Tiger Moth Flight, July 2009

Tiger Moth next to hangar

Rather unexpectedly, only a couple of weeks after having my first sightseeing flight in an open biplane, I was sitting in an open biplane again.

And, oddly enough, in the type of plane I was looking for originally on the first flight.

I guess that needs some explaining.

Searching for biplane flights, I found someone offering a ride in a 'Stampe' (a Belgian aircraft). So I wrote to him, got some initial contact but nothing happened.

I searched a bit more and found someone offering flights in a Tiger Moth. Since I just wanted an open biplane flight, I didn't care much what type of plane it was, so I wrote to him. It turned out that the Tiger Moth was under repair (which, with planes that age, often means dismantling and rebuilding from scratch...), but that there was a Stampe available. So I got a flight on a Stampe instead of a Tiger Moth, replacing the original Stampe flight that never happened.

Then I got a mail from someone else. He had gotten my mail forwarded from the guy that I had originally contacted about the Stampe flight. The Stampe was currently under repair, but he had a Tiger Moth available and if I would like to go flightseeing in this?

While that was shortly after the flight in the Stampe, I wondered for a moment whether I should bother with another biplane flight, but then, the first flight was fun and the opportunity doesn't arrive often (since it seems that old planes spend a lot of time being repaired), so I figured "Why not?"

Which is the reason why I got the fly in a Tiger Moth after contacting someone about a Stampe flight after flying in a Stampe after contacting someone about a Tiger Moth flight.

While I was worried a bit about the weather, things turned out ok in the end. The Tiger Moth was stationed in Nordhorn, which is neither close to me, nor any 'regular' airport, so I had to take a regular flight to Münster, rent a car and then drive an hour to get to Nordhorn. Not really difficult, but a lot of wasted effort in case the Tiger Moth flight would not happen.

And the weather in the week preceding the planned flight wasn't promising. The weather forecast for the weekend was also only marginally good. It looked like the flight would probably happen, but nothing definitive.

So I got to Münster and drove to Nordhorn in the pouring rain. Not really a good sign...

Usually, sightseeing flights with small planes are done in the late afternoon / early evening. Partly because the light is better and the scenery looks more interesting, but mostly because the air is calmer and the flight is less bumpy.

But there wasn't any specific time set and the plane enthusiasts were around at the airport anyway, so I drove there first to ask about the situation.

After some chatting, coffee and visiting the hangars and looking at the Tiger Moth and some other planes, the rain had stopped, but there was a rain front visible on the weather radar, but after that, things looked dry. So I went for lunch, looking out at the rain (which came down in a torrent while I was sitting in the airport cafe - the weather radar was quite reliable) and after the rain went back to the Tiger Moth, which was already waiting outside.

Tiger Moth at Nordhorn airport Tiger Moth at Nordhorn airport

This specific Tiger Moth was built in 1939, so it was 70 years old and in a couple of respects it felt 'older' than the Stampe I've been in. While the Tiger Moth plane actually was older, both type were designed at roughly the same time, but the Stampe has a couple more 'modern' features.

One oddity of the Tiger Moth was the motor. It's essentially built in upside down, so that crankshaft (and thus the propeller) is on top. But since there are usually some inherent assumptions when building an engine about the direction of gravity, this means that it tends to lose a lot of oil.

The Tiger Moth also doesn't have a wheel at the tail of the plane. And no brakes on the front wheels. It just has a small metal 'runner' under the tail, which serves two purposes. The drag of it slows the plane down after landing and it also keeps it going straight on the ground. Which is also the reason why the plane isn't really suited for landing on concrete runways, since it does not slow down properly and it tends to skid around a lot. A grass runway is much more suitable.

Tiger Moth tail

But the most obvious difference between a Tiger Moth and a Stampe is that you see even less in a Tiger Moth. The seat is much lower, so you can't actually look over the instrument panel when you're strapped in. A big leather 'cushion' (presumably to protect your head in case of a bad landing) blocks the view even further. While, in a Stampe, you can't see where you're going while you're on the ground, once the plane has levelled out in the air, you can look forward, on a Tiger Moth, you can't see anything in front of you. Doesn't matter much, though. It's an open cockpit anyway, so you can look out sideways just fine. (And while I didn't do it, you can also put down the flaps at the side during the flight and see a bit more or even lean out a bit and look forward along the side of the plane.)

Tiger Moth cockpit

But anyway, the plane was waiting, so it was time to get in, get belted in and put up a brave face. (Or at least to try so. Not very successfully, though. After all, this was a plane that was seven decades old. With a motor that was upside down. Having no brakes. And a big leather bag at the instrument panel to protect the head during bad landings - indicating that this wasn't an unusual occurrence. And the upper wing a bit in front of the lower wing, specifically to allow the person in front easier escape in case of an emergency situation. And the Tiger Moth is specifically known for being somewhat tricky to fly - which made them popular with flight instructors, since it allowed them to separate the wheat from the chaff quicker than with a more forgiving plane. But then again, the plane didn't crash for almost 70 years, which can't be said about any other plane I've been in, so it was presumably quite safe. Also, following a variant of the strong anthropic principle, I wouldn't be typing this if it hadn't been.)

Tiger Moth at Nordhorn airport Me in Tiger Moth (on ground) getting ready for the flight

I took some while to get the plane started, since (unlike the Stampe), it doesn't have a starter. So someone turns the propeller a couple of times to get some fuel into the engine, then the ignition is enabled and the propeller is turned again, hoping to start the engine. But if you got too much fuel into the engine, it won't start, so, after turning the ignition off, you turn the propeller back to pump some fuel out and try again. This is continued until you get it 'just right' and the engine starts. And a short time later we were airborne.

Tiger Moth View backwards out of Tiger Moth

And pretty soon I was enjoying the flight.

Me in Tiger Moth

A quick view into the cockpit. Not much to see except the obvious flight controls. The cables on the upper right of the pictures and the switch are for the headset. No idea what the 'fire' button is for - probably communication with the tower. I tried not to touch anything...

Tiger Moth cockpit

The instrument panel also has a pretty simple layout. Altitude and air speed on the left, slip and turn in the middle, compass below. Engine RPM in the upper left and oil pressure and ascent/descent rate (cut off) to the lower right. And that's pretty much it.

It should be noted that the compass rose does not rotate freely. So we're not really flying west. The idea is to set the course that you're planning to fly and then try to make the little plane silhouette below (hard to see in the picture) match up with the shape etched into the glass above.

There's not that much to say about the actual flight, so here are a couple of pictures without much text:

Tiger Moth near Nordhorn Tiger Moth near Nordhorn Tiger Moth near Nordhorn Tiger Moth near Nordhorn

(The lake visible in the fourth picture is the Vechtesee in Nordhorn.)

Tiger Moth near Nordhorn Tiger Moth near Nordhorn Tiger Moth near Bad Bentheim Tiger Moth near Bad Bentheim

(The fortified structure in the fourth picture is Burg Bentheim in Bad Bentheim.)

Tiger Moth near Lingen Tiger Moth near Lingen Tiger Moth near Lingen Tiger Moth near Lingen

(The big cloud of vapour visible in the fourth image comes from the nuclear power plant near Lingen.)

Enjoying the Tiger Moth flight Tiger Moth wing Tiger Moth, me in cockpit Speicherbecken Geeste seen from Tiger Moth

(The 'lake' is the Speicherbecken Geeste.)

Tiger Moth above highway service station Tiger Moth above highway service station Tiger Moth above highway Tiger Moth close to airport

And then it was time to return to the airport, which can be seen in the distance in the fourth photograph. While the runway is clearly visible (but only if you hold the camera with outstretched arms above your head - didn't see it during the flight itself), we didn't land on it, but on the grass runway to the right of it.

Back on the runway

And then, after a nice and calm flight, we were back at the airport.

Tiger Moth near hangar Tiger Moth near hangar

Some more pictures of the plane on the ground and a final look at the fuel gauge and it was time to leave. The tank is in the middle of the upper wing and the fuel gauge is just a swimmer, giving a rough indication of the amount of fuel left - we roughly used half of it, although, given the strange shape of the tank, the indicator is probably not linear.

Surprisingly, the plane prefers unleaded car fuel, not plane fuel, so the pilot actually had to drive (with a car, not with the plane...) to the next petrol station to get some fuel instead of just filling it up at the airport.

Time for some flight data. The flight path itself looked like this:

Flight Path

If you want to look at it in Google Earth, use this KML file.

Flight time 50 minutes, distance 103 km, maximum speed about 172 km/h, maximum altitude over ground 2600 ft (800 meters),

Given the size of the plane, the relative large wing area (due to being a biplane), the not-that-powerful engine and somewhat mediocre weather, I had expected that the flight would be a lot bumpier, but it was really very smooth. Only towards the end we had a short moment where the sun came out through the cloud and we almost immediately got a bit of turbulence (though still less than on most regular flights).

When the sun gets through and warms up a patch of ground below, it effects the air above that area and that, in turn, makes the ride a little bit rougher. Which is the main reason why they prefer to do sightseeing flights in the late afternoon or evening, when the sun has less effect on the ground.

Another good reason would have been that the weather became much better later that day. While it was mostly overcast (as is evident from the images above), except for a short sunny moment, in the late afternoon the clouds were all gone and there were clear blue skies all around. Since I wasn't really there for the sightseeing (but for the flight itself) it didn't matter much to me, but the pictures would probably been nicer.

But I was eager to go on the flight and the forecast was somewhat vague, so I didn't want to risk to wait for better weather and then find it turning worse and having no chance to make the flight. So it was better to do the flight at the first possible opportunity. And it was fun!

Back to other travels