The de Havilland Moth Club

The de Havilland Moth Club, an article reproduced from The Moth 111 magazine, by STUART McKAY.

The first DH.60 Moth flew in February 1925, 75 years ago. An owners’ type club was not founded until 50 years after that maiden flight, as the result of the acquisition of a run-down Tiger Moth. STUART McKAY recalls how it all began and lists some of the milestones.

    I was nine when I was given my first book about aeroplanes, and from that moment I was irrevocably hooked. In retrospect I realise that most of the doodles in my school exercise books were of sedate little biplanes.
    In my teenage years as an enthusiastic Air Scout, my Hounslow Troop was ‘Recognised’ by the Royal Air Force and apart from the opportunities thus opened to fly in RAF aeroplanes (Chipmunk, Anson and almost a Meteor), the Troop was presented with a Tiger Moth for static exhibition! Unbelievably, she was rigged to stand on a small island in the middle of a large pond, completely open to the English weather. But it was brainless guttersnipes who mortally wounded her, stealing or smashing most of the instruments and slashing the wing fabric to ribbons. The RAF was not best pleased and she was soon taken away on a Queen Mary.
One of the pivotal points in my life occurred when in 1971 I read a newspaper report of a Tiger Moth flying around the control tower at Orly Airport, flapping its wings! The aeroplane was being delivered to Denham from her previous base in central France. It was winter, the country was covered in snow, the pilot had lost his bearings and unfortunately for him, had stumbled upon this large city and one of its major airports. Amongst the press sensationalism was the comment that the owner had paid about £1,200 for the aeroplane, which even at 1971 prices, seemed remarkably optimistic.
    Only a few months later, I was introduced to Mike Stapp, a freelance instructor and willing volunteer for almost any flying assignment. During the course of the conversation it became clear that he had been the pilot of the wing flapping Tiger Moth. Not only did he confirm the quoted price, but he believed almost every French gliding club harboured a Tiger Moth, mostly redundant since the revision of schemes of subsidy paid by the government.
    I immediately wrote a letter translated into French, and sent a copy to all known owners of French registered Tiger Moths, together with the convenience of a suitably stamped and self-addressed envelope. The message was fairly stark: do you have a Tiger Moth? Will you sell it to me? How many francs do you want?
    It was soon clear from the polite replies that a lot of Tiger Moths already had been sold, either to ‘one of my compatriots’, or to the USA. It was also evident that most of those were based in the north, within reasonable striking distance of the Channel coast. That partly explains how I came to purchase F-BGJE, dismantled and rejected, from Aero Club de Brive in Biarritz. Built by Morris Motors in 1943 and gifted to the French Air Force in 1945, my very own Tiger Moth was repatriated with the assistance of a diesel lorry during the Easter holidays in 1972. By manipulated co-incidence, she was issued with the registration letters G-AZZZ on July 27, a de Havilland date of significance.
    Given a fairly thorough wipe down, I have no doubt that G-AZZZ could have been re-assembled and flown, but my anxiety to return her to pristine condition resulted in a major dismantling job, and within a year the gutted airframe occupied a number of cardboard boxes scattered around the house. Alas, she was to remain box-bound for many years yet as due to her influence, life was about to be headed off in a new direction.
    I had recently resigned from a six year haul as honorary editor of Popular Flying, a role I had willingly assumed during the construction of my Jodel D9 Bebe G-AVPD, but as a token few of the Tiger Moth parts were refurbished and reassembled, withdrawal symptoms due to the loss of the magazine habit, began to gnaw. In August 1975 I circulated a letter to about 100 registered owners of British based Tiger Moths, suggesting that we might form a Tiger Moth Owner’s Circle (TMOC).
    The aim was to provide information on spares wanted and available, general chit-chat, and perhaps organise an event or two. I recognised that 1975 was the 50th anniversary of the first DH.60 Moth, and that celebrations had already been organised in Australia and even the USA, but precisely nothing was planned in the land where the aeroplane had been conceived and born. I suggested in my recruiting circular that anybody sending a donation of £1.00 to cover postal expenses before February 22, the symbolic date of the DH.60’s maiden flight, would be considered a Founder Member. In the event, exactly 60 people did, which was a good omen.
    The TMOC would create a fairly rigid discipline within which to work, implying membership was limited to owners of a finite number of Tiger Moths. One of the earliest respondents was the owner of a Hornet Moth, followed by enquiries from former owners and pilots, past and present engineers, one-time de Havilland employees and pure enthusiasts. A retired Wing Commander told me the proposed name conjured up the image of elderly ladies gossiping together at a sewing bee.
    Then there was the uncanny case of the two telephone calls. The first was from a fellow overhauler. He told me he was desperate to find a windscreen. Within the hour another caller quizzed me on the proposed organisation and casually remarked that he had an old Tiger Moth windscreen, if ever anybody wanted one!.
    Before matters progressed too far it seemed important to establish a new and more representative name. The most obvious title that appeared to satisfy all departments was the 'de Havilland Moth Club', and believing it was the correct and courteous thing to do, I contacted Hawker Siddeley Aviation, owners of the copyrights and occupiers of de Havilland territory at Hatfield, to ask permission, which was promptly refused. Undaunted by such an unexpected and unwelcome reposte, the fledgling association was called the de Havilland Moth Club anyway.
    The first eight photocopied newsletters were distributed on a monthly basis and the issue for June 1976 advised everyone of the club’s first rally, which by kind permission of Leonard Jefferies, was to be held at Little Gransden on August 22. The crews of ten Tiger Moths, a Jackaroo, four Hornet Moths, a Puss Moth, Dragon Rapide and eleven other non-Moths arrived, sat, took tea, conversed with one another and eventually went home again. By the end of the day, membership had risen to 134, and names from the USA, Canada, Kenya, Switzerland, New Zealand and Sweden had appeared on the rolls.
    At the Farnborough Air Show the following September I was amazed at the number of industry contacts to be made still with a practical application to Moths: suppliers of raw material, NBS, AGS, engine parts and services, rigging wires, propellers, manuals, fabric and paint, inner tubes and tyres. If we were to keep these aeroplanes serviceable and provide a benefit to members, why not go into the niche parts supply business, co-ordinating bulk manufacture of otherwise obsolete provisions and selling them as a service to members at discount rates? Over the intervening years this practice has proved to be an essential expectation.
    Not everybody welcomed the formation of the de Havilland Moth Club which quickly became recognised by the initials deHMC. I was once warned that I would split the vintage aeroplane movement; that deHMC was an ‘elitist’ club, and as a consequence the price of Tiger Moths would rise to a level well above that affordable by ordinary enthusiasts. I sincerely hope that the reason for there being more airworthy Moths in the world now than in 1975, is due in some small measure to the efforts of the club. A steady increase in value has led to the aeroplanes being considered ‘worth saving’ and maintained in good condition, reversing a declining situation which verged on the precarious in the mid Sixties.
    A year after Gransden, in similar windy conditions at Abbotsley, the club began the first of what has proved to be an enduring round of aerobatic competitions, and in 1999 for the first time, these were organised as a self-standing event at Cambridge. A new freestyle competition was introduced in 1997 sponsored appropriately enough by the Haw Par Company in support of their medicinal product Tiger Balm.
    Two major events of very different character helped to establish the credibility and sincerity of the deHMC and its objectives which had now been defined: ‘to create a suitable environment for safeguarding the (Moth) type and to use their unique qualities for teaching and learning the art of flying; for the interchange of spare parts and encouragement of the widest possible dissemination of technical information and assistance’. The first of  these events was in 1979 when we organised what became known as The Famous Grouse Rally. Sponsored by Highland Distilleries in support of their Famous Grouse brand of scotch whisky, and supported by 28 other companies and organisations, a fleet of 41 Tiger Moths, two Jackaroos, seven Hornet Moths and four Dragon Rapides set off from Hatfield on June 30, all to arrive safe and well at Strathallan Castle, Perthshire, that evening, where the participants were to become immersed in a weekend of unremitting hospitality.
    Our membership now stood at just under 600, and the budget for the rally at £12,000. It was a huge gamble but a remarkable and invigorating challenge, and as the organisation proceeded over an 18 month period, we drew in even greater support and a will to succeed. We chartered a Heron to fly VIPs to Scotland and the Royal Navy loaned a Lynx helicopter and engineering support crew with their own bus for a whole week. This was listed as a training exercise, which it undoubtedly was, but in reality the adventure was mounted in support of a BBC film crew who produced a classic television documentary, although they did insist that the rally was a race for Tiger Moths, providing no explanation for the inclusion of Hornet Moths and Dragon Rapides. Intending to follow the Tiger Moth entered by the Royal Navy Historic Flight, they majored on the wrong aeroplane: another Tiger Moth wearing Royal Navy titles, although few viewers would have known the difference.
    It was at this time I discovered that the legendary and retiring Alan Butler, financial saviour of the de Havilland Company in 1924, was living near Dunstable, and he responded positively to the club’s invitation to become its first President, and remained so for the rest of his life. Alan Butler was succeeded by our current President, John Cunningham.
    The second event of monumental significance, not fully recognised as such at the time, occurred in a stubble field in Hampshire the following year. September 10 1980 was the 70th anniversary of Geoffrey de Havilland’s first successful flight, and on that date in Seven Barrows Field, south of Newbury, under the most awful conditions of drizzle and blustering turbulence, a short service of dedication was arranged at the site of the refurbished memorial stone. Eighteen de Havilland aeroplanes landed safely, watched over by a huge fire truck generously provided by the USAF Commander of the nearby base at Greenham Common. The Army Air Corps sent a Beaver, the Royal Navy flew overhead a Sea Heron and a Sea Devon from Lee-on-Solent, and the RAE Comet IV was positioning that day from Farnborough to Boscombe Down and just happened to be in close proximity at a most opportune time.
    After that day’s activities, acted out in the presence of the surviving hard-core of the de Havilland Establishment, I found that many doors were willingly opened to our several and various requests. Any lingering suspicions that we were an upstart, usurping and impudent group, irresponsible and lacking in respect and respectability, were swept away.
    Those members who supported the SSAFA activities in West Wales and made the annual pilgrimage to Aberporth on the edge of Cardigan Bay, hold very special memories of a unique series of summer events organized in the Nineties, sadly killed off by intransigent bureaucracy. The club itself almost went down in 1984 when the weather disrupted the first of a two-day celebration of the anniversary of the MacRobertson Races at Mildenhall. Very poor internal site communication and the unwillingness of a local hotel to recognise that gale force winds and small aeroplanes do not mix, caused us major grief.
    Of all deHMC’s organised activities, the Woburn Abbey Moth Rally is perhaps the best known. Wishing to re-kindle memories of the airstrip in the deer park once used for her Moths by his great grandmother, Mary, Duchess of Bedford, and later as entry to a dispersed wartime MU frequented by Avro Lancasters and Short Stirlings, Lord Tavistock asked the Aviation Department of Shell if they could recommend any suitable group. Shell had been a major supporter of the Famous Grouse Rally only the year before, and unhesitatingly suggested the de Havilland Moth Club.
    The first ‘Woburn’ took place in August 1980 when 28 Moths arrived accompanied by a similar number of supporting aeroplanes flown by club members. It was intended to be a one-off meeting but the Tavistock family was relaxed enough at the prospect of Moths operating from their front lawn, to invite the club back for a second year, and as encouragement, Lady Tavistock donated a substantial silver cup to be known as the ‘Flying Duchess Trophy’, for annual presentation as our premier award for concours.
    The Sunday-only meetings quickly developed into a full weekend and include a grand dinner in the Abbey’s spectacular Sculpture Gallery. ‘Woburn’, in vintage aeroplane circles, has come to mean a mass gathering of Moths rather than an allusion to the stately treasure house, and visitors from all over the world are now drawn to the meeting every third weekend in August.
   Aeroplanes have now visited from almost all Moth-harbouring European countries and Woburn has hosted on four separate occasions, Tiger Moths from Australia and one event when an American owner had his aeroplane shipped from California. The rally was the inspiration for the club’s Diamond Nine Formation Team, displaying this year in their 15th and final season, having raised substantial sums for charity.

    Cancellation of the legendary Hatfield Open Days as an economy measure from 1990, prompted the club to initiate a Charity Air Day instead, and with the support of the site management and the blessing of the CAA, raised £10,000 by permitting members of the public to fly in a whole fleet of assorted Moths. The final closure of Hatfield Aerodrome in 1994 resulted in the event switching to Old Warden where it has continued to satisfy a huge public demand on an annual basis, and has raised tens of thousands of pounds in support of children’s medical charities.
    A starring role played by club members was during the unveiling of the statue of Sir Geoffrey de Havilland at the University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield, in July 1997. Whilst the club had arranged for the world’s oldest surviving DH.60 Moth, G-EBLV, to be on site alongside the unveiling ceremony, a 37 aeroplane formation flew overhead, ranging from a trio of DH.60 Moths to a pair of 146s in close proximity. It is believed that the formation was one of the biggest all-civil ventures ever undertaken, and certainly since the end of the war.
    The steady rise in the level of interest and the greater operational use of our vintage heritage on a global basis prompted the club to organise an annual ‘Moth Forum’, during which, over a period of three days, participating members are invited to attend lectures by experts in their field, on every subject from buying a Moth to becoming a proficient formation pilot in one, with every aspect of inspection, maintenance, repair and operation included. Aeroplanes are always on hand for practical demonstrations, and international attendance continues to grow.
    The accelerated interest in and use of these de Havilland products was drawn to the inevitable attention of British Aerospace who by default, had inherited the Design Authority and Product Support liabilities. The sleeping giant was roused by a series of unfortunate incidents which had occurred in quick succession in 1997/1998. The company imposed limitations and conditions which were, in the eyes of most owners and operators world-wide, a massive over-reaction.
    As a consequence, relations between the club and the company, which we were forced to acknowledge wielded the power and the authority, reached an all-time low in 1998. To their credit, British Aerospace did eventually recognise that in relation to these aeroplanes, the engineering and operational expertise of the club’s Technical Support Group (TSG), was complementary to that which remained within their own organisation, and initiated a series of regular and fruitful meetings which are considered mutually advantageous.
    By the end of 1999, the club’s nominal membership roll topped 3,000, although there has been an inevitable rate of attrition since 1975. The club was incorporated as a Limited Liability Company in March 1996, a considered reaction to a potentially hostile world. The newsletters were replaced long ago by an illustrated magazine called Enterprise, later expanded and re-named The Moth. An intermediate news update service, Moth Minor, is published about eight times a year. Our most recent innovation is to go on line with an e-mail address and web site which together have combined to open an immense range of new possibilities.
Little did I realise when tapping out the first few lines of my invitation to join the ‘Circle’ back in 1975, that 25 years later, we should still be developing one of life’s great crusades, with the potential for greater responsibility yet to be fulfilled.

This page last updated on 26 November, 2000.

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