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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.

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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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