The day was perfect… a little cloud, a superb sunrise and clear, cold air. My eldest son and I were heading for a little village near Maidenhead where, in 1928 when the de Havilland family had bought nearly two hundred acres of grassland to house their Flying School. In 1938, with the outbreak of war, the site was commandeered by the government to house the Air Transport Auxiliary and it stayed in possession on the RAF until 1982 when it became Europe’s largest grass airfield.
It was still de Havilland, though, that had brought us to the airfield… in the shape of one of their most iconic aircraft, the Tiger Moth. Originally built with training in mind, by the outbreak of the war the RAF owned five hundred Tiger Moths and most fighter pilots learned their flying skills in these of deceptively sturdy little biplanes built mainly of plywood covered in stretched Irish linen.
They saw active service during the war too, as patrol aircraft, radio-controlled drones and even as light bombers. It seems difficult to imagine when you stand beside them and see the weave of fabric and the gleam of the polished wooden propeller that these little planes could have achieved so much.
Their controls seem incredibly basic to modern eyes. The main navigational aid is a road map tucked down beside the pilot’s seat. They were used to carry a cage containing a pair of homing pigeons because they were not equipped with radios… and there is no cover to the cockpit, nor the space for pilot or passenger to wear a parachute, just a seat belt.
When you consider the aerobatic capabilities of these biplanes, those last two features are amongst the most surprising… and, when we thought about it, the most unnerving. Especially considering that Nick was about to climb into the cockpit.
My sons have always loved old aircraft. It was an interest we shared as a family, and even I can tell a Merlin engine by the sound alone, dashing outside to see any Spitfires that fly over on their way to an air show or flypast. My younger son had once saved all his birthday and pocket money to take himself up in a de Havilland Dragon Rapide at Duxford, while Nick had joined the Air Training Corps and flown with them, revelling in the aerobatics his instructor had shown him.
He had been describing the sensations of looping the loop and barrel rolling as we had driven to the airfield, where an aviation charity were offering affordable flights in the Tiger Moth to those whose physical challenges would normally make flying difficult, if not impossible.
To this end, they had not one but three biplanes on the runway, and a special hoist they had designed to lift those who could never otherwise climb into the cockpit. Designed and built by the pilots and technicians at the airfield, this hoist had been given to the charity and this was their first day using it. Nick did not need the hoist, but we were privileged to see the beaming smiles of those for whom it had made a dream come true.
We had watched others take to the air and seen their reactions on landing. People suffering the aftereffects of stroke, walking with pain and difficulty from rheumatoid arthritis, people who could not get out of their wheelchairs unaided and others who were paralysed. Their faces all held that same expression of wonder.
“It is,” said the gentleman who had just pulled the chocks away from the wheels of my son’s plane, “for those smiles that we do it.” They are all volunteers, giving their time for the love of the work. “I see you have your camera ready.” I did too. I have seen Nick’s face when he has jumped out of a plane, and when, as a child, he came running across an airfield with his brother after their first helicopter flight.
I had seen it too when we arrived and seen the Tiger Moths being prepared…and when, after hours of waiting in the cold October air, he had finally taken his place in the cockpit. And when he landed, his smile put all previous smiles in the shade.
Not only had he flown in the historic Tiger Moth… and looped the loop and experienced the slow barrel roll of the biplane… he had taken the controls too, flying once more as he had never thought to fly again.
“That,” he said, beaming, “was amazing.”
“That,” said the gentleman I had been speaking to while Nick was in the air, nodding at Nick’s face, “is why we do it.”