The first taildragger I flew was a Stampe SV4. To the untrained eye the differences between that and a Tiger Moth are imperceptible. The second taildragger I flew was a Piper Cub, and then, the Tiger Moth. I had probably around 50-60 hours of tailwheel time when I first flew the Tiger, but even then it caught me. Why? Because, in my opinion, the DeHavilland DH82 Tiger Moth is the best training aeroplane to have ever graced the skies. And here’s why.
The Tiger is not a difficult aeroplane to fly, but it is a difficult aeroplane to fly well. It is underpowered, draggy, sluggish on the controls, suffers from quite severe adverse aileron yaw and is never in trim, ever. But, master these aspects and it is a sheer delight to fly. Flying one on a warm summer evening is everything God intended flying to be about, if there was such a thing as a God, of course.
The first thing that struck me about the Tiger was simply the way they look whilst on the ground. As you approach the aeroplane the nearer you get to it the further back in time you step. The canvas, wooden struts, bracing wires, open cockpit and of course, it’s a biplane. On the ground, with its tail sat low pointing the nose up to the sky as though it wants to fly, it just looks right. Once in the cockpit you really notice the angle, all forward visibility is blocked with the long nose. The forward view is not unlike the Spitfire that so many of the pilots who trained on the Tiger in WWII would go on to fly a little over 180hrs or so later. Sitting in the cockpit, eyes open or closed, you just absorb all those feelings of nostalgia and vintage charm.
You are further reminded of the age of the aircraft when it comes to starting the engine. Hand swinging the prop is the order of the day. Fuel switched on in the cockpit and priming is done by your assistant with their head in the cowling. Cowling secured and they look to you to confirm the magneto switches, which are on the port side, outside the cockpit, are off. This is confirmed with a thumbs down from you, with your hand remaining outside the cockpit and visible. Then they’ll “suck in” four blades, that is, turn the prop the correct way, four times. Then, a call from the front of “mags on” at which point you turn on the impulse mag, and signal mags on, and call “contact”. You are now holding the stick back with either your knees or the inside of your right elbow, as your right hand holds the throttle on the left hand side, whilst your left hand is outside on the mag switches. Then, with a bit of luck, if everything has been done correctly, with the throttle set about a quarter of an inch open, on the next swing of the blade the engine will fire! As she does so, the other mag goes on and the throttle is adjusted for an rpm of 5-700 while she warms up. As the engine fires into life the whole aircraft shakes, there’s almost certainly a puff of exhaust smoke and once everything settles the whole aircraft quivers and rocks gently with the Gyspy Major warming up.
Taxiing is the next hurdle, and requires more than a little forward planning. No brakes on a “real” Tiger Moth make it interesting, with the one that I flew for two years having an authentic tail skid too, rather than a wheel. With the skid and lack of brakes you almost certainly want to taxi on grass. On tarmac or any other kind of hard surface, not only would the skid wear down very quickly but with anything more than idle throttle you’ll accelerate too much, not to mention foul up the plugs with the low power, which causes the engine to run rough. At such a low power setting you have very little ability to steer as there is hardly any airflow over the rudder. So, taxiing on grass is ideal, it’s more draggy and so you need a little more throttle to maintain speed. You therefore have more airflow over the tail, and as a result, steering is not an issue. Not an issue, that is, until there’s a substantial cross wind. An aircraft is just a giant weathervane and it wants to cock into the wind all the time. So, if there is a reasonable wind blowing from your right, and you want to turn left, you may well find that you are unable to do so. But that doesn’t matter, just go the long way round. Use the wind from your right to help, a little blip of throttle, full right rudder, allow the throttle and wind to turn you 270 degrees to the right, to eventually go left. Simple! “Nose-dragger” pilots will wonder what you’re playing at, but who cares, you’re in a Tiger Moth.
Because the Tiger is so light, she will “accelerate” relatively fast to her do-everything speed of about 60mph. The tail will come up instantly, the ailerons will be very ineffective initially – that’s what caught me out the first time – and before you know it you’ll have bounced into the air. Climb at about 60mph as that will keep a nice amount of airflow over the engine and don’t bother trying to go any higher than about 2000’ or you’ll probably run out of fuel before you get there!
Once airborne, this is where the Tiger begins to demonstrate why it is such a good instructional aeroplane. If you want to learn to fly, to really fly, then get in a Tiger. First, the pitch trim. Most aircraft have a wheel, so with practise, you can get it trimmed exactly right making minute adjustments. Not so in the Tiger; there is a notched lever. You will almost certainly find, on every flight, that the perfect trim position is just between two notches, which of course you can’t set. So, you’re left with an aircraft that’s just slightly out of trim, either nose up, or nose down. I prefer slightly nose down for general flying so you’re sitting with just a smidge of back pressure. This requires constant attention and it forces you to get the feel of the aeroplane, and pay attention, at all times.
Next are the ailerons.There is only one set of ailerons on the Tiger, on the lower wings. Because of that, they’re big. Barn doors in fact. When you move the stick to the left, you would expect any reasonable and well behaved aeroplane to roll to the left in response. The Tiger Moth isn’t a reasonable or well behaved aeroplane. In fact, what you’ll see, if you do nothing else, is the nose disappearing off somewhere to the right and down and you’ll end up in an almighty mess. Welcome to adverse aileron yaw. Glider pilots know all about this. Adverse aileron yaw is when the down going aileron (on the right wing if rolling left) creates more drag, compared to the up going aileron on the other wing. This happens in many aircraft, it’s just that the size of the ailerons in the Tiger Moth accentuates it. This, in turn, causes an imbalance of drag, and the right wing is effectively pulled back by this drag. So, when you move the stick left to roll left, you don’t! What is needed is rudder; a coordinated effort with the stick and rudder in order to keep the aircraft not only in balance, but going the way you want it to. Left stick = left foot and right stick = right foot. This requirement for coordination is simply excellent for the ab initio pilot, or the experienced one alike. Within a few attempts you will be nicely balanced flying lovely clean and crisp turns in God’s own flying machine.
To fly aerobatics in a Tiger is also a challenge as it is fairly underpowered and draggy. Energy management is key, and with practise and coordination a decent routine can be flown. Because of the drawbacks highlighted above, this again is why the Tiger is an excellent trainer. You have to make the right inputs, accurately and timely, in order to get the desired response. Do anything else, and you won’t get what you want. You’ll never fly any advanced manoeuvres in the Tiger, but you don’t need to. Loops, Rolls, Stall Turns and Cubans are about the reasonable limit, but if you can do them well in a Tiger then that will bode well for more capable aeroplanes, such as the Stampe. One thing the Tiger does extremely well is the “Falling Leaf”. Pitch up and wait for the speed to wash off, just on the stall let the nose drop, recover straight away, then dive, pull up again, but this time go the other way and so on. From the right angle on the ground it looks just like a falling leaf and is very pleasing.
With the exception of a few basic aerobatics, that’s about all there is to do in a Tiger Moth, just fly around. You can’t really go anywhere because it’s normally quicker to walk. There really is nothing better than pootling around at low ish level, on a summer evening, flying around the South Downs or along the cliffs at Beachy Head, soaking it all up in slow time, watching the world go by and the seagulls overtake you. It’s just bliss. Just remember which way the wind was blowing; if you’ve been flying downwind in a 20mph wind, then your difference in ground speed on the way home will be 40mph – two thirds of your air speed and it might take you a while…
Landing a Tiger Moth is relatively straightforward, no flaps, no variable pitch prop, fixed undercarriage, almost nothing to check. She sideslips beautifully, should you need to, akin to having 90 degrees of flap if you leave just a tiny trickle of power on to energise the tail for maximum elevator and rudder authority. About 50-60mph in the initial approach is nice and wash that back to about 40mph over the numbers, if you’re looking at the ASi by that point. With the throttle closed and being suitably close to the ground, just try not to land. Hold off, hold off, hold off, and…..there you go. She’ll semi stall and plop down on all three points and if you’re on grass, with the skid and not too strong a crosswind, you should have no trouble keeping straight.
One of my fondest memories of flying the Tiger Moth was actually a forced landing. Heading in a northwesterly direction just crossing the South Downs and the engine began to run very rough. A phrase my ground school instructor once said came into my mind… “it sounded like a skeleton having a w**k in a dustbin”, which, I imagine, was probably about right. Increase the throttle a little to see if I still have power…more rattling and vibration. Not good. Decrease the throttle to see if it improves, only a little and now we’re going down. Check everything that could be checked, fuel on, oil pressure, mags, and that’s about all there is. Being surrounded by the fields of West Sussex I had a few landing options, and I knew there was an airstrip down there somewhere… So I decide to commit to being a glider and turn her off. That was better, much more peaceful. A quick MAYDAY, to let the airfield know we wouldn’t be back for tea and select a field as I couldn’t see the air strip. I elected to land in a nice big square one at the foot of the Downs, approaching in a southerly direction towards the hills into what little wind there was.
Orbiting down, high key, the airfield on my left, going down quite steadily and curving onto a final approach of sorts at about 200’ feet, skim the hedge on the way in, hold off, hold off, hold off and….there you go, coming to a stop slap bang in the middle of the field. The lady whose trial lesson it was had a great day out. Not only did she get to fly in a Tiger Moth, but land in a field and she got a ride back to the airfield in the Super Puma helicopter that heard our MAYDAY call and followed us down, which was very nice of them. I waited with the aircraft, had a cup of tea from the resident in the nearby house and phoned the girl I was seeing (and am now married to) to let her know I would be late home. And god knows how, but a reporter showed up! It was in the local newspaper the next day with a catchy, Daily Mail-esque headline.
The engineers came out from the airfield, along with the owner, and promptly identified the problem, took things to bits, put them back together and declared her ready to go. The owner looked at me and said “well you got her into the field, you can get her out!” As it wasn’t the biggest field in the history of fields, we took out everything unnecessary saving a few pounds of weight, pushed her to the far corner to go off on a diagonal in a northwesterly direction. That was down wind, but the wind was only a few knots and more importantly, taking off in that direction was away from the South Downs which were at the other end. A nice run up on the chocks and she was running smooth. Idle, signal the chocks away, and no messing about – straight up to full power. Tail up as soon as possible, less drag like that, bounce off the ground, hold her low to build speed, slight jink to the right, between two tall trees and then up, up into the evening sky. A matter of minutes later I was calling up the airfield, joining the circuit and within less than ten minutes had switched off back at the hangar. That was one for the logbook, for sure.