Tiger Moths have been buzzing about the world’s skies since 1931. They are regarded with special affection by aircraft enthusiasts. Leisurely paced and stable, but highly manoeuvrable, these two-seaters with their dual controls were the training machines for a whole generation of pilots in times of both peace and war.
By 1945, some 8500 had been built in various countries, including 345 built as trainers for the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) at de Havilland’s New Zealand factory at Rongotai Airport in Wellington. After the war, surplus machines were purchased by aero clubs and for private use.
Since before the war, people had been exploring the use of aircraft in agriculture, particularly for spreading fertiliser, seed, or chemical weedicides and insecticides over large areas of farmland. A government committee decided that the RNZAF could usefully employ its pilots’ flying skills and its aircraft in topdressing New Zealand’s pastures, as well as defending the nation’s borders. The Tiger Moth was seen as an ideal plane for the job.
There was some resistance within the RNZAF to taking on this agricultural role. Trials proved that aerial topdressing was worthwhile, but the air force did not stay involved for long. However, many of the pilots who trained during the war turned to flying topdressing planes.
The Tiger Moth was easily modified to carry loads of fertiliser – the front cockpit was stripped and replaced with a hopper to contain the fertiliser. The pilot released the load by pulling a lever. The Tiger Moth was not powerful enough to carry a very big load, however, so it was not ideal in this role. But many of the commercial topdressing operations that started up in the late 1940s and early 1950s used Tiger Moths. In fact, demand for second-hand machines became so great that for a while it was cheaper for people to buy used Tiger Moths overseas and ship them home than purchase them locally.
This Tiger Moth – ZK-AJO was built as an RNZAF trainer in 1941. It’s still flyable. In its spreading days from 1949–56, it flew some 6000 hours and delivered nearly 28,000 tonnes of fertiliser and grass seed in that time.
Engine 1 x 139-hp de Havilland Gipsy Major in-line 4
Range 459 kilometres (248 nautical miles)
Length 7.3 metres
Wing span 8.94 metres
Maximum speed 175 km/h (94 knots)
Cruising speed 145 km/h (78 knots)
Rate of climb 205 metres per minute
Weight empty 506 kilograms
Weight loaded 828 kilograms
Seating capacity 2 people
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (1998)