A biplane is a fixed-wing aircraft with two levels of wings-one braced above the cockpit and the other mounted on the belly of the plane, level with the underside of the fuselage. With upper and lower wings, biplanes can provide more lift than single-wing planes of a similar size and design. The cockpit is open to the elements, and there are often two seats: one in front, for the navigator and gunner, and one in back, for the pilot.
The biplane is the oldest airplane design; the Wright Brothers’ infamous Wright Flyer was a biplane, as were most of the earliest planes. De Havilland was a British airplane manufacturer founded in 1920. The company specialized in biplanes, and provided military aircraft to the British government during the years of World War II.
The first de Havilland Moths were designed to make planes more widely available to the general public. These planes were relatively cheap to produce, easy to fly, and compact to reduce hangar space. In the years between World War I and World War II, the de Havilland Moths were common private airplanes and came to symbolize civilian flight during this time.
One of the de Havilland models was used by many famous aviators on long-distance flights. The Tiger Moth was a variation on the Gipsy Moth design. The main difference was in the front seat. The British government specified that this military plane had to be easy to exit from either seat during flight, so pilots could evacuate with a parachute in case of an emergency. The Gipsy Moth had a fuel tank blocking access to the front cockpit; in the Tiger Moth, this tank was moved. The Tiger Moth also had a strengthened frame and fold-down doors for each cockpit.
The Tiger Moth proved to be an ideal trainer for the British Royal Air Force. It was relatively cheap and easy to maintain. It was not an easy plane to fly, however; many pilots reported that the controls were not as responsive as those in other planes. The Air Force actually liked this quality, as they felt it separated talented pilots from those with no innate ability.
It’s no wonder, then, that the Tiger Moth became the primary trainer for the British Royal Air Force. It was widely adopted among Britain’s allies, as well. Other countries that came to depend on it to train pilots included Canada, Australia, Norway, Sweden, and Portugal.
During the war, the Tiger Moth was outfitted with various features, some of which proved quite useful in the war effort. These included Tiger Moths that were outfitted with bomb racks and did duty as light bombers. Others were modified for remote radio control; these were called “Queen Bees” and were used for target practice.
Some wartime modifications, however, never made it out of the experimental stage. One of these was the “paraslasher.” This was a Tiger Moth outfitted with a long sickle blade on the underside of the plane, designed to slash the parachutes of enemy pilots as they drifted by. Tiger Moths were also tested as “human crop sprayers,” fitted with canisters of poison gas beneath the wings.
After the war, there were hundreds of surplus Tiger Moths left over. These found their way into the civilian market. Non-military pilots responded enthusiastically to the Tiger Moth; it was cheap to own and operate, and could perform well in a variety of roles.
Soon Tiger Moths from the old RAF training grounds could be seen working as crop dusters, aerial ambulances, tow-planes for aerial advertisements and gliders, acrobatic planes, and more. A new generation of pilots learned to fly in Tiger Moths, developing the sure, confident hand the aircraft requires.
There are several examples of Tiger Moths on display, including the England’s Mosquito Aircraft Museum, the Polish Aviation Museum, the Museum of New Zealand, and the Western Canada Aviation Museum. However, many more are still in use today-it’s estimated that at least 250 Tiger Moths are still flying as civilian aircraft. If you get a chance to fly in a Tiger Moth, take it-you’re flying a piece of history.