Flight of the Tiger
For three vintage aircraft enthusiasts, slipping “the surly bonds of earth” in their restored Tiger Moth was an unforgettable experience.
After two years of painstaking restoration, the de Havilland Tiger Moth was ready to fly again. As the plane was rolled out onto Watkin Martin’s airfield near Grand Valley on a sunny day in August 2013, she looked as new as she did in 1940 when, still smelling slightly of paint and oil, she was fresh from the Morris Motors assembly line in Cowley, Oxford, England. RAF T-5414 was the 30th Tiger Moth off that line.
Pilot Danny Garyfalakis did the honours. “It was surreal,” he recalled. “I’d never been a test pilot before, and it was a big test for me … to fly an airplane for the first time.” Danny had logged a lot of time in the cockpit of Tiger Moths, but his knowledge of this particular aircraft was especially intimate. “I trusted the airplane,” he said, “trusted the people who put it together.
“The day was beautiful … I walked up to the plane, looked at the sky and knew that everything was right.”
With Danny at the controls in the rear cockpit, Andy Scott stood in front, ready to swing the propeller and start the engine. “Switches off,” he said, “gas on.”
Danny confirmed. “Switches off, gas on.”
The carburetor filled with fuel. Andy flipped the switches on the outside of the plane. “Contact.”
Danny reached for duplicate switches just outside the cockpit, flipped them and confirmed. “Contact.”
Andy pulled the propeller hard down and the Tiger Moth started immediately. He stepped aside as Danny let the engine warm up and then throttled up to a cruise RPM. With wheel chocks in place, the plane didn’t move, except for the vibration of the engine and the buffeting from the prop wash. The only sound was the distinct tractor sound of the four-cylinder Gipsy Major engine.
Danny checked the magnetos, left and right. With Andy and Mike Dennett holding down the tail, he ran the engine up to full RPM and back to idle. Then, with all checks complete, Danny gave the signal to remove the chocks.
“I taxied down the runway and everything felt right,” he said. “I turned around to go back to the start. At the top of the runway I throttled up. Then gave her full power. As the tail lifted, I could feel in the stick that her wings were tracking straight … past the point of no return and she lifted off.”
The first 30 seconds is when things can go wrong, but the flight was flawless. “It was like she could hardly wait to get up in the air again,” said Danny.
When Danny landed, Andy took his turn, then Mike took his. And as they shut the plane down, making only a minor adjustment to the rigging before putting the aircraft away, the three couldn’t wipe the grins off their faces. They had done it. Two years of painstaking work and daydreams had culminated in a perfect flight.
Danny Garyfalakis, Andy Scott and Mike Dennett met through their shared passion for flying and for vintage aircraft. Danny had pulled over to talk when he saw Mike flying a radio-controlled model plane in a field near Mono Centre. He met Andy at the Collingwood Classic Aircraft Foundation. In fact, all three were, and continue to be, involved in the club, now called the Edenvale Classic Aircraft Foundation, which makes its home at the Edenvale Aerodrome on Highway 26 between Stayner and Barrie.
Danny, who owns Hockley Valley Honey Farm, is about to get the aircraft maintenance engineer papers he has been working on. Andy is an aircraft maintenance engineer. “I earn my living turning wrenches on regional jets,” he said.
To support his vintage habit, Mike works in sales and engineering for an industrial automation supplier based in Mono Centre. Before that he worked in the aerospace industry. At the Edenvale club, the three exercise their passion with other like-minded enthusiasts, including many former RCAF and Air Canada pilots. The three worked together on maintaining, restoring and flying classic aircraft, including the club’s own de Havilland Tiger Moth and Fleet Canuck. Now their focus is more on their own Moth.
“Because I had more of my own time than most of the other members, I could do a lot more flying during the week,” said Danny, “but I hadn’t flown the club’s Tiger Moth. One day, Dave Hadfield [brother of astronaut Chris Hadfield] checked me out in the plane, and after that I starting taking a lot of people up for historical flights.”
A great many vintage aircraft enthusiasts gather every year at the Geneseo Airshow, which bills itself as the “Greatest Show on Turf” and takes place at the National Warplane Museum’s field at the Geneseo Airport in western New York State. The airfield has grass landing strips, where planes such as the Tiger Moth can land. Instead of a tail wheel, British-built Tiger Moths have a skid that would be filed off in a shower of sparks on a paved runway. The skid not only gives the tail of the plane a place to set down, but it also acts as a brake – the only brake.
Separately and together, Danny, Andy and Mike have been going to Geneseo for years. That’s where they met Marilyn Cleveland, whose first name is emblazoned in yellow script on the nose of their Tiger Moth.
Andy was first to get to know Marilyn. “I met her husband, Dick, at the show and got ‘drug’ home like a stray dog. We got along really well. As a matter of fact, I have stayed with them many times since the ’80s, occasionally dragging in another ‘stray dog.’”
Marilyn and Dick were very involved in the Geneseo show. After Dick died in 2000, Marilyn continued to volunteer – and to take the Canadians under her wing during the show.
The three found their Tiger Moth, a DH.82a built for wartime service, a few hours beyond Geneseo at the Van Sant Airport in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Andy had seen an ad in The Moth, the magazine of the worldwide de Havilland Moth Club. He called Danny who checked online. Mike was as enthusiastic as the other two, so they decided to take a look.
“The plane hadn’t flown for many years, but it was complete,” said Andy. “We could see that it wasn’t rigged properly. It was dog-eared and tired, but its bones looked sound.”
They learned that the plane had crashed a few times – “had been rolled up in a ball,” as Andy put it. “She had been rebuilt in ‘bitsa’ – bitsa this, bitsa that.” But the three decided there was nothing to fix that they couldn’t handle.
They toyed briefly with the idea of flying the plane home, but decided instead to trailer it via the Geneseo Airshow to Stan Vander Ploeg’s airfield near Grand Valley. “We stored the plane there and started rebuilding, taking parts home to work on,” said Andy.
The wings ended up in Andy’s basement and the fuselage just fit into Danny’s garage, where the work continued. Eventually, they took the plane in pieces to Watt Martin’s place where they completed the final assembly and rigging.
Parts of the plane hung on the walls as they removed them. They fixed what they could and replaced what they couldn’t. “We were overwhelmed at first,” said Andy, “but we did things one step at a time. It took a long time, but eventually the tide turned and the plane started to come together.”
Parts were often a problem. There are several hundred Tiger Moth owners around the world, but the community is tight-knit and not necessarily eager to co-operate with those who just want to fix and flip a vintage plane. “We had to convince them that we saw ourselves as the custodians of a piece of history,” said Andy. Achieving that was one of the many ways in which Watt Martin’s help proved invaluable.
Watt was an aircraft mechanic who had worked on the planes of the Edenvale club since the group’s days in Collingwood. Over the years he had rebuilt between 20 and 30 vintage aircraft, both Gipsy and Tiger Moths. He owned two Gipsy Moths, one wooden and one metal, as well as a Canadian-built Tiger Moth, and a vast storehouse of parts. He was also in the midst of rebuilding another from a wreck he had bought for $50 years earlier.
Danny also located parts among enthusiasts around the world. One particular part, an engine purchased from a collector in New York, came from Paramount Pictures in Hollywood. A spare for the German Rumpler bombers used in the movie Lawrence of Arabia, the engine was nearly new. Although it had been manufactured during World War II, it was rebuilt in the 1970s and had less than eleven hours’ test time, none in the air. So far, this engine has continued its role as a spare, but the three hope to swap it into the plane.
With his lifetime of experience, Watt knew all about the construction of a Moth. “If he didn’t know it, it wasn’t worth knowing,” said Andy. “It was a privilege to work with him.” Watt died this spring, and Danny, Andy and Mike readily acknowledge he played a huge role in ensuring the restoration process went smoothly.
One of the trickiest parts of the reassembly was getting the flying wires right. These flexible steel connectors, which link the upper and lower wings, require careful balancing. “At one point it looked like one wire was far too long and we’d have to cut it,” said Andy. “Watt just shook his head. By the time we got the balance closer, we realized the length was right.”
As the months went by, the Tiger Moth came back to life piece by piece. Wanting their restoration to be as authentic as possible, the three carefully researched official paint schemes used by the RAF during World War II. The camouflage colours – dark earth and dark green – were applied to the top and sides in soft flowing bands to make the planes less visible to enemy aircraft flying above. The bottom surfaces were bright yellow so the planes could be seen more easily by other pilots in training.
But student pilots continued to have trouble picking out the planes, so later in the war some squadrons introduced their own variations on the colours. Danny, Andy and Mike selected one of these, adding a bright yellow band to the fuselage just behind the cockpits and on the two upper wingtips. In the centre of each band are the RAF roundels in use at the time.
Finally, after putting in about 2,000 hours’ work over two years, the three pushed the plane out into the sunshine for her test flight.
“It’s the quintessential open cockpit rag-wing biplane,” said Mike. “It’s a sweetheart; light on the wing. You fly a thousand feet up and you can’t be in a hurry to get where you’re going because it cruises at 75 miles per hour. But it’s so much fun. You feel the sun on your face, you feel the moisture as you get close to the clouds, and when you come back down, you smell the crops in the field.”
Not long after the test flight, Andy and Danny flew the plane to the Geneseo Airshow. They refuelled in St. Catharines before entering the U.S., and because there are no grass strips near the border crossing, U.S. Customs came to meet them when they landed in Geneseo.
Marilyn Cleveland, who was on hand to greet them, was surprised, flattered, and a little teary-eyed when she saw her name on the nose. She soon donned a leather bomber jacket, headgear and goggles, got into the forward cockpit and went for a ride.
The new Tiger Moth was also a big hit at the Tiger Boys Fly-In in Guelph. “It felt great to be the prettiest girl at the dance,” said Andy.
This season, Andy, Danny and Mike have several flights planned, and because only two can be in the plane at once, they take turns, with one of them driving the car. But they may soon have another solution. Andy and Danny have already pitched in to buy another Tiger Moth. To be more precise, they have bought two, and between the two, they hope to have another one in the air one day.
Once you catch the bug, it’s clearly tough to stop. Watt Martin summed up the appeal of these aircraft succinctly when he said, “You know, one of the best days of my life was the first day I soloed a Tiger Moth. The greatest day of my life was when I soloed my own.”
As part of his research, freelance writer Tony Reynolds felt he had to go up in the Tiger Moth. Sure enough, he reported afterward, the experience was entirely exhilarating.
The Heyday of the Tiger Moth
During World War II, de Havilland Tiger Moths – the distinctive dual cockpit biplanes that were the foundation of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan – were a familiar sight in the skies over the Headwaters region.
The nearby village of Malton, with its fledgling but rapidly growing airport, was one of many Canadian airfields where thousands of would-be pilots from Canada, Britain, the Commonwealth and beyond received their first flight training in Tiger Moths.
Inexpensive to build and easy to maintain, the Tiger Moth has been called the Model T of aircraft. The plane, which first flew in 1931, was adapted from the earlier de Havilland Gipsy Moth to make it easier for the pilot in the forward cockpit to escape in an emergency, particularly when wearing a parachute.
But the design process was hurried because there was keen competition to provide training aircraft for Britain’s Royal Air Force. “There had been no complex calculations, no drawings; just a group of men in a little shed and a dismantled Moth Trainer,” wrote Alan Bramson in The Tiger Moth Story (Cassell & Company, 1964).
Many of those who trained in Tiger Moths came to love the versatile little plane, which may explain its continuing popularity. Instructors liked it too, because, although flying one is straightforward, a sure hand is needed to fly it well. “You have to step up to the bar,” said Andy Scott, one of three men who recently restored their own British-built Tiger Moth. “It doesn’t come down to meet you.”
Most Tiger Moths were manufactured in Britain, but they also rolled off assembly lines in many other countries, including Canada. The British-built planes were assigned the model number DH.82a, while those built in Canada bore the number DH.82c – because the specifications were adapted to meet Canadian conditions. The Canadian-built planes, for example, boasted heated cockpits, cockpit canopies that could be jettisoned, a larger engine, wheel brakes and a tail wheel rather than the skid typical of the British models. These changes added weight to the Canadian models, which were said to be less nimble than their British-built counterparts.
In Britain the wartime role of Tiger Moths went beyond training. During the early part of the war, the plane was vital to communications, and when most of Europe fell to German forces, Tiger Moths became spotter aircraft, looking for German warships approaching Britain. Each plane was issued a pair of homing pigeons that could carry word of the pilot’s position if he were forced down or crashed.
There were also experiments to fit the planes with blades to cut the parachutes of enemy pilots. Many were given bomb racks, while others had dispensers to spread rat poison over enemy troops in the event of beach landings. After the war Tiger Moths were commonly used as commercial crop dusters.
Of the 8,800 or so Tiger Moths ever built, perhaps 450 are flying today – and since the flight of the newly restored T-5414 at Watt Martin’s airfield near Grand Valley, one more can be added to the total.