Tumbling through the Air in a Tiger Moth

I had been thrown round the sky by an aerobatic pilot before. But that was in an aggressively capable modern aircraft, built for that sort of thing. I had been strapped down firmly with a seven-point harness and had a canopy slammed and locked into place above me. And I was twenty, then, and had no fear.

This time, I was in a Tiger Moth: a flimsy-looking, open-cockpit biplane built of fabric and wood in the Second World War to a design from the early thirties; and I just had a pair of straps, disturbingly like those on my backpack, to stop me from falling to my death. “If you fall out they can blame me,” said the pilot as he strapped me in. I wasn’t reassured.

The septuagenarian engine coughed hard, spat out a gobful of smoke then settled into a throbbing rhythm. We chugged across the field, then turned and accelerated along the runway. The Tiger Moth limbered into the air, like an elderly man mounting a stile, and climbed at its own leisurely pace as we pottered out towards the bay. There was a wonderful view from 3,000ft over the marina at the boats at anchor and out towards the Barrier Reef. In straight and level flight, it is easy to imagine yourself back in the days of boaters and blazers and croquet on the country house lawn. But we were not there for civilised flying.

Okay here we go,” said the pilot over the radio, chopped the throttle and pulled the stick right back. The Tiger Moth reared up to the vertical, stood on its tail and stalled. It fell sideways with a bang, as if a wing had come off, and spun. All my senses screamed that I was going to die. I gripped the edge of the cockpit, as if that would somehow save me. The sky, the ocean, the marina, the reef whirled round me in the confusion of a tumble down stairs as the pilot dived to build up airspeed and unstall the wings and then pulled straight up into a perfect loop. Over the top, upside down; my headphone lead flapping about in the air; the wind howling through the rigging, the sun flashing off the glass in the windshield. I looked up at the ocean and down at the sky; and we tipped right over, back round to where we had started. Then, straightaway, sideways into a barrel roll – boats sailing upside down in the sky – under and over, and the world righted once again.

Terror to elation and back again. Rolling, looping, spinning. East to west inverted, west to east right side up. The engine snarling, then abruptly cut. Just the whistling of the wind in the wires. Sky and ocean switching places again and again, until I was no longer sure which was right.

But no one can hear you scream from up there.

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(c) Richard Senior 2014

Going Solo

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Fancy going up on your own?”

“Oh. Err. Yeah. I guess…”

Right,” said my instructor, “well I’ll go and get a coffee and I’ll see you when you get back”.

This is a change of detail,” he told the tower over the radio. “Captain’s name is Senior. First solo”. He threw off his headset, shut the door behind him and waved, as if I had driven him down to the station.

Oh shit.

Though I had been flying okay for the past few lessons, I still made mistakes and some of them seemed pretty serious to me. I wasn’t sure I would ever be fit to take charge of an aeroplane. But I was sure I wasn’t yet. The spring sunshine started to feel hot in the cockpit and each exhalation growled into the microphone.

GolfEchoZulureadyfordeparture,” I gabbled.

Golf Echo Zulu. Take off at your discretion.”

First stage of flaps. Yank the lever between the seats until it clicks once. Squeeze and drop the brake.

TakingoffnowGolfEchoZulu.”

I roll forward onto the runway, expecting all the time that someone will run out, shouting, angry.  “Oi, what the fuck do you think you’re doing!? Where’s your instructor?”

Boot the rudder pedal to bring the nose round to the centreline, straighten up and slam the throttle forward. The plane bumps along the runway, the engine roaring over the headphones. The torque wants to pull it off into the grass, but I fight against it with the rudder. It is lighter than normal with just me in the cockpit, and anxious to get in the air. Sixty knots, equivalent to motorway speed. Start easing the yoke back. The nosewheel lifts, the rear wheels follow. Lower the nose to climb at 80 knots.

The nerves have gone now. I have done this dozens of times with my instructor in the right-hand seat. I know what I am doing. Release the flaps. Wind the trimwheel a couple of turns to hold the airspeed. Then bank the wings to 30 degrees, turning south towards London.  Straighten up, still climbing. Canary Wharf, the Gherkin and Wembley Stadium shimmer in the haze. The needle is creeping to 1,000 ft now, circuit height. Lower the nose, trim for 100 knots, then bank to the right again and fly parallel to the runway.

Run through the checks, brakes, undercarriage, mixture, fuel, instruments, carb heat, harnesses, hatches. Call the tower:

“Golf Echo Zulu. Downwind.”

“Golf Echo Zulu. Report Finals.”

“Wilco.”

Something flashes past, low and fast. Shit, what was that? It was just a bird doing 100 knots, or rather me doing 100 knots away from it.

Level with the end of the runway now, looking over my shoulder as it slides under the wing then emerges again behind it. Quick look to the left for traffic, then bank to the right, heading north. Kill the throttle. Let the airspeed fall. Trim. Pull the flap lever up one click, then another. Raise the nose until the airspeed falls to 75 knots. Trim again

Bank to the right, bring the nose into line with the runway, then level the wings. Another click on the flap lever. Call the tower:

“Golf Echo Zulu. Finals.”

“Golf Echo Zulu. Land your discretion. Surface wind calm.”

“GolfEchoZulu.”

Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Lower the nose! Add power!

The airspeed was hovering around the stalling point, the speed at which the wings stop working and the plane drops out of the sky. Stall at altitude and you can dive to pick the airspeed back up. Stall close to the ground and you crash and die and are on the front page of the local paper.

But it is okay again now and I am sinking right on to the number at the end of the runway. I shift my gaze to the other end and pull the yoke gently back. Floating, floating, floating. Yoke right back now, stopping it landing for as long as I can. Still floating.  Halfway down the runway the back wheels touch the tarmac with a slight squeak but no bump. The nosewheel follows and kisses the ground and I am hard on the brakes and calling for permission to taxi to park.

A good landing, they say, is one you walk away from, but this was one of my best.

(c) Richard Senior 2014