Club Formation

How it all began

The first DH.60 Moth flew in February 1925. An owners’ Type Club was not founded in the country of her birth until 50 years after that maiden flight, and then as the result of the acquisition of a run-down Tiger Moth. STUART McKAY recalls how the Club 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 and, 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 donor was not best pleased and she was soon taken away and consigned to history.

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, Paris, ‘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 French Government.

I immediately wrote a letter which was translated into French, and sent a copy to all known owners of French registered Tiger Moths, together with the convenience of a suitably self-addressed envelope with an appropriate stamp carried back from France by an airline pilot friend. 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 received from almost everyone to whom I had written, 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 driven by my aviation enthusiast friend, Derek Kidby, during the Easter holidays in 1972. By manipulated co-incidence, she was issued with the registration letters G-AZZZ on 27 July, Geoffrey de Havilland’s birthday. Where ‘The Captain’s’ personal DH.60G Moth was registered G-AAAA in 1929, G-AZZZ ensured that another de Havilland aeroplane ended the sequence.

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 magazine, 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, withdrawal symptoms due to the loss of the regular 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 had been 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 22 February 1976, a year on from 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, suggesting that 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 RAF Wing Commander who had flown on the North West Frontier, 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 owner of a Tiger Moth repatriated from France. 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! It was too early to appreciate that the front and rear windscreens of a Tiger Moth are different.

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 riposte, the fledgling association was called ‘The de Havilland Moth Club’ anyway, in spite of which a very firm, positive and enduring relationship soon developed between the Club and Hatfield’s Public Relations Department.

In 1982 the Club persuaded Hatfield that their traditional Open Day at the beginning of July should be postponed to the Saturday nearest to Sir Geoffrey de Havilland’s birthday on 27 July, and the traditional morning mini-air display should be moved to the afternoon and developed into a full-blown de Havilland populated programme in recognition of the Centenary of the founder’s birth. It was greatly impudent but the event, which was televised, was a great success and the Club was invited every year thereafter to provide a fleet of aeroplanes for dressing or display each July.

The first Newsletters, printed on an ancient spirit-copier in the garden shed, 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 22 August. 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 been added to 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 help 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, supplemented by stocks of books, insignia and ephemera that has been traded by post and through a travelling shop that became an important element of Club gatherings.

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 ‘elitist’, 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 when compared to 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-1960s.

A year after Gransden, in similar windy conditions at Abbotsley, the Club began the first of a series of aerobatic competitions for Tiger Moths and, in 1999 for the first time, at novice or expert level, these were organised as a self-standing event at Marshall’s aerodrome at Cambridge. Meanwhile, a ‘World Championship Tiger Moth Aerobatic Competition’ was flown as part of the Woburn Rally in 1985 and 2005, for which pilots selected locally were sponsored to travel to England from Australia, Canada, Europe, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA.

Two major events of very different character helped to confirm 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 the Club 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 including the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, a fleet of 41 Tiger Moths, two Jackaroos, seven Hornet Moths and four Dragon Rapides set off from Hatfield on 30 June, 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.

Club 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 largely mounted in support of a BBC film crew, a vital element in the sponsorship deal struck with Highland Distilleries.

The agreement with the BBC, at a time when the slightest hint of advertising was strictly prohibited, even allowed for a set number of blatant mentions of the product during interviews, in addition to acceptance of all the publicity material scattered around the sites and carried on the aeroplanes. The result was that the BBC 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, the film crew on board the helicopter concentrated 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 Aircraft Company in 1922, was living near Dunstable, and he responded positively to the Club’s invitation to become its first President, remaining so for the rest of his life. Alan Butler was succeeded in 1987 by former de Havilland Chief Test Pilot Group Captain John Cunningham, and by Lady Tavistock, later Henrietta, Duchess of Bedford, in 2002.

The second event of monumental significance, not fully recognised as such at the time, occurred in a stubble field in Hampshire on 10 September 1980, the 70th anniversary of Geoffrey de Havilland’s first successful flight. On that date in Thorndown Field, Seven Barrows, 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, conducted by the Vicar of Crux Easton. Eighteen de Havilland aeroplanes landed safely, watched over by a huge fire truck generously provided by the USAF Commander of the nearby base at RAF Greenham Common. The Army Air Corps sent a Beaver from Middle Wallop, the Royal Navy flew overhead a Sea Heron and a Sea Devon on a wide circuit from Lee-on-Solent, and the RAE Comet IV was positioning that day from Farnborough back 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, many doors were willingly opened to the Club’s 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 1990s, sadly killed off by intransigent bureaucracy. The Club itself almost went down in October 1984 when the weather disrupted the first of a planned two-day celebration of the anniversary of the MacRobertson International Air Races at RAF 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 the Club major grief.

Of all deHMC’s organised activities, the Woburn Abbey International Moth Rally is perhaps the best known. Wishing to re-kindle memories of his great grandmother, Mary, Duchess of Bedford, who used to fly her Moths from the grounds of Woburn Abbey where, later, a long grass runway was established 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 to hold a celebratory event on the site. 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 Rally’ 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 the premier award for concours.

The Sunday-only meetings quickly developed into a full weekend and eventually Friday also and included a Grand Dinner in the Abbey’s spectacular Sculpture Gallery. ‘Woburn’, in vintage aeroplane circles, came to mean a mass gathering of Moths rather than an allusion to the stately treasure house, and visitors from all over the world were drawn to the meeting every third weekend in August.

Aeroplanes visited from almost all Moth-harbouring European countries and Woburn hosted on four separate occasions Tiger Moths from Australia and one that an American owner had shipped from California. The rally was the inspiration for the Club’s Diamond Nine Formation Team which displayed for 15 seasons, a role currently in the hands of their successor team, The Tiger 9 Aeronautical Display Team.

The 30th and last International Moth Rally at Woburn Abbey was in 2015, the unique event falling victim to massively rising costs and an accompanying phalanx of bureaucrats with their red tape and restrictions.

As a company economy measure, cancellation of the legendary Hatfield Open Days from 1990, prompted the Club, with the cooperation and support of British Aerospace, to initiate a Charity Air Day instead and, with the blessing of the CAA, this first event raised £10,000 by permitting 240 members of the public to ride in vintage cars and fly in a fleet of assorted Moths. The final closure of Hatfield Aerodrome in 1994 resulted in the event switching to RAF Halton and later to Old Warden where, by courtesy of The Shuttleworth Collection, Charity Flying has continued to satisfy a huge public demand on an annual basis, focussing particularly on flying young people, and has raised tens of thousands of pounds in support of charities and good causes.

The Club was instrumental in establishing the de Havilland Educational Trust (DHET) in 2006 which provides a number of flying and engineering bursaries in an effort to stimulate interest and practical support for operation and maintenance of vintage aeroplanes.

A starring role played by Club members was during the unveiling by HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, of the statue of Sir Geoffrey de Havilland at the Hatfield Campus of the University of Hertfordshire, 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 ceremony, a 43 aeroplane formation flew overhead, ranging from a trio of DH.60 Moths to a pair of BAe146s in close proximity and some invited guests powered by de Havilland engines. 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 two annual ‘educational’ events: a ‘Moth Forum’, during which 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, and a Moth Flying Forum when aeroplanes are on hand for practical demonstrations conducted by rated instructors and high time Moth pilots of activities such as aerobatics, formation flying, forced landings, cross-wind and short field operations, each exercise tailored to the needs of the candidate.

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. As a consequence, the company imposed limitations on the aeroplanes which were, in the eyes of most owners and operators world-wide, a massive over-reaction.

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 and better than that which remained within their own organisation, and initiated a series of regular and fruitful meetings which were considered mutually advantageous. The almost inevitable result was the formation of a new company in 2000, de Havilland Support Ltd, initially funded by BAe (later BAE Systems), based at Duxford Airfield in Cambridgeshire, and tasked with the technical support of a whole range of ‘Heritage aircraft’.

By the end of 1999, the Club’s nominal membership roll had topped 3,000, although there had 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, and a VAT-registered trading arm, The de Havilland Moth Club (1925) Ltd, was established in April 2000.

The spirit-copied and later more sophisticated photo-copied newsletters were replaced by an illustrated magazine called Enterprise, later expanded and converted to a full colour-quarterly and re-named The Moth. An intermediate news update service, Moth Minor, is still published in hard copy on an opportunistic basis and circulated with The Moth, but The Electric Moth is currently circulated on a monthly basis by email, or more frequently if the situation demands.

It was imperative that the Club should raise a website and the first tentative steps were taken in the late 1990s. Information carried on this important tool has been greatly expanded, refined and developed and the latest version, launched in 2020, carries the massively important and greatly improved ‘Moth Service Register’ listing suppliers and services of significance to Moth aircraft compiled from recommendations received from around the world.

Little was it realised when tapping out the first few lines of my invitation to join the ‘Circle’ back in 1975, that all these years later, this truly international Club should still be championing one of life’s great crusades, with the potential for further responsibilities yet to be fulfilled.