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A Flight In A Tiger Moth

July 11, 2024
by the gentle author




What better way could there be to enjoy a warm summer 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.

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

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7 Responses leave one →
  1. Saba permalink
    July 11, 2024

    Probably the most tactile description of flight that I have ever read. The wind and the vibration of the motor. The sense of being a fragile little bug — I have thought about being a tiny bug finding my way around a small section of the earth but not about the experience of one’s fragility while buffed about by the currents of air. Bravo!

    I’m a fan of the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry books about delivering the mail in Europe, North Africa, and even South America. There is also a fabulous French movie on Criterion channel about a woman who made a dangerous solo flight in, I think, the 1930s. All good stuff, but he emphasized the existence of the danger of some flights but, as well as I recall, not the tactile experience.

  2. Milo permalink
    July 11, 2024

    Ooh, I bet that was fun.

  3. July 11, 2024

    Just like gliding, but with added engine noise and minus ‘range anxiety’ when hunting for the next thermal!

  4. Marcia Howard permalink
    July 11, 2024

    How exciting! I’ve visited Knole, but didn’t get to see in quite the same way as you did Gentle Author.

  5. July 11, 2024

    I’m glad that you had a memorable flight. Unfortunately, I suffer from crippling fear of flying so it would hold no pleasure for me.

    However, I do recognise these sites as I used to live in Kent. I remember one particular visit to Knole as a child when a deer ate a cucumber that my mother had in a shopping bag, purchased for a salad. Watching her chase the offender was a hilarious moment of pure comedy. We joked about it for years after.

  6. July 11, 2024

    I too thought of Saint-Exupery’s ‘Wind, Sand and Stars’:
    ‘I, delivered, shall read my course in the stars.’
    Wonder, indeed.

  7. July 11, 2024

    A wonderful experience – beautifully evoked.

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