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Piggyback Airplanes

Ten of aviation's most famous hitch-hikers

Back on Board

Royal Air Force
(Rob Leigh)

Hitchhiker: de Havilland D.H.53 Humming Bird
Mothership: R33 airship
England, 1923

Royal Air Force pilot Rollo Haig was not a man to shy away from a challenge, which is likely how he found himself a few thousand feet in the air, descending a ladder from a dirigible into the cockpit of a small monoplane.

Once in the tiny cockpit of the de Havilland D.H.53 Humming Bird, Haig pulled a lever that released the airplane from the bottom of the R33 airship. As the Humming Bird went into a dive over Pulham, England, Haig fired up the engine and leveled off.

The D.H.53 was originally built as an entrant to the 1923 Motor Gliding Competition, sponsored by the Daily Mail newspaper. It didn’t win, but its aerobatic potential caught the attention of the RAF, which was looking for a way to protect its airships from enemy fighters. The service modified two Humming Birds to work in tandem with the R33.

It was a perfect early October day. Launching the Humming Bird was easy compared to Haig’s real mission: to become the first parasite pilot to reattach to the host ship.

The Humming Bird’s fuselage attached under the R33’s keel via a complex gantry, which onlookers compared to a trapeze. Re-connecting proved a challenge. As Haig maneuvered the Humming Bird into position to snag the trapeze, his propeller hit some of the trapeze wires and the apparatus broke. He managed to attach, but because of the damage, he was forced to release again and land on his own.

Later attempts over the next few months were more successful, but when testing resumed in 1926, the RAF decided to replace the D.H.53 with the more powerful Gloster Grebe.

One of the Humming Bird’s biggest drawbacks was its engine, explains Don Goodsell, a former de Havilland employee who helped restore a Humming Bird to flightworthy condition. “The Daily Mail played a part in encouraging ‘air-mindedness,’ [so] one of the rules limited engine capacity to 750 cc, the size [for] a touring motorcycle, to encourage entrants to use an engine that people could afford,” Goodsell says.

Because of its feeble engines, “It was never much more than a curiosity.... As long as the engine was working, [the Humming Bird] was easy to control. But it was impractical.

“The D.H.53 was one of de Havilland’s few less successful ventures,” he adds, but it did help spawn the company’s more popular Moth series. “They realized there was a market for light planes.”

The Humming Bird, nevertheless, goes down in history as the first parasite to detach from and re-attach to its mothership in mid-air.

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