Australian Racing Moths

In the Great Australian Tiger Moth Race, it’s not whether you win or lose, but whether you can stand that damned uncomfortable cockpit long enough to even finish.

IT IS 6:30 A.M., BUT THE CAMP ON THE EDGE of the Maitland aerodrome, a hundred miles north of Sydney, is already buzzing. The camp is composed of two long rows of military tents, 40 total, and outside each, parked tail to the entrance, stands the subject of much fussing: a restored, shiny, flyable de Havilland 82A Tiger Moth. Men and women in green flightsuits mill around them, wiping dew off the wings, stowing cockpit and propeller covers, mopping up leaked oil. The sky is clear blue, the windsock hangs limp, and as they work, the pilots greet each other cheerfully. It’s a perfect day to race Moths.

Inaugurated in 1977, the Great Australian Tiger Moth Air Race attracts competitors from around the country, even from Perth, on the opposite coast of Australia. The entrants come from all manner of aviation backgrounds: high-time airline pilots, flight and aerobatics instructors, air force fliers. One owner, farmer Geoffrey Wills of Lake McLaren, Victoria, has had the same Tiger Moth for 38 years; another, Barry Markham of Perth, once flew his Tiger, VH-NOV, from Perth to London in a 60-day re-creation of one of the pioneer flights made to show how air travel could connect major parts of the British Empire.

“After I’d retired from the air force, I tried a lot of things: aerobatics, jet skis, a Harley—but nothing worked,” says Vaughan “Bud” Felton, who once served as a flight instructor for the South African air force. “Then I flew a Moth and within four days I owned one. It is a fantastic challenge to fly—and besides,” he adds, caressing the yellow fabric-covered wing of his aircraft, “it’s an absolute and pure indulgence.”

Once you’ve been converted, he says, deplaning from a Moth leaves “a huge hole in your life.”

The Tiger is one of a long line of Moths, graceful light aircraft hatched in the fertile imagination of Geoffrey de Havilland, a British aircraft designer and amateur entomologist. In 1925 he brought out the Cirrus Moth, which became the first trainer for government-sponsored flying clubs. The Cirrus evolved into the Gipsy, and the Gipsy into the Tiger, which was easier for military airmen to enter and exit. The Tiger had a service ceiling of 14,000 feet, a 300-mile range, and a 130-horsepower Gipsy Major engine that gave the craft the capability of speeds up to 85 to 90 mph. And at £830 apiece (about $3,770 in 1931, the year the Tiger first flew) and operation costs of under £1 an hour, the Tiger was a hit with private owners and aero clubs alike.

During World War II, the Tiger was used to train pilots to fly for Commonwealth air forces—Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada. The aircraft was well suited for teaching: It seemed to magnify piloting errors, but because it was slow to respond to control inputs, it permitted students to fix errors before getting into trouble. Russ Evans, who learned to fly in a Tiger Moth in 1938 and is competing in today’s race, has another explanation: “The idea for using them as trainers was that if a pilot could fly a Tiger, he could fly just about anything.”

Another Tiger idiosyncrasy is that in its original version it did not have a tail wheel but a skid—a palm-size cast-iron hoof for stopping the airplane on an aerodrome’s slick grass. (The first Tigers, operating mostly from grass strips, had no brakes.) Today, of all the Tiger Moths gathered at Maitland, only one, Geoffrey Wills’, sports a tailskid; others have been upgraded with tail wheels and brakes so that they can operate on paved runways.

Their aircraft cleaned up and ready to go, the pilots fasten their leather helmets and tighten the straps on their brass-frame goggles. They line up their Tigers into a snaking procession, revving to get airborne, staggered in one-minute intervals. “Go fast!” shouts a well-wisher, but a fellow observer explains that exactly the opposite is needed: The competitors’ time is offset by fuel consumption. Everyone starts out with the same amount of fuel. If, over the two days of the race, a pilot’s fuel usage averages more than 33 liters (8.56 gallons) an hour, his or her time is penalized 10 minutes. The offset encourages flying modes that save on fuel, like straight-and-level flight. (Chief race “scrutineer”—official—Lance Fletcher, who wrote the race rules, included other penalty-incurring infractions, such as flying below 500 feet, neglecting to fly over a race ground marker, and flying over a ground marker in the wrong direction.)

Despite all the rules, it’s not a fierce race. Says Russ Evans, all you need is “a full tank and a good sense of humor.”

Out of a shaded stage, where a brass band will later play, Nancy Bird Walton, Australia’s oldest pilot, watches as each Tiger takes off for the first leg of the race, a 150-mile circuit of the beaches to the north. Bird Walton learned to fly in 1933—in a Tiger, of course—under the instruction of Charles Kingsford Smith, Australia’s greatest aeronautical icon. (He made the first crossing of the Pacific and eventually held more long-distance records than any other pilot.) Bird Walton recalls Kingsford Smith teaching her some practical skills: “In emergency landings, we were to always head for the trees, and aim the plane between the trunks,” she says, “the idea being that the wings would break off and slow you down.”

Fortunately, the strategy is not needed when the racers return in the afternoon—tired, dusty, elated. But then a storm erupts, threatening hail, which could damage the fabric covering the spruce wings. Those who haven’t landed leave the area. Even a few who have landed take off in search of shelter for their Tigers. Many find it only two minutes away, in the hangars at the Luskintyre Aviation Museum. For some of them it’s like coming home.

More than half of the Moths racing at Maitland had been reborn at the Luskintyre museum—some more than once—undergoing lengthy restorations in the workshop of Ray Windred. On the walls are skeletal drawings—wing spars, ribs—and parked around are about a dozen aircraft in various stages of reconstruction, from bare bones to flyable.

Twelve years ago Windred heard that a long-neglected Western Australia hangar housed a treasure trove: a collection of 19 Tiger Moths that had fallen into total disrepair. Windred bought the lot for around $170,000. The seller, a Moth buff who had once used the entire fleet for crop-dusting, put one stipulation on the sale: The aircraft could not be sold off for parts or profit but could only be sold restored. Windred agreed. He had long been a mechanic, working on vintage cars and motorcycles, and when he’d gotten into flying, he learned aircraft restoration by working on Moths. As for his obligation to the seller, “every so often I send him a picture of another Moth, good as brand-new, being wheeled onto the runway,” he says. “I only have three more to go.” Windred needs 12 to 18 months to fully restore a Tiger, and the buyer can pay up to $80,000.

Day two begins with a steady downpour. The competitors sit in their cockpits, squinting into the rain pelting their helmets and goggles. Braving discomfort seems a part of the Moth experience. Referring to the seats, entrant Muray Lanyon says: “The aircraft takes enough fuel for about two and a half hours of flight. That’s about an hour longer than you would want to sit in it.”

In quick succession, the racers take off and this time head toward the south, forming a garland. Only minutes into the flight, the weather clears and the fliers enjoy glorious sunshine and stunning views, flying low enough to identify the ground markers they must overfly in order to complete the race circuit.

During World War II, pilots training in Australia would fly their Tiger Moths over Sydney Harbour, and today, the racers salute the veterans by flying over the Harbour Bridge. As they head along Sydney’s beaches, spectators there crane their necks to follow the Tigers avidly.

By 2 p.m., all 40 Tigers are back in Maitland. The judges have noted the flight times, as well as opened each Moth’s gas tank to measure the fuel remaining. It’s eventually determined that John Cameron and David Theiss, flying VH-AJA, place first, at 3:51:58 and a fuel burn of 29.7 liters per hour. A close second goes to Frank Williams with his grandson, Andrew Biggs, navigating (3:53:26; 31 liters). In all, 10 aircraft were slapped with penalties, ranging from 10 to 40 minutes.

The announcements are followed by a traditional Australian barbecue. In the evening, the race’s sponsor, Airbus, holds a 1930s-theme party (the decade of the Tiger’s debut), complete with a 19-piece swing band, that brings in 250 guests, some dressed in ’30s flightsuits. Nancy Bird Walton bestows more awards: best score for a two-Tiger team from each Australian state, best-restored Tiger, oldest pilot, youngest pilot…

Soon after, the racers head home, though for some, like the five who have to cross the entire country to return to Western Australia, more adventures await. At a remote desert gas station, the wind grows so strong it takes three team members to steady each aircraft during refueling. “Flying Tigers is a lot like sailing,” team member Mick Harcourt tells me later. At one point, when the wind turns 180 degrees, “our ground speed was 14 mph,” Harcourt says.

The total trip takes six days—a “sore butt” exercise—but Harcourt explains that you make it by toughening up and focusing on the scenery. And as much fun as the race and the camaraderie had been, taking in the vast expanse of the stark, mysterious Outback, at what the team discreetly referred to as “an undisclosed altitude,” must have been grand indeed.

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