Thick leather jacket, check. Leather gloves, check. Goggles, check. Leather skull cap with headset, check. Throat mic, check. All kitted up and imbued with the spirits of Royal Air Force pilots of times long gone, I clamber onto the lower wing of the immaculate blue and white De Havilland Tiger Moth DH-82A, ease my frame down into the cockpit, and buckle up the four-point harness.
As we waltz our way down the taxiway towards the runway, I can feel the force of the wind from the prop as the slipstream races its way over the cowling, into the open cockpit and smacks me in the face. Lining up for take-off on Cessnock’s grass runway, instructor Warwick Dand, seated in the rear cockpit behind me, opens up the throttle and the Tiger’s sizeable 130hp, 6.125 cubic litre engine roars and roars as we bolt off down the grass strip. Using the Tiger’s mammoth rudder, we hold the vintage aircraft on a straight line and I can feel the tail wheel scoot along the bumpy turf behind me.
With little coercion the Tiger gently lifts off the hard stuff and we commence our upwind leg. The wind is now really screaming in my ears and my senses are immediately swamped by a smattering of external forces. Warwick’s instructions coming through the intercom sound faint against the buzz of the engine and the rush of wind blowing into the open cockpit. The low cockpit position combined with a plethora of blindspots plays havoc with my situational awareness as I try to adjust to the sensitivities of the stick and maintain my reference feature.
It’s all conspiring against my modest pilot skills, which at this stage are still a work in progress to begin with, but we’re airborne for little more than a few seconds before it hits me – I’m flying a Tiger Moth. A TIGER MOTH! An aircraft steeped in so much romantic history and nostalgia. My lips wriggle their way into a grin of goofy proportions; now this is real flying.
It’s a damp December morning and I’ve been invited up to Cessnock aerodrome in the Hunter Valley for a day of ab initio training in one of Vintage Aviation’s three fully restored Tiger Moths. Vintage Aviation’s owner Michael Worthington, whose day job sees him jetting between Sydney, New York and London at the helm of a Qantas Boeing 747-400, explains that learning to fly a Tiger Moth requires an embracing of a whole new skills set.
As I sit down to a two-hour introductory brief I begin mentally divorcing myself from much of what I’ve become accustomed to to date flying a PA-28 Cherokee Archer. However Vintage Aviation’s Chief Pilot Warwick Dand pulls me up on that as he stresses that to an ab initio student the adaptation from learning in a modern trainer such as those on offer from Piper and Cessna to learning in a Tiger isn’t all that difficult. This is because the ab initio student hasn’t got bucketloads of flying hours under his/her belt and therefore isn’t entrenched in the operational ways of other, more modern aircraft. By the same token, Warwick says that it’s the experienced pilots that generally encounter some difficulty in the transition from modern types to stepping back in time to stick and rudder types such as the Tiger as they have to unlearn a lot of things and be prepared to go back and start again.
Getting kitted up for flying a Tiger requires more than merely slinging the headset bag over your shoulder, slapping the sunnies on and jumping in the cockpit. Before stepping out of the hangar Warwick helps kit me up in the, “full box and dice”, by the end of which I look like the spitting image of an old school RAF pilot – either that or a teletubby, as my other half so eloquently put it later! Clad in leather from the waist up and sporting goggles, I feel like I’m gearing up for an adventure in the truest sense of the word.
Given the degree to which the Tiger pilot is exposed to the wind in the open cockpit, it’s no surprise that the typical boom mic on the headset is of little use. To combat this, an old-fashioned throat mic beefed up with some modern additions is used to communicate between student and instructor. The throat mic sits on the larynx and does up with an elastic band and clip at the back of the neck. It looks somewhat bizarre and I anticipate it constricting my airflow, but as Warwick does me up it’s actually very comfortable and proves to work like a charm.
Start your engine
As can be expected, turning over the engine in a Tiger Moth is world’s apart from starting the engine in a modern light aircraft. The process is a lot more hands on involved and instils a sense of aviation lore into the ab initio student pilot.
Hoisting the tail of the aircraft up onto my shoulder, under Warwick’s direction I place the Tiger in the correct position for the start, which involves considering the direction of the wind and the type of surface we’re on. It might sound like a minor thing, but grabbing the Tiger’s tail and pushing and pulling her about on one’s own really engenders a connection between pilot and aircraft.
To keep the Tiger from skedaddling off into the never never, Warwick explains in no uncertain terms the importance of using chocks when starting the aircraft. “Only a fool starts a Tiger Moth without the chocks,” he deadpans, so I wedge a pair of chunky yellow rubber chocks in front of the main wheels.
A Tiger Moth engine can be started either as a dual or solo start; today Warwick opts to perform the start solo. Making sure the flight controls are correctly aligned, another important step in the start process, Warwick leans into the cockpit and sets the aircraft up for a solo start. He primes the engine by pulling the wooden prop through eight blades (four rotations of the crank shaft), then sets the switches to contact and the engine fires and bursts into life on the next swing. I immediately feel the Tiger eagerly pushing against the chocks and wanting to bolt off like a rabid pit bull on a leash.
Having been used to the standard start-up procedure and checks for the pink Piper Cherokee I’ve been learning to fly in, starting the Tiger is a whole different process. Nothing is automatic and all the manual actions help afford me a better understanding and appreciation of the aircraft’s operation.
Waltzing the Tiger
Once we’ve got the Tiger’s prop doing the rounds and we’re both strapped in, Warwick introduces me to taxiing the aircraft. Back in the briefing room Warwick had warned that it takes nearly as long to teach a student to taxi a Tiger correctly as it does to actually fly the aircraft. My mind flashes back to the umpteen times I had previously been admonished for taxiing too fast in Pinky the Piper and I gulp and cross my fingers as we set off.
Because of the seating position low and down in the back of the Tiger, if you taxi in a straight line you’re effectively driving blind as forward visibility over the nose is nonexistent. To combat this, Warwick teaches me how to “waltz” the Tiger, which requires using the width of the taxiway to continuously manoeuvre the aircraft from side to side to clear the blind spots. For obvious reasons, this requires a very slow taxi speed so we don’t cause the plane to take an embarrassing topple. Coupled with this is the need to anticipate the turn a lot earlier – the Tiger Moth is a taildragger, after all.
Not surprisingly, my taxiing is somewhat sloppy at first. So to get accustomed to it we move the Tiger out to the vacant grass paddock adjacent to the runway and I buzz around doing figure eights until my heart’s content. No way I could see myself conducting such hijinks at Bankstown – I’d probably get committed! While fun, and quite possibly foolish-looking from afar, this activity drives home the importance of holding the stick forward to incorporate the elevator to help facilitate the turns by taking some of the weight off the tail wheel.
It also teaches the importance of environmental awareness when taxiing a Tiger. Similar to sailing a boat, taxiing a Tiger requires a monitoring of wind conditions so you can use the wind to help the turns. On more than one occasion the aircraft almost refuses to make a 360 degree turn against the wind, yet when I swing it in the opposite direction it turns easily with the wind aiding the movement.
Taxiing a Tiger Moth correctly is an artform, to say the least.
Airborne and exposed
The first difference that hits me like a slap in the face once we’re airborne in the Tiger Moth is just how different operating in an open cockpit environment is in comparison to a closed cabin. The differences really can’t be over-estimated; it’s like chalk and cheese. I imagine it could be equated to emerging from a lengthy coma and being all but stunned by the sensory overload that greets you.
In contrast to the closed cabin environment, in which I’ve often had the peculiar feeling of being so close yet so far away from the action of what’s happening outside a mere few feet away on the other side of the cabin, a Tiger’s open cockpit is a whole different kettle of fish. And then some.
The constant feel of the wind zipping past your face creates the sensation that you’re clocking up some serious speeds, even when you’re only cruising along at a mere 60 odd knots. I lean my head outside the cockpit to take in the view and the slipstream batters the side of my head; the feeling that there’s no physical boundary between yourself and the open sky is truly liberating. You can feel as the wind changes direction, as well as in a sideslip as the direction of airflow changes from front to side on.
And it’s not just that. You can feel the rain, although we manage to avoid the wet for most of our flight, and even the smells. Warwick offers a chuckle as he says that if you fly over a McDonalds at 1000ft in a Tiger you can smell the McDonalds burning.
In a closed cabin aircraft you’re denied all these sensory things; in a Tiger you’re exposed to all the elements and in no time you come to appreciate the need for goggles, gloves, jacket and leather cap.
I find being exposed to the elements in the Tiger’s open cockpit environment does put a fair amount of extra strain on me while up in the air, with the noise in particular making communication with the instructor a mission. But Warwick assures me that this is normal and that ab initio lessons in a Tiger, especially when doing circuit work, only last for about 30 minutes until the student becomes accustomed to all the sensory exposure. While it takes some getting used to, the open cockpit environment of the Tiger isn’t so hostile as to detract from the copious amounts of fun that come with flying the aircraft.
Like most of us, I’ve always associated romantic notions of adventure with soaring through the skies in a light aircraft, and that sense of adventure was realised during my first introductory flight (in a Cherokee). But now having experienced the thrill of the open cockpit of a Tiger Moth I can wholeheartedly say that that sense of adventure has now been driven home in spades.
Flying the Tiger
Manoeuvring the Tiger correctly in the air requires very subtle inputs on the controls. Whether learning to fly in a C152, Cherokee or Tiger, steady motor skills and hand-eye coordination are essential. But this is particularly true in the case of the Tiger Moth, as while it has the same basic stability as modern trainers it requires a bit more work on the part of the pilot. One such example of this is that the use of the feet becomes much more important in a Tiger.
Up above the open skies of the very pleasant Cessnock aerodrome – far, far away from the GAAP confines I’m used to operating under at Bankstown – Warwick instructs me through a lengthy sequence covering effects of controls, straight and level, climbing and descending, turning and some circuit activities.
As Warwick hands control over to me and I feel my way through the basics of effects of controls, the first thing I pick up is that the gigantic, powerful rudder behind me requires gentle, nurturing adjustments rather than heavy-footed inputs. It’s easy to get too rudder-happy in a Tiger and at times I end up fish-tailing through the sky as a result of kicking on the pedals like I’m doing freestyle. After a few of Warwick’s words of wisdom the fish-tailing goes out the window though as I learn to feel the aeroplane and adapt a ‘squeeze and check, squeeze and check’ rudder technique when we’re out of balance.
Importantly, the correct application of rudder also comes into play in balanced coordinated turns, and Warwick points out this is one of the major difficulties for pilots undergoing Tiger conversion training.
Inside the cockpit everything is big, bulky and mechanical and a number of instruments take some getting used to, such as the chunky, old school compass. As well as this, the trim is a far cry from the simple trim wheel you’ll find in between the seats on modern trainers. In a Tiger, the trim is a lever that sits on the side of the cockpit below the throttle. It’s a crude device that proves somewhat fiddly, but it’s adequate and does the trick once you’re accustomed to it.
And inside the Tiger’s cockpit you won’t find a flap lever as the aircraft doesn’t have flaps – it doesn’t need them due to the drag that’s inherent to the Tiger’s design. This means that the standard approach for a Tiger is a glide approach, which Warwick says makes forced landing training a walk in the park for students as they’ve done nothing but glide approaches.
Given that from the cockpit the Tiger Moth has a grand total of six forward blind spots, even something as simple as straight and level flight requires some adaptation and heightened situational awareness. Back in the hangar Warwick stressed that one never flies a Tiger in a straight line for very long because as a result of the aircraft’s design the pilot is effectively wearing blinkers, and I soon come to appreciate that fact. Through the throat mic Warwick instructs me on how to manoeuvre the Tiger using a combination of rudder and aileron to clear the blindspots in straight and level flight.
While the Tiger’s design features create a number of blindspots for the pilot to deal with, they also prove beneficial as the various brackets, cabane struts, flying wires etc act as handy visual reference guides. And the extra bits and pieces outside the cockpit also help when setting correct attitudes. For example, putting the top wing tip on the horizon gives you the correct angle of bank for a climbing turn.
Situational awareness is one of the greatest things a Tiger will teach a pilot, Warwick says. I find flying a Tiger requires a high degree of vigilance, and the amount of head-turning required to maintain a sufficient lookout, even in simple flight sequences, is noteworthy. And Warwick drives home the importance of this as he explains that in a Tiger you, “don’t ‘scan’ for traffic, you ‘hunt’ for traffic”.
Sticking with it
Prior to this Tiger Moth jaunt I had yet to fly an aircraft controlled by a stick instead of a control column or yoke. I had assumed control and handling would be a whole lot different using a stick, and had often queried more experienced pilots on the matter. Warwick explains that there’s no difference whatsoever, and assures me that I’ll adapt to it in all of about 30 seconds.
As I manoeuvre the Tiger using its centre stick, Warwick’s explanation proves right in one aspect. While I adapt to flying with the centre stick in short time, I find it quite different to using a control column – in a good way, that is. Compared to a yoke, where my arms would occasionally grow tired when held out at length in the one position, having the centre stick sitting right there comfortably in my lap proved much more user-friendly. And holding the stick in the correct position for the various turns is child’s play.
Similar to using a yoke in a modern trainer though, the pilot needs to feel the Tiger’s stick. I learn to release my grip a little, as white knuckles are a no no. As I tentatively move the Tiger through climbing, descending and turning sequences I come to appreciate how only gentle pressure is needed to get the desired outcome. The Tiger is very light in pitch and I find merely holding the knob on top of the stick softly between my thumb and forefinger is enough to get the job done. While the pitch is very light, there’s actually a lot less roll authority in a Tiger compared to what I’m used to in the Cherokee, meaning the Tiger requires slightly more stubborn inputs when calling on the ailerons.
The fact that I was specifically in a Tiger may have had something to do with why I felt so comfortable using the stick, but if the Tiger is anything to go by I’d now take a stick over a yoke in most cases.
All about the experience
Back on the ground, Warwick and I roll the Tiger Moth back into her position in the hangar alongside Vintage Aviation’s two other Tigers and put her to bed for the day. The whole day has been a huge buzz; even after just the one day of ab initio training I’m left in no doubt that flying Tiger Moths is bucketloads of fun. And it’s not just the actual flying; the whole experience of getting involved hands on with a Tiger Moth is an eye-opener that I dare say would only further bolster any pilot’s love of aviation.
Both Warwick and Michael agree that there’s some truth to the notion that learning to fly in a modern trainer compared to a Tiger Moth can be equated to learning to drive in an automatic rather than a manual car.
Does this mean taking on your ab initio training in a Tiger will make you a better pilot? Not necessarily says Warwick, before explaining that Tiger Moth pilots are taught a very big bag of tricks and that students who do take the Tiger route through their ab initio training will come out the other end with highly advanced stick and rudder skills, highly advanced situational awareness, and a well-developed sense of limitation. Coupled with this, Michael accentuates, is a heightened understanding and appreciation of aviation lore.
As pertinent and true as they are, it’s more than just the well-rounded skills set and the connection with aviation history that comes with flying a Tiger Moth. It’s the undeniable fun factor as well, and that’s the overwhelming joy I’m left with. Driving on the freeway back to Sydney that evening, when no-one else is looking I wind down my window, step on the accelerator, stick my head out the car window and into the wind like a mangy mutt and imagine I’m back up in that open cockpit once more.
Things you might not know about a Tiger Moth
• No flaps. Being a biplane, the Tiger Moth’s design creates sufficient drag by way of the extra struts, braces and additional wing, meaning the need for flaps is eliminated. This means all landings in a Tiger are glide approaches.
• Automatic slots are fitted to the top wing to help delay the stall.
• Differential ailerons – but only just. When pushing left or right on the control stick, the opposing aileron will move in the opposite direction, but it only moves a fraction compared to what you’ll find on a modern aircraft.
• No carby heat. You won’t find a manual carby heat switch in the Tiger Moth’s cockpit as its engine features a gate in the carburetta that cuts off ram air and enables warm air to be drawn into the carburetta at certain throttle settings. There’s one less thing to have to remember when turning onto base!
• Magneto switches. The magneto switches are located on the exterior of the cowling left and forward of the cockpit. And there’s one pair for both the forward and aft cockpits.
• No dual brakes. Tiger Moths aren’t fitted with dual brakes; rather, a skid is put in place which acts as the brake and the tailwheel is removed.
• No turn coordinator. A Tiger’s cockpit features a turn and balance indicator rather than a turn coordinator. As a measure of the importance of balance in flying Tigers, the turn and balance indicator features predominantly on the instrument panel, directly in front of the pilot’s face.
• When taxiing a Tiger the propeller slipstream is used over the rudder and elevator to control the aircraft as it is very easy to lose a Tiger on the ground.
To find out more about ab initio or conversion training in a Tiger Moth contact Vintage Aviation on (02) 4990 8288 or 0434 082 082, visit www.vintageaviation.com.au, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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