When Geoffrey de Havilland began designing his own aircraft he was convinced that there was no suitable engine so he decided to design that too. He began to construct the aeroplane at a workshop in Bothwell Street , Fulham, while the engine was built by the Iris Car Company at its Willesden factory for £220.
During a visit to his family at Crux Easton, Hampshire, Geoffrey discovered that J.T.C. Moore-Brabazon (later Lord Brabazon of Tara), another aviation pioneer, had decided not to use two sheds three miles away at Seven Barrows on Lord Carnarvon's estate. He inspected them in August 1909 and acquired them for £150. Lord Carnarvon, famous later for funding the Tutankhamun expedition, gave his permission to fly from his land.
The aeroplane was finished at Fulham by November 1909 and was transported to Seven Barrows. Problems prevented flying for some weeks and eventually, frustrated, Geoffrey forced the machine into the air, only for it to rise too quickly and collapse. Frank Hearle and Hereward de Havilland rushed to the wreckage and found Geoffrey unhurt. Undeterred they loaded the remains onto a lorry and returned to Fulham.
Only the engine was salvaged but by the summer of 1910 the team was back at Seven Barrows with a new aeroplane. After taxiing trials Geoffrey gradually coaxed the machine into the air. He had no experience of flight and so he had to learn very quickly "on the job". Indeed de Havilland had only seen one aeroplane in flight when Claude Grahame-White, who later owned Hendon Aerodrome, competed for the £10,000 London to Manchester prize. Gradually, however, he acquired experience and confidence so that by November he considered himself an experienced pilot.
Although de Havilland had built an aeroplane neither he nor Frank Hearle, who was his brother-in-law and had helped to build it, had jobs. On the suggestion of a friend Geoffrey approached Mervyn O'Gorman, Superintendent of the Balloon Factory at Farnborough, with a view to selling his aeroplane to the Army. Just before Christmas the War Office agreed to the purchase and to employ de Havilland with Hearle as his mechanic.
Geoffrey was soon at work, his role being that of both designer and test pilot. The first design he produced for the factory was the FE.2 which proved to be successful. The next was the SE.1, a canard (where the wings are at the back), but the design proved unstable and difficult to fly. Geoffrey de Havilland succeeded in flying it in June but realised that it was unsafe. In August 1911 it crashed, killing the pilot, Lt T J Ridge, who was the Assistant Superintendent of the factory.
The BE.1 used a Wolseley engine salvaged from a Voisin. The completed aeroplane first flew on 27 December and soon had made many flights with passengers, been equipped with wireless and had even flown at night. The original engine was replaced with an air-cooled Renault. On 11 March 1912 it was handed over to the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers and continued to be of use until 1916.
The BE.2 was the forerunner of one of the most famous aircraft of World War One. It first flew on 1 February 1912 and de Havilland quickly recognised it to be better than the BE.1. In March it was used for wireless experiments and in May flown as a floatplane from Fleet Pond. It was used later as a benchmark against which to judge other aircraft. The BE.3 and BE.4 were similar but with different engines. The BE.5 and BE.6 were built to the same design as BE.2.
In order to encourage designers the Military Aeroplane Competition was announced in December 1911. Twenty one companies from Britain , France , Germany and Austria submitted a total of 32 aircraft. Not all competed in the trials held during August 1912, but those that did were judged against the BE.2 which was ineligible for any prizes. Only the Maurice Farman entry for the competition was put into quantity production for the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) as the Farman Longhorn. During the trials Geoffrey de Havilland established a new British altitude record of 10,500 feet (3,199m).
The success of the BE.2 against its competitors led to it being put into production for the RFC. Its construction was put out to contract and it was built by many private companies stimulating the expansion of the British aircraft industry.
1913 was a year of consolidation and further experimentation. The year also saw de Havilland's first "flying crash worthy of that name". The BS.1, also known as the SE.2, first flew in March. It was fast for its time, achieving a speed of 91.7 mph (147.5 Kph), and was one of the first single-seat scouts. Unfortunately its rudder was too small and de Havilland crashed while trying to recover from a spin. The design was modified and flown again in October. After further modification it saw service with the RFC including wartime use in France , before being wrecked by bombs. Later in 1913 de Havilland designed another FE.2. This was supposed to be a rebuild of the earlier aircraft but had a new fuselage, wings, tail and engine. This aircraft crashed in 1914.
The results of research work at Farnborough were generously made available to aircraft manufacturers. Despite this the factory received criticism in the aviation press but in reality its work and results underpinned the growth of the British aircraft industry in the years leading to the First World War.
de Havilland's role in the Factory changed in January 1914. A team of designers and engineers had been formed and additional pilots undertook test flying. He was moved to the Aeronautical Inspection Department as Inspector of Aeroplanes under the Chief Inspector, Major J.D.B. Fulton. His task was to examine and fly all new aircraft types to ensure their safety and suitability. This job was not to de Havilland's liking as he wanted to continue designing aircraft.