Skip to content

A Flight In A 1939 Tiger Moth

September 27, 2022
by the gentle author

Tickets are available for my tour of Spitalfields this Saturday 1st October




What better way could there be to enjoy a warm September afternoon than taking a gentle spin in a 1939 Tiger Moth over Kent? I took off from Damyns Hall Aerodrome in Upminster where the East End pilots of World War Two did their training in exactly such a plane.

A train delivered me to Upminster, then a bus dropped me at Corbets Tey before I walked a mile along the grass verge towards Aveley. Strolling up an unremarkable farm track, I discovered a number of brightly coloured vintage aeroplanes and there, ahead of me, stretched a wide expanse of grass that serves as the runway.

My pilot Alex Reynier – the model of confident expertise in a sleek flight suit – was waiting in the clubhouse and, once I had signed a one day membership of the flying club, we walked out to survey the bright red Tiger Moth – as jaunty as a model plane.

These vehicles were used for pilot training – with two seats, one behind the other, open cockpits and dual controls. The robust simplicity of the vehicle is awe-inspiring, essentially a large kite with a motor engine attached. The wings are made of cloth stretched over a frame and the light-weight body of aluminium. Alex opened up the hood to reveal the engine, fitted upside-down to ensure that oil always reaches the pistons and it cannot stall.

I pulled the nozzle out of the nearby petrol pump and handed it Alex so he could fill the small overhead fuel tank, situated where the wings met. Wrapped in some extra layers for warmth, I climbed into my tiny cockpit then Alex strapped me in and fitted my headphones and microphone so we could communicate in the air.

After such a dry summer, the runway was bumpy but fortunately we did not discover any new rabbit holes and the tiny plane took off effortlessly into the sky, spiralling up at an astonishing speed into the rushing wind.

It is impossible not to be overwhelmed at first by the visceral experience of flight when you are exposed to the air without any barrier between you and the sky. You gaze down from the familiar height of an aeroplane, yet without any of the barriers that are designed to insulate you from the reality of flight in commercial airlines, especially the racing currents of wind and the vibration of the motor. In a Tiger Moth, you are seemingly suspended in air, like an insect.

We were high over the Dartford Bridge, so I turned my head right to see London and left to see the Thames estuary. Without direct reference, the sense of speed was indeterminate.

I was delighted and reassured to be reminded how green the landscape is, mostly undeveloped fields and woods, still peppered with fine old houses and castles – picture book England. Alex pointed out Eynsford Castle, Lullingstone Castle, Chavening House and Chartwell. At Chavening, we descended in a cheeky spiral around the house to take a nosy peek at the gardens. But the climax of the flight was to circle over Knole, just outside Sevenoaks. This is one of my favourite places and the house is often described as resembling a medieval city on account of its vast rambling structure, yet it appeared like a model that I could reach out and pick up if I chose.

Indeed I was beginning to feel that – from above – the world looked like a model of itself, the work of a fanatical enthusiast. This realisation engenders a seductive sense of powerful autonomy, encouraging the notion that it is all laid out from your pleasure and you can fly wherever you please upon a whim. Such was my exhilarated reverie, suspended at 1800 feet over Kent.

I discovered that in these tiny open planes, which take you so high into the air so quickly, the experience of flight has less mystique but a lot more wonder.



The Thames

Landing safe and sound at Damyns Hall Aerodrome

Click here to book your flight with

12 Responses leave one →
  1. Ursula permalink
    September 27, 2022

    Beautifully written and illustrated! And very courageous to do it on the hoof!!
    Thank you for letting us participate.

  2. September 27, 2022

    The experience of looking out of a plane window at Britain always reminds me of Blake’s phrase “England’s green and pleasant land.” It is an enormous contrast to the U.S., Spain, or even France! I always seem to land humming “Jerusalem.”

  3. Jill Wilson permalink
    September 27, 2022

    Lucky you!

    One of the best things about flying is looking down at a living map and recognising the buildings from above. However this experience usually doesn’t last long when you are in a commercial flight going high up above the clouds. But I remember the excitement I felt when flying to St Petersburg and seeing the Gulf of Sweden below which looked exactly like the shape so familiar from my old school atlas!

  4. September 27, 2022

    What an incredible adventure. It made me think of Saint-Exupery’s 1939 memoir ‘Wind Sand and Stars’ and wonder all over again at his remarkable years flying the mail from Toulouse to Dakar in Senegal – most at home in flight ‘beyond the borders of the real world’.

  5. Tony Wood permalink
    September 27, 2022

    Niggling point – it is actualy Eynsford Castle. Back in the 50’s I lived in Sparepenny Lane, overlooking the local farmers orchard (sadly no longer there) and of course the Castle.
    I also seem to recall a young lady’s 21’s at Lullingstone Castle.
    Aaaa – happy days.

  6. September 27, 2022

    These photos remind me of “pin hole photography”, a technique that magically makes everything look like charming miniatures. So glad that I got to go “up, up and away” this morning, without
    ever leaving my comfy chair!

    GA, you are a gem.

  7. Saba permalink
    September 27, 2022

    A single engine plane made of tinker toys and cloth! Did the pilots of WWII fly similar planes on some flights over Europe and the Pacific? I certainly remember seeing pictures of metal planes, but perhaps some of these lighter planes were put to use also. I’ve always appreciated the bravery of the pilots who flew those missions, truly extraordinary.
    Thank you for sharing your storybook adventure.

  8. Amanda permalink
    September 27, 2022

    Wow ! what an exciting flight in an open cockpit at 1800 feet and in expert hands. l loved that you were reassured by the upside down stall proof engine.

    Not so for me when l flew across the English Channel to Le Touquet for a French birthday lunch. The planned fun was to fly in an old war plane but who ever was flying that noisy ‘Fokker’ hadn’t a clue. Taken aback by gaping holes in the dilapidated, badly patched interior, as we took our wonky seats, all 8 of us collectively muttered we’d made a decision we were now regretting, and l normally love the feeling off take off in a commercial plane.

    Uh oh – here we go.
    Swooping in too low over the roof scape of the town, l felt sure we’d bounce off a chimney stack but worse still on the way back, flying blind, lost in low cloud, the flight time of 15 minutes went on and on reaching a very long 30, still with no sign of our destination.

    Seeing everyone’s panic rising, fraught expressions of hopelessness, and my soulmate praying beside me, l had to point out that l could see the setting sun flittering through the cloud to the right instead of the left. This meant we were heading south over France instead of back to England. Not even MY sense of humour could muster any quotes from ‘Allo ‘Allo.’

    Unbeknown to the young pilot, with his huge paper map spread out over the controls, he had flown us in a circle.

    Thanks to a joint effort from all 8 passengers offering suggestions, we eventually made it home without colliding with anything else or the ground. And strangely we never spoke of it again .
    Thanks for reminding me GA ?? and for being so brave.

    And Tony, thanks for sharing your own happy romantic memories of those 21s. ?

  9. Cherub permalink
    September 27, 2022

    Lovely to read about Upminster in the introduction to this. I lived there for 17 years until 2004, prior to that Hornchurch. My dentist lived at Corbets Tey and I used to go to the local shops down there, I’d cut across the village green. I suspect it’s very different now!

  10. Maggie permalink
    September 27, 2022

    Wasn’t expecting that…
    Amazing experience and I felt I was up there with you.
    Well done indeed.

  11. Nicholas Borden permalink
    September 28, 2022

    What a good idea, probably would give fresh perspective on llife.

  12. Marcia Howard permalink
    September 30, 2022

    A unique experience that many of us only dream about

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS