Smoke On Go

An Airplane if a Reflection of a Time and a Place

Due to my deep and long-standing interest in both aerobatics and exotic vintage airplanes, I continue to enjoy opportunities to fly a diverse range of light aircraft, which perhaps many modern pilots do not. (Something that one ought never to take for granted).

Each type has its distinct personality and specific quirks; both the positive and negative attributes of each aircraft offer a unique experience and some value lessons to a pilot.

The idiosyncrasies of an airplane are often a reflection of both the era and the country where the airplane emanated from. There are for example handling traits common to all Russian Eastern bloc acrobatic aircraft that were built during the cold war period, whether they come from Russia or Czech Republic.  Similarly, all military aircraft regardless of nationality share something similar, a certain rugged aura that civilian aircraft simply don’t have.

In my next few articles, I would like to briefly discuss the salient features and characteristics of a few of these interesting types. I will not present a definitive dissertation on an aircraft’s history, its engineering, its performance or even its handling, just a few interesting points that stand out to make that airplane unique. Merely my subjective opinions, and not factual detail.

I realise that in attempting to write a ‘lite’ series like this, I risk upsetting readers. Every enthusiast has firm views about the airplanes they like. These views are often subjective and seldom based on objective facts. Rather, they are largely the result of emotions such as nostalgia, for example – “this was the first airplane that I flew, or my Dad used to own one”. And so objective evaluation if almost impossible.

This reminds me of a NASA qualified fighter jet test pilot who once told me that in his view, the Spitfire was not an ideal fighting machine, sure it had a tight tuning radius, but the tailplane surface area was at least 20% too small. He then went on to explain in some detail what that meant from both a dogfighting and weapons platform perspective. Seeing my shocked expression, he quickly stopped criticising that legendary aircraft, and smiled saying something along the lines of – “well designers didn’t know all this aerodynamics back then, and besides the Spitfire served its purpose well, and earned its place in history, and so who am I to ever deny that it was the greatest fighter ever built”.

I will start with one of the oldest airplanes I have flown, the vintage De Havilland Tiger Moth. This aircraft like all biplanes has great presence even just sitting in a hangar. Despite its many flying and landing wires and its large wooden struts, it still has a streamlined elegant look. Its thin inline engine, its slender aquiline fuselage and the nose high tail dragger pose combine to give the Tiger an ‘aristocratic’ look, which is complimented by its stylish curved tail surfaces. This airplane would be just as home in an art gallery at it would be in a museum. The entire visual package commands attention and admiration. 

Climbing into a Tiger is always a great thrill, one must literally climb up and then lower oneself into the cockpit, which, even for a small chap like me is nice and compact. The smells (oil, fuel, dope, leather) are intoxicating and scream out “I come from another era”. The controls and instruments are simple and quaint making the Tiger a real time machine that is about to beam you back to the 1920s.

After haughtily shouting out the mandatory “contact” signalling someone to hand swing the propellor, the engine will hopefully splutter to life with its staccato popping idle. This is the moment you experience how seemingly fragile this airplane is, the trailing edges of the wings and ailerons seem to flutter with the engine vibration, the loose flying wires pulsate, and the external control cables drum against the fabric fuselage.

Taxiing is a little challenging, the direct tail wheel steering is easy enough, but there are no brakes (this airplane was designed for large wide grass aerodromes and not tar taxiways and runways). You soon become very aware of even the slightest slopes on the airfield and have to plan your stops carefully. Engine runups are done at the starting point against the chocks. The combination of a narrow undercarriage, long wings, and high centre of gravity (because it is a biplane) result in the Tiger waddling and swaying as is taxis, especially in a strong wind – strange the first time you experience it.

The take-off is not at all difficult. This is because front of engine cowl is narrow making it easy to see out the side, the rudder is large and effective, the fuselage has a long moment, and the empennage is relatively light making it easy to keep straight. Moreover, due the low wing loading the take off is more of a levitation. And for these reasons the Tiger Moth is also not difficult to land. 

However, the Tiger is not an easy airplane to fly accurately, and so it is immensely satisfying when one is able to fly it precisely.  

What makes this airplane challenging in the air are three key features.

Firstly, the ailerons are relatively ineffective by modern standards, and result is bucket loads of adverse yaw, if you don’t use the rudder for the slightest of banks the airplane will skid and slip all over the sky.

Secondly, the trim is spring loaded, I don’t like this configuration as it results in a dampening of true aerodynamic feel.

And thirdly, the leading edges of the wings are relatively sharp, and the aircraft will therefore more readily stall without too much warning. But the stall is very gentle and easily recovered. 

In rough air the Tiger is a handful, in still air a delight.

A famous aviation author from the UK once wrote “the Tiger Moth is a wonderful old flying machine, but it is not a great substitute for an airplane”. I would not be as harsh as that about the Tiger, but the statement does in some way ring true.    Despite its negative attributes, I would never say no to an opportunity to again fly a Tiger, and I would really like to own one.

One thing is for sure, if one does become adept at flying the Tiger Moth accurately, then one has mastered many flying skills, making this a very good trainer of pilots.

Next time I will contrast the Tiger to the similar Boeing Stearman and Ubiquitous Piper Cub, both from a similar era, and like the Tiger Moth they were both based on civil designs that were modified before being pressed into military training service.

My goal in this series is to entertain with light reading, rather than inform with complex facts.