Flying with the Tiger Nine

The world’s only nine-ship Tiger Moth formation display team could be seen to be ‘doing it the hard way for the sake of it’ — but boy, is this fun flying!

Imagine the apparent madness of a Red Arrows display performed by First World War biplanes, and you have a good idea of what the Tiger 9 is all about. (Armchair experts would point out that Tiger Moths are out-performed by 1918 fighters, and the Tiger 9’s pilots would be too modest to claim anything approaching the Red’s expertise?but the ‘Reds in biplanes’ picture is close enough).

Last year, when regular Pilot contributor Colin Goodwin and I conspired to put together a piece on the contrasting pleasures of classic car and vintage aeroplane ownership, the contender in the blue corner was Tiger Moth share owner Steve Bohill-Smith. Steve, it turned out, was not only slumming it in the old aeroplane world after the glories of flashing ’cross the skies as a BA Concorde pilot, but also a member of the Tiger 9. Would the magazine, he wondered, be interested in attending one of the team’s pre-season practice sessions?

Who could say no? For once, however, Goodwin was willing to step back and let the Editor assume the role of Pilot’s very own John Noakes?which is how I came to be driving down to a secret location in Wiltshire to join in on the fun.

I must admit to a slight jitter of nerves. The last couple of years has seen a spate of Tiger-bending accidents and?given the unremittingly dreary weather of the previous five or six months?wasn’t there a chance that some members of what is essentially an amateur formation-flying team might be the teeniest bit out of practice? This was Day One of a two-day work-up, so I artfully arranged to arrive just after lunch, allowing them a morning’s flying to play themselves in.

Professional approach

I needn’t have worried; from the moment I tag in on the briefing session that is in progress as I arrive, it becomes apparent that these people are not only bloody good pilots, but very professional in their whole approach to what is a potentially a hazardous occupation. At the whiteboard?and from time to time quite literally pointing the finger during the video replay?is team leader Jeff Milsom. There’s nothing po-faced about Jeff’s approach to briefing this diverse collection of individuals?he tells the youngest member of the team that he’s not to be afraid of pulling harder to end up in the right place: “Don’t worry about breaking the thing?it’s only your dad’s aeroplane after all”. Jeff uses a well-judged splash of humour in getting across a serious message.

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As the briefing continues, I am impressed by the level of detail into which it goes, including contingency planning. The Tiger 9 experienced a real emergency last year when one member’s engine lost power as they climbed in formation. He announced the problem over the radio and politely awaited Jeff’s word before dropping out of formation. After a moment’s confusion?Jeff was surprised even to be asked?the straggler peeled away and made an exemplary forced-landing at the display airfield. The rest of the team carried on to complete an eight-ship display.

Today, Jeff makes the message clear: “If it happens again, don’t wait for my word?pull out of formation, declare a PAN and concentrate on getting down. I’ll then decide whether and how we’ll continue the display.”

The other concern on this blustery day is that the wind is blowing the aircraft towards the imaginary crowd line, policed by a couple of volunteers and the team’s video camera. A couple of the Tigers have ended up too close, or even crossed the line. During a real display this would, as Jeff reminds the assembled pilots, result in the display director calling “Stop, stop, stop!”?dread words that bring any display to an immediate halt. Jeff gives some advice on better positioning to allow for the wind then, with typical thoroughness, runs through what must happen if a show is ever stopped because one of the team has breached the line?or some other kind of accident brings proceedings to a complete halt.

Come along for the ride

By the time I am invited to join Jeff in the lead aircraft, I have absolute confidence that I am in safe hands. It’s a while since I strapped in to a Tiger, which has forward-set lower harness attachment points that can pinion your legs on the rudder pedals if you over-tighten the ‘lap straps’ (which actually wrap around the upper thighs). I’ve been loaned a flying helmet and goggles that should hold my specs in place?all very ‘vintage aviator’. Indeed, 2013 seems to be fading into unreality and as we taxi across the buttercup-strewn meadow en masse, I have the weird feeling of being transported back to the early years of the last century.

The impression is even stronger as we take off in vics of three: glancing to either side, it’s like being immersed in that wonderful squadron takeoff shot from the classic Howard Hughes WWI flying movie Hell’s Angels?only in colour and three dimensions. Forget the video games, kids; this is real excitement.

It is also a real piloting challenge. Having flown in close formation for the odd photo-shoot, I know how hard the guys on either side are working to stay in position. They are sweating, but for once I get to sit back and actually savour the view (as well as taking a couple of pictures?and videos that can be seen online at pilotweb.aero). Surrounded by this set of ancient biplanes, all tilting and bumping around in the lively turbulent air, I feel gloriously serene. These people really know what they are doing. I’ve an idea of how good the show looks like from the ground, but sat up here in one of the aeroplanes, I have what is to any pilot the best seat in the house?wahey!

At the moment we are the Tiger 8?and the team will be down to seven ships when one member has to nip off to attend a wedding?but the full display sequence is flown for every rehearsal. After takeoff, the three vics of three fly down the display line. Turning away from the crowd, the vics merge to form a box formation for the second fly-past.

“Nowhere in the world will you see nine Tiger Moths in close formation,” says Jeff. The next pass is made in arrow formation, after which the tail-end pair separate and dive towards the crowd. The pair perform an ‘Irish break’ towards each other and are followed by the main body of the team doing a bomburst, No.9 lagging slightly to perform a half Cuban eight (loop to 45° inverted dive and roll erect) in the centre. The aircraft then position to form two lines astern, coming in from either end of the display line to cross at the centre point. Finally, the two lines link up to form a single line astern, the pilots waving to the crowd as they file past. Compared with modern aerobatic machinery?or even its near contemporary, the Stampe?the Tiger Moth has pretty modest aerobatic capabilities. However, the sensation of riding through the bomburst manoeuvre in the open cockpit is something that will stay with me for a long time?the Tiger has surprisingly good vertical penetration and we soar upwards to a dizzying height (at least by Cub standards). The closing speed and proximity of the cross-overs prove quite attention grabbing too.

All too soon we are back on the ground and gathering for debriefing. As attention shifts to how the next sortie can be made even better, I glance out at the line of Tiger Moths: all I can think is I want another go…

As the day goes on, the routine becomes more and more polished, and I get to know members of the team a little better. Beside ex-BA captain Steve Bohill-Smith (who endures a deal of leg-pulling about ‘Concorde pilots’ when the video shows him to be slightly out of formation, but counters by claiming he was the only one actually in position) there are several other airline pilots, retired and active, and three members who flew fast jets (one or two of whom are being ragged today about getting mildly crossed-up in formation).

All this joshing aside, there’s a huge wealth of experience among the dozen or so regulars who make up the Tiger 9. For example, Len Mitton?who shares G-ANFM flying duties with co-owner Nigel Lemon?enjoyed an airline career that started on Britannia turboprops and was one of the mainstays of the previous Diamond Nine Tiger Moth formation team. Helping bring the average age down is ‘the teenager’, Duncan Green (for all of his fresh-faced boyish looks, actually a senior first officer on the BA Boeing 777 fleet).

Listed occupations among the private pilot team members include company director and anaesthetist: you don’t have to be a zillion-hour airline pilot or ex-RAF jet jockey to qualify for the Tiger 9, but you do need to have a passion for old aeroplanes and the handling skills necessary to cope with the dear old Tiger Moth’s peculiarities and deficiencies (of which there are many). The door is open to new members?indeed, one young female pilot had been invited to the first practice day after expressing an interest in joining the Tiger 9?precisely because none of the regulars is getting any younger and they share a concern that general aviation is just not attracting young people.

But here’s the message: attempting to fly like the ‘Reds’ in 1930s biplanes might appear quixotic, anachronistic or just plain old-bufferish to people of a certain 2013 mindset?but they’d be so utterly missing the point. Simply flying the Tiger, never mind displaying the thing in close formation, presents such a piloting challenge and is such huge fun that no thinking person or pilot should miss out on it. The Tiger 9 puts on a very nice show for those watching from the ground too.