined New Zealand National Airways Corporation in August 1946 and was named “Tareke”. It survived until 1967, when it was written off while with another operator. (image via Wikimedia)

Dragon Rapide ZK-AKU, as seen at Tauranga on April 1st, 2008, wearing its previous RNZAF livery as NZ528. (photo by Phillip Capper via Wikimedia)

Passing through several subsequent owners, the Dragon Rapide retained its New Zealand registration and even took part in the 1969 London-to-Sydney Air Race – retracing the route of the epic 1919 competition which had seen Vickers Vimy G-EAOU cross the finish line first. Under ownership of the NZ Historic Aircraft Trust, the aircraft returned to its RNZAF colors, but remained on the civil register. Arriving at Ardmore in these colors during September, 2020, ‘AKU’ has undergone a full refurbishment with the world-renowned experts at Avspecs Ltd., who finished the airframe in a livery reminiscent of its first civil colors. The test-flying has been quickly completed and the aircraft has received its formal airworthiness sign-off, AvSpecs will pack the DH.89 into a shipping container for the long sea voyage to the USA where it will take up residence with owner Charles Somers’ collection at McClellan airport in Sacramento, California.

The Dragon Rapide looks magnificent under partly cloudy skies on the ramp outside Avspecs Ltd’s workshop in Ardmore, New Zealand. (photo by Nigel Hitchman)

Tucked up in Avspecs Ltd’s hangar following its first flight, Dragon Rapide ZK-AKU undergoes some post-first-flight inspection. Note the window sticker of the late Queen Elizabeth II in the forward passenger cabin window. Furthermore (for the eagle-eyed among you) there is another of de Havilland’s finest, though more muscular, designs under restoration lurking in the background. (photo by Nigel Hitchman)

The cockpit bulkhead features a map depicting the route which this Dragon Rapide flew during the 1969 London-to-Sidney Air Race. (photo by Nigel Hitchman)

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