There is a rich history behind our Tiger Moth, and I suppose that this nostalgia adds to the effect of flying such a romantic aircraft. There really is something special about open cockpit flying that harks back to the origins of flight and ‘real’ aviation.
Life began for the aircraft that we affectionately call ‘Tiggy’ under service for the Royal Air Force with Constructor’s Number 84412 or RAF Serial Number T8100. She began service later on when she was sold to South African Air Force on 21st April 1941, with the serial number 2140. On arrival the aircraft was issued with SAAF serial 2140 to No. 4 Air School in Benoni sometime between October and December 1942.
Clearly military life was not for her, so she took up residence at Baragwanath Airfield. She was sold by the South African Air Force as 1146 to the Johannesburg Light Plane Club, based at ‘Bara’ and registered ZS-BSF. During this period she was used as a basic trainer and for glider towing up to 4th August 1962 when a cracked crankcase stopped her from flying. Her engine number 87354 was removed.
Later, Roy Watson and Arthur Meechin bought her in dismantled state in June 1965. Roy then rebuilt her under Arthur’s guidance before he attended university. Arthur was in fact a de Havilland trained engineer, and he provided vital insight in the building process, having been a foreman on the construction of the original Comet Racers.
Finally, with a new engine and a lick of blue and silver paint, the Tiger took to the skies on 20th February 1966 with Arthur as test pilot. Incidentally, the engine fitted during the rebuild was ex-Dragonfly, ZS-CTR, engine number 81478, originally tested on 27th September 1938.
Roy and Arthur then operated her until Arthur’s untimely death in 1974. Roy took over Arthur’s share and continued flying, including participating in air races, aerobatic contests and sport flying.
She was re-registered in the vintage aircraft category on 12 January 1979 to benefit from ease of maintenance privileges as ZS-UKW. After much airborne activity, the deterioration of fabric necessitated a rebuild and the Tiger was flown to Grand Central on 6th April 1989 for stripping. The rebuild was done at Roy’s home and a new yellow and blue colour scheme was incorporated.
She took to the skies once again on 14 June 2001 and after my brother and I had obtained our Private Pilots Licenses, we began our conversions.
This all began at Rand Airport where it was kept for a brief period amongst some DC-3s and DC-4s inside Phoebus Apollo’s hangar. Later on a space opened up in Andrew Torr’s hanger on the same airfield. Incidentally, he owned the only flying South African Spitfire for a while.
I found the Tiger quite difficult. It is inherently unstable, so flying needs constant adjustment all the time and reading what is happening with the wind in order to compensate is essential. My first three lessons were from the front where we did some initial upper air work, followed by wheel landings. We used the Panorama Flight Park just outside Rand because it’s got a nice grass runway and not much traffic. It also meant that we could get a lot of flying into each session by doing low-level (300 ft) circuits and lots of landings.
The wheel-landings were quite different to anything that I had been used to because you keep the power on throughout the descent and landing. When the wheels touch you push the stick a bit forward to keep the tail up, and then it’s round again for the next one. Bobby Ewing was my instructor and we had to use the gosport speaking tubes to communicate, which worked brilliantly. Later, we moved onto three pointers, which I found quite difficult because the tail always wanted to catch up with the nose!
My first session from the rear seat was quite a different experience. The wind was quite something compared with the front, and juggling radio calls, what Bobby was saying, what the tower was saying and actually flying took some time to come to grips with. You can also see bugger-all from the back so I had to lean far out of the left-hand side just to see the runway on final approach. You can also feel what is happening with the aircraft a lot easier than in the front. The three pointers were initially a bit nerving because you kind of have to guess where the centre line of the runway is because you can’t see it.
Flying is strange, I remember after about three hours of dual something just seeming to click in place and it felt like I was flying the aircraft, and not the other way around. My approaches were good, my landings a lot more gentle and I was relaxed in the cockpit (which isn’t an easy thing when the wind is trying to blow you out of it). It was graceful and gentle, and by stretching my head out of the Tiger I could see most of the runway, until the tail came down. It was brilliant and I suddenly felt like I could actually fly, and was not some guy kidding himself into thinking that he could. Shortly afterwards I got my conversion and I have been enjoying the Tiger ever since.
There is a bug that goes along with flying, something that drives you to spend all your money, and all of your weekends trying to imitate the birds. It is in those moments when you make yourself comfortable behind the controls, strap in, and slip away from the bonds of the earth that allow you to climb away from the torments and stresses of life, and be free to yourself. It is something that compels us all to fly and when we’re on the ground, we yearn to be back up in the air. It is an elation that poets write about, but only pilots can understand.
Those moments are what get me through the working hours, and as the weekend approaches, I become as restless as a child. Before I know, it’s Sunday and I’m pushing open the hangar doors to reveal that hallowed object inside. The Tiger Moth is resting quietly, but there seems to be an aura of excitement surrounding it, a sentiment that reveals the joy of someone about to play with his favourite toy.
I think that it is important to stop and think every once and a while about how privileged and lucky we, as pilots, are to be able to indulge into one of the greatest joys that life has to offer. Flying the Tiger was a gift bestowed by my father, and something that I will cherish forever.