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.
- By Derek Grzelewski
- Air & Space magazine, March 2004
(Page 2 of 3)
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.