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Sep 17 2011

Soul of a Dancing Tiger

Cables and metal rods around the cockpit – narrow on top and wide at the bottom – sharp and harsh engine roar, wooden instrument panel pushing a couple of dials right into my face, a rope-threaded stick helplessly dangling around, shaking box of biplane wings, and no feeling of the airspeed – I am back in time by 70 years, flying a vintage DH-82 Tiger Moth.

Move that always perfectly “dead” stick sideways – nothing happens. No, wait – something does happen! Though not quite what I was expecting. The airplane banks apparently on its own, taking the control movement as a recommendation, not an order. The bank could be shallow or deep, roll rate fast or benign – the plane will make a decision by itself, and you’d better be ready for whatever it will be, pilot!

Sideslip indicator reminds me the very first days of conquering that mighty 172. I need to consciously work the rudders to keep it centered. Tiger Moth honestly tries to give some indication of the adverse yaw, but the whole airplane is just wandering around the pilot constantly, so it is hard to know whether it speaks seriously this time, or it just wobbles absent-mindedly – following its own trail of thoughts…

The rudder is something to step on – with force! – and move for something that feels like a full leg forward, but looks like three inches of the actual travel. And as soon as your legs come to the stop, funny aerodynamic compensation grabs your foot and holds the rudder there – twisting the whole plane into a weird, uncoordinated swoosh sideways. No, it’s not a turn – it doesn’t feel like one, and if you leave the plane to do whatever it wants – you will feel the growing rumble of air blasting into the cokckpit sideways.

Even a simple coordinated turn becomes a challenge, and the only control which apparently works the way it supposed to, is the elevator. Pull on the stick – airspeed indicator reads a bit lower. Push on it – airspeed indicator reads a bit higher. Oh, and when you are flying “nose down”, you can actually see about an inch of the horizon on top of the instrument panel! Yaa-ay!!!

But I forgot to repeat – there is no feeling in that stick. It just dangles. You toss it around effortlessly, and then the plane sort of moves confirming your intention, or fights it back stubbornly. So I am not talking about any force that you could possible trim away. Maybe just a stick position, but hey, do you know when it’s centered? Really? How did you know that? Can you center it for me, please? You did already, didn’t ya, Smarty? So why is that darned thing keeps flying in circles, losing the altitude?

Tiger Moth is awesome. It is an artifact which requires you to clearly and definitively lead it, being miles and minutes ahead. You can’t react or wait for any sort of useful feedback – be proactive and know what are you doing, so the plane will fly on your own confidence. You can’t muscle the Moth through a maneuver – think the movement through and make the aircraft follow, whatever it takes. If you kick a rudder, Moth would barely notice that you are such a jerk, and will just keep on flying on its own, maybe after a little shudder of disgust.

Many of the modern airplane drivers are taught to believe that the mankind is motoring through the sky following just a couple of simple laws of physics. They will be shocked by Moth. And not only by Moth – in fact, by any airplane with lots of wing and not nearly as much stability, responsiveness and harmony of controls. Even in the smooth air the yoke-jock will find himself puzzled by the aircraft behavior, and as soon as the wind will come into the game – things will get hairy in a wink.

Remember what we were taught about the “crosswind inputs”? Something in effect that we should recognize where the crosswind is coming from, configure the airplane so that it counteracts the wind and adjust the control pressure as required? What a chunk of bureaucratic bullshit that is… If you are cutting through the wind and have an excess of power available – than yes, you could pretend that air is a river, and you barely need to steer a bit against the current.

But those who fly lots of wing and not that much of an engine, know for sure – wind is a pot of boiling water, it whirls around, tossing you in all directions simultaneously. There is no way you can be a dumb monkey and deal with that bubbling matter freezing on some canned “control inputs”. You must think through the air, feel the trend, understand the patterns, be a captain – sailing through the waves, winds and mist – and not a driver, parking the car on a driveway.

This is what Tiger Moth, Piper Cub or similar are teaching you – being a flier, not a driver. In that effect, they easily sort out those who do not have the necessary smartness, mental flexibility, decidedness, finesse and courage required for the fine operatory work of an airplane pilot. So why don’t they built anything like those machines anymore? Because our world needs drivers, not fliers. Sheepish compliance to the complex regulations is more valuable today, than ability to feel the wind with your wings. Fake and commercialized perception of “safety” sells better than human skills, and though degrading in a long run, opens a way bigger market for the mediocrity.

Dear mankind, I think you are missing a huge point here, but maybe it’s just me… There is barely any place for the aircraft like Tiger Moth today, and I am just so happy for being able to find the Tiger Boys and their magnificent flying machines in that cute little airport of Guelph, Ontario. Few of us need to live the real magic, but for those of us who really do – few things can help better then getting into a cockpit of the ancient airplane and learning to dance with the wind. Discover that the air is not meant to be smooth, winds straight down the runway, and the flight – safe and controllable at all times.

Have you seen those hippy girls in a long, weird dresses, dancing to the music in their heads and smiling like they have a blindfolding myopia? That is how the Moth’s soul looks like. This airplane could make you smile like nothing else, and it will build a hell of a pilot from those who really want to be one – but would be crashed hopelessly by anyone who just believes himself to be an aviator. I admire the people who were flying from Britain to Australia in those machines. Those people had a bird soul, and that is the only simple thing which can make a Moth respond in harmony.

Tiger Moth

Tiger Moth