Yellow Wings - Flying the Tiger Moth

 Tiger Title

As we walk into the hangar, the sound of our footsteps echoes in the vast expanse.  The low, early morning sun blazes through the row of windows on the closed hangar doors.  Brilliant patches of sunlight reflect off polished fuselages and wings; vibrant reds and brilliant yellows, that stand out in sharp contrast to the dark shadows.

It feels like we have walked into a stable of slumbering thoroughbreds – each with its own distinct personality.  Off in one corner, the Spitfire sits quietly, exuding elegance and grace.  Next to it, the sleek and powerful Mustang looks like it is ready to leap into the sky.  In another corner, the hog-nosed Corsair sits back on its haunches, looking brutish and ready for a fight. We walk past these magnificent airplanes, and several others, to find our charge for this day, the little Tiger Moth.

Painted in trainer yellow, the Tiger Moth sits next to the hangar doors, shining brilliantly in the early morning light.  She isn’t a macho fighter like her stable-mates; instead she is a skillful teacher.  It was in a Tiger Moth, that most British Commonwealth Air Force pilots took their first tentative steps towards getting their wings.  “The few” that saved Britain and the free world during the Battle of Britain; the boys of Bomber Command, who flew night after night, through intense flak over Germany; the Dakota pilots that trudged their way to Normandy pulling gliders; the vast majority of these men began their flight training flying a Tiger Moth at an Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS).
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Heralding the start of another day of sharing the collection; the Tiger Moth sits next to the hangar doors, capturing the early morning light across her yellow wings.  Photo: John Davies.

This summer, I’ve had the privilege of taking the Vintage Wings of Canada Tiger Moth to several displays across Ontario. Even when we stopped for fuel or diverted because of weather, a crowd of curious onlookers gathered – and we had another opportunity to share this classic aircraft.  For me, the best part of the summer of 2008, has been my work with this wonderful little aircraft.  On this day, with my friend John Davies, I will make a short flight to the Canada Aviation Museum, to share this unique artifact with the museum’s guests.  These are a mix of young and old, teenagers and veterans, families with young children, serious airplane enthusiasts, and the merely curious.  All of them will share a desire to get close to, and learn about, this Second World War era trainer.  I smile to myself, knowing that another great day of displaying the Tiger Moth lies ahead.  The claxon trumpets its harsh warning as John slides open the hangar doors.  Dazzling sunlight fills every corner of the hangar, as John and I pull the Tiger out onto the ramp.

As I conduct the preflight inspection, I am reminded of the many details that make this biplane so distinctive.  The Tiger Moth traces its origins to 1931. Essentially, it was a modified version of the Gipsy Moth which de Havilland had been producing since the mid 1920s.  The Tiger Moth incorporated significant improvements from its predecessor.  In order to make escape by parachute easier for the instructor - who sat in the front cockpit, surrounded by struts and wires - the upper wing of the Tiger Moth was moved forward by 19 inches.  The upper wings were then swept back to keep the centre of gravity within limits.  To minimize the chance of a wing strike during crosswind operations, the lower wings were tilted upwards (dihedral was applied).

HangarQueen3

The Tiger Moth incorporated significant improvements from its predecessor, the Gipsy Moth. In order to make escape by parachute easier for the instructor, the upper wing of the Tiger Moth was moved forward by 19 inches. The upper wings were then swept back to keep the centre of gravity within limits. To minimize the chance of a wing strike during crosswind operations, the lower wings were tilted upwards (dihedral was applied).  Here Rob Kostecka rolls on take off at Classic Air Rallye 2008.  Photo: Peter Handley

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The summer of 2008 was filled with glorious days, flying and displaying the Tiger Moth.  These were days when I travelled back in time to another era; days when I had the great privilege of sharing this wonderful airplane with people that were eager to learn about Canada’s aviation history.  Here I put the Tiger Moth into a gentle dive at Classic Air Rallye 2008, offering a clear view of the lower wing dihedral and the front cockpit accessibility gained by moving the wings forward on the Tiger Moth design.  Photo: Peter Handley

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The Vintage Wings Tiger Moth is a Canadian-built DH.82C.  Manufactured in Toronto in 1942, the DH.82C has several differences from its British cousin and forerunner.  Canadian Tigers have a free-castoring tailwheel – which cannot be locked – instead of a tail skid.  Canadian Tigers had canopies installed, to permit training in the harsh North American winters.  Canadian Tigers also have brakes.  There are scores of other differences – which Tiger Moth aficionados take great pride in reciting. Photo: John Davies

The Vintage Wings Tiger Moth is a Canadian-built DH.82C.  Manufactured in Downsview in 1942, it has several differences from its British cousin and forerunner, the DH.82A.  The British DH.82A does not have brakes.  Instead, a tail skid drags along the grass, so that gentle braking is always being applied.  To accelerate, you use power, to overcome the drag force of the tail skid that is always present.  To turn tightly at the end of the runway, you push the control column slight forward and apply a full rudder with a fairly significant burst of power. The resulting manoeuvre is like a controlled ground loop; it definitely takes some getting used to.  For the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity of flying a DH.82A with the Collingwood Classic Aircraft Foundation (CCAF).  It was at CCAF that Dave Hadfield, my mentor, longtime friend and fellow Vintage Wings pilot, first taught me the ways of biplanes with fabric covered wings, bracing wires and wooden props.

HangarQueen3


To fly a Tiger Moth, is to travel back in time, to an age when fabric covered biplanes took off and landed in pastures and meadows.  Flying a Tiger Moth then – and now - is a feast for all the senses. You smell fresh cut grass and oil on hot exhaust stacks; you feel the cool dampness of nearby clouds; you feel the sun’s warmth on your face and the gentle swirl of the slipstream in your cockpit.   Photo by Matt Watson 

Tiger 4

Dave Hadfield, my mentor, longtime friend and fellow Vintage Wings pilot, taught me the ways of biplanes with fabric covered wings, bracing wires and wooden props.  Photo by Robin Hadfield

Tiger 5

The British DH.82A does not have brakes.  Instead a tail skid drags along the grass, so that gentle braking is always being applied.  To accelerate, you use power, to overcome the drag force of the tail skid that is always present.  To turn tightly at the end of the runway, you apply a full rudder, slight forward control column and a fairly significant burst of power. The resulting manoeuvre is like a controlled ground loop and definitely takes some getting used to.  Photo by Rob Kostecka

Now that I have joined Vintage Wings as a pilot, I also have the opportunity of flying the Canadian-built DH.82C that is part of our collection.  The Canadian Tigers have several unique characteristics.  A free-castoring tailwheel – which cannot be locked – replaces the tail skid.  This was necessary to allow winter operations from asphalt runways.  Canadian Tigers had canopies installed to permit training during the harsh North American winters.  Canadian Tigers also have brakes, again indispensable for asphalt operations.  There are scores of other differences – which Tiger Moth aficionados take great pride in reciting.

With my pre-flight inspection complete, I settle into the cockpit and complete the before start checklist.  The brakes are set, the fuel is on, and the throttle is closed.  To prime the engine, John floods the carburettor by pulling a small metal ring that protrudes from the left side of the cowling.  He continues pulling the ring until he sees fuel dripping from the drain mast under the cowling.  Then, with the magnetos off, John pulls the propeller through five blades, which ensures that the correct fuel-air charge is in each cylinder. 

We are now ready for engine start.  I set the throttle.  John switches on the two magnetos next to the front cockpit.  He calls “Contact”, and I switch on the two mags next to my seat.  Now the moment of truth…  From John’s perspective, in front of the aircraft, the right propeller blade is at the 2 o’clock position.  He carefully takes hold of the blade and gives it a flick – quickly getting out of the way.  Today we are lucky, and the Gipsy Major 1C engine immediately roars to life.  (On other occasions – almost always with an audience watching – the engine stubbornly refuses to start until after several frustrating attempts have been made.)  I adjust the throttle to 800 rpm for warm-up and watch the oil pressure rise. 

John secures himself in the front cockpit and we trundle out to the ramp for our run-up.  We then back-track the grass next to Gatineau’s Runway 09.  The aircraft gently rocks back and forth as we roll over the slightly uneven turf.  At the end of the grass runway, I turn into the wind, and make a final check to ensure that we are ready to fly.

With the control column fully aft, I slowly and steadily move the throttle fully forward.  A quick glance at the tachometer shows that we are developing 2300 rpm.  The oil pressure is also holding steady.  As we accelerate, I apply gentle forward pressure on the control column to raise the tail – so that we are now running on the main wheels.  I keep straight with quick applications of rudder.  As I raise the tail, I apply left rudder to counter the effects of gyroscopic precession.  As we accelerate, we feel a slight rhythmic jarring as the wheels bounce off the grass.  And then, it is suddenly smooth…  We are airborne!  I hold the Tiger a few feet off the ground, accelerating in ground effect (which minimizes drag).  Once we have attained 70 mph, I gently pull back on the stick and we climb away.  At 300 feet above ground, I pull back the throttle to give us 2100 rpm and trim to establish an airspeed of 66 mph.  Slowly but steadily, we ascend into another perfect summer sky.

To fly a Tiger Moth, is to travel back in time;  back to an era when fabric covered biplanes took off  - not from long asphalt runways - but from pastures and meadows.  Back then, flying was a feast for all the senses.  You smelled fresh cut grass and oil on hot exhaust stacks; you felt the cool dampness of a nearby cloud; you felt the sun’s warmth on your face and the gentle swirl of the slipstream in your cockpit.   Today, I am experiencing all of those wonderful sensations.

HangarQueen6


John Davies, one of Vintage Wings' key volunteers has devoted much of his personal time to our enterprise as a member of the ground crew, marshaller, photographer and tour guide. One look at John's face and you know it's all worth it. Photo: John Davies

There is no other traffic in the circuit and we enter straight onto the left-hand downwind of Rockcliffe’s runway 09.   As we do, I am again reminded that we are bringing a vintage airplane to an airfield that is steeped in history.  In 1920, the airport opened officially as the Ottawa Air Station.  Because of its proximity to the Ottawa River, for decades Rockcliffe also served as a floatplane base.  Through its long history, Rockcliffe was the site of tragedy and triumph.  In 1930, the Canadian Ace William Barker crashed and died there during a demonstration flight. Charles Lindbergh visited the airport, after his historic New York to Paris flight.  During the Second World War and the post war period, Rockcliffe was an active and important RCAF station.  Now, it is the home of the Canada Aviation Museum, our destination for today.

Turning onto the base leg, I bring the power back to idle and trim to establish a glide at 66 mph.  Power-off approaches allow me to practice forced approaches, a necessary skill in case the engine ever fails.  This is something that I constantly prepare for.  We’re slightly high so I sideslip; crossing the controls by applying left aileron, down elevator and right rudder.  This causes us to fly a little sideways, and pushes John and me uncomfortably against our left shoulder and lap belts.  Flying in this uncoordinated manner has the desired effect of increasing our descent rate, without increasing our forward speed.  Once we are back on the proper glidepath, I straighten the aircraft out again and we resume our coordinated glide. 

As the runway appears to rush up to me, I gently pull back on the control column to smoothly pitch the nose up.  When properly timed, the stick reaches its aft stop – just as the aircraft gently settles to the ground, in the three-point attitude.  I hold the stick fully aft as we slow down and control the aircraft’s direction with quick applications of rudder – determined to keep the nose straight.  As we approach the taxiway I gingerly apply the brakes by pulling back the lever with my left hand.  I’m careful not to be too aggressive, since too much brake will cause the aircraft to nose over.

As we taxi to the Canada Aviation Museum hangar, I can see the crowd of people already waiting for us.  John hops out of the aircraft and marshals me onto the grass next to the crowd.  I switch my magneto switches off and the propeller quickly stops.  (Unlike modern engines, there is no idle cut-off on the Gipsy Major engine.)  John then switches off the forward mags.  With the brakes set and chocks in place, we can now focus on sharing this wonderful aircraft with the museum’s guests.

HangarQueen7

Visits to the Canada Aviation Museum and other display opportunities give the public a chance to see and touch a flying piece of history.  Our audience is a mix of young and old, teenagers and veterans, families with young children, serious airplane enthusiasts, and the merely curious; all of them sharing a desire to get close to, and learn about, this Second World War era trainer. Photo: John Davies

Tiger 14

Even when we stop unexpectedly, a crowd of curious onlookers gathers – and we have another opportunity to share this classic aircraft.  Earlier this summer, when returning to Gatineau, a localized thunderstorm results in an unscheduled diversion to Rockcliffe.  Photo: John Davies

The aims of Vintage Wings of Canada are “to commemorate, to educate and to inspire”.  By taking our aircraft out to public displays such as our Sunday Museum Visits, we are able to achieve these important goals.  We commemorate our veterans, by explaining their service and sacrifice.  We remind our audience that Tiger Moth instructors performed yeoman service for which they received little or no recognition.  We educate, by allowing the public to learn about the Tiger Moth’s unique history and discussing the tremendously important role that Canada played in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP).  We also use the Tiger Moth’s simple flight controls to explain the fundamentals of flight.  Finally, we inspire, by allowing people to see and touch a living piece of history, and by reminding them of Canada’s unique heritage.

As always, the day passes far too quickly.  Eventually it is time for us to return home to Gatineau.  We fly back across the river and return our little Tiger Moth back to its place in the hangar.  John and I talk quietly as we wipe down the fuselage and remove the oil that inevitably gets thrown out by Gipsy Major engines.  We reflect on the people that we’ve met and the new friends that we’ve made.  I smile when I think about the expressions on the faces of the children that have taken their turn in the cockpit.  The look of sheer delight when they see that pulling back the control column makes the elevators go up… The wonder and joy that these children experience when actually sitting in the pilot’s seat - as their parents snap endless photos.

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There is wonder and joy reflected in children’s faces as they actually sit in the pilot’s seat - while their parents snap endless photos. Here Rob Kostecka demonstrates the Tiger Moth's flight controls as brother and sister start to understand how aircraft are able to fly. Photo: John Davies

Today’s flight in the Tiger Moth has been like many others during the summer of 2008.  These were very happy days for me.  These were days when I travelled back in time to another era; days when I had the great privilege of sharing this wonderful airplane with people that were eager to get close to a living piece of history.

Feeling contentment and satisfaction, I give our little yellow workhorse a final appreciative glance.  With our day’s work done, John and I close the hangar doors and quiet darkness once again fills the hangar. 

HangarQueen110

As always, the day passes far too quickly.  Eventually it is time for us to fly back across the river and return our Tiger Moth back to its home in Gatineau.  We reflect on the people that we’ve met and the new friends that we’ve made.  I smile when I remember the expressions on the faces of the children that have taken their turn in the cockpit. Photo: John Davies


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