England Australia by Tiger Moth
This article was published in the Flight International magazine, 30 May 1978
DAVID CYSTER set out to operate as far as possible under the same conditions as Hinkler – a brave exercise, inviting inevitable and critical comparisons between today’s pilots and the pioneers of the 1920s. It may seem significant, therefore, that he suffered from the same three main problems that plagued Hinkler: unpredictable weather (despite modern forecasting methods), fatigue and fuel leaks. But there was an obstacle in 1978 which Hinkler was blessedly spared: the bureaucracy which surrounds international flying, especially in light aircraft.
Planning, both in the 12 months prior to take-off, and careful flight-planning during the 32 days en route to Darwin, was the foundation of his successfully completed flight.
It was not a record-breaking attempt. The days when Tigers would suffer “throttle bending” through the tropics are over. Many asked why the flight to Darwin took twice as long as Hinkler’s record 16 days. Though Cyster modestly attributes this to the pioneer’s skill, it has to be noted that in 1928 planning was very much the pilot’s prerogative, and he was assured of a warm welcome wherever his atlas was painted red.
Cyster’s route was longer, to avoid touchy political areas, especially in the Middle East. It was planned in legs of as near 700 n.m. as possible, and the longest and coldest turned out to be the 620 n.m. to Marseilles. Before February 7, Cyster’s longest flight in a Tiger Moth was a 212hr leg to Dunsfold from his base at RAF Valley the previous day.
After 12 months’ planning the take-off was just two minutes late. The first leg was blessed with a not unfavourable weather forecast, though it turned out to be somewhat optimistic about the wind strength at Marseilles. Cold was undoubtedly the greatest problem on that first leg. He wore a full set of Damart Thermowear underclothes under RAF fleecy cold-weather flying gear, a flying suit, ex-Bomber Command jacket, and fur-lined boots obtained from the RAF Museum at Hendon on the eve of the attempt. Over the Massif Central in central France he ran into icing but after 8hr 15min flying he arrived safely over Marignane, riding a mistral of more than 30kt. Since a Tiger’s stalling speed is little higher the landing was tricky and, once accomplished, it was impossible to manoeuvre safely on the ground. So many of the early long distance attempts were thwarted or delayed for months by high winds overturning aircraft, and Cyster was determined not to emulate them after only one leg. So he stayed on the runway and called for ground handling assistance. With four human anchors holding down the front wing struts, he was able to taxi to the safety of a hangar. One scar which the aircraft bears to this day is that inflicted by the sharp elbow of a French ground handler, who broke one of the leading-edge ribs on the lower port wing.
A deep low-pressure system was moving in over Southern Europe. Cyster was ahead of the deteriorating weather, and it was therefore imperative to make an early start the following morning. He took off early and made good progress over the sea towards Corsica in a clear blue sky, but as the morning wore on a big cumulus system built up over the Island of Corsica, and he had to descend to less than l,OOOft to avoid heavy storms and snow.
The reception in Rome by the Italian Aero Club was very warm indeed. Bert Hinkler is remembered with great affection in Italy, especially among light-aviation enthusiasts. (It was just north of Turin that he was killed on his second attempt to fly solo to Australia in 1933.)
On the first two days, the generator had never functioned properly, and since he was grounded by weather on day three Cyster found an electrical engineer from the Rome Aero Club who dismantled and reset it. It then did give a slight charge, but the battery still required extra charging at each stop to Bahrain, where a coarser-pitch generator propeller, cannibalised from an Auster, was fitted after being flown out from England by Qantas. It was also in Rome that David found that taxiing at large airports was wearing out his standard Tiger tailskids at an alarming rate. The spares holding of two had to be increased to six, and one more was reinforced before the flight was completed.
Rome-Cairo should have been a two-stage flight, but it was at this time that the weather played most havoc with the schedule, and extremely bad weather in southern Italy caused the 723 n.m. leg to Heraklion to be abandoned in favour of short legs to Brindisi, the island of Corfu, and Athens. After a frustrating day’s wait in Athens he obtained special VFR clearance for Heraklion but had to turn back after making less than 40kt groundspeed under a deteriorating cloud base and very heavy rain. It was not until Cyster reached the African continent that the weather began to smile on the attempt. He took off from Cairo with some relief, having flown into a diplomatic incident there which kept the airport crawling with soldiers. The Egyptians were holding two Kenyan 707s in connection with that country’s activities in the Horn of Africa.
His next destination was Wejh, a small port on the Saudi Arabian coast of the Red Sea. This is only a short leg as the crow flies, but with the whole of Sinai designated a danger area he had to fly south to the Luxor VOR before turning east and then north again, lengthening the leg by more than 120 miles.
Wejh is a notorious stopover for modem light-aircraft pilots. The aircraft was impounded for 22hr and Cyster had to rely on the hospitality of some British contractors, who put him up in a tent, before clearance for the flight to Al Gassim in the Nafud desert came through from Jeddah. This lack of procedure for flight-planning is apparently commonplace at Wejh.
For planning purposes the whole journey had been divided into four sections : Dunsfold-Bahrain-SingaporeDarwin-Sydney. The servicing facilities were known at these stops, and at Bahrain G-ANRF had her first major service. The interest shown by engineers used to working on TriStars and 747s was tremendous, most of them claiming that they had started their working lives on Tiger Moths. The generator was fitted with the new coarse-pitch propeller, but drag was so increased that Cyster removed it on some of the subsequent long legs.
From Bahrain to Nagpur in Central India the Tiger managed a leg a day for four days, and it was at Ahmadabad that the problem that has often plagued solo pilots of light aircraft over long distances first showed itself. He had read about it in Sir Francis Chichester’s books: how to make a well judged landing after flying for up to eight or nine hours at several thousand feet? The sudden change of perspective, coupled with fatigue, calls for very high concentration. At Ahmadabad a “dusty” landing was relayed to England by television cameras and he learned the lesson for himself.
At Nagpur, a serious leak was spotted. One full day was lost while the tanks were removed from the front cockpit and welded. Another leak developed on the next leg to Calcutta, and one more day was lost while Air India engineers welded the front auxiliary tank. The lasting impression of India for any visitor is the poverty. Yet despite it, the enthusiasm from people whose annual income would hardly fill one of the Tiger’s tanks was enormous. Tiger Moths are a great favourite on the subcontinent, having been operated privately and by the Indian Air Force for many years. Cyster paid two labourers the equivalent of £2 for a day’s work spent fetching, carrying and helping generally on the aircraft. Hardly believing it, they promptly cleaned Romeo Fox until it was spotless.
Weary after these delays, he set out for Rangoon. En route, the cable connections broke in his leather flying helmet, a snag which had occurred more than once before. This fault forced him to divert to Chittagong in Bangladesh, where careful planning again showed its worth. Although no plans existed to do anything but overfly Bangladesh, a visa had been obtained to cover just this eventuality.
Burma, as Cyster had been warned, is an inward-looking country, and it had always been anticipated that there would be problems in the area. Rangoon is the only point where entry to and departure from the country can be made, so Victoria Point in the south (one of Hinkler’s watering holes) was therefore not available. Happily, the enthusiasm for his effort was as great as ever. After a major bureaucratic exercise involving the usual crop of immigration, customs and arrival forms, together with nineteen copies of the general declaration, he was on his way again to Phuket in southern Thailand, where he landed with a leak in the port oil tank.
After measuring the leak rate – which looked as though it would permit a dirty though safe arrival in Singapore, where help had been arranged he set off over the Malayan jungle. The tanks had been designed to fit flush over the fabric, bolted on to the wooden fuselage longerons, and since the leak was on the inside, slits would have to be made in the fabric to remove the tank.
He arrived safely in Singapore at the old RAF Maintenance Unit of Seletar, which today houses the Singapore Aerospace Maintenance Co (Samco). Both Cyster and the Tiger were streaked with oil, but the leg had been completed safely, with an extra stop at Kota Bahru in northern Malaysia to top up with oil before the long part of the leg over the jungle.
The skill of maintaining wood and fabric is fast dying out at international airports. At Seletar, however, engineers arrived at 7 a.m. on the Saturday after arrival and worked through their day off. Normally employed on the Strikemasters, Hunters and A-4 Skyhawks of the Singapore Defence Forces, they improvised a magnificent job of surgery on the fabric. The repairs and service were completed inside day and by 6.30 a.m. on Sunday Cyster was airborne and dodging 10,000ft cumulus and thunderstorms, en route for Indonesian capital Djakarta, where a diplomatic problem had still to be resolved.
Indonesia is an unpredictable country to fly over. All the stories tell of light-aircraft ferry pilots having to grease palms with large amounts of US dollars before any clearances to Australia are given. Diplomatic clearances for the planned route through Pontianak, Bandjarmasin, Hasanuddin and Ambon had been obtained in England. This route had been chosen to avoid the island of Timor for which permission would not be given. But in Singapore, the British Defence Advisor passed on a signal from the British attaché in Djakarta with instructions for Cyster to “fly at all times along approved Indonesian civil airways. Deviation will result in the aircraft being grounded.” There was no airway to Pontianak, so he had to go to Djakarta. But the half-million-scale topographical maps had been prepared in England for the planned route, and there were none for the route to Djakarta. As luck would have it, the Singapore Defence Forces use the same maps and after an extensive search through their store in an old British barracks, some usable charts were found.
In the wake of the changes in instructions and the stories of previous trans-Indonesian fliers, Cyster was therefore both delighted and confused to find that his reception was very courteous, and that his path was smoothed at every turn. The Indonesian Navy Air Arm accommodated him, fed him, entertained him, serviced the aircraft and provided a welcome radio link with the Royal Australian Air Force in Darwin. But most helpful of all, the Station Commander at Surabaya arranged for him to fly via Bali to Kupang on the forbidden island of Timor, despite explicit instructions on all aerial charts not to approach the island, and the fact that no civil airway had existed through the island since the war in 1975.
He set off on the final leg to Darwin with a lOkt headwind. At least, that’s what the forecast said: after hours at a ground speed of only 30kt, he was forced to turn back to Timor. Two days elapsed before he could attempt the Arafara sea crossing again – two days of the traditional local hospitality, rice for breakfast, and bad weather reports. The last leg produced a surprise. A compass error, later thought to have been caused by changes to the aircraft’s magnetic field after the removal and replacement of the fuel tanks, brought him over the coast well to the south-west of Darwin, and the reception party had to wait while Romeo Fox battled with yet more headwinds before completing its journey.
It was a time for champagne and official receptions before departing on the last 2,200 n.m. to Sydney and the final destination – the Royal Aero Club of NSW at Bankstown. This route was via the cattle-station landing strip at Brunette Downs, deep in the Australian outback ; Longreach, the home of Qantas; Bundaberg, home of Bert Hinkler; Brisbane, where his Avian is preserved; and Kingsford Smith International Airport, where the aircraft now reposes on a red carpet.
The receptions were to continue for many days, and on each occasion Cyster was to pay a deeply heartfelt tribute to Bert Hinkler. At Brisbane, as the guest of the Royal Queensland Aero Club in their Hinkler Room, where he was asked to sign a model aeroplane bearing Hinkler’s signature, he said: “The days of Hinkler are over. All I did was to fly a tribute to him, because what he did 50 years ago was a fantastic achievement. Australians have every reason to be proud of Bert Hinkler. He was a great aviator!”
In reply, the president of the club quoted from a recent editorial in an Australian newspaper: “How refreshing to be able to look up at a little aeroplane flying across Australia this week, and know that all the necessary rules for living in this complex world still cannot keep adventurous men earthbound.”
David Cyster’s long-rang mount was still very much an ordinary Tiger Moth at heart. G-ANRF was built in 1941 and, like many others, saw RAF service in the Second World War. It has no brakes, and the only concessions to modernity are a 720-channel radio and VOR, and perspex wrap-around windscreen, fitted largely to appease the insurers. Electrical power comes from a slipstream-driven generator mounted between the undercarriage struts. Two extra fuel tanks in the front cockpit bring total capacity up to 79.5gal, and the Gipsy Major lc’s long-range oil thirst is satisfied by 6gal of oil in three tanks.
This article was published in the Flight International magazine, 30 May 1978