The Day I Almost Flew a Tiger Moth Single-Handed
What’s it like flying a Tiger Moth? Absolutely AMAZING! I don’t think I can do the experience justice, but I have to try.
You can imagine my excitement when Into the Blue asked if I’d be interested in trying out one of their summer aircraft experiences and I saw Tiger Moth Flights – Classic Biplane and Tiger Moth Experiences. YES PLEASE!
I chose the Tiger Moth flight at Old Sarum Airfield. The Into the Blue flight experience is 30 minutes and offers a choice between a training flight or half an hour of aerobatics. The aerobatics offer was verrrry tempting, I have to admit. However, I was already jumping around about ME IN A TIGER MOTH, I decided that flying upside down might be more excitement than I could handle. I went for the training flight.
Signing up was simple. I booked it online but followed up by phone because
I was just that excited I wanted to be sure of the details. GoFly at Old Sarum confirmed it was a REAL LIVE Tiger Moth and that yes, I really would be allowed to fly it. I told her I had my PPL but I didn’t mind if it was just a scenic flight. But no, I didn’t need to bring any paperwork but she confirmed that I would be going out with a qualified instructor who would tailor the flight to my experience level. So not just a joy ride! I chose a day at the end of July, hoping that the British summer would be kind to me.
It was: the day dawned bright and beautiful with brilliant blue skies and little puffy clouds floating past as if they were auditioning for a children’s picture book. I packed the essentials: log book, sun glasses, camera, hair band. There was a major sky-diving event at the airfield so the place was crawling with young people in red jumpsuits strapping on parachutes. I avoided them as best I could (“No, thank you very much, I’m here to fly not to fall.”) and was greeted at the GoFly office. There were two of us flying the Tiger Moth that day, me and an 80-year-old gentleman who if at all possible looked even more excited than I did. We were both almost an hour early for our flights. The gentleman had also trained to be a private pilot when he was 17… in 1951 in a Tiger Moth. I was enthralled. He was really looking forward to flying in one again and the time waiting for our instructor flew past as I listened to his stories of the aircraft he’d flown in the UK and the US.
We were both chattering excitedly as we were led inside for our briefing. He smiled and stepped to the side as we reached the training room, letting me go first. Our instructor was David Wood, a tall, dapper fellow who wouldn’t have looked out of place on a wartime poster posing with his bi-plane. The Tiger Moth, he told us, was G-ACDI, still the same registration as when built by de Havilland in 1933. “A year before me,” said my new gentleman friend with a grin.
He didn’t tell us the full history of G-ACDI but of course I looked it up. In 1940, it was taken over by the RAF where it was reregistered as BB742. A year later, the aircraft collided on the ground with another Tiger Moth – a bit of bad taxi-ing, that! – and had to be transported by road to be repaired: an indignity for any aircraft. It stayed in the RAF until November 1947 when it was flown to Little Rissington “for disposal,” which is not quite as final as it sounds. The aircraft was sold in 1948 and regained its civilian registration of G-ACDI. In 1954, the Tiger Moth suffered an engine failure and crashed on take-off.
The aeroplane was deemed beyond repair but someone collected all the parts and stored them in the corner a hangar for fifty years. It was 1995 before G-ACDI was rescued from the scrap heap, when it was restored at Old Sarum. David, our instructor, bought the Tiger Moth after the restoration and helps with the maintenance and care (under supervision) and it showed. I was quite intrigued by the bi-plane but David was clearly deeply in love.
“Here’s a list,” said David, “of all the things the Tiger Moth does not have.” It seemed to be quite a long list. The Tiger Moth has no starter, no nose wheel, no stall warners, no flaps, no roof, no brakes. I had vaguely understood that the Tiger Moth was a relatively simple plane but it was a bit disconcerting to see all those pieces of equipment that I relied on for flight to be missing. This was unlike any plane I’d flown before.
“This is why the Tiger Moth is one of the very finest basic trainers ever produced. It requires real skill to fly it well. It may seem ludicrously hands-on but as a trainer, it teaches skills not knowledge.” The gentleman next to me nodded. “Seat of the pants flying,” he said knowingly.
That was all fine but I’m not all that good at flying. I mean, no one has ever looked at my dumpling-shaped 5’0 frame and said “Hey, you are a natural pilot.” And here was an aircraft that was specifically designed to show me up.
On top of everything, I’d never flown a tail dragger: an aircraft which has what is confusingly called “conventional landing gear”. There’s no nose wheel, just the two main wheels under the wings and a skid at the back to keep the tail off the ground. Taxiing, take-off and landing were all very different and tail draggers were notoriously easy to tip over. I’d seen plenty of photographs of vintage aircraft with their noses digging into the grass as a result of bad handing.
I took a deep breath and we went over the emergency procedures. David asked each of us about our experience. The 80-year-old had vastly more hours than I did. Once he was finished, they both turned to me. “I’ve done about as many hours in total as he has in the Tiger Moth alone,” I admitted. “And I’ve never flown a vintage plane.” My gentleman co-student threw me a look and I considered that possibly referring to his trainer as “vintage” was not my most tactful comment of the day.
David just smiled. “So, who wants to go first?”
“I will,” said the gentleman who up until then had been very courteously stepping aside to let me go first. It appeared that first access to the Tiger Moth was a bit different. I grinned at his obvious excitement and walked out to the Tiger Moth to watch him get set up.
It was a beautiful aircraft — she, corrected David. And of course it was a she: glossy red lacquer with leather straps and brass rings. It seemed incredible that we were going to just hop in and fly this thing.
The gentleman beamed like it was Christmas day as they looked over the aircraft. “Can I sit in the back?”
David paused and then nodded. “I’ll just need you to do the radio.” The old man pulled on his helmet and started climbing in, leaving David rushing to the other side to steady him. I was disappointed to see that they were motor-cycle style helmets. I’d been hoping for leather ones with sheep’s wool earflaps and aviator goggles.
“I’ll sit in the front when it’s my turn,” I said. The front dashboard was not quite so well kitted out and was clearly the passenger seat. But no one heard me, they were intent on their flight. David swung the propeller around and the engine started with a roar.
The half-hour dragged, although I suspected it flew past (no pun intended) for the pair in the cockpit. It was a hot summer’s day and I only survived the wait at all because the GoFly operations guy brought out glasses of water (and friendly conversation). But finally, the aircraft returned home. It had barely stopped rolling before David waved at me to come on over. It was my turn.
I kept my sunglasses, as they’d be protected by the helmet, but David recommended that I leave the camera behind; advice I was grateful for when we turned upside-down. But that was later.
Physically getting into the cockpit was more complicated than I expected. I clambered onto the wing trying to remember all the places he had warned me not to touch the aircraft (“It’s all just wood and fabric, remember.”). Finally, I stood on the seat and slid into place. I was in. Now I had to try to make sense of the seatbelt/harness thing. There were four leather straps with brass rings and a pin and a metal triangle that looked like a children’s puzzle game.
The dash was a thin wooden panel like I’d expect to see in my grandfather’s old work room in the cellar. It didn’t look it should be on a real plane. The whole experience was somewhat unreal. I pinned the straps together and gave the harness a tug. It seemed safe enough.
“Hold back the stick while I start up the engine,” said David. “Otherwise the nose will tip forward.” I clenched that stick like my life depended on it and flipped the magneto switches up at his signal.
Finally, we were surrounded by the familiar sound of the Tiger Moth engine. He climbed in and we were moving.
I smiled and sat back. I was in a beautiful vintage plane about to take off and fly over the Salisbury plains in the sunshine. Could life get any better than this? David interrupted my day dreaming. “Now you too can experience the joy of taxiing a tail dragger. You have control.”
I choked and then rapidly grabbed the stick and looked for the rudder pedals. Memories of my first-ever training flight came back to me: I couldn’t reach the pedals. Weren’t they all a lot shorter in 1933? Clearly still not as short as me, though. David agreed to do the rudders. I increased the power and we trundled down the taxi-way.
“Here’s the thing,” said David. “We have no brakes. We’re following another aircraft. And we’re about to start rolling downhill.”
I twisted for a better look as the bi-plane picked up speed. We were coasting straight towards a small gyrocopter which was paused ready to enter the runway. How the heck was I supposed to taxi with no brakes?
“I think you should taxi,” I said. He laughed and pulled the power right back. “It’s all about thinking ahead.” David turned the aircraft right then left, zigzagging his way along the grass taxiway at a slow speed. I breathed a sigh of relief when the gyrocopter entered the runway.
Next it was our turn. David pulled us onto the runway. “You need to be very careful to ensure your nose doesn’t go forward on take-off,” David explained. “I’ll do this, but follow me through on the controls.”
I barely had time to find the controls before we were climbing away from the airfield. “That…. what did we need the runway for?”
He laughed. “I have a 400 metre farm strip at home. I’ve never even needed to use half of it.”
That’s not me in the aircraft but we looked just like that! Except it was louder and windier and a million times more awesome.
We flew. I remember it now with the wind blowing through my hair although of course I had the helmet on. But it felt like the wind blew through my hair and the sun shone on my face and I was out there, in an open top plane flying into the blue unknown.
We climbed and made a slow right turn. I was content to just watch, with the breeze flowing over us and the beautiful Wiltshire countryside green and languid below. But David wasn’t going to give me the easy way out. “Look out, see how the horizon is positioned here? That’s straight and level.” It didn’t look straight nor level to me but I didn’t get time to think about it. “You have control.”
I nervously gripped the stick and the aircraft tilted. “You have to be gentle,” said David. “She’s in trim, just let her fly.”
I patted the Tiger Moth’s dashboard and hoped that
it she knew what she was doing. I tried to make sense of the compass but it was horizontal and bouncing. Every gust of wind seemed to make the aircraft sway. I gripped the stick again and the aeroplane tilted again.
“Let’s climb. I’ll show you how to use the trim.”
Now you have to understand, my understanding of a trim is the electric buttons on my beloved Piper Saratoga. I vaguely remember using a trim wheel when I was training and I figured I would still be able to do that. But that’s not what this was. The cables and rods were disconcerting. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be this close to the inner workings of the aircraft. It seemed unbecoming, like looking at the innards of a loved one. David talked me through it as I pulled a knob towards me, slid it towards the rear and then locked it back into place.
Of course, while I was concentrating on that, I stopped paying any attention to the flight or even the stick. I wasn’t confident that I was tugging on the right bit and had visions of the entire aircraft unravelling like an over-worn cardigan. I eventually understood that I had to actually be flying the plane in the right configuration in order to set the trim, for some value of “setting a trim”. In theory, I know this to be true but other planes would let me set the trim despite myself. I wasn’t used to having to get it right.
On the fifth try, David took pity on me. “Are you looking out?”
Of course not; I was staring at my feet wondering if I’d ever get this trim thing into the right place. I gave up and looked out.
It was a stunningly beautiful day and we had the entire countryside unfolding below us. The Solent was a glittering ribbon of light in the distance. Beyond that, the dark smudge of the Isle of Wight.
But of course the moment I started sight-seeing, the aircraft tilted and swayed again. It seemed like the slightest breath would set
it her off. I began to understand why the Tiger Moth has such a reputation as able to separate the good pilots from the great ones. It may not be too difficult to fly (David certainly made it look easy) but even the smallest deviations were immediately noticeable.
I was helplessly confused. I wanted to lean back and just take it all in. I also wanted to fly the plane, of course I did, but that took concentration and at the same time I didn’t want to miss a single second of this experience.
David sensed my change of mood, or maybe I just finally relaxed my grip on the stick. He took control and regained the height I had lost. “Would you like to try aerobatics?
Would I! “Oh my god yes.”
He grinned and stepped me through the HASELL check. I belatedly remembered that the sky was full of sky divers. I really wasn’t competent to do a look-out, could barely see beyond my own excitement. Everything about the flight was so amazing and interesting, it was impossible to concentrate.
“Watch the wingtip,” he told me. I was a bit surprised, I thought I would watch above and see Wiltshire come into view above me but I dutifully turned my head. I always imagined a roll would be like a loop on a roller coaster but it was much more intense than that. My jaw dropped open as the world turned sideways.
I laughed in excitement as the horizon swung around us. Then we were properly upside down and I looked down in horror at my harness. I mean, it seemed stable enough down on the ground but I hadn’t tested it for holding me into the plane as we flew upside down. Besides, it was just a bit of leather after all, and probably 80-year-old leather at that, depending on how obsessive the restoration was about keeping the original aircraft intact. But before I even had time to finish the thought we were straight and level again. I was still laughing.
“Was that all right?”
I squeaked in delight and tugged again at my harness. It was definitely still all connected.
“Was it? Want to try a barrel roll?”
I needed to regain the power of speech. “That was amazing! Yes, please!”
David took the Tiger Moth through
its her paces. We climbed and fell and spun and recovered. “We’re going straight down now, ” he said as we dive bombed a flock of sheep, as if I couldn’t tell. It was somewhat reassuring to hear that he was doing this intentionally. David filled me in on the details. “That’s us hitting our own slipstream. Here’s where the rudder control becomes critical. Feel that adverse yaw? Here’s another roll. Not bad for a 81-year-old, huh?” Through out it all, I giggled like a mad woman.
All too soon, I saw the airfield in the distance. We were heading back. “Watch the nose as we come in. It’s a different viewpoint than what you are used to.” In a tail dragger, you typically land by touching down nose-high in what’s called a three point landing, with both main-wheels and the skid touching the ground at the same instant. This allows for a super-short landing distance. “There’s also a wheel landing where you keep the tail off the ground until the aircraft is slowed down,” said David. “It’s useful if you have a long taxi ahead of you. I’ll do this bit.”
I laughed; it hadn’t even occurred to me to try. I was not under any circumstances risking breaking this beautiful plane. We touched down like a feather and turned off the runway. I was pretty sure the skid on the back was probably still touching the numbers, the landing was so short.
“Not quite right,” David said. “But close. Close enough.”
On the ground again, I found I’d gained a new respect for this crochety old Tiger Moth. I thought she was interesting before, but now she was beautiful. David let me have another look around. I discovered all kinds of bits and pieces to the plane that I was just too distracted to notice in the sky. I ran a finger down her fuselage. The glossy red finish and quaint brass fixtures were not just for show. She might not be high-tech but every piece of the Tiger Moth was beautiful and efficient and utterly complicated.
It’s one hell of an aircraft, it really is. The truth is, I don’t think I’d want to fly one full time. I’m distractable enough as it is without the poor visibility and special handling that a little aeroplane like that requires. I would want a bit more range and I’d like to feel secure that when I went someplace, my plane could handle it.
But if wishes were horses, I’d love a Tiger Moth for hopping around the UK in – visiting friends and attending every air show in the country. I certainly would be more than happy to recommend intotheblue.co.uk to anyone who loves planes, especially vintage planes, regardless of their skill level and experience.
A huge thank you to Into the Blue for providing me with a unique experience and a special day out.