Reader's Digest Asia Pacific
What It’s Like to Fly in a Tiger Moth
Afraid of heights, I was nevertheless intent on flying in a vintage Tiger Moth biplane
IWAS BUMPING ALONG in the car early one sunny Saturday morning, a passenger in my boyfriend Guy’s car, doing some last- minute smartphone searching on the de Havilland Tiger Moth biplane. We were on our way to Luskintyre Airfield in the Hunter Valley 186 km north of Sydney, and I would be flying in a Tiger Moth for the first time within the hour. Afraid of heights, and quick to feel butterflies in my stomach at the prospect of anything daring, I was all the same determined to see it through.
I was curious to know why the Tiger Moth was so named: it wasn’t, as I’d imagined, because the small, lightweight cloth-and-wood plane is prone to being buffeted around in the wind like a moth fluttering delicately and uncertainly. Instead, it got its name because its wings can be folded neatly back against the fuselage allowing it to be stowed in a small space – “like a moth”, explained Geoffrey de Havilland, the British aviation pioneer who designed the plane in 1931.
The night before, I had tried to anticipate what my flight might be like, in a conversation that went something like this.
“Tiger moths are really small, aren’t they?” I asked.
“Yes,” replied Guy, a pilot of 30 years. “What will it be like?” I asked. “Windy.”
That would figure, I thought. I already knew that the cockpit was open to the air. “Will it be rough?” I pressed him, wanting to know more.
“Probably not,” he replied, clearly not remembering what it was like to be so new to this experience. “But you might have engine failure.”
“Engine failure?” I felt a spark of alarm, not sure if he was toying with me. “Is it common?”
“Fairly,” he said, not gauging the concern I might be expected to feel.
“Will I have a parachute?” I continued.
“Are you kidding?” he answered, barely concealing his amusement. “It would take too long to train you up.”
“What happens if the engine fails?” I felt this question needed to be asked.
“The plane turns into a glider and glides down to the ground,” he said, like it happened all the time, like a fragile vintage plane could easily take this transformation in its stride. “Hmmm…” I had one night to get used to the idea that engine failure in a vintage, open- cockpit biplane at 4000 feet (1220 metres) was something not to be fussed about – not an easy task for a risk-averse person like me. I secretly wondered if my boyfriend’s breezy description of simply “gliding back to earth” was purely for my benefit. But I was too proud to back out now.
With these thoughts circling in my head, I turned to the internet. Early
models of the Tiger Moth, I learned, had no brakes so needed a long airstrip to land safely. The runway at Luskintyre Airfield was a big, empty field. It was also, according to a plaque I’d read there, where pioneering Australian aviator Nancy-Bird Walton’s ashes were scattered.
We arrived and drove up the long dr iveway, passing a hangar alongside which sat a fleet of vintage aircraft from all eras. It was clear that these were the lovingly maintained charges of pilots devoted to tinkering away for hours on end. We located our pilot, Neil, and followed him into the hangar to wake up the 70-year-old plane. On the plane’s hub caps was a cursive monogrammed ‘D’ overlaid with an ‘H’– a nod to its maker, de Havilland. Its elegance was a reminder of a time when people cared about such detail. I reached out and touched the wing that would be holding me up in the sky. It felt like lacquered paper – flimsy enough to puncture with my finger.
At the front of the plane was a large wooden propeller, its long, smooth blades assembled from many sections of intricately pieced wood. Of the two cockpits, Neil deftly hopped into the one in the back. With a mate turning the propeller, the plane spluttered and coughed into life.
Climbing up onto the wing – being ever so careful not to put my foot through the spot helpfully labelled, ‘No Step’, and ever so careful not to do anything wrong that would mark me out as a novice – I squeezed into the cockpit in the front, right under the wing struts, trying not to knock any of the controls as I sat down on a surprisingly soft, cushioned seat. I was strapped in and given a fur- lined cap and goggles to wear by the man who had the enviable job of hanging off the propellers with all his strength to get the engine going. Just the ticket, I thought.
We started taxiing, and I took a moment to take in my surroundings: a large panel of antique dials and knobs immediately in front, small latched doors on either side of the cabin, the wings right above me. It was a tight fit.
The moment of take- off left me breathless with excitement but buoyant.
“We won’t be performing any acrobatics today,” Neil told me through the headset. No loop- the- loops, barrel rolls or stall turns for me today
I REACHED OUT AND TOUCHED THE WING THAT WOULD BE HOLDING ME UP IN THE SKY. IT FELT LIKE LACQUERED PAPER
– this historic plane was too precious to strain with these demands. “It’s going to be straight flying for us,” he explained. But sitting at the front of the plane, just several metres from the spinning propeller with only a small windshield between me and the buffeting winds, ‘straight flying’ would be enough.
I braced my stomach against the turbulence, but the stiffness in my body only made it worse. “Relax into it,” I told myself, “and move with the plane”. A few minutes into the flight, I saw to my right, just metres away, that another brightyellow Tiger Moth had joined us in the sky, as though inviting us to play. It was an earlywarning system for the invisible snakes and ladders we were negotiating in the air: when it fell, we plummeted just seconds later. When it rose, we shot up immediately – like two horses on a fast-moving carousel.
As we pivoted tightly on one wing at about 1220 metres, the flat earth below seemed to turn with us as we spun around on the axis of our wing. We were at the very centre of things – we were in control, and the world below was following our lead. Wanting the full intensity of the experience, I leant my head out beyond the small windshield to feel the full rush of air. At this height, it was easy to imagine we could do anything we wanted without any consequence. Perhaps that is part of the appeal of flying?
Out beyond the range of our noisy engine a wedge-tailed eagle was spinning around effortlessly in a thermal of its own.
After about 15 minutes of flying, Neil interrupted my sky-high daydreaming. “Take your last look, it’s time to head back.”
Knowing it was almost over and that I would likely never experience this again, I wanted to imprint every last second, every sensation, of the descent back to ground, committing it all to memory. Over the ducks swimming peacefully in the dam below, over the cars streaming down the road, over the heads of the people milling around at the airstrip, waiting their turn to ride in this lovely plane. And then with a very slight bump I was back on the ground, and the magic was almost over.
If it’s possible to feel a fondness for a machine, I felt it that day. With about 250 or so airworthy Tiger Moths in the world, I knew I was fortunate to be able to count myself a passenger.