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De Havilland Tiger Moth: PH Heroes

No, it's not a car. But rarely has hero status been more befitting than for a plane which helped to prepare the few

By Dafydd Wood / Wednesday, August 15, 2018

It was on October 26th 1931 that the prototype Tiger Moth made its maiden flight. Despite having been designed with military training applications in mind, its success was still fairly unprecedented and saw the plane exported to over 25 foreign air forces around the world. By the outbreak of World War II, a total of 1,424 Tiger Moths had been completed globally, with construction also occurring in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

As the manufacture of de Havilland's Mosquito fighter-bomber consumed the company's Hatfield factory, the Tiger Moth saw its production moved to the Morris car plant outside Oxford. By the time production there ceased in 1945, Morris alone had produced a total of 3,433 Tiger Moths, over two thousand more than had been completed in the nine years prior.

The example pictured was one of the first to be produced at that location and initially flew in June 1940. It was transferred to RAF Sealand in north Wales, where it was used to train pilots with No 19 and No 24 Elementary Flying Training Schools, and today it wears the original colour scheme used during WWII.

Climbing up onto the wing and swinging yourself down into the forward of the two cockpits is, therefore, an incredibly poignant experience. Thoughts of the men, some my age but many much younger, who have sat here before me not for fun but to prepare themselves for war, come instantly to mind.

As we trundle out across the grassy airfield, before turning to come roaring back and up into the sky, it suddenly becomes very hard to think of anything, though. Power comes courtesy of the de Havilland Gypsy Major engine - introduced in the mid 30s to replace the 120hp Gipsy III, it's an air-cooled inline-four, capable of producing up to 145hp - and it creates such a tremendous racket that even the pilot's voice being piped directly into my ears is impossible to make out.

As the tachometer needle bounces from 26 to 14 and back again (it's displayed in hundreds of revs per minute) the sound, vibration and buffeting is a far cry from the comfort afforded by the Grob Tutors of my days in the Air Cadets. It's flying as I've never experienced it before, exposed to the elements and feeling tangibly at their mercy, as the slightest crosswind or smallest air pocket pitches and yaws the plane like a kite. It finally makes perfect sense why Biggles always referred to them that way...

The half-hour flight takes us south-east from Bicester. The Buckinghamshire countryside, which ought to be the perfect backdrop to such an experience, appears somewhat alien; its vibrant green and yellow patchwork replaced with a washed out canvas of chartreuse and beige by the extended heatwave which, 80 years on from imminent Nazi invasion, presented the greatest threat to Britain's unbreakable spirit this summer.

We pass over Leatherslade Farm, the infamous hiding place of the great train robbers, as well as the former Rothschild estate at Waddesdon Manor and several picturesque villages, before it's time to turn back. Time at the stick is limited only by the length of the flight, with plenty of opportunity to take the controls. I'm quite content admiring the view, camera in hand, but the potentially once in a lifetime opportunity is of course too good to pass up.

Earlier in the day, when I arrived at the airfield, my pilot was busy transporting the Tiger Moth from its hangar and out onto the grass. Evidently this was no more difficult than holding it beneath the tail with one hand, raising it above the head, and walking the plane outside. It seemed to require almost no effort whatsoever, and, back at the controls, the aircraft's featherweight design makes itself apparent again. Keeping it straight and level involves, for an inexperienced pilot at least, practically constant input. It's a thrilling, engaging and highly memorable experience, but with Bicester coming back into view I pass control back to the professional for the highly-billed aerobatic finale.

A loop, into a stall turn, into a barrel roll sees me outwardly grinning like an idiot whilst internally waiting for the 78 year-old wood and canvas machine to fold in on itself under what feels like overwhelming G-force - but in reality was probably nothing for a regular pilot to write home about. Our time finally up, we line ourselves up with the field, gliding smoothly in for a bumpy landing, and taxi over to the control tower.

Back on the calm, quiet ground, the visceral nature of the last half hour settles in. It's long been a dream, since I'd spend Boxing Days building models of Sopwith Pups and Heinkel He 111s to experience a flight in a wartime plane. And, though the Tiger Moth may not have seen combat - despite its rare outings as a makeshift maritime patrol - its contribution to the war effort, in the training of so many young pilots, means its place in history is no less assured than many of the aircraft which did.

Regardless, my time with it has been unforgettable; it's a no-brainer for anyone with a passion for history, flying, or even just pretty views, and I'm certainly determined to experience something similar again. I hear Goodwood'll take me up in their Spitfire in exchange for a couple of grand - time to start saving...


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