The birth of civil aviation after World War 1 was greatly assisted by the number of ex-military machines flooding the market and available for next-to-nothing. Types from the humble Avro 504k trainer to genuine fighter machines like the S.E.5a and Sopwith Pup were snapped up and flown privately, while larger reconnaissance and bomber types were put to work delivering mail and passengers.
Not until the late 1920s was a new generation of aircraft needed to replace these increasingly careworn machines on the grounds of maintenance cost if not outright safety or performance. The de Havilland company was at the forefront of light aircraft design with its Moth series, but rivals sprang up aplenty, among which was the Parnall Elf, designed by Harold Bolas and built by George Parnall & Co in their factory at Yate near Bristol in 1929.
The sole surviving Parnall Elf at its Old Warden home
Like the Moth, the Elf was a two-seat light biplane. Although relatively conventional in construction, with a wooden airframe and a combination of plywood and fabric covering, Bolas placed great emphasis on making the Elf user-friendly with inbuilt sturdiness, ease of operation and cost-effective maintenance.
Its wings therefore featured struts in the form of warren girders to avoid the requirement for wire bracing, which needed a seasoned rigger to maintain, and they could be folded for storage. They were also set well forward on the fuselage as a feature to assist crew escape in an emergency – still an extremely common occurrence.
The first example, later registered G-AAFH, was powered by a 105 hp Cirrus Hermes I four cylinder in line engine. It made its public debut alongside a number of new aircraft at the Seventh International Aero Exhibition at Olympia in London in 1929. The purchase price of the aircraft was between £875 and £890, depending upon whether the owner opted to upgrade to a uprated 120 hp Hermes II engine.
Doing what it does best – the Elf has little razzmatazz but lots of style
Orders were few and far between, however. Unfortunately the prototype received a less than glowing report when tested at Martlesham Heath, and although an Elf came fifth overall in a field of 88 in the 1930 King’s Cup air race, de Havilland was making headlines the world over with its Moth series, setting new world records in the hands of both men and women pilots.
The Elf was not a record breaker, nor was it ever intended or cleared to perform aerobatics. It was quite simply a touring aeroplane, intended to allow private pilots unruffled progress from A to B. With no great feats to add to its sales pitch, only two more Elfs were built, registered G-AAIN and G-AAIO, both fitted with the uprated 120 hp Hermes II.
Both the prototype and G-AAIO were destroyed in separate flying accidents during 1934, caused by the Elf’s reliance on a fuel pump rather than the simplicity of a gravity-fed system. This left G-AAIN as the sole survivor when it was bought by Lord Apsley at Badminton, who flew it until World War 2 and then put it into storage, emerging briefly in 1946 before being mothballed until the Shuttleworth Collection team restored it in 1980.
Today the Elf stands as a reminder of that gentler age and that while air shows thrive on high adrenaline there is always a place for a gentleman’s carriage of the skies.
A rare and graceful sight: the Elf in action