The Journal of the Friends of Sywell Aerodrome
No. 5 Winter 2000
Sywell and its Tigers
by Chris Parker
This magazine will often have references to the Tiger Moth in it, as the Tiger is still very much part of the local scene - five are based at the aerodrome and are actively flown.
Brooklands Aviation's fleet of new Tiger Moths
lined up with military precision shortly after
the opening of No. 6 Elementary and
Reserve Flying School in 1935.
The Sywell connection with the Tiger Moth stretches back an unbroken 66 years, however, to the time of a visit by Amy Johnson in de Havilland's demonstrator in 1934. The origins of the Tiger Moth are in the de Havilland type 60 Cirrus Moth of 1925. This was the world's first really practicable light aircraft - a proper two seater with space for weekend luggage, a reliable 60 hp engine giving good performance coupled with economy, and forgiving handling characteristics suitable for trainee and novice pilots. DH60 Moths became very popular with flying clubs throughout the world in the late twenties and early thirties, and many pioneering flights, including Amy Johnson's solo England-Australia marathon in May 1930 (70 years ago!) were made with the Cirrus and Gipsy engined versions.
To meet the 1930 Royal Air Force specification for a robust, cheap to operate basic trainer, de Havilland developed and submitted for trials a modified version of the Moth. The main alterations included: metal frame fuselage for durability; a more powerful version of the Gipsy engine to cope with the greater weight of the aircraft and provide an increased rate of climb (the engine was also installed 'inverted' to give the instructor and pupil a better forward view); and the top wing moved forward to allow the occupant of the front seat, normally the instructor, to escape more easily by parachute.
The modified aircraft entered service in 1931 as the de Havilland type 82 Tiger Moth.
Tiger Moths were supplied in gradually increasing numbers to the Royal Air Force and to air forces abroad. The larger professional flying schools also saw the Tiger as an attractive type for advanced training such as instrument flying and aerobatics.
Sgt Ray Lewin GC RAFVR photographed cl938 with
a Brooklands Aviation Tiger Moth.
Sgt Lewis is leaning on the 'pram' type blind
flying hood which would be pulled over the pilot's
cockpit to allow practice instrument flying.
In the mid 1930s the RAF expansion scheme called for a substantial increase in training capability, and contracts were placed with aviation organisations to provide this. One chosen was the Brooklands School of Flying based at the famous Surrey racing circuit - and Sywell was chosen as the base for this new venture. The Brooklands company had been associated with Sywell from 1933 when it took over the operation of the Northamptonshire Aero Club, and in mid-1935 opened the new No 6 Elementary and Reserve Flying School at the aerodrome with a fleet of 12 new Tiger Moths. The school was described under the heading of'The Sywell Salient' by Flight magazine as having the most up-to-date aircraft, equipment, premises and instructional methods. The Tigers, resplendent in Brooklands red, black and silver house colours, were immediately put to use operating a very busy training schedule which steadily increased in tempo as the end of the thirties, and the outbreak of the war, approached. By 1939 some 50 Tiger Moths were in use, and the civilian colour schemes and registrations disappeared in stages - all the aircraft eventually carrying camouflage and military serial numbers.
By the mid-war period up to 120 Tigers under the control of Wing Commander Ian Mackenzie were active at Sywell and its satellite airfield (named Denton Aerodrome and situated just south of Brafield-on-the Green). Operations were round the clock and often continued into poor weather conditions. Despite the volume of activity, and absence of radio or control, very few accidents occurred.
Several French pupils are in this group pictured
in front of a Tiger Moth in 1945.
Front row centre is the commander of the
Free French at Sywell, Col. Edouard Pinot.
The story of Sywell during the 1939-45 war merits telling in its own right, but one facet of interest is that Sywell trained the majority of Free French pilots who reached the UK, under the leadership of Commandant Edouard Pinot - a great character by all accounts. Following the end of the war, Tiger Moth activity slackened considerably at Sywell, continuing with the 15 aeroplanes of the retitled 6 Reserve Flying School providing continuation experience for Volunteer Reserve pilots. The Tigers had by now reverted to the peacetime all-over silver RAF colours.
Finally, in 1951, the Tigers were withdrawn from RAF service and replaced in the RFS by the Percival Prentice.
It was not the end of the Tiger story at Sywell, however, as Brooklands Aviation restarted the Northamptonshire Aero Club as soon as regulations permitted, and four Tiger Moths were on the fleet (back in the silver, red and black scheme). The club continued to operate Tigers, alongside some Austers, until the early 1960s when obsolescence caught up with them, and Pipers and Cessnas began to dominate the UK training scene.
The author, at the tender age of
three, in one of 6 Reserve Flying
School Tiger Moths at Sywell in 1947.
Various other activities ensured that Sywell was not without a regular, if itinerant, complement of Tigers, however. Agricultural aviation (aerial application of fertilisers and pesticides etc.) was growing and many companies used the Tiger as their basic equipment. Brooklands Aviation's Civil Repair Scheme overhauled many such Tiger Moths at Sywell during the 50s and 60s for companies including Farm Aviation and Aerial Farm Services - often very hard worked examples.
From 1956 onwards, Sywell was a frequent host to the Redhill-based Tiger Club with their fleet of Tigers, later complemented by Stampes, Jodels, Turbulents and other interesting types! Sywell was a popular venue for Tiger Club displays and aerobatic competitions - the latter initially featuring the specially developed Super Tiger. The Super Tigers were created by the Tiger Club's parent, Rollason Aircraft Ltd, and featured enlarged tail surfaces, more powerful engine and a modified fuel system permitting extended inverted flying.
The Tiger Club based a Tiger Moth at Sywell from time to time for the use of local members, and out of this emerged the Barnstormers Flying Circus, conceived and led by the late Charles Boddington. The Barnstormers based various Tiger Moths at Sywell during the 1960s and 70s, giving regular air displays around the country. The regular annual fixture being the Easter 'Expos' at Sywell featuring model and full size flying. The Tiger Moths were a staple for this kind of display flying being ideal for such evergreen acts as crazy flying, balloon bursting and flour bombing.
One Tiger Club innovation continued by the Barnstormers was the Stand on Wing act. This involved the fitment of a rig above the fuel tank into which was strapped the 'wing walker'. Sywell has seen many such exhibitions since the Tiger Club first performed the act in 1960. Apart from occasional Tiger Moth appearances in air displays, for the last 20 years or so Sywell has continued to have a small local complement of Tigers operated by individual owners, who cherish their by now truly vintage aeroplanes, and enjoy flying them whenever possible - and particularly when the sun shines.
At the time of writing, resident aircraft include Anthony West's G-AMHF, Ian Castle's G-AGPK, Paul Reading's G-ANTE, Tony Green's recently acquired G-ANLH and my own G-DHZF.
Tiger Moth flying is as popular as ever around the world as we enter the new millennium, encouraged by the UK-based de Havilland Moth Club (who have held their annual training seminar at Sywell in recent years). Who knows what the next 70 years will bring.
A group of Northampton Air Cadets with one of Sywell's Tiger Moths in full wartime camouflage.