The Rebirth of a Classic-Alan Wesson's Tiger Moth

By Willie Bodenstein

Geoffrey de Havilland, designer of some of the most legendary aircraft of all time does not need any introduction. Of all of his designs, the wooden bi-plane the Tiger Moth which first flew on 26 October 1931 with Hubert Broad at the controls, is the most enduring with scores still surviving eighty three years later.

De Havilland DH 60 GIII Moth Major picture © Rama

In the 1930s, the bi-plane still reigned supreme and when the United Kingdom (UK) Air Ministry's specification 13/31 was released for an ab-initio training aircraft, de Havilland set about redesigning his Gipsy Moth that differed little from the Spads, Fokkers and Sopwiths which during World War I waged aerial battles over the killing fields of Europe. The specification called for the front seat occupant to be able to escape easily whilst wearing a parachute and as the fuel tank was situated between the top wings directly above the front cockpit the front wing of the Tiger was moved forward, but swept back to maintain the centre of lift. Fold down doors for the both cockpits, a revised exhaust system and a de Havilland Gypsy III 120 horsepower engine were the main differences between the Tiger and the Gypsy Moth.

Canadian De Havilland DH82 Tiger Moth with canopy……..Nieuport 23 C1 © Paul Castelnau

Sopwith F1 Camel…..Spad XIII

Geoffrey de Havilland's design proved to be the ideal trainer, so much so that it served with the air forces of more countries than any other trainer ever produced. The Royal Air Force (RAF) initially ordered 35 dual controlled DH 82 Tigers. However, by the start of World War II this number had grown to 500 and the British production run eventually exceeded 7,000 of which 4,005 were supplied to the RAF. The Tiger was the prime ab-initio military trainer for the British Commonwealth Training Plan and the mount for thousands of future pilots. It remained in service with the Royal Air Force well into the jet age until it was replaced by the de Havilland Chipmunk 21 years later in 1952.

ZS-DFM, construction number 84478, which belongs to Alan Wesson and based at Jack Taylor Airfield Krugersdorp, served with the South African Air Force (SAAF) until the early 1950s when she was registered to the Rand Flying Club. Between then and June 2002 when Alan bought her, she had seven owners and once was a resident of South West Africa (now Namibia). In 1993, she crashed whilst based at Lanseria.

Alan, who has an engineering background and like most boys grew up fascinated with aircraft, but never thought he would one day be able to fly. Then, in the nineties, a good friend and fellow enthusiast told him about a beautiful Beechcraft Bonanza F33A (ZS-KJL) for sale at National Aircraft Corporation (NAC). To sweeten the deal, the salesman included tuition for a Private Pilot's Licence (PPL) for both of them. The Bonanza (Bonnie) was bought and Alan obtained his PPL on this fast hot 'ship.' Alan admits to sweating many a day whilst training. Alan and his friend flew the Bonnie for a while, but then his friend wanted a 'twin' and so she was sold. Alan started looking around for something not too expensive just to get back into the air and then one day in a showroom he saw ZS-KLA, another Bonanza and after a quick circuit he knew she was to be the one. Alan flew KLA for many years on memorable trips all over southern Africa until it became time to do something else.

In June 2002, another friend told Alan about two Tigers that were for sale. One of them was ZS-DFM. If Alan bought them his friend would restore them, so off they went one Saturday morning. Alan recalls: "To my amazement we arrived at a normal single story standard double garaged house in a secure complex in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. The Tigers were packed in the garage with the owner's two cars. We spent hours getting them out of the garage. The fuselage frames were mostly intact, but the wings were a mangle of broken wood with metal fittings holding them together. The remainder, including the engines had been stripped down and stored in the roof, on shelves, in cupboards, under the bench and wherever there was some space. We eventually moved everything to my hangar, marked what there was and packed it away for the rebuild."

Through the years Alan had tackled numerous projects in various fields, but had never restored an aircraft before. It was to be a steep learning curve! Alan continued: "I thought that at the end of the next two years, I would have a new rebuilt Tiger Moth ready to fly. However, at the end of three years, work on the Tiger had dwindled to nothing and it was less than quarter finished. I decided to take all the parts, pack them away in my hanger and decide what to do from there. At this stage, I had seen an engine in action that Kevin Hopper, the owner of SkyWorX Aviation and the builder of the Teddy aircraft at Krugersdorp, had re-assembled and I asked him to assemble my engine."

In 2009, one of the men who had worked with Alan previously, approached Alan. He needed work and I agreed that he could build the wings. He built them and then the man disappeared without any explanation! A little while later, a young African named Goli approached Alan. Goli had been trained by the man who had built the wings and then disappeared. Goli had been sitting at home ever since then without any work. At that stage Alan had already been persuaded to take early retirement and he decided he would finish the Tiger Moth himself with the help of this young man.

"By then I realised it was now or never." Alan said. "So I approached Mike Spence, (one of South Africa's most revered aircraft rebuilders who was based at Krugersdorp,) if he would oversee and guide us. Mike has been an absolute star, going out of his way to help. We started from the beginning again by checking everything that had been done already before carrying on and eighteen months later we had a fully rebuilt Tiger Moth, ready to fly. It was a lot of hard work, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself."

Alan continued: "Unfortunately, that was just when De Havilland distributed a letter saying that it would no longer be supporting the Tiger Moth. This threw the SA CAA into internal turmoil where it could not decide what to do with these aircraft. After fifteen months of huge frustration, dozens of phone calls, letters, applications and a fair amount of wasted money, we finally received the go-ahead to test fly her. She took off like a dream and flew beautifully, perfectly balanced. The end result came out even better than I expected." Alan can be justifiably proud of his efforts.

The Tiger, a relic of a previous age, does not have an electrical system so she has to be started by hand. She does not have any brakes and will not like most training aircraft fly herself out of trouble and it is not easy to land. However, in seventeen years' time when the Tiger Moth will be celebrating her 100 birthday there will no doubt still be scores of Geoffrey de Havilland's designs up there where they belong.

Classic Aircraft

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