Back to the Future, circa 1932
Posted on May 19, 2014
Our daughter Emma soon wraps up her time at Oxford with the completion of her Masters Degree and while she is continuing on for doctoral work, it will take her to Kyrgyzstan for two years of field work (think yurts, nomadic shepherds, and camels). So we’ve come over for a visit and hit the British weather lottery: sunshine and 74 degrees. There are few places more lovely than this green and gardening mad country in nice weather.
However, before heading to Oxford, we diverted to Dorset in the south of the country. Em and her husband Phil purchased for me an hour of flying time in a 1932 Tiger Moth, an open cockpit biplane that was used to train RAF pilots before and into WWII. I’m an aviation nut, so been looking forward to this for months and months. Phil’s dad, David, had done it before and he and wife Jackie accompanied us to the little grass airstrip of Compton Abbas.
We happened to be there on a festival of Italian cars, morotcycles, scooters, and aircraft. It was like a version of motor head heaven with some of the most stylish machines ever built on display: Ducatis and Moto Guzzis, Alfa Romeos and Vespas.
That assembly alone would have been enough to captivate, but I had my flight scheduled for 11:00 and checked in at the flight desk.
It was a gorgeous day, but there was a slight wind across the airstrip and the Tiger Moth doesn’t like to take off or land when the cross-winds exceed 15mph. The plane is feather light (the wings are cloth, Irish linen, stretched over ash wood frames) and challenging to control. So the pilot was not sure if we’d get to fly. Oh oh.
We went off to look at cars and motorcycles, but one of the field volunteers soon fetched me and said we’d give it a try. While not sure what it means to try and fail when it comes to flying biplanes, I hustled off to get into my flight suit while the guys pushed the plane out of the hanger.
I received my instructions for getting in (one doesn’t want to be the guy who put his foot through the cloth wing) and met my pilot, Andrew. Andrew is one of the most experienced tail dragger (the plane has no brakes, so stops by dragging its tail on the ground) pilots around and had logged thousands of hours in the plane. He’d sit behind me to fly, mostly looking over the side to see what was ahead.
He explained that take off speed would be a liesurely 45mph (biplanes have lots of wing surface) and we’d cruise along at a stately 80 mph, heading down to the coast of England.
I climbed in, got securely buckled in with four-point belts (over the lap and both shoulders), donned my leather flight helmet and googles, and plugged in my intercom. The cockpit had surprisingly good leg room, if snug side to side. Andrew readied our systems and a volunteer gave the propeller a vigorous pull and the engine roared into life. We sat five minutes letting the engine warm up (don’t want to stall a cold engine during take off after all) and then trunded off to the end of the runway.
We bounced along the air strip and as promised, we lifted off right around 45 mph and headed up and over the green fields that surround the airfield.
Tiger Moths are not for those who dislike turbulence as it bounces around quite a bit, but Andrew held us steady and the views were stunning. Just before taxiing I noted that Andrew was wearing a sheepskin lined coat and soon discovered why, as my tee shirt under the flight suit was not quite fending off the cold. The small wind screen mostly deflected the wind and prop wash, but it was not balmly.
But the views quickly took my mind of the chill. We flew at 2000′, so could see everything in detail and flew over great country homes, a sheep dog working a flock, horses grazing and barely giving us a look as we flew overhead. We went over the 11th C. Corfe Castle, built by William the Conquerer after he took Enngland in 1066.
Andrew did a lasy figure eight so we could see it from all angles and then we headed over the harbor at nearby Poole before making or way back. This part of England, full of thatched roofed cottages and little hamelts and endless shades of green, is picture postcard gorgeous.
There was a stiff cross breeze at 200′ as we approached (in fact, it made my flight the last flight of the day) and Andrew expertly came in at an angle, correcting just before we came down on the air strip and bounced along to a stop and taxi. The crowds assembled for the car and bike festival lined the fence and were snapping photos like papparazzi.
It instantly went on to my list of travel highlights and I had multiple Walter Mitty moments imagining what it must have been to fly these early aircraft in combat. Braver men than me!
Sitting over dinner at the King John Inn in the impossibly cute hamlet of Tollard Royal last night, I reveled in my adventure.