Reach for the sky

15th August 1997 at 01:00
Forget bungee jumping. For real adrenaline-pumping excitement, 20 minutes in a 1930s biplane - aka 'a brick flying sideways' - takes some beating. The TES's Red Baron wannabe, Brendan O'Malley, took up the challenge.

Give it a Go.

It's a hot, sunny day in the Kent countryside and I'm wearing a sheepskin leather jacket over a jumper. But then I'm also wearing a Biggles-style cloth hat and goggles, with a mouth mask to match. Why? I'm about to climb into a Tiger Moth and taste the atmosphere.

The Tiger Moth is a 1930s biplane: two silver-painted wings with struts attached, a maroon body made of the thinnest spruce, an open cockpit and a flat, round nose with a white propeller pointing skywards. The wings are made of linen stretched over a wooden frame.

Sitting on two fat rubber wheels, the machine looks like an Airfix model, and indeed it is so light it has been dragged into position by one man in a jumpsuit resting its tail on his shoulder.

"Careful where you put your foot," says former fighter-bomber pilot John Ford, my instructor at the Tiger Club. "You might go through the wing."

It's hard to believe that Francis Chichester made it all the way to Australia in one of these before he took up sea voyaging - it needs refuelling every 160 miles. It is the 2CV of aeroplanes, and there are only 30 to 40 of them left in the country.

At one time, every RAF or naval pilot had to train in one. "You could hardly design something to fly so badly," grins John. "That's why it's such a good training aeroplane. It flies like a brick sideways." Very reassuring.

I'm strapped in. Goggles on. Mask on. And John's clipped, officer tones are suddenly reduced to a crackle on the radio.

Final checks on the rudder pedals; a twiddle of the joystick; the elevators (horizontal tail flaps) and ailerons (wing flaps) move. Fuel, okay. Air traffic control clearance, okay. Fuel on. Ignition on. A few twists of the propeller, and it's "Chocks away".

The Tiger splutters and growls across the grass, leans into the summer air and we are up, rising above the tractor patterns in the wheat fields, beyond a diminishing village and dotted oast houses, one of which has a new tennis court alongside it.

To the ants below we must be no more than a distant drone, but up here the engine makes a hell of a noise and the wind whistling around the edges of my ill-fitting mask is smothering the radio crackles.

"I'll bring her up to 2,000 feet. Then I'll hand over the controls," it says. My hand tenses on the joystick. The nose draws level with the horizon. We are cruising at about 77 knots. A regiment of fluffy clouds is heading towards us down below. "Right, you take control."

Instinctively I yank the joystick close to my body, as if worried about losing it, and the nose jerks upwards. Immediately I push it forwards to compensate and it lurches downwards. The wings rock and my heart is pounding.

Then I remember John's advice on the ground: "Hold it gently or it will bounce around a bit. If your knuckles are white after a few minutes you're holding it too tight."

I know there is a perfectly sensible scientific explanation for aerodynamics, but up here, rocking from side to side with the wind grazing your face, it is hard to grasp quite how we are being held up in the sky.

Still, as I calm down, so does the plane. And gradually the manoeuvres become smoother and more controlled. After a few successful turns the radio informs me that we are progressing to lesson two, a glide.

A glide? Doesn't that mean downwards? John takes control, dips the nose and we speed towards the cloud cover at 60 knots with my lunch rising in my gullet. Then it's my turn. It feels like hurtling down a hill on a bike - before you've learned to ride. But at least the co-pilot can take over the dual controls at any time. And John Ford is an old hand. One-time Air Commander of the Ark Royal, he's flown Phantoms and Buccaneers from aircraft carriers - he first saw combat at Suez in 1956 - and now he wants a bit of fun.

"Right, let's play. I am just going to attack this cloud," he crackles.

The Tiger banks down to the right and plunges into some cotton wool. The mist swirls over the cockpit at high speed. We swoop to the bottom of a curve as if diving on the Red Baron and corkscrew round and upwards, the horizon wheeling from one side to the other, before bursting through the top of the cloud into the sun. "Wow," I gasp. It's magic.

But my time is up. We saunter down over the hedgerows, dip and rise over the last brook and bounce on to the airfield. After weaving across the cross, we finally chug to a halt. But my head is still in the clouds.

The Tiger Club was formed by enthusiasts to promote good airmanship. Members include pilots, flight engineers, and aircraft designers.

To join the club you must have a pilot's licence, but members of the public can buy trial lessons with a qualified flight instructor at a cost of Pounds 95 for 20 minutes, Pounds 140 for 30, Pounds 200 for 45 and Pounds 240 for 60 minutes. There is a Pounds 15 discount on all prices for TES readers who book by the end of August and bring a copy of The TES with them. Gift vouchers are available. Book at least a week in advance. Flights can be postponed by adverse wind conditions. The Tiger Club, Headcorn Aerodrome, Headcorn, Ashford, Kent TN27 9HX. Tel: 01622 891017

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