Pilot profile: de Havilland Moth specialist Henry Labouchere
- Credit: PW
Flying adventures have taken this renowned de Havilland Moth specialist and pilot across several continents in numerous aircraft, and made him many friends around the world | Words: Colin Goodwin Photos: Philip Whiteman
“Are you bored yet?” asks Henry Labouchere. Pilot editor Philip Whiteman and I are enjoying lunch with Labouchere at the Chequers pub in Binham, near his Norfolk home, airstrip and hangar. And no, we are not bored yet. That would be impossible for two aviation nuts.
How to describe Henry Labouchere? Well for starters he’s tall, well spoken and terrifically energetic. And if you’re into old aeroplanes, tales of adventures in old aeroplanes, and the guts of old aeroplanes, then he’s about the most interesting person that you’re ever going to sit down with for a pint. And if you own an old aeroplane, particularly if it was made by de Havilland, he is about the most useful person you will ever meet.
Seventy-years-old this year, Labouchere’s life in aviation has been crammed full of excitement, variety and enough drama to make you wonder how he has managed to arrive at that age at all. If you’re a Tiger Moth owner or de Havilland enthusiast then I am introducing a person with whom you will already be very familiar.
Henry has flown, in his own rough estimation, about 119 different Tiger Moths. He’s owned one himself since 1971 and, as we are about to discover, his life with this aircraft is as fun-filled and romantic as most of the other aspects of this extraordinary flying life.
“I grew up around here,” says Labouchere, “and in the 1950s the skies of Norfolk were absolutely full of aircraft. Javelins at Horsham St Faith, Lincolns at Wattisham, Prentices at Feltwell. In 1955 a Vampire crashed on the edge of our garden but luckily we were on the beach. It had come from Oakington.
“I’m from an army family, my father was a colonel. He died when I was fifteen so my mother played a big part in bringing me up. She was an amazing woman. She’d taken part in rallies before the war: proper international events like the Liège-Rome-Liège rally. Horses were her biggest passion but along with my brother Colin (who is ten years older than me) she was a founder member of the Fakenham Flying Group, where she flew the group’s Tiger Moth and Miles Magister.
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I remember her having an engine failure and force landing into a field. I don’t think she ever actually got her licence but I certainly remember her doing quite a lot of solo flying?it was a different world back then. She was brilliant at absolutely everything, except perhaps at being a mother.
“My brother was a big influence on me. He joined the RAF and took part in the 1959 Lockheed aerobatic competition in which he came sixth flying a Tiger Moth. Sixth against rivals of the calibre of Neil Williams.”
Labouchere had what he describes as an idyllic and privileged childhood only marred by the dreaded subject of education.
“I went to a school in Devon where they didn’t understand me putting detonators on railway tracks or borrowing tractors.” School was followed by agricultural college and then an apprenticeship as an outboard motor mechanic. However, ‘much more significant,’ explains Labouchere, ‘was a couple of years working for Peter Charles at Westwick Distributors crop sprayers, which had five Pawnees, a Cub and a Tiger Moth.’
Then in 1969, when he was 21 years old, a life-changing decision was made. “I went to Australia on a cheap ticket and wound up in Perth painting white lines on the Geraldton Highway. We used to amuse ourselves painting curved white lines that led off the road into a gum tree.” Line painting was followed by driving a loader truck for a crop dusting company in Western Australia.
“These companies had some of the finest pilots in the world,” he explains. “At Agriculture and General Aviation Ltd we had two amazing pilots. One, Tony Jones, was extremely meticulous. He always used to carefully service the aircraft, would stop for breaks and would never take a full load. His colleague, Brian Stanaway was the complete opposite. A shit-or-bust character who was a throttle to the firewall man.
“We had Cessna 185s. Once Brian was taxying it downwind with the tail up and throttle pinned. He ground looped it and collapsed a gear leg. There was lots of dust and a door flew open and out came Brian’s head, “Effing Cessnas. Just like a crayfish: rip a leg off and all the guts fall out!” Terrific pilot. He was killed when the Agwagon he was flying crashed and caught fire. Agwagons always caught fire.”
Henry had taken the precaution of bringing his Mini Traveller with him to Australia and drove it across the endless Nullabor Plain from Perth to South Australia. “I paid for petrol by picking up hitchhikers and tapping them for petrol money.”
For a man who grew up around aviation and whose bedroom ceiling was covered with a dense flock of Airfix models, it was inevitable that Labouchere would eventually get behind the controls himself. “I’d done a fair bit of flying with the Fakenham Flying Group in their Tiger Moth and got as far as flying solo but the funds ran out for going further.
I was taught to fly in Mt Gambier, South Australia by a bloke called Roger Pitt. Great pilot. He no legs, both taken off in an accident with a swing saw?a sort of predecessor of a chain saw that was lethal. Anyway, when it came to doing my cross-country exam I was petrified that I’d get lost. I did all the preparation meticulously and filled in my log with all the frequencies and waypoints. In practice I cheated by not going more than twelve miles from the airfield and never lost sight of it. Amazing how you can navigate by compass once you’ve had a bit of practice.”
Henry Labouchere’s itchy feet next took him to a company called Freeport Indonesia, where he worked on a Catalina. “It’s there that I earned enough money to buy my Tiger Moth. It wasn’t very cheap – A$3,000 which was about £1,300 – and it wasn’t very good, but a Cessna 180 was about eight times more expensive. Tiger Moths were what I knew from home and it was all I could afford. I put everything I owned in it and flew it all around Australia. On my travels I met a bloke called Ray Cooney who’d just come over from New Zealand in a DH Rapide. ‘What are you up to?’ he asked me.
‘Not much,’ I replied. So I went with him to NZ. There I got a job at a company called Airwork near Canterbury where I met my great friend Simon Spencer-Bower who I fly helicopters with today. He had a Tiger Moth back then and still has it. Kiwis are great fliers.”
After a brief return to the UK in 1972 to help Peter Charles set up a spraying company called Air Farmers, Henry was back in Oz in late 1973 and then in 1974 hopped across to New Zealand. It was a life filled with different aircraft, remarkable trips and anecdotes galore.
An itinerant life, scratching a living any way and how. “I used to fly this vet who was a specialist in artificial insemination,” explains Labouchere, “in a Piper Tripacer. It was ideally suited to the job because it was the only aeroplane that I knew of that could be pushed through a twelve-foot gate. We’d land in fields that were too short for takeoff, push the Piper through a gate and onto the road and take off again.”
You don’t reach three score and ten doing the sort of flying Henry Labouchere loves by cutting corners or being slapdash. His bohemian life in the air is contrasted by his impeccable attention to detail in his logbooks which, as you can guess, form a stack of books as impressive as a set of encyclopaedia. Many of the entries make for fascinating reading.
On a trip from Britain to Australia to celebrate fifty years since the MacRobertson air race, Labouchere had an eventful few days in the Middle East and Asia. The tally reads ‘Mag failure over mountains. Made new plug leads. Ground looped on landing. Radio problems. Buzzed by MiGs. Landed Jordian air force base in dark. Carb failure. Engine failure at 6,000ft over mountains, turned back to Karachi.’ All this in the space of a couple of days.
Another log book entry for 21/12/1975 says: ‘Mother killed’. “She was killed on a horse. Better than dying in a home. Like I said, an amazing woman.”
In 1977 another amazing woman entered Henry’s life in the shape of Jill. “She came from an aviation background herself. Her father had learned to fly in Canada during the war and ended up in India flying B-24 Liberators to Burma. After the war he flew for the Anglo Iranian Oil company in DC-3s and Doves.
Soon after we met she learned to fly herself but she didn’t do that much and stopped altogether when the children were born. A combination of simply not having the time and also the concern that we both had that if she had an accident it would leave the kids without a mother.”
Jill Labouchere clearly hasn’t turned her husband into a nine-to-five man but she did persuade him to take his engineering licences. “That was totally down to Jill. I’d never have done it off my own back. I’d also have stayed in Australia or New Zealand but Jill didn’t want to move.” Needless to say, he shipped his Tiger Moth back to the UK.
While the entries in Labouchere’s logbooks and the volumes themselves are beautifully precise, the photograph collection is a bit more random. He’s brought some with him to the pub but back at the hangar and in the ramshackle Portakabin around the back of it are piles of snaps illustrating this remarkable flying career.
Talking of which, did Henry ever consider going professional? “I did think about it but would have hated being an airline pilot. Imagine leading the life I’ve had and all the scrapes working for an airline. I’d have been fired within a week.”
Flicking through photographs brings forth a constant stream of anecdotes. “Ah, my Zlin,” notes Labouchere. “I bought it in Portugal and on the way back I was arrested in Spain and ended up in jail in Breganza. It only had eighty hours on it and had a complicated fuel system with six tanks: two in the wings, two tip tanks, and a header tank and sump tank.
The main tanks fed through the header so if you ran out in a main tank it took minutes for the header to refill. Anyway I learned about the fuel system the hard way and had to land on an army base in the Picos. Czech plane, Portugese-registered, Australian pilot’s licence and UK passport. The Spaniards loved me!”
In Australia Labouchere had met an engineer called Arthur Heath. “Wonderful engineer, sadly killed in the terrible Invader crash at Biggin Hill airshow in 1980. It’s through him that I got a few jobs working on films. The first was A Bridge Too Far, which involved flying and looking after DC-3s, and then a film called Hanover Street with Harrison Ford.” Naturally there are some good stories around this film work.
Like flying Stearmans to Slovakia for a film with the late Christopher Reeve when all the aircraft were destroyed overnight on the ground by ninety-knot katabatic winds. “It wasn’t a straightforward trip to get there. It was dark before we landed and I could only see where I was going by following the exhaust flames from Pete Kynsey’s Stearman in front of me.”
Around this time Labouchere met another character with whom he would go on to share many great adventures. “I was at the de Havilland rally at Woburn one year,” he explains “when this bloke came up to me and asked if I could help with his Tiger Moth which had mag trouble. Reluctantly I fixed it. That was when I first met Torquil Norman. I helped him buy a Leopard Moth and then a few other aircraft including a couple of Cessna 180s.
“Jill and I had bought a Leopard Moth in 1980. An absolutely wonderful aeroplane and Sir Geoffrey de Havilland’s personal favourite. When our two daughters were little we used to load ourselves into the Leopard Moth, all four of us, and go down to Italy on holiday. Often we’d go with Torquil Norman who’d be in another Leopard Moth or something, and his brother Desmond who’d be in a Tiger Moth. Desmond would always get lost.”
Later we’re met at the pub by now grown up daughter Henrietta (who lives in Venice; her older sister Lucy lives in Malawi), who has very fond memories of these adventures. Henrietta has her brand new daughter with her. “She’s not been in a Tiger Moth yet,” she says, evidently considering that Tiger Moth hours are a Labouchere essential. Henry adds, “My daughter Lucy’s two-year-old boy Enrico is absolutely mad about machines. Anything with an engine or wheels. I’m pretty sure he’s going to love flying.”
In the mid ’90s Torquil Norman?who had flown Seafires, Sea Furys and Meteors in the Fleet Air Arm in the 1950s?and Labouchere decided to fly to Oshkosh in Norman’s DH Dragonfly. An aircraft, according to Henry, that is as lovely to fly as the DH84 Dragon is not. “Quite something to design an aircraft [the Dragon] with four ailerons, none of which does much. And a big rudder that barely works either.”
The trip to Oshkosh was full of drama with engine problems, weather issues and an enforced twelve-month layover while an engine was repaired. The pair eventually made a well publicised and popular arrival at the event in 1996.
For a bloke who claims to have “not done much” Henry Labouchere has had a wonderful life around aviation and there’s no sign of a let up. Virtually every year he and Jill visit Australia, New Zealand or their other favourite part of the world for flying, Africa. My current computer screen saver is a photograph of a group of colourful Masai women with a DH Moth flying low behind them. Registered G-AAMY, it’s the aircraft that starred in Out of Africa.
It’s now owned by a property tycoon in South Africa but it was Henry Labouchere who organised its purchase at auction and who shipped it out to Africa, reassembled it and flight-tested it.
Henry is currently planning to ship a Tiger Moth and Hornet Moth down to Africa on behalf of one of his customers. His is not a conventional aviation career. “It’s been, and still is, rather a hand-to-mouth existence. I’ve been married to Jill for forty years and I don’t know how she puts up with it.” Apart from being a paid commercial pilot, there aren’t many angles in aviation that he hasn’t tackled to keep the family in food and the central heating running.
Buying and selling aircraft, the film work “which never paid very well”, servicing and restoring aircraft, and inspecting machines on behalf of their prospective buyer. “You’re always at the customer’s beck and call, often being called in to help with a mechanical problem on a weekend. If you want to earn a living at it you have to be flexible and be prepared to jump in your aircraft and fly halfway across the country to fix a duff mag.”
I fear that Henry Labouchere is a member of a dying breed. There aren’t many people around who not only have vast flying experience in numerous different types?and this across the globe in remote and challenging environments?but who also have a profound engineering knowledge and the hands-on skills to go with it.
Labouchere was born just in time to experience a world in which flying was much freer of regulation and more a matter of mastering the weather and the elements than navigating paperwork.
One lunch with Henry Labouchere is not enough. Each dog-eared photograph brings with it a fresh tale of derring-do and characters. It’s inspiring, too.
Listening to Henry and his description of flying in wonderful places, in particular Africa, has made me even more determined to extend my own flying horizons.