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Dancing with a Tiger Moth

The runways at Rangitata Island Aerodrome on the ruggedly beautiful South Island of New Zealand are charted “closed periodically for grazing and mowing,” and the past is very much alive.

The author in the front seat of the de Havilland Tiger Moth. Photo by Madelyn Willis.

Through the open window come the sounds of rural life. The distant bleating of sheep, the intermingled calls of the hundreds of bird species that call the island home, the occasional falling walnut.

A breeze sets the long curtains billowing, and carries with it the sound of a distant approaching aircraft.

“A lot of people seem to find this place,” Russell Brodie says, pulling from a cabinet crammed with books a copy of Richard Bach’s fable Jonathan Livingston Seagull, signed by the author (and pilot) when he visited Brodie's airfield and working farm.

“People from all over the world.”

We’re surrounded by over a century’s worth of history, in the large sitting room of Brodie’s home. Hundreds of books on aviation crowd the bookcases, volumes signed by Eddie Rickenbacker, Chuck Yeager, Bill Lishman. There are bits of family history, too: a wartime Christmas card from 1917 showing Australian and New Zealand Army Corps soldiers holding a ridge while shellfire rains down, alongside Brodie’s grandfather Ross’s peaked felt hat from his time in the Royal Flying Corps.

The Brodie family has been involved in aviation about as actively as any family can be, flying since 1917 when Ross became the eighth pilot to qualify in the region. Russell now runs the family sheep farm and teaches flying to any locals keen to learn.

“This airfield’s just this tiny place in the middle of nowhere, but it brings all kinds of people together.”

There’s no sound of an engine outside anymore; a friend has landed. It’ll mean lively conversation at dinner tonight, and perhaps a few more peaches to pick from the garden for morning porridge.

Things weren’t always as pleasant as they are now, though. For a time, Brodie’s ability to fly was seriously in question. Not for any lack of skill, but for the loss of an eye, which he suffered in a farming accident.

To fill the void, Brodie turned to microlights, which were growing increasingly popular across New Zealand for their accessibility, affordability, and ease of use.

New Zealand law was amended to allow Brodie to continue flying conventional aircraft, but the soft spot in his heart for microlights remains.

The Richard Pearse question

It would be a great disservice to the people of New Zealand to write about aviation in their country and neglect to mention Richard Pearse. Depending on whom you ask, Pearse is either an eccentric if ultimately unsuccessful inventor, or the true father of modern flight.

Back in 1902, if you had asked a local in the Temuka area what they thought of Pearse, they likely would have held the former opinion. In 1903, however, multiple sources claim to have borne witness to Pearse achieving sustained, powered flight a full nine months before the Wright brothers.

This incident, with its power to rewrite history in no small way, has been disputed over the years by the Wright estate, by aviation historians—and even by Pearse himself, who, according to a 1909 newspaper account, said that he “did not attempt anything practical with the idea until 1904.”

Nevertheless, there are Temuka residents who will swear that their relatives witnessed Pearse fly.

In any case, Pearse’s aircraft had much more in common with modern aircraft than the Wright Flyer, with a monoplane configuration, flaps, a tricycle carriage, and a rear elevator.

Aviation history hangs thick in the air around New Zealand, and there’s no better example than the legendary Tiger Moth.

Lily, parked at Rangitata Island Aerodrome. Photo by Patrick Barry. Overflying the Rangitata River. Photo by Madelyn Willis. Nothing like a yellow aircraft contrasting the blue sky. Photo by Patrick Barry. An afternoon at Rangitata shortly before takeoff. Photo by Madelyn Willis.


It was a cool, late summer day in February. The afternoon sun had burned most of the sea fog away, but an iridescent haze still hung over the Southern Alps. The Tiger Moth was standing with its nose in stark contrast to the blue of the sky—never had a machine looked so ready to do what it was made for.

“This isn’t just any machine,” Brodie said, seemingly reading my mind.

“Every ship’s got a soul, and you’ve got to treat her like a lady. Her name is Lily.”


I’ve been eyeing Lily across the airstrip for the last week, and now, on our last day on the farm, Brodie offers to take me up.

Lily’s skin, spread taut over wooden spars, seemed to carry the story of every pirouette performed in the rare air above Mt. Cook’s shadow, every steep turn, inverted flight and falling leaf.

In a way, Lily did carry those memories. Little about the airplane had changed since it rolled off the assembly line in 1939 and began training pilots.

In those days, de Havilland Tiger Moths like Lily would touch down at automotive gas pumps to top off during cross-country training missions during World War II. The procedure today remains basically the same, except that Brodie now gets his fuel from a gas station in the nearby small town of Geraldine, labeling the cans with sheep tags to delineate clean fuel from fuel for his motorbikes. Like everything in this time-warp world of grass airstrips and dozing cats, it’s simple but effective.

After the war, the New Zealand government was eager to disseminate surplus aircraft among its population, and there was no shortage of returning servicemen looking to make a living. Tiger Moths could be bought for £300 (roughly $10,000 U.S. today), making them a popular and sometimes expendable platform for the burgeoning field of aerial agricultural application. Fleets of Tigers transitioned from training the Royal New Zealand Air Force to spraying fields in the years following the war.

Eschewing their standard issue parachutes in the name of efficiency (and perhaps recklessness, though many Tigers never got more than a few hundred feet off the ground during their topdressing runs), pilots traded their second seat for hundreds of pounds of superphosphate, lime, and seeds, in many cases straining an aging airframe well beyond its limits. As such, accidents were common, and these were the days of the Franken-Moth, when flying with tape and spare fabric on hand was considered essential.

In one local legend, pilot Doug Grey, after damaging his Tiger in a hard landing, used his khakis to repair the hole before what must have been a chilly flight home.

This is why it’s rare to find a Tiger Moth as complete and original as Lily, and as I ease myself down into the tight little cockpit (sans parachute), I take stock of the instruments. Not an iPad in sight. Altimeter, oil pressure gauge, airspeed. The compass wavers slightly in its fluid, but its pointer seeks North. I pull back on the flight stick while Brodie hand-props the airplane, pulls the chocks, and jumps in the back seat.

We make our way down the grass taxiway in wide S-curves. The absence of mainwheel brakes on Lily isn’t a problem on Brodie's flat strip on the coastal plains, but only a few miles inland, in the highlands and the mountainous regions, the sloped strips are less friendly.

“We’ve got to hide behind the tree line, otherwise this crosswind will be more than we can deal with,” Brodie tells me as we turn onto the runway. The vigilant Tiger pilot remembers that the aircraft is fabric and wood, and all too easy to ground loop. On a gusty day, a less cautious pilot may find themselves upside-down should they ignore crosswind on takeoff.

Lily throttles up, and I hear the wind racing down the fuselage. I feel little of it, pulled down into the deep seat, wrapped up snug in leather helmet, harness, and jacket, feeling like a delighted Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Lily parts ways delicately from the earth, and we sail past the hangar.

At 1,500 feet we level off, and Brodie hands over control.

“Remember, it’s not like driving a truck, like a 172,” he says, his voice crackling through my headphones. “She’s a sports car, she’s real light.”

I hear him, but without the benefit of muscle memory I find myself disoriented. After what feels like five minutes of unsightly wrestling to achieve something resembling straight-and-level flight, I finally discover one of the secrets to taming the Tiger Moth, with more attentive use of a control surface that a Cessna Skyhawk forgives forgetting: the rudder.

I make a few light banks over the patchwork of sheep pastures below, then Brodie takes over. With deft movements of the stick, he rolls into two steep turns over the airfield and brings us down with a perfect three-point landing.

My year has been made.

The author in the front seat of the de Havilland Tiger Moth. Photo by Madelyn Willis.
Patrick Barry
Patrick Barry is a writer and student pilot based in Athens, Georgia, with a lifelong love of vintage aviation, short fields and the people who land on them.
Topics: Vintage

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