To qualify to fly a WWI fighter is not an easy task as it will take many years of flying experience before someone will trust you with one. However, the De Havilland Tiger Moth, built a mere dozen years after WWI ended, comes close...
(This beautifully styled representation of a Tiger Moth was painted by Graham C. Wellstead. www.craftstoday.net)
I had been flying from Biggin Hill for a number of years before I learned that a pair of Tiger Moths were available at Compton Abbas, a small airfield perched on top of a hill near Shaftesbury in Dorset. When the company I worked for decided to move me to its Basingstoke office, it brought me within a hour's drive of Compton Abbas. So, I decided that now was the time to have a try at something I had wanted to do for years - to get my hands on a Tiger Moth.
I was already familiar with Compton Abbas having had a few hours on the Rollason Condors that had operated from there a few years before. So, items like the noise abatement circuit procedures, and the funny air currents that could sometimes appear on approach, were already known to me. What I was not yet familiar with was the aircraft I had come to fly; nor the instructor who would give me my first flight.
In honour of the great occasion I donned a rather nice blue Wrangler flying jacket that I had found in a shop the previous year, and strapped on the Omega Speedmaster watch that I was still paying for by installments. I was handed a leather flying helmet and mask and was told that my instructor, one Iain Weston, was waiting for me in the cafe, so over a cup of tea and a bun we introduced ourselves.
Roland Beamont once remarked that he could tell who was pilot material within thirty seconds of clapping eyes on him. When I clapped my eyes on Iain I immediately formed the impression that had anyone sliced through any one of his limbs they would have found 'pilot' written through it like a stick of seaside rock. The other thing that stood out was the fact that he was wearing a blue Wrangler flying jacket like mine. Then I then noticed one more thing; he was wearing an Omega Speedmaster watch on his wrist. He gave me a somewhat appraising look. This was years before Ricky Gervais said "Is he havin' a laugh?", but the vibes felt somewhat similar.
Iain asked me about any previous tailwheel experience, and I was relieved to be able to mention my Condor time, plus some hours in a Chipmunk about six months earlier. He nodded (approvingly, I thought) and a few minutes later we went out to the aircraft park. I looked at the aircraft I was about to fly and my heart sank a good few inches. Everything about the Tiger Moth looked, well, insubstantial. The fuselage looked short and skinny, the cockpits looking as though anyone larger than a jockey would have to be helped in with a very large shoehorn. The naked control wires and the wood and canvas construction made it look almost delicate, and that narrow track undercarriage - how on earth was a landing to be made without rocking the wingtips on to the ground? However, after we embarked on the pre-flight external checks my interest began to outweigh my concerns.
Oil level check - consumption can approach two pints per hour. Did I know that the Gipsy Major engine was basically just one half of a WWI Renault V8? (More like a WWI fighter than ever...) Yes, those switches just forward of each cockpit were indeed for the magnetos - made them nice and easy for the prop-swinger to see. Fuel capacity nineteen gallons; consumption - six to eight gallons per hour; depended on what you were doing. Differential ailerons, on the lower plane only - quite enough if you handle the machine properly. Notice the autoslots? Locked from the rear cockpit when you are about to carry out aeros - not today...
Did he do much in the way of aerobatics? An expression I might have interpreted as one of slight surprise flitted over his face. Yes, whenever he had the opportunity...
Time to get in. I was ushered into the rear cockpit (actually quite large enough, even for a six-footer like me) and shown the controls. That one there was the autoslot control - don't use it unless you are asked to. That one was the elevator trim - check how it works now; fully foward - feel that thump in the small of the back? Good. By now any concerns I had had about flying the Tiger Moth had evaporated - I just wanted to get going!
We did the usual playing around with the magneto switches before the prop was swung and the Gipsy Major coughed musically into life. For this first detail I would follow Iain on the controls until we were on climbout. I was struck by the coarse use of the rudder and the throttle that was necessary to turn the machine when taxying. This machine had a castoring tailskid and responded almost readily - later I would learn how one with a fixed tailskid had to be treated...
Ten minutes later were were bouncing down the runway. Again, fascinating to feel the corrective inputs Iain was making as I kept my hand and feet lightly against the controls. At five hundred feet power was reduced slightly and a rather attenuated voice sounded in my earphones.
"Okay, you have control. Keep climbing at sixty-six. I'll let you know when to level out. When you do, throttle back to nineteen hundred and keep straight and level."
A bit precise, I thought. I acknowledged, and concentrated on maintaining the airspeed. That was okay, however, the slip needle was hurtling from side to side like the flag-waver at a Formula One finish line. A touch of corrective rudder sent it merrily slamming against the opposite stop. A voice (slightly aggrieved) sounded in the earphones again.
"Come on, concentrate on keeping in balance!"
I tried hard, but the harder I tried the more the needle misbehaved. In the end I took a breather from it and glanced out of the side of the cockpit. The slipstream whistled up the open end of my mask and the beautiful landscape of Dorset, lit by the summer sun, slid past the trailing edge of the wing. The open cockpit was quite simply a fantastic experience. My earphones came to life again.
"That's better - a lot better! See what happens when you concentrate?"
I looked back at the instrument panel and saw that the slip needle was quivering at the dead vertical. I renewed my concentration and within seconds the needle was all over the place again. A groan came through the earphones...
But in the next few minutes I got the hang of it. The Tiger was as alive as a pony and its movements had to be anticipated. Relaxing, and feeling the way things were going, appeared to be the key. But how those WWI pilots managed to shoot at another aircraft seemed to be a mystery - must have been like trying to shoot clay pigeon while standing up in a hammock...
The rest of the detail was pretty normal and by the time we landed I had already fallen in love with the machine. A few hours later I went solo, and could then indulge a prediliction for cruising over the Isle of Purbeck, scarf streaming in the wind, circling Corfe Castle and waving at the tourists. I progressed to aerobatics, and found that while loops were easy, a really tidy slow roll was VERY difficult to perform.
Ok, so how was I to know that Iain flew in the Rothmans Aerobatic team; and that Wrangler had thoughtfully given each of the pilots a blue flying jacket? Anyway, faux pas apart, that first trip had been as fantastic as I had imagined it would be, and to have been shown the ropes by a first class aerobatic biplane pilot had been a huge privilege. Sadly, Iain is no longer with us, but I am just one of many who holds a treasured memory of flying with him.