Following a series of successful aircraft designs during the First World War, Captain Geoffrey de Havilland purchased the struggling Aircraft Manufacturing Company (Airco), his former employer, and renamed it the de Havilland Aircraft Company in 1920. Initially they were involved in overhauling existing aircraft and coming up with a small number of new designs for either the Air Ministry or fledgling airlines. Dissatisfied with the aircraft engines available at the time, de Havilland enlisted the help of engine designer (and long-time friend) Frank Halford. Because of Halford's work modifying an existing French engine, making it lighter and simpler, de Havilland was able to set up an aero engine division. Now that he had a supply of suitable engines, de Havilland set about trying to achieve his dream of "aeroplanes for all" with the de Havilland Moth range of aircraft.
The first in the Moth range was the DH60, a sturdy biplane with fabric covered wooden wings and a simple fabric covered plywood box fuselage. The 60 hp Cirrus I engine used to power the aircraft was essentially half of a World War One surplus 120hp Renault V8. With de Havilland at the controls, the DH.60 prototype first flew on February 22, 1925 and went into production shortly afterwards. The design was simple but effective with the result being a well-behaved aircraft that proved so successful that supplies of the war-surplus engine parts were soon exhausted. Halford promptly designed a new engine for the aircraft that produced 40 horsepower more than the Cirrus but was only 14 lb heavier. Known as the Gipsy I, the engine was installed in a DH60X test aircraft in June 1928 before being fitted to production aircraft. These versions became known as the DH60G but were more commonly known as the Gipsy Moth.
By 1930, the inexpensive and dependable Gipsy Moth had become the most popular light aircraft in Britain. It was easy to fly and (combined with low operating costs) made private flying possible for thousands of people. This was helped by the British Air Ministry subsidising five Moth equipped flying schools. Before long, 85 percent of private aircraft in use in England were Moths, with the number growing daily. Along with private users, the Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm also used small numbers of the aircraft. It was not just in England that the Gipsy Moth was popular either, with orders coming in from many other countries including New Zealand. In addition to those bought privately, 28 were used by the New Zealand Permanent Air Force and (as from February 1934) Royal New Zealand Air Force. The first air force aircraft arrived in early 1929 and were in use until1943, primarily as basic trainers to replace the Avro 504Ks. An outbreak of violence by the Samoan League saw an NZPAF DH60G floatplane sent to Western Samoa in January 1930 onboard the HMS Dunedin. Armed with a Lewis gun, it was used to help local authorities contain the rebellion and marked the first active service by an NZPAF aircraft. Back in England meanwhile, the de Havilland Company increased production of the DH60 from the initial rate of less than one per week to more than three per day to meet the surge in the demand for the aircraft. In addition, construction of the Gipsy Moth was carried out under licence in Australia, France and the United States with several different versions eventually produced along with a number of different engine options. One such version was the metal framed DH60M "metal moth" which was submitted to the Air Ministry under Specification 15/31 as a potential primary trainer for the Royal Air Force. Although the Ministry liked the aircraft, they felt that the positioning of the upper wing and fuel tank directly above the front cockpit was not ideal. While it may not have posed a problem for a private pilot, it was a different matter for an instructor wearing a full flying kit and parachute. In this situation, not only was entry to the cockpit awkward, but (more importantly) rapid exit in the event of an emergency would border on impossible.
To satisfy the Ministry, de Havilland's chief designer Arthur Hagg and engineer F. C. Plumb retreated to Stag Lane Aerodrome and began work on modifying the airframe of a DH60M. The most obvious solution to the cockpit access problem was to move the upper wing forward, but this was not as simple as it first seemed. To clear the front cockpit the wings had to be moved forward some 22 inches. This promptly threw the aircraft's balance out, the centre of gravity now being behind the centre of lift. To remedy this, the wings were swept back by 19 inches, which then created another problem. Taxiing, or a bumpy landing, could cause the lower wingtips to hit the ground. This was cured by slightly increasing the dihedral (angling upwards) of the lower wings. To further assist getting in and out of the cockpit, the hinged door panels were deepened. A 120 hp Gipsy III inverted engine was fitted to improve the view over the nose, removing the four upright cylinders of the Gipsy I from the pilot's line of sight. Compared to the civilian Moths, the Tiger Moth was decidedly military with typically British cramped tandem cockpits. If necessary, the cockpit door panels could be opened in flight to provide a little more elbow room at the expense of even more wind blasts in what was already a draughty cockpit. Without the niceties of an intercom system, communication between the instructor and student proved to be somewhat of a challenge. A Gosport Tube, an acoustic system of soft rubber tubing that worked (theoretically) in the same way as a doctor's stethoscope, was installed. As can be imagined, this was not the most efficient system but most instructors managed to get their messages across with a suitable amount of shouting.
In September 1931, a prototype of the modified DH60, the DH60T Tiger Moth, was sent to the Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment at Martlesham Heath (near Ipswich) for testing. Pleased with the new aircraft, an order for a production prototype was issued. This flew on October 26 of the same year and was ordered into production for the RAF shortly after. By this stage, the DH60T had undergone so many modifications, de Havilland decided that it needed a new designation. Retaining the Tiger Moth name, it was given the designation DH82. The RAF placed an order under Specification T.23/31 for 35 DH82s (Tiger Moth I), the first of which began arriving at No.3 Flying Training School, Grantham in November 1931. Export orders for another 66 aircraft followed shortly after, they were supplied to the air forces of Brazil, Denmark, Persia (Iran), Portugal and Sweden. A further two were built to Specification T.6/33 with twin floats for RAF evaluation. As well as the 136 DH82s built in England, 17 were produced in Norway and three in Sweden.
The Tiger Moth also formed the basis of a light transport aircraft that first flew in March 1932. Also designed by Arthur Hagg and using as many Tiger Moth components as possible, it carried four passengers in a cabin behind the engine. The open cockpit (this had a canopy added later) was moved aft of the wings and a new plywood covered, wooden fuselage was built. Slightly modified Tiger Moth wings, tail section, landing gear were used and the 120 hp Gipsy III engine provided power. As was the case with the DH60T, the differences between this aircraft and the DH82 warranted a name change, consequently it became the DH83 Fox Moth. The prototype (registration G-ABUO) went to Canada shortly after its first flight where Canadian Airways Ltd evaluated it on skis and floats.
Even though the Fox Moth was predominately used as a charter aircraft, light freight carrier or for private use, several did end up in more prominent roles. In 1932 a Fox Moth was registered to Flight Lieutenant E. Fielden on behalf of HRH the Prince of Wales and served as part of the Royal Flight. Another was involved in the 1933 British Mount Everest Expedition while a third did survey work in Antarctica. A small number were used by various air forces during World War 2 including the RNZAF who used a single example (NZ566) impressed from Air Travel (NZ) Ltd. By the time production of the Fox Moth ended, a total of 154 had been built, 98 in England, 2 in Australia and 54 in Canada as the DH83C. Many of the latter were used in the bush aircraft role with skis or floats fitted.
By 1933, de Havilland had begun work on an improved version of the Tiger Moth. With a 130 hp Gipsy Major engine and the rear fuselage fabric covering replaced by plywood decking, the new model became the DH82A and was named the Tiger Moth II by the RAF. This version could also be fitted with a hood over the rear cockpit and be used for instrument training. Production of what was to become the most widely used and well-known version of the Tiger Moth began at a sedate pace in 1934. The RAF initially ordered 50 to Specification T.26/33 with more orders following later. The following year saw the introduction of the DH82B Queen Bee, a gunnery drone and the world's first operational pilotless aircraft. It had a radio controlled autopilot system that operated compressed air valves attached to the rudder and elevators. Most of them were fitted with floats and controlled from a ship's radio room or a 1,500 lb "portable" console. As radio control was still in its early days, it was quite common for the operator to be unexpectedly buzzed by the aircraft, or to watch it disappear from view over the horizon. Another "good idea at the time" feature was its auto-land system. This was a bob-weight at the end of a 30ft trailing wire. With glide selected, the aircraft would slowly descend until the weight touched the water, whereupon it would close the throttle and flare the aircraft for landing. This worked well at sea but when a number of Queen Bees were fitted with wheels and operated over land, the presence of trees and buildings near airfields caused some rather interesting landings.
By the time the Second World War started in 1939, over 1,000 Tiger Moths had been produced with most of them going to various air forces or aero clubs. With the outbreak of the war, the Tiger Moth was chosen as the standard basic trainer for all commonwealth air forces under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) and Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS). Production of the aircraft increased considerably with the Tiger Moth eventually being produced in Australia, Canada, Norway, Portugal and Sweden. The de Havilland Aircraft Company of New Zealand Ltd at Rongotai, Wellington produced 181 of the 335 Tiger Moths used by the RNZAF between 1939 and 1956. With the 1939 selection of Canada as the main location for the BCATP and EATS pilot training and the anticipated influx of hundreds of thousands of trainee pilots, de Havilland Aircraft of Canada Ltd stepped up local production of the Tiger Moth to supplement those it received from England. Of the 1,747 Canadian Tiger Moths built, 1,553 were the winterized DH82C. This model had enclosed and heated cockpits, wheel brakes added to the main gear, which angled forward to reduce the chance of the aircraft tipping onto its nose when the brakes were applied, a tail wheel instead of a skid and provision for the fitting of skis. The engine was changed to either a 145 hp Gipsy Major IC or 125 hp Menasco Super Pirate D4, the latter being used after concern was expressed over shortages of the Gipsy Major.
As well as its primary duties as a trainer, the Tiger Moth was used in a variety of different roles during the war. It served as a communications and utility aircraft, wireless (radio) trainer, artillery spotter, air ambulance and for prisoner evacuation. The threat of a German invasion of Britain led to a number of Tiger Moths being converted to a defensive and offensive role. Bomb racks capable of carrying eight 25 lb bombs were developed to be fitted under either the wings or fuselage of the aircraft. Others were tasked with anti submarine duties after five Tiger Moth coastal patrol units were formed in 1939. Flying in pairs, the aircraft would record shipping movements and look for German U-boats. If one was spotted, the Tiger Moths would drop flares in the area and then wait for naval forces to arrive. When no naval forces were available, it was hoped that the mere presence of an aircraft near a U-boat might deter its commander from running on the surface, reducing his ability to attack shipping. There were also some rather bizarre anti-invasion ideas trialled such as the "Paraslasher", an 18-inch farmer's hand-scythe attached to an 8 ft pole below the Tiger Moth's fuselage. The theory was that the aircraft would fly among invading paratroopers, slicing up parachute canopies, shroud lines and the occasional paratrooper before further harassing those that made it to the ground. Another idea was to install a chute in the cockpit floor so hand grenades could be dropped on enemy soldiers. Although this looked good in theory, pilots voiced concerns over the consequences of a live grenade jamming in the chute and the project was quickly abandoned.
August 1945 saw the end of production of the Tiger Moth by which time 9,231 had been built, 8,677 of which were the A or C model. The end of World War Two in the same year led to thousands of Tiger Moths being declared surplus to requirements and released from air forces worldwide. Sold off at exceptionally low prices, many were snapped up by private buyers and aero clubs. The situation was much the same in New Zealand where the Tiger Moth is remembered as the aircraft in which many people either first flew or learnt to fly in, including thousands of New Zealand aircrew who had their first taste of military flying courtesy of this remarkable little aircraft before moving on to more powerful types. It also became the foundation of agricultural aviation in New Zealand when many where adapted for topdressing. The first aerial topdressing was in 1949 when Wally Harding, founder of Wanganui Aero Work Ltd, converted his Tiger Moth (ZK-ASO) to spread fertiliser on his high-country farm. By 1956, 182 of the 250 aircraft used for agricultural work were Tiger Moths, they continued in service until the advent of purpose built aircraft. With so many surplus Tiger Moths available around the world, it was only natural that a number would be the subject of conversions, usually to enclose the cockpit. The British company Jackaroo Aircraft Ltd carried out the most ambitious conversion between 1957 and 1959. They widened the fuselage of 19 Tiger Moths to seat four passengers in side-by-side pairs and added cockpit canopies, although open cockpit variants were included.
It is perhaps a sign of the affection and respect that people have for the aircraft or the wish to relive another era of flight that large numbers of Moths survive today, especially the DH82A Tiger Moth. In New Zealand alone, there are around 47 Tiger Moths on the aircraft register at the time of writing with approximately another 49 in storage or being restored. The Gipsy Moth and Fox Moth are also represented with a single DH60 on the register and another four listed as being in the country. Eight DH83s are also known to be in New Zealand with two of them in flying condition. Of particular interest is the Fox Moth ZK-AEK which was originally the one used in the Royal Flight. It is currently part of the Alpine Fighter Collection and has been restored to the same condition (including a red leather interior) as when it was used by the Prince of Wales.
Text © 2002 Stuart Russell.
Power Plant: One 97kW (130hp) de Havilland Gipsy Major
Wingspan: 8.94m (29ft 4in)
Length: 7.29m (23ft 11in)
Max T-O weight: 803kg (1,770lb)
Max level speed: 175km/h (109mph) at 305m (1,000ft)
Range: 483km (300miles)