When smiles take flight

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.”

With grateful thanks to the men and women of Aerobility, Enrych, and the pilots, ground crew and staff of White Waltham Airfield for making a dream come true.

About Sue Vincent

Sue Vincent is a Yorkshire-born writer and one of the Directors of The Silent Eye, a modern Mystery School. She writes alone and with Stuart France, exploring ancient myths, the mysterious landscape of Albion and the inner journey of the soul. Find out more at France and Vincent. She is owned by a small dog who also blogs. Follow her at scvincent.com and on Twitter @SCVincent. Find her books on Goodreads and follow her on Amazon worldwide to find out about new releases and offers. Email: findme@scvincent.com.
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50 Responses to When smiles take flight

  1. I would love to fly in one of those planes. What those planes can do and what they did do is immense in itself. Even crazier that they don’t have seatbelts!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s awesome that he got to do that! I’d love to do something like that!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jo Bennett says:

    I adore flying! Among my varied and eclectic activities I learned straight and level in a Cessna when I was 17, but didn’t have enough cash to continue. In more recent years, a small plane owning friend let me do just that around the Isle of Wight. Won’t forget that in a hurry! I would love a trip in a biplane. They’re amazing and I love seeing them. What those young men accomplished during wartime, and with barely any training, is incredible.

    Jo Hampshire UK
    Creating My Odyssey – Liberating the Real Me After Thirty Years Of Depression and Anxiety


  4. jenanita01 says:

    The expression on Nick’s face says it all! Wonderful!


  5. Sartenada says:

    Great post. I would love to fly in it. I have flown in fly Simulator of commercial aircraft old DC-9. It was not so easy as it may sound. I have also made post of it.


  6. Wow, what a wonderful and exciting day!


  7. tidalscribe says:

    I love airfields and planes. What a special day out.


  8. So happy for Nick 🙂


  9. That was amazing! What a great day and opportunity to live the thrill once again. Those old planes have such character and history. Thanks for sharing, Sue.


  10. willowdot21 says:

    This a wonderful and hopeful post. There are angels among us💜💜


  11. Widdershins says:

    That, was amazing … got all teary, I did. 😀


  12. colonialist says:

    I did enjoy this post. Those Tigers remind me of my father’s Hornet Moth I learnt to fly in. Basically, a Tiger Moth with a cabin. Same cockpit layout. Did you see that handbrake? Actually, a joystick for steering with.


  13. dgkaye says:

    What an amazing experience and memory for Nick! ❤


  14. Eliza Waters says:

    Oh, what fun! That Nick is quite the adventurer. 🙂


  15. Jennie says:

    A great moment for Nick! This is as good as it gets. To relive his passion, in a historic plane, was just perfect. And his smile said it all. Wonderful, Sue. 🙂


  16. I so love every aspect of this recount of these wonderful planes and the organization that helps physically, developmentally, and likely emotionally challenged people to get to experience flight! I really loved seeing that beautiful smile on Nick’s face as he got to ride and have a sense of participation. This is one reason I refer to those with challenges instead of disabled or handicapped. Those words are negative and imply that the people who have those things are incapable or not able, and that is so far from true. I have not heard of anything like this here in the U.S. We do have programs where they get to ride horses and a few other things of the type, but nothing like this. So wonderful!!! Congratulations to Nick too!!! What a victory!!! Great boys (or young men I should say) you have, Sue! That was so interesting about those planes. I really love that British spirit!


  17. macjam47 says:

    This brought tears to my eyes. What a beautiful and heart-warming story, Sue. Love and hugs to you and Nick. 💕🤗


  18. What a great organisation and what a day. I confess I have been up in a Tiger Moth —wind in your hair—the motorbike of the air— exciting!


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