The summer was at its height and my services were in peak demand in the late morning sunshine. I was at my happiest with my butt strapped to our Tiger Moth glider tug – Odette, hauling sailplanes into the air. Mastery of the tug pilot’s craft involves delivering the most efficient operation possible consistent with safety whilst keeping a keen eye on the glider pilots objectives. That means haul ‘em up, drop ‘em in lift so that they can unplug and ride the elevator to the cloud base then run upwind on task – or maybe just soar locally.
Most of the mornings trade had done just that and a late arrival had rigged his glider, a Kestrel 19, and was waiting for his tow into the air. I had a brief chat with the pilot about where and how high he needed to be, then installed myself in the back seat of the ‘Tiger’ and and Stan gave me a swing bringing the aircraft to life. After a short warm up and power check (she was still warm from the last tow) I taxied carefully into position ahead of the glider as the launch team levelled its wings and connected the towrope. With his air-brakes stowed he signalled his wing-man that he was ready and I started to move ahead to take up the slack. It was a beautiful summers morning, the surface wind was a gentle breeze down the strip and the sky sown with both fair weather cumulus and gliders, in almost equal measure it seemed.
Engaging my rubber neck to check the airspace around the intended climb lane and just about everywhere else, I taxied slowly to take up the slack in the tow rope. Swanton Morley was a very busy airfield in those days with intensive Air Cadet gliding operations and light aircraft traffic using ‘our’ side of the airfield. All was clear, the slack taken in and the signal passed to me via the wing-man – I smoothly hit full power.
The roar of the Gypsy Major and the blast of the slipstream are just part of the exhilaration that a biplane has to offer; stick your head over the side to check forward and you are met with a hurricane and the odd unfortunate fly that together will try to rip your helmet off – wonderful! We accelerated down the strip with our tail raised, the combination picking up speed fairly rapidly and after a few breaths we are airborne.
The glider sat in position just above me gently swaying and bobbing on the end of the taught rope, both of us climbing together at around sixty five knots. The ground fell away and my thoughts switched to maintaining accurate speed control and looking for other aircraft. Getting airborne is busy time – checking for available fields ahead in case the engine quits is an investment and the odd glance inside the office another; they both took their place and priority as we climbed away. The Tiger Moth is a very basic aeroplane, there isn’t a lot to look at on the instrument panel bar the oil pressure, the airspeed indicator and the all important slip needle (or ball). A large compass sits between your knees, the needle indistinct and waving around uselessly, standard from the ‘thirties and fitted to everything from a Tiger Moth to Lancaster. The real world is outside, you can feel most of the rest.
We were passing around three or four hundred feet, I was looking left to see how that promising cloud was developing when it happened. The engine turned almost instantly from feeling and sounding like a well oiled roaring powerhouse into a spluttering tractor with half its cylinder head missing. Vibrated badly it transmitting its distress throughout the airframe to the control column and on past my seat to blur my vision. I looked quickly for a cause of failure running through the drill as the prop slowed visibly – she was not well.
I lowered the nose, we had stopped climbing and the speed had started to sag, all the eagerness for flight suddenly stripped away from the blue and silver bird. We were still horribly low and poorly placed, ahead was a wooded area so I turned toward the only field available – then the engine gave up and quit – the prop stopping dead placing a grim finality to events. I shut her down turning off the fuel in the process then focused on the job at hand.
The tow rope release, double the size of a golf ball and the same fluorescent yellow suddenly tripled in size as my subconscious gave it a massive priority. I pulled it dumping rope and glider to their fate. They would after all, not enjoy joining me in the field that I was now pointing at (I needn’t have worried as it turned out, the glider pilot released as it was clear to him what was happening.)
We were descending fast with the wind now audibly whistling through the bracing wires – looking ahead the picture didn’t look so good. A pair of large dead Elm trees spaced at around my wingspan defined the threshold to the (already very short) field – options didn’t exist.
Fortune smiled on me that day, maneuvering in the steep descent I managed to slip between the trees, immediately flared hard and three-pointed Odette into the kale (cabbage) field. We came to an abrupt halt as the plowed furrows grabbed the large balloon tires and tailskid dragging us to a halt in twice the length of the aircraft. Quite a deceleration; had the speed been higher than it was when we touched down, we might have ended up on our nose or even our back.
I dragged my helmet off and sat still for just a moment, the silence was deafening, the surroundings seemed unreal, not at all what I been anticipating after leaving the ground perhaps as little as a minute and thirty seconds ago.
With sweat trickling down my spine I listened to the tick-ticking of the engine cooling rapidly and the sound of the birds now chirruping away in the trees around me. My hearing returning to normal at about the same rate as my heartbeat. I unstrapped and jumped out of Odette, An irrepressible urge to grab her and hug her till she splintered welled up inside me. I couldn’t stop grinning then laughed my head off as nature released the tension in her own way. I was ‘chuffed to rocks’, I had survived my first engine failure and not broken my aircraft; life just couldn’t seem sweeter in that moment of time.
Shame about the kale, we must have totaled around a hundred of them and they were all over the wings and tailplane; the Tiger was well spattered with mud and soil. Still, the farmer didn’t mind as it turned out – he arrived at high speed in his Landrover almost wrecking it in his haste to see that I was OK.
The glider? It dumped its water ballast and beat a hasty retreat back to the launch point, skinning its way around a very low, semi aerobatic circuit. As for the tow rope, we never did find it though we looked long and hard. Odette was back in the air again in a month, the fibre drive shaft that links the magnetos had sheared throwing the engine completely out of timing. It was 20th of July 1975 and around the time the picture of Odette and the Skylark above above was taken. The other photos have been gathered from the internet for atmosphere.