The plane that trained Gravesend pilots in WW2
16:33 10 January 2013
An ex-RAF engineer is restoring a plane that was stationed at Gravesend prior to the Second World War breaking out.
In a garage in Seattle sits a yellow and bottle-green biplane whose life journey extends back via the US, to France, then Scotland and finally to Gravesend where its story began.
It is a Tiger Moth, made in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, in the mid-1930s in response to increasing threats from Europe. It made its greatest contribution by readying pilots for war.
We needed to rapidly increase our air force and that meant training up civilians at flying training schools.
These were set up all over the UK – by 1939 there were 44 elementary and reserve flying training schools in operation in England – and one was at the former Gravesend airport.
It was here that the Tiger Moth N-5490 first fulfilled its purpose.
Ex-RAF engineer Ian Grace, an expat from Peterborough living in Seattle, has the plane in his garage and, while beginning a five-year restoration, he has also been uncovering its history.
It was no easy feat to get this machine into the air, he has discovered, given the number of crash reports.
“The Tiger is a challenge to fly properly, which is what makes it such a good trainer. If you can fly the Tiger Moth well, then you are able to progress to faster and heavier types,” he says.
While never used in battle, he doesn’t underestimate the significance of the Tiger Moth in the war effort.
“Thousands of Tiger Moths were built and used to train RAF and Fleet Air Arm pilots in the UK and across the empire.
“Without them, we would not have been able to train the thousands of pilots we so desperately needed.”
About 200 pilots would have been taught on Ian’s plane, which he bought in 2011. He has been tracing them.
One was Hoppy Hodgkinson, who lost both his legs in a two-plane collision over Gravesend but later became a Spitfire pilot during the war.
Another, Mike Lithgow, was part of a torpedo attack on the German battleship Bismarck in 1941 and later became a famous test pilot who broke the world air speed record, reaching 735.7mph.
Ian said: “Little did I realise that I would be able to uncover so much history, not only of N-5490, but of the pilots who learned to fly in her – many of whom went on to heroic flying careers in the Battle of Britain and beyond, and many of them paying the ultimate sacrifice to defend the free world.”
When war broke out, Gravesend became a satellite base for Biggin Hill and the N-5490 was sent to Castle Bromwich in the West Midlands. It then spent the rest of the war training pilots in Scotland.
It continued flying until 1953, when it was sold to the French government and passed to French flying clubs.
In the 1970s an airline pilot in the USA who imported Tiger Moths took it over there, and two years ago it came into Ian’s possession.
When fully restored, the Tiger Moth N-5490 will take to the skies once more.
Ian plans to offer flights in it as a “flying memorial” to the pilots who learned in her.
Visit Ian’s website at www.N5490.org to find out more.
He also wants pictures of the Tiger Moths that operated at the old Gravesend airport from 1937 to 1939.