Category Archives: Spitfire

Modern kit, modern capability?

Obviously part of the appeal of a kit Tiger Moth is the old-fashioned look and feel of flying in the 1930s.  But as technology has advanced, flying has only become safer and more enjoyable (and certainly warmer during the winter!).  The question then becomes: how much modern capability should be built into this modern replica?

755SPpanelIn order to handle regular flight in bad weather, most modern aircraft have a huge array of technology crowding the instrument panel.  Modern navigation and communication radios, digital clocks, electronic flight displays, even modern engine instruments would all look “alien” in the cockpit of a Tiger Moth.  I’ve no intention of regularly cruising around in the clouds in my R-80, the point of an open cockpit is the view, after all, but the weather here can change in the blink of an eye.  It would be irresponsible to not include enough modern instrumentation to safely handle whatever weather I may occasionally be forced to deal with.

Spitfire Cockpit - Credit to Liz MatzelleThis isn’t a new problem,.  For as long as people have been restoring vintage aircraft each one has had to decide to what degree they should modernize the panel.  In the case of multi-million dollar warbirds, such as those at Historic Flight, the answer is not much.  The only concession made to modern requirements in our Supermarine Spitfire is a small modern radio/transponder unit that is mounted near the floor on the left side of the cockpit.  It’s difficult to get to and a pain to use, but it’s also almost completely hidden from visitors.  When embarking on a cross-country flight, the pilot will also carry with him a portable hand-held GPS system.  But the instrument panel of a Spitfire already contains early versions of all of the instruments actually required by the FAA for flight in inclement weather, such as an artificial horizon and turn coordinator.  The Tiger Moth was not so advanced.

Replica SPAD Instrument Panel concealing modern instruments zoomIt turns out that at least some aircraft builders have received permission from the FAA to conceal modern flight instruments behind “doors” on the instrument panel.  The door can be camouflaged using non-functional faces of old instruments or controls no longer needed.  Here is an example of a SPAD replica that utilizes such a door.  The only question then remaining is one of space available on an R-80 panel.

Other modern technology that will pose some challenge: modern navigation and landing lights, ballistic recovery system (debatable, but something to look into), heat for the cockpit, and possibly an enclosed canopy that could be fitted for winter flying.  These to be tackled in future entries.

Historical Hack

Historic Flight Foundation Spitfire sm - credit to Liz MatzelleLast fall I traveled to the UK to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain.  One of the reasons why I couldn’t pass up the opportunity was that the Spitfire from Historic Flight (where I volunteer) was also overseas for the same reason.  Conducting research into the past life of our Spitfire is one of my favorite hobbies, and in the course of doing so I’ve developed quite a strong affinity for the men of 312 (Czech) Squadron, RAF, in which it first served.  Today it is restored to the colors it wore while flying in the Czechoslovakian Air Force immediately following WWII, in the hands of many 312 Squadron veterans such as Karel Posta.

Daydreaming about what paint jobs might be appropriate for this Tiger Moth project, I wished that I could track down an original Tiger Moth with some tie to 312 Squadron.  Either one belonging to a training unit they passed through, or one that would have shared the airfield with them at some point.  In the end, I stumbled upon one better.

As it turns out, most aviation squadrons were usually granted one or two “spare” aircraft for utility purposes.  These could be used for ferrying personnel or supplies, recurrent training, or simply as an enjoyable diversion from missions against the enemy.  The aircraft are commonly referred to as the squadron’s “hacks.”  Sometimes they would be old tired aircraft of the type flown by the squadron but retired from combat duty, but more often they would be of a completely different type.  Transport, utility, or training aircraft most commonly.  I came across a plastic model kit released many years ago depicting a de Havilland Tiger Moth belonging to the 312 Squadron during 1944!


This ‘Moth had been in service with a different squadron beforehand, and so it wore an FY squadron code rather than the DU of 312 Squadron.  It is also known to have crashed and been destroyed after only a few months with 312.  But it still fits the bill.  And, I hope, if they had one Tiger Moth they may have had others.  I have sent off an inquiry to an excellent Czech aviation researcher hoping for more information, but if you know of any other Tiger Moths that might have served in 312 Squadron, please do let me know!

The front office

I’ve been thinking about the cockpit setup for the R-80 today.  British aircraft often used what is called a “spade grip.”  This was a round grip at the top of the control stick that made it more comfortable for pilots to fly with either hand.

Spitfire Cockpit - Credit to Liz MatzelleSome aircraft, such as the Spitfire, had such narrow fuselages that a traditional control stick pivoting at the floor would bang into the pilots knees during aggressive turns.  To avoid this and give the pilot full control authority, the stick could only pivot forward and back at the floor, and then at knee height it could rotate left and right.

Authentic spade grips are quite expensive, so I was glad to learn that Tiger Moths did not use them.  Just a dead simple control stick pivoting at floor height.

1944 - RAAF No 416 - Pilot's Notes for Tiger Moth_Page_2-600They did however utilize some very British flight instruments, including a horizontally mounted ship’s compass.  I already have one of these in my collection of “prospective Spitfire parts,” so in addition to a few other bits and bobs I’ll be keeping an eye out for a second one for the front cockpit.  I’d like to keep the “view” from the pilot’s seat as close to authentic as possible, and I know that details will play a large role in that.  Most folks won’t be able to tell me that the rib spacing is incorrect, but get an instrument wrong and watch out!