Charles Lindsay

The magical Moth

Cool wind in the face, the blur of a wooden propeller, sun glinting off wire stays and delicate fabric wings. Thanks to one unforgettable aeroplane, the ‘Golden Age’ of flight is still only a touch of the joystick away.

Written by       Photographed by Charles Lindsay

With a final tug, helmet clamps tight against skull. One last glance through ancient goggles at a patch of sky framed by struts and wires, then, with a grunt, the heavy wooden pro­peller is swung down by a well-wisher, and the engine spits into life.

The aircraft snakes lumpily down the grass strip, the pilot weaving from side to side so that at least something of the way ahead can be seen either side of the cowling. Jutting out from the instrument panel, the hooded speaking tube dances like a cobra on its long metal stalk. Ground vibra­tions tickle the soles of the feet, and cold rushing air corrugates the cheeks.

Then, suddenly, with the dainty lift of a bird, we are airborne. The Tiger Moth’s fabric wings pull us ef­fortlessly into a world made aromatic with the smell of cockpit leather and silage from the fields below. This is a world of soft cloud and slow graceful turns; where instruments quiver to the engine’s beat and a toytown earth slides by a thousand feet away, seem­ing, as we bank, to pirouette on a wingtip.

It is an exhilarating timewarp back to the scarf-trailing aviators and oil-smeared fuselages of pioneering flight; to an era when refuelling meant striding across a paddock with a jerrycan, and luggage was the ther­mos you wedged into the aft locker along with a road map or two…

But life has a habit of jolting us out of reveries. There below, on Auckland’s Ardmore aerodrome, the scar is still visible where a pilot dug his Harvard deep into the green sward, showering the ground with mangled wreckage. It happened not 48 hours before a group of flying colleagues, almost all Moth pilots, were due to re-enact an aviation first: Ted Harvie’s historic 1933 one-day flight from North Cape to Bluff in a flimsy Gypsy Moth. The accident is a grim warning about how demanding classic aeroplanes can be.

And there’s no doubt that the Ti­ger Moth is a challenge. Modern pilots learn to fly in a fully enclosed aircraft with cabin heater, an easily controlled nosewheel undercarriage, andradio contact to determine which of the kilometres of sealed runways to land on, and in which direction.

By comparison, the Tiger Moth is hopelessly primitive. Its open cock­pit forces flyers to wrap themselves in layers of wool and leather as pro­tection against the relentless slip­stream. The pilot’s forward view from the rear cockpit is nonexistent on the ground, and not much better once in the air.

The lower wings hide large tracts of countryside that would be a useful navigational aid, given the paucity of instruments — then again, the aero­plane is not far removed from the days when pilots took their cues from railway lines and highways. The Tiger pilot soon learns the impor­tance of map-reading — and the vital necessity of keeping a firm grip on the map!

Lacking wheelbrakes, the pilot depends on a tailskid for some degree of control on the ground, help­ing the tail around during taxiing with a burst of power. But because the skid offers little drag, especially on either very wet or very dry grass, more power and more speed is often the last thing a pilot needs.

To the modern aviator, a precise Tiger Moth landing seems as unat­tainable as a hole-in-one. The ‘three-pointer’, with two wheels plus skid all touching down together, is ideal; the wings stall neatly and the bi­plane settles with a minimum of for­ward speed, trundling gently to a halt.

The alarmed novice all too fre­quently discovers that the wheels touch before the tail is down, and the springy de Havilland undercarriage launches the Tiger enthusiastically back into the air, only to drop sud­denly a second or two later, wire stays twanging. Or the pilot levels out too high off the ground, stalls, and plummets to terra firma with another gruelling twang of wires.

Still, difficulty is the forerunner of success, and the Tiger Moth was always intended as a pilot-trainer. Tens of thousands of young aviators learned to fly in Moths, and all will swear that mastering the aircraft’s idiosyncracies was the best possible way to learn. AU the pilots who flew fighters, bombers and transport air­craft in the Commonwealth air forces during World War II took their very first flights in Tiger Moths.

The secret to flying a Tiger, con­fided its designer, Geoffrey de Havil­land, lay in obeying the notice dis­played on every instrument panel, giving stalling, climbing and gliding speeds. “Cultivate the use of the air speed indicator,” he advised, “and you will fly safely”. In fact, the aero­plane was so inherently controllable in the right hands that British stuntman Geoffrey Tyson, using a nine-inch hook attached to his Moth’s lower wing, could pick up a lady’s handkerchief from the ground as he swooped past. It was an impressive party trick, and one he performed an amazing 800 times!

[Chapter Break]

When 21-year old Ted harvie was looking for an aerial challenge nearly 60 years ago, his mind turned not to stunts, but to something more sol­idly geographical. But by 1933 only one headline-grabbing long-distance flight remained — from the far north to the extreme south of mainland New Zealand. Every other trophy had already fallen to aircraft even more fragile than his Gypsy Moth, from the first cross-country flight by Will Scotland in his Caudron in 1914, toEuan Dickson’s Avro crossing of Cook Strait in 1920.

Worried that someone might beat him to the prize, Harvie kept the effort a secret, even from his Hawera instructor, although the aero club secretary, Miss Trevor Hunter, was a willing accomplice. Another reason for secrecy was the need, given the plane’s modest cruising speed (around 78 mph), for the first leg of the flight to be undertaken at night. Neither Harvie nor his passenger had a night-flying rating.

Early December was considered the best time, with its long daylight hours, full moon, and low morning tide along the airstrip they had se­lected in the event of an emergency landing: Ninety Mile Beach. Taking off from a paddock on the outskirts of Kaitaia at 2am, Harvie and Hunter flew north under a leaden sky, con­tinuing past Cape Reinga until reach­ing the latitude of North Cape, then turning south.

After 1,168 miles and more than 16 hours in the air, they rounded Bluff and touched down at Inver­cargill — the first people to see both ends of the country in one day.

In 1990 it seemed appropriate to honour this pioneering effort by flying the same route, using the same type of aircraft. But persuading time-harried modern-day aviators to fly a similar distance took something out of the ordinary. The carrot used by the organisers was the promise of a large gathering of de Havilland aero­planes in Southland, where Colin Smith has quietly been realising a long-cherished ambition: to become the Moth epicentre of the South Pacific.

A farmer with a background in marine engineering and a lifelong interest in aircraft, Colin has estab­lished his own grass airfield and accumulated a hangar full of vintage planes. His Croydon Aircraft Com­pany, in out-of-the-way Mandeville, is earning an international reputa­tion as an aircraft refurbisher for local and overseas clients. The company now has the only Tiger fuel tank mould in the world, and recently completed a batch of 60 tanks for the UK.

By starting day, February 26, the rally had attracted 30 pilots, three from England and the rest New Zeal­anders. Initially, all went well as the planes left Kerikeri, droning north into an overcast sky. Forming and reforming as they went, they rounded Murimotu Island, off North Cape, turned to port over Surville Cliffs, the northernmost tip of the country, and proceeded west to Cape Reinga.

Just before reaching the landmark lighthouse, though, things began to go horribly wrong. The engine in one of the oldest aeroplanes in the rally, a 1940 Piper Cub, stopped dead. Too far from shore to make an emergency landing, pilot Don MacKenzie ditched the plane into the Pacific, and, with passenger Mike Carden, set off for the cliff-lined shore a kilo­metre or so away. Fellow pilots circled above the floundering pair shouting encouragement, while fran­tic mayday messages were relayed to a fishing boat in the area. After 30 minutes in the water the soggy avia­tors scrambled ashore. A week later their plane was fished up — a total write-off.

New Zealand is full of reminders of what Tiger Moths have done, and as the planes dodged the cloud hang­ing over Ninety Mile Beach, another piece of history was being remem­bered: it was here, on this featureless coast, that Moths had a hand in changing the face and fortunes of the agricultural scene.

That may sound overly dramatic, but where would New Zealand be without aerial topdressing? This one industry has converted countless hectares of scrubland into workable pasture and replaced vital minerals leached from hill country soils over a century of farming. And it started here, at Ninety Mile Beach,

As long ago as 1926 one Waira­rapa farmer, Len Daniell, tried to in­terest aircraft manufacturers and other farmers in the crop dusting and insecticide spraying pioneered in the United States a few years earlier. Ten years later a Hawke’s Bay farmer tipped clover seed from a bag over  the side of a de Havilland Moth but, although the results were good, he didn’t persevere — in those days it was illegal to drop anything except sand or water from the air.

The first real testing was done by Public Works Department pilot Alan Prichard, who was using his aircraft, a Miles Whitney Straight, to help with a wartime survey of aerodromes around the country. In March 1941 he arrived at Waipapakauri, at the southern end of the beach, to find his surveyor needing to seed lupins on the sand dunes. Improvising a spout, they sowed 150 ha, getting results that were later indistinguishable  from hand-broadcast seed.

Small scale tests with chemicals and fertiliser continued until official trials were undertaken at Ohakea in 1948, using an RNZAF Avenger tor­pedo bomber with a hopper slung into the bomb bay. Field tests were then done around the Wairarapa on properties chosen by Len Daniell, who was still agitating for the cause of aerial topdressing. In only three weeks and 60 flying hours, 450 ha were dusted with 125 tonnes of su­perphosphate and 12 tonnes of lime — an achievement which easily sur­passed the efforts of land-based op­erators.

At the start, large aircraft were advocated, but with the withdrawal of RNZAF experimentation, respon­sibility for aerial topdressing rested on the shoulders of private enter­prise.

The choice of workhorse was easy: New Zealand had dozens of cheap Tiger Moths no longer wanted by the military. What’s more, there were any number of ex-fighter pilots ready to set up in business with rehabilita­tion loans, and keen to earn a living in a challenging form of aviation. It must have been an appealing pros­pect: Tigers could be had for £300 and, at £13 an hour charge-out, a skilled pilot could earn his capital replacement cost in two days!

It was just as well that the aero­planes were both cheap and plenti­ful, because the new activity was hard on airframe and engine alike. One major problem was the competi­tion, and pilot rivalry led to the planes being loaded beyond their capacity. Many’s the Tiger that failed to clear the end of a rudimentary airstrip, weighed down beyond what four wings and a 130 hp Gypsy Major engine could lift.

There were other fates too: run­ning uncontrolled into the crude mechanical loader truck, or collaps­ing into a hillside as a pilot tried to squeeze a last flight out of a tankful of petrol vapour. Anything above seven gallons of fuel, plus the 254 kg of superphosphate in the hopper, meant the machine was incapable of getting airborne.

Undoubtedly, Tigers were far from suitable for the task, but their obvi­ous successor, the Cessna, cost a stag­gering £5,000. So pilots persevered, welding spikes to their tailskids to bring them up short on the skimpy paddocks provided by farmers for runways, and flying with controls so gummed up by superphosphate that the joystick, which normally centred itself, would stay anywhere it was put.

The low payload of the Tiger meant a great deal of flying to spread the tonnage, and pilots prided them­selves on short ‘pit stops’ for reloading — often under 30 seconds. The record of one pilot, Lindsay King, was 184 landings and take-offs in a single 11-hour day! But none of the Tiger’s many handicaps seemed able to stop enterprising operators from fixing hoppers into the front cock­pits and setting out to transform New Zealand’s agricultural economy.

“Tigers were the first aerial plat­form we had,” says Boyce Barrow, a pilot whose career in Tigers began in 1952 and spanned 12 inventive years. During that time, perhaps more than anyone, Barrow stretched the plane’s potential, using jellied kerosene in cardboard bombs to start scrub burn-off, and even attaching aluminium fins to poplar saplings suspended in bomb racks, and dropping them at low altitude to plant coastal dunes.

He recalls the destructive toll on the machines in that era. “The year I began flying there were 148 aircraft operating, and 149 notifiable acci­dents,” he says. “And that was a drop on the year before!”

If accidents were frequent, how­ever, repairs were correspondingly simple. If the damage couldn’t be remedied with a roll of tape and a piece of fabric and dope, the aeroplane was dismantled and taken back on a truck to the local work­shop.

Flying from a strip at Opaheke, in South Auck­land, Doug Grey hit a log, one of the haz­ards of farm operation, and damaged his Tiger’s undercarriage. With the local repair crew out of fabric and low on dope, they improvised. Grey had arrived in long khaki trousers, so the story goes, but flew out that night wearing shorts!

Wings, struts, wheels, and engines were all replaced when necessary, and some planes had histories like the proberbial axe. More than one Ti­ger Moth was known by its official registration simply because the rud­der, which carried the vital letters, was the only part of the aircraft that was still original.

From 18 Tigers and Austers spreading some 5,000 tonnes of su­per in 1950, New Zealand’s aerial topdressing grew six years later to a high of 411,000 tonnes, spread over a million flights by 242 aircraft — more than 200 of them Tiger Moths. Fortu­nately for the Tiger’s own survival, more suitable aircraft soon became available, and de Havilland’s work­horse was retired. A Tiger was a pilot’s plane, aficionados said; its topdressing replacement, the Fletcher, was an accountant’s aircraft.

Now the country’s Tiger Moths are largely in the hands of private owners and aero clubs, still used for training and glider towing, and still giving the thrill of wind in the face and streamy-eyed panoramic views.

[Chapter Break]

Not that much could be seen of Ninety Mile Beach when the 1990 rally flew overhead. Low cloud persisted, and Tiger Club president Bill Shaw decided to drop into a paddock near Houhora, closely followed by Wayne Greaves, to tip extra fuel into their tanks and wait for a break in the weather. Wayne’s passenger was new to such experi­ences, but he had every reason to be in the rally: Tony Harvie’s father was the pilot who set everything rolling when he nursed his Gypsy Moth towards Bluff back in 1933.

Tony hadn’t flown in a Tiger since 1946, and the flight over the rugged Ureweras from Gisborne to join the rally was something of a shock to someone more accustomed to en­closed travel. Unfortunately, he and Wayne didn’t see much of the rally for a while. A carburettor problem put them into a lucerne paddock out of Wanganui for repairs. Forever af­terwards a day or so behind, they  finally caught up at Balclutha for the last leg.

Wanganui marked a high point for the event. Not only did the weather clear and the wind drop, but it was a first chance for many pilots to meet one of the people whose exploits the modern aviators were celebrating.

Trevor Hunter, now Mrs Trevor Colway, is patron of the Wanganui Aero Club. For a woman of the 1930s, she followed an unorthodox career in aviation. After her flight with Ted Harvie, she remained in the aero club movement, and, with few hours in her logbook at the beginning of World War II, went to England, joining a special band of pilots who ferried aircraft to and from maintenance bases. After the war, she took up commercial flying once more with the club.

Recollecting the historic 1933 flight, she remarked modestly, and perhaps not quite truthfully, that “the only reason he picked me was that I didn’t weigh very much. He needed someone to talk to and help with the fuel, but he did all the flying”

The rally pilots left Trevor Colway for Paraparaumu, the overnight stop, arriving just in time for refuelling before dark. She was to meet them again at Mandeville, not arriving by draughty biplane (“I’m too old for that sort of thing”), but courtesy of Air New Zealand.

Also carried by the airline, from his home at Bridge Pa, just across the road from Hastings aerodrome, was Temple Martin, who, as a young apprentice, refuelled Harvie’s Moth at Taieri, Mosgiel. From that time until his retirement, Temple main­tained, repaired and rebuilt Tiger Moths. Union Airways in the 1930s, RNZAF during the war, then running his own business at Bridge Pa — he has been servicing de Havillands so long that he is widely known as “Mr Moth”.

Temple’s busiest period was dur­ing the topdressing heyday of the 1950s, when Bridge Pa was home to a dozen working Tigers. With impa­tient customers losing money every hour their planes were on the ground, he painted them all silver to avoid the time-consuming need to match colours. Even in his later years of rebuilding biplanes for private own­ers, long after bright colours became fashionable, he insisted on silver. It was a rare owner who persuaded Temple to dip his brush in anything else.

Day three of the rally culminated in a formation flight over Welling­ton, and another Tiger landmark: Wellington’s Rongotai airport. The biplanes aren’t welcome on the ground these days — tailskids aren’t compatible with sealed runways, and their slow speed and lack of radio don’t mix with heavy domestic air­line traffic.

But there was a time when Ro­ngotai was alive with Tiger Moths. It all started in 1939 when, with an eye on the inevitable hostilities, the New Zealand government asked de Havil­land to provide locally built training aircraft. More than 300 Tiger Moths rolled out of the company’s factory at Wellington aerodrome over the next five years, to be test flown and deliv­ered to training squadrons all over the country.

Present-day Wellington airport bears little resemblance to the grassy paddock where Ted Harvie and Trevor Hunter landed to refuel. The spot, bordering the Lyall Bay sand dunes, was transformed in the late 1950s, when 160 houses were relocated and the bays on either side of the isthmus reclaimed by bulldozing some three million cubic metres off an offending hill.

One thing hasn’t changed: the old de Havilland factory building is still there. But instead of the smell of wood, glue and dope, and the sound of sewing machines stitching up air­craft fabric, it echoes to the passage of thousands of people every day in its new role — as the capital’s domes­tic air terminal.

[Chapter Break]

Of all the  aerodromes visited during the five-day tour, Christchurch’s Wigram has the longest continuous history and by far the greatest association with Tiger Moths.

Henry Wigram began the Canter­bury Aviation Company in 1917 at Sockburn (renamed Wigram in 1923), training 170 pilots in just over a year. During the second world war, Wigram became a major training base, a role that continues to this day. Unhappily, the rally arrival proved more dramatic than intended. A participating Cessna collided with the DH89B Dominie, and, though no one was hurt, both aircraft were badly damaged and out of the rally.

As an active wartime training base, the next stop, Ashburton, also has its de Havilland links, evidenced by the rows of tie-downs used to keep Tiger Moths from spontaneous take-offs in the boisterous Canterbury nor’- westers. The rally planes had no such difficulty as they headed south for an overnight rest at Taieri, another fa­mous Tiger-drome.

Across the southern divide, a remarkable civilian Moth enterprise left its mark in the thirties. Using Fox Moths, Air Travel began flying into South Westland, carrying passengers, dogs, mail, freight, machinery, gro­ceries, and even the occasional kitchen sink, to the scattered farms and settlements.

The Fox Moth used the Tiger’s engine, wings, and tail, but its ply­wood fuselage incorporated a small enclosed cabin. While the pilot sat up behind, copping the icy blast in his open cockpit, three or four pas­sengers, knees interlocked, shared the cabin in relative comfort.

These were the days before roads wound south of Fox Glacier, or through the Haast Pass from Wanaka. Frontier settlers farmed remote re­gions where the only access was by horseback or on board one of the infrequent government steamers. Using beaches, riverbeds and airstrips carved from the bush, Fox Moths ended the isolation of South Westlanders, and helped open the area for tourists.

Balclutha was the rally’s final stop before rounding The Bluff, the sym­bolic, if not actual, southernmost point on the New Zealand mainland. (Slope Point, east of Toetoes Bay, is marginally further south.)

Over Balclutha John Crosbie, de­livering a Tiger for a Dunedin buyer (via the Cape to Bluff rally, natu­rally), suffered a worrying fuel hic­cup. Having investigated its cause, Crosbie took off alone to test his theo­ries. Right over the end of the runway, far too low to even contemplate turning back, the engine died, and his plane disappeared from sight behind trees lining the banks of the biggest river in New Zealand.

Dozens of feet pounded the aer­odrome towards the disaster, every­one fully expecting to see a Moth tail sticking up from the Clutha river. What greeted their eyes and set off a wave of relieved laughter was a per­fectly sound aircraft sitting, engine quietly ticking over, on a firm shingle bank which just happened to be aligned into the stiff southwesterly breeze. After a little tinkering and manhandling of the Tiger, followed by a perfectly normal takeoff, ZKAKC was back on the Balclutha aero­drome.

A last leg, over rugged Southland countryside and around Bluff, was without mishap.

It had taken five long days of what seemed like solid flying to do what two people in a standard Gypsy Moth had achieved 56 years ago in a single  day. Luck may have played its part — the weather was certainly good on that December day — but their suc­cess was a reward for careful plan­ning and skill. Those pioneering aviators have at last been appropriately saluted.