“It’s all too easy to give a type a bad name”, Mark Miller considers. “Published comment based on only fleeting acquaintance, perhaps of a sub-standard example, can condemn an aeroplane to a lifetime of negative press.”
We’ve repaired to de Havilland Support Ltd’s offices at Duxford to discuss the DH83 Fox Moth. The de Havilland Aircraft Company’s quaint low-cost air taxi is famed in the United Kingdom for pre and post-Second World War joyriding off the sands at Southport Beach and for running feeder flights to aerodromes across the British Isles. However, for this author, it’s the type’s exploits carrying passengers, mail and freight to the remote reaches of New Zealand that epitomise the spirit of the so-called ‘golden age’ of interwar civil aviation.
The subject of the conversation is Bruce Broady’s ZK-AGM (currently UK-registered as G-CIPJ) – the exquisite silver and green Fox Moth recreated by Jan Cooper’s now discontinued Newbury Aeroplane Company from the remnants of what was originally the second DH83 to arrive in New Zealand. Mark describes it as being to “a ‘benchmark’ standard, restored with a fidelity to the type design which is exceptional even by the previous high standard of Ben and Jan Cooper’s G-ACEJ”. The Coopers’ old aeroplane, now part of Karl Grimminger’s burgeoning classic aircraft collection in Germany, forms a subtle part of Miller’s path to flying the Fox Moth.
G-ACEJ was manufactured in 1933 with c/n 4069 (British Fox Moth production spanning construction numbers 4000 to 4097). From June 1966 it was registered to Norman Jones and operated by the Tiger Club at Redhill, during which time the late, great Neil Williams summarised its handling characteristics for the Club’s Tiger Rag circular. The aeroplane was later owned by Tony Haig-Thomas and on loan to the Shuttleworth Collection when it was struck by a wayward Beech Musketeer in July 1982. What little remained was acquired by the late Ben Cooper and his wife Jan for restoration at their Hungerford-based Newbury Aeroplane Company, a 12-year ground-up rebuild concluding with G-ACEJ’s return to flight in October 1994.
Though Williams’ 1967 report assessed the Fox as “a real Pilots [sic] aeroplane… a delightful machine to fly”, he was critical of several of the machine’s less favourable characteristics. He warned of a poorly designed throttle quadrant, “very poor” brakes, impossible visibility, difficulty taxying in a crosswind, and a propensity to ground loop. Assessing the Fox Moth’s handling, he drew attention to the aeroplane’s very heavy rudder in a right turn, sudden onset of wing drop in the level stall, and tendency to spin to the left with no warning in a turning stall. In a side-slip, Williams opined, G-ACEJ was completely unstable in yaw and there was a very real risk of entering a spin. “Do not land in a crosswind,” he cautioned, “as this will usually result in a loss of directional control.”
This assessment percolated the vintage aeroplane scene, scarce copies of the Tiger Rag write-up disappearing into the ether over the decades to be replaced by half-remembered passages. In time, the Fox Moth inherited an unfair reputation for being a potential handful. “Over the years I’d heard about this damning write-up of the Fox,” says Miller, “how the aeroplane had these awful characteristics, terrible visibility, and a tendency to ground loop, even on take-off. Without the full report to hand for context, hearsay became fact.”
The intervening years saw Mark Miller become deeply involved in the preservation of de Havilland aeroplanes. “I was lucky to have parents who encouraged my interest. I even learned to read on pre-war record breaking and aviation history books!” He has fond memories of encouraging his father David to visit a not-so-local filling station in the hope of seeing the Gipsy Moth that flew from a private strip to the rear of the forecourt in the late 1960s. “Family friends took me to almost every Shuttleworth airshow in the 1970s and it became something of a second home. I saw my first Dragon Rapide there in 1975 – Neil Williams, funnily enough, in G-AKIF. A tremendous display.”
He started learning to fly on the Tiger Moth with the Cambridge Flying Group in 1981, going solo on the same aeroplane as his father, and completed his PPL in the Miller family’s Auster G-AGTO. More than 1,600 hours on Gipsy and Cirrus-powered aeroplanes have followed, including an array of de Havilland biplanes and the wonderful BA Eagle (itself a Newbury restoration). He and his father famously completed their 27-year restoration of Dragon Rapide G-AGJG in summer 2004. This project above all led to his co-founding of de Havilland Support Ltd in 2001, securing the original design data for the DH piston-engined aeroplanes, including the Fox Moth.
His insider’s knowledge of de Havilland aeroplanes and technical oversight of the G-CIPJ project at Hungerford gives him a unique basis from which to draw his own conclusions of the Fox Moth.
Mark’s involvement with G-CIPJ came several years into the rebuild. He had no part in the build itself but was instrumental in “providing top cover” by way of inspection and certification to bring the aeroplane into the fold as a Light Aircraft Association project to enable it to fly in the UK before return home to New Zealand. Charlie Huke made the aircraft’s maiden post-restoration flight from Rendcomb, Gloucestershire on 3 August 2015. Upon completion of its flight testing, owner Bruce Broady extended an open invitation to Mark to fly his aeroplane.
However, old memories came back. “I’d been at Old Warden in 1978 when the entire Haig-Thomas Moth collection was attending from Duxford”, recalls Miller. “I thought it would be lovely to get a ride home and had my Dad ask if there was any chance. Tony said, ‘Ah yes, the Fox will do!’ so we approached its pilot, Peter Phillips – of Islander demo fame. He gave it a thought, mentioned lack of practice and said that he’d really rather not have the responsibility of a passenger. From such a top pilot that just gave me the feeling that perhaps there was a bit more to the Fox than meets the eye.
“In our archive here at de Havilland we have repair schemes drawn up for Fox Moth G-AOJH after it had taxied over an unseen post at Hatfield and damaged a spar. Haig-Thomas’ write-up in Gordon Riley’s Vintage Aircraft magazine was full of cautions. I was also concerned after having sat in G-CIPJ when it was in the hangar and seen how little forward visibility there was – this was intimidating – and I wasn’t at all clear how I’d be able to judge the landing. Of course, I also had the unseen Neil Williams view at the back of my mind. All of these little factors added up to negatives.” The chance to fly Bruce Broady’s G-CIPJ was an opportunity to finally explore first-hand the aircraft’s true handling characteristics and maybe to dispel any lingering questions while contextualising its suitability in the roles for which it is best known.
The chronology leading to G-CIPJ’s restoration and thus Mark’s involvement with and subsequent flying of the aeroplane commences with the second Fox Moth delivered to New Zealand, initially registered ZK-ADH and later re-registered ZK-AGM. The first of the country’s Foxes, registered ZK-ADC to Southland Aero Club at Invercargill on South Island, had arrived on 11 January 1933 and immediately enjoyed a busy flight schedule. Enter one Captain James ‘Bert’ Mercer, chief pilot of the Canterbury Aero Club at Wigram, who by late 1933 was giving serious consideration to the question of buying a cabin aeroplane for use as an air taxi and air ambulance.
Bert Mercer was already an established and trusted figure in New Zealand civilian aviation. He’d worked for the Canterbury (NZ) Aviation Company at Sockburn, near Christchurch, as an engineer during the First World War and underwent flying training there; being too old to be posted abroad, he remained at Sockburn as an instructor and trained hundreds of pilots. Post-war he joined the Timaru-based New Zealand Aero Transport Company, flying its fleet of Avro 504Ks and de Havilland DH-9s. In one of these DH-9s he set a one-day distance record, completing a near 750-mile flight from Invercargill to Auckland on 25 October 1921 (Hawera & Normanby Star, 26 October 1921). Departing from the southernmost city on South Island in a DH-9 sponsored by Fleming and Company, and with Fleming’s Creamoata brand oatmeal porridge advertised underwing, Mercer and his two passengers – one of whom was W. H. P. Fleming himself – arrived in the North Island city of Auckland after an eight-hour, 53-minute flight. After the company’s collapse, Mercer set up his own garage in Christchurch and later resumed his flying at Sockburn. The Canterbury Aero Club’s formation in 1928 saw him appointed its first pilot-instructor, flying its trio of DH60 Moths. In one of these he made a record trip for the Moth, flying from Wigram to Auckland for the Auckland Aero Club pageant. Accepting the invitation to visit one of his pupils, Allan Cron, on the West Coast, Mercer flew DH60G ZK-AAI to Haast on 20 August 1933. This was something of a watershed moment, opening his eyes to the commercial possibilities a dedicated air service to the remote south-western coastal regions could yield, and he set about surveying the area.
“He saw the possibilities of an air service to the regions of South Westland beyond Weheka, where the road ended”, wrote the Evening Post of Mercer’s enterprise. To travel from the coastal town of Haast to Christchurch, for example, could be a four-day trek in good weather – considerably longer should conditions deteriorate. Some settlements were two weeks’ riding time from the nearest hospital, whilst others relied on vastly protracted and infrequent mail and goods deliveries by packhorse or coastal shipping. A dedicated air taxi service could see such delivery times measured not in days or weeks, but hours and minutes. “There were machines suitable for such a service,” continued the Evening Post, “and Captain Mercer concentrated on interesting the settlers. He made many flights from Christchurch to the settlements in South Westland, and the settlers themselves, with encouragement from Captain Mercer, made landing grounds at the very doors of their homes.”
Regularly he crossed the southern alps in the Canterbury Aero Club’s open cockpit Gipsy Moths, flying passengers on sightseeing tours, visiting remote airstrips and conducting extensive aerial surveys of potential landing grounds. “We have a wonderfully fine country in the South Island, that should be world-renowned, but it is necessary to have air transport to see it”, Mercer had declared on 4 September 1933. The DH60s were inherently unsuitable for this purpose and though other aero clubs operated a variety of types, including the two-passenger Puss Moth and the four-passenger Waco, with great success, only the new cabin Fox Moth offered quite the combination of characteristics required to run a profitable air taxi service without subsidy.
The Fox’s advantage over its contemporaries was its economy of operation. Vitally, its light wooden fuselage enabled it to carry approaching its own weight with a payload of up to four passengers and luggage, or the equivalent in cargo, which would allow the Canterbury Aero Club to press the aeroplane into service on commercial air routes and sightseeing tours over the nearby glaciers and mountain ranges, whilst utilising it to haul freight and mail to the far-flung reaches of the New Zealand outback. That it could do so with just a reliable 120hp Gipsy III up front was a testament to de Havilland’s frugal wooden construction – described by Flight magazine as “old fashioned” and something of an anachronism in the wake of the creeping tide of metalwork witnessed in new aircraft designs – that afforded a 50% increase in payload potential.
Its 25-gallon fuel tank provided for a range of 438 miles, whilst optional additional fuel tanks of varying sizes, mounted toward the rear bulkhead of the cabin and feeding the main tank via an engine-driven pump, could as much as double the aeroplane’s range, albeit at the expense of payload. Much of the type’s economy lay in the repurposing of existing de Havilland parts, including mainplanes and empennage interchangeable with the Tiger Moth, freely castering Puss Moth tail wheel assembly, and other fittings from both Gipsy and Tiger Moths. The undercarriage was Tiger Moth-inspired but with rubber in compression suspension and radius rods running rearward, also having wider wheel track and being stronger to carry the Fox Moth’s higher weight. Cable-operated Bendix brakes were an advance on the brakeless Tiger Moth and essential for facilitating tailwheel operations from small and rough makeshift airstrips.
Unconventional though it may seem, the aeroplane’s design geometry had its reasoning. The positioning of the pilot way aft counterbalances the Gipsy engine up front, whilst the fuel tank and cabin sit on the centre of gravity such that the CofG remains only modestly affected by variations in fuel and cabin loading. The wings are little staggered and not swept like the Tiger Moth, placing the centre of lift at the correct position for the CofG. For storage, once a jury strut is inserted, they also fold rearward about pivots at the rear spars and lock in place alongside the fuselage without the need to disconnect aileron control cables. The aeroplane was a resounding success for de Havilland – nearly 100 of them were manufactured in the UK, two in Australia and 55 in Canada (designated the DH83C). It proved to be an international hit too; Foxes were exported all over the world to almost 20 countries, as far afield as Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, Japan and South Africa.
The 85th of 97 DH83s manufactured by de Havilland Aircraft Company at its Stag Lane facility in Edgware, north London, the Canterbury Aero Club’s machine was issued its Certificate of Airworthiness on 22 January 1934. The aeroplane was delivered to New Zealand exactly three months later, making its first flight on 26 March and joining the civil register as ZK-ADH on April 11th. As delivered, -ADH was fitted out with a second fuel tank of 10 gallon capacity and the cabin was modified to accommodate a stretcher for air ambulance work; this gave it a standard weight of 1,108 1bs when granted its CofA and a tare weight of 1,130 1bs (its maximum weight limitation being 2,100 1bs). With its widened fuselage, central four-person cabin and a cockpit significantly aft of the mainplanes, the Fox Moth was quite unlike anything the Aero Club members and Christchurch residents had seen before, and its maiden flight over the city was greeted with curious excitement. The Press’ effusive and rather lovely write-up of ZK-ADH remarked that “the passengers sit in a cabin which compares for comfort with the front seat of an ordinary Moth much as a sedan car compares with the saddle of a motor-cycle, yet the machine is considerably faster than an ordinary Moth”, whilst “passengers appreciated the comfort and quietness of the machine” and “aero club officials realised with pleasure that it was extremely economical in operation”.
Not all were satisfied, mind – a mere two days after its first flight, the paper printed a letter expressing a degree of consternation over the Fox Moth’s cabin arrangement: “From the photograph in The Press to-day [sic] of the Aero Club’s new Fox Moth, it appears that passengers will not have the forward view provided in other air-taxis such as the Waco, Spartan, and Puss Moth machines. I should be interested to know the reason for this choice – Yours, etc. Potential Hirer”. Aside from the fact that passengers saw more from the side than front windows, the slight loss of visibility was the penalty paid for the increased comfort and sociability of any cabin. Responding via The Press, Mercer’s rebuttal stated that “no better machine of the size could have been bought for less than twice the price of the Fox Moth”, which was “generally admitted to be the most economical aeroplane of its type in the world”.
The Canterbury Aero Club quickly pressed ZK-ADH into service as an air taxi to the remotest south-west coastal routes, and offered pleasure flights for customers keen to see the natural treasures of New Zealand from the air – such as £7 and 10 shillings scenic tours over Franz Josef glacier. The aeroplane also became a popular fixture at the periodic Wigram aerodrome flying days; when it wasn’t carrying aloft parachutists or participating in air displays, it was giving rides to as many as 80 passengers a day.
The web of air routes flown over a three-day period in summer 1934 illustrates the volume and intensity of the Canterbury Aero Club’s air taxi service, and its importance in servicing the isolated West Coast communities. From Saturday, 18 August, Bert Mercer and ZK-ADH flew Wigram – Hokitika – Waiho – Bruce Bay – Hokitika – Okuru – Upper Okuru – Haast – Waiho – Mahitahi – Waiho – Okuru – Haast – Mahitahi – Bruce Bay – Waiho – Bruce Bay – Waiho – Hokitika – Ross – Hokitika. They had carried, amongst others, government officials, numerous engineers, a surveyor, and a recently discharged hospital patient. Significant amongst these trips was the flight into Upper Okuru, between Mounts Harris and Nerger – a mere five-minute flight to a community so frequently isolated by the flooding of the Okuru River. Similarly, Mahitahi, at the southern end of Bruce Bay, had also been cut off by flooding and was only accessible by air at the time. Even the c. 40-mile trek from Bruce Bay to Waiho – normally a full day’s ride – could be covered in 20 minutes by the Fox Moth.
5 September 1934 saw ZK-ADH utilised for an unofficial airmail service – the first in New Zealand for a long while – after the Gael, a small vessel that traded up and down the coast and carried the mail, had become stranded by silt on the Okuru River near Haast. The mail, consisting of two bags, 110 loose letters and a few parcels, was flown to Waiho, where Mercer arranged to stay for the night, then on to Hokitika the following morning. It had been a fraught two days for Bert Mercer. He had flown -ADH from Christchurch to Hokitika on Tuesday afternoon, headed south with two passengers on Wednesday morning to drop one at Haast and the other at Okuru, then picked up three more passengers in Upper Okuru and taken them to Hokitika. He departed there at midday and flew to Waiho, collected a passenger and flew to Haast, picked up two more whom he flew with the mail to Waiho via Mahitahi, then pressed on to Hokitika the following morning. He finally returned to Christchuch, carrying a newlywed couple, on the afternoon of the 6th. For the south-west settlers, Mercer commented, the Fox Moth offered a lifeline that removed some of the disadvantages of their isolation.
On 17 September 1934 Mercer flew the Fox Moth from Christchurch to Auckland in four hours, 45 minutes, setting a civil aviation record in the process. The return flight the following day took a little longer due to headwinds, the Fox leaving Auckland at 6.10am and arriving in Christchurch at 1.35pm after six hours and 10 minutes’ flying time. He was buoyed by the flight’s success – he’d covered the 1,200 miles in around 11 hours, a speed fast enough for New Zealand in comparison with transport in other countries. “In England and America the railways averaged from 70 to 80 miles an hour on long runs,” Mercer told the Northern Advocate newspaper, “and about double that speed prevailed on air services. In New Zealand trains would average about 30 or 40 miles an hour, while the transport by aeroplane was three times speedier.”
The Fox Moth’s versatility was put into practice in early October 1934 when ZK-ADH operated as an air taxi, aerial business conference room and air ambulance over a three-day period. With Bert Mercer at the helm the Fox arrived at Hokitika mid-morning on Saturday, refuelled and departed with two passengers bound for Haast. On arrival, an urgent message was passed on from the villagers of Okuru, who had seen the Fox Moth flying over – a young girl was gravely ill and needed urgent hospital treatment. Mercer promptly scrambled to Okuru, picked up a mother and daughter and flew them to the nearest hospital at Hokitika. They arrived within 90 minutes and the girl was promptly operated on for appendicitis. Early on Sunday morning Mercer and ZK-ADH were airborne again, this time making a 35-minute flight from Hokitika to Waiho with a Mr. J. Stuart on board. They were joined by Mr. C. Saddler of the Reefton livestock firm and went on to Bruce Bay, where Mr. Stuart was landed. Next stop was Okuru, where Mr. J. Eggeling joined Mr. Saddler. Mercer flew the pair to Waiatoto, 15 miles further south, and circled low around a herd of Mr. Eggeling’s cattle. On the strength of the inspection, the local paper reported, the two passengers made a business deal. What would have been a five-day business trip had been conducted within a few hours. Mercer, meanwhile, made further air taxi rides through Sunday afternoon and Monday.
The Press continued to report enthusiastically on the aeroplane’s movements, often publishing details of routes, passengers and flight times. One such flight was detailed on 12 October 1934, after Bert Mercer had flown a Christchurch businessman from Wigram to Nelson in less than two hours when the journey would normally take three days. “We had a wonderful trip,” recounted the passenger, “and flew at an altitude of 10,000ft over the snow-covered mountains. I had a marvellous view of the country, and at the same time was extremely comfortable in the cabin of the aeroplane. The machine was so steady that it was hard to realise that I was in the air”. While the passenger transacted business, Mercer made further flights to Wellington and Blenheim before returning to Nelson for the flight back to Wigram. Another sortie from Christchurch to Auckland was described in the 20 October edition; routing via Palmerston North and New Plymouth in strong headwinds, it took Bert Mercer and two passengers nine hours to reach their destination. The return flight lasted a less numbing six-and-a-half hours. It’s no wonder almost 1,500 flying hours were logged in ZK-ADH during its first two years in New Zealand.
In November 1934 Mercer resigned from the Canterbury Aero Club to focus his efforts on his fledgling airline, the Hokitika-based Air Travel (NZ) Ltd, one of the first two companies granted a licence under the Transport Licensing (Commercial Aircraft Services) Act 1934. He had long recognised the potential for a West Coast airline serving the region’s remote homesteads, camps, prospectors’ huts and settlements, and having flown ZK-ADH across the South Island in much the same manner and with great success, it’s no surprise he acquired a second Fox Moth, ZK-ADI, for this purpose. Bert Mercer was a charismatic figure; tall, moustached, and a supremely talented aviator, he alone sought to encourage those on the West Coast to build their own airstrips, and much work went into preparing more than a dozen new runways. “Quick travelling and mails, and the opening up of the district to tourist traffic, appeal to them, but in their eyes the most valuable use of the aeroplane, which is fitted with a stretcher, is in cases of sickness or accident”, reported The Press. The Fox Moth, one of its journalists wrote, would “annihilate distance and break down in that short journey the terrible isolation which has been the drawback to life in the south for 60 years”.
The new Moth was tested and flown to Hokitika by Mercer on Saturday, 15 December 1934 and three days later became the first aircraft – and Air Travel (NZ) Ltd the first company – in New Zealand to fly a scheduled airline service. Aside from passengers and mail (a regular airmail service having been initiated at the end of December ’34), flights to Haast and Okuru saw the Fox Moth hauling increasing quantities of freight – fruit, meat, fish (on one occasion, 400 lb of Whitebait!), groceries, radio apparatus and medicine were just some of the cargo ferried south, whilst the Westlands’ gold miners were delivered tents, shovels, and copper plates. Copies of The Press newspaper were distributed by air, “eagerly looked for by the settlers, who wait by their houses for the machine to pass over and drop the paper. Mr. Mercer has had to warn the youngsters who try to catch the day’s news as it drops that a rolled-up newspaper might pick up enough speed on its way down to hurt”.
ZK-ADI serviced Westlands until it was temporarily grounded by an accident in June 1935. As Bert Mercer lifted off from the airfield at Weheka, near the Fox Glacier, the aeroplane was struck violently from below. “Mr. Mercer did not see the animal which hit the machine,” reported The Press, “and could not understand what he had struck, as he had a clear run before starting”. The culprit was a wild steer that had bolted in front of the aircraft as it made its take-off run. With forward visibility extremely limited, Mercer had little chance of seeing the animal before the collision. “Even those who were on the ground watching the aeroplane take off did not realise what was happening when the bullock ran out of some scrub, till its head hit the undercarriage of the machine”. The impact turned the Fox Moth on its back; whilst the aeroplane was badly damaged, pilot and passengers walked away with only minor injuries. ZK-ADH arrived at Hokitika that evening to relieve the stricken ZK-ADI and Mercer was reportedly airborne, heading for Okuru with a full load of mail and freight, just 20 minutes later.
Mercer and his Aero Club colleagues continued to cover Air Travel’s routes in ZK-ADH until 30 June 1935. A little under a year later, -ADH suffered an incident of its own in the course of evacuating a wounded hunter by the name of Leslie Pierr from Porter’s Pass mountain range, north-west of Christchurch. The 30-year old had been deer-stalking when, likely mistaken for a deer, he was accidentally shot in the stomach by one of his group. Scrambling to the nearest telephone at the base of the Pass, Pierr’s friends called for an air ambulance and Canterbury Aero Club pilot Arthur ‘Sam’ Gibbons accordingly departed from Sockburn at around noon with a Mr. Taylor, a local builder, on board to pick up the stricken gunshot victim. The Fox Moth returned to Sockburn to find the aerodrome shrouded by a 200ft high band of thick fog. Carefully dropping into the grey, visibility closed in to around five yards, making for near impossible flying conditions. As Gibbons descended through 20ft in a banking turn in an attempt to locate the aerodrome, the Fox’s right wing clipped the ground and cartwheeled the aeroplane into a paddock of mown clover, close to a fence and power lines.
The damage to ZK-ADH was catastrophic – the engine and front of the cabin had been torn away by the impact, the right wings and lower left wing were buckled, and the tail was damaged. Only the rear fuselage remained reasonably intact. Having already survived a gruelling 4,000ft descent down the mountainside in a stretcher fashioned from clothes and saplings, ill-fated gunshot victim Leslie Pierr escaped the crash with further shock, whilst Mr. Taylor suffered shock and cuts to his face and head. “After the Fox Moth had crashed,” the local paper reported, “there was little to be seen of its once-graceful lines but a gaping hole in front of the cabin through which the injured men reached the ground”. Hearing of the accident, the Aero Club launched a second Fox Moth (likely ZK-ADI) and a Gipsy Moth to Sockburn. They arrived far more successfully, loading Pierr and Taylor into the Fox’s cabin and evacuating them to hospital where the former underwent surgery to treat his gunshot wound; sadly, 30-year old Leslie Pierr died on the afternoon of June 8th.
The Fox Moth’s registration was summarily cancelled in March 1937, and the wreck passed to the ownership of Air Travel (NZ) engineer Owen Templeton. A replacement fuselage was sought from de Havilland at Hatfield, but with Fox Moth production having concluded several years previously, a new fuselage was built up by the de Havilland Technical School in lieu. With a new serial number carrying the ‘Technical School’ prefix as TS2810 the aeroplane was re-registered as ZK-AGM in June 1938, flying again for the first time post-rebuild on the 10th of that month and resuming service with Air Travel on New Zealand’s South Island. Though Bert Mercer was by then concentrating on flying the company’s de Havilland Dragon, he logged 129 flying hours in -AGM over a six-year period. It passed into National Airways Corporation’s (NAC) care in December 1947, following NAC’s absorption of Air Travel, flying alongside two other Foxes. Painted silver with a red flash on the cowling and with its registration emblazoned in red lettering first on the rudder and later on the sides of the fuselage, the aeroplane was adorned with the name Matuhi (Bush Wren). Significantly, it flew the last official Fox Moth service on 28 February 1954, covering the Hokitika to South Westland route. It changed hands in April 1954, joining Aircraft Engineering of NZ Ltd’s fleet, and again in February 1956, when it was acquired by Wanganui Aero Work Ltd on the North Island. Terry Garnier of Christchurch purchased -AGM in 1963, and it was under his custodianship that it suffered its second and fatal accident in April of that year. At the time of its crash at Freezing Flat, it had flown 8,482.15 hours since manufacture.
The Fox Moth (with a single passenger on-board) was flying through a narrow valley at 1,500ft in fine weather when it began to lose height rapidly. Though Garnier was flying at full power at times, the aeroplane continued to lose height and airspeed and crashed into a dry shingle bank in a moderate dive, bursting into flames on impact. Garnier’s attempts to rescue his passenger from the flaming wreck were unsuccessful. The crash investigation deduced that “spatial disorientation” was the likely cause, “induced by the lack of a true horizon”. In effect, Garnier may have believed the Fox Moth was losing power when it was in fact pitching upwards, which the aeroplane continued to do until he “mushed the biplane into the ground in a semi-stalled condition”. The aeroplane had been all but destroyed in the fire, and its remnants passed into long-term storage.
Subsequently the aeroplane’s title and a very small number of surviving components of ZK-AGM were bought by New Zealander Bruce Broady, a career commercial pilot then with easyJet in the UK and later Dubai-based as an Emirates Boeing 777 captain. The project was shipped to the UK in 1997 for assessment and rebuild.
The late Geoff Masterton conducted the initial survey of -AGM in September 1997 as a prelude to its restoration by the Newbury Aeroplane Company, who were engaged as the prime contractor executing the project. Manufacture of many of the aeroplane’s components, sub-sections and ancillaries were farmed out to specialist workshops across the country and indeed around the world.
Enter Martin Honeychurch, protégé of the late Ben Cooper – himself a purveyor of pre-war aeroplane restorations “to a standard of excellence and honesty which may never be surpassed”. Ben’s revival of G-ACEJ doubtless played a part in Bruce Broady’s decision to place his Fox Moth project with Newbury. Mark Miller describes Martin as “the finest multi-skilled individual working on pre-war British civil projects anywhere in the world”, whose abilities “encompass aircraft woodworking to the most fastidious standard, fabrication of metal details, installation and rigging of systems, covering, painting and all tasks in between”.
Honeychurch and Bill Cooper (no relation to Ben and Jan) led the manufacture of the wooden fuselage to ‘Speed Model’ configuration, accurate for ZK-AGM’s 1938 resurrection, with cockpit canopy and streamlined headrest fairing along the rear fuselage decking (embodying storage space, as illustrated in the image above). From the New Zealand-based Croydon Aeroplane Company at Old Mandeville airfield came new mainplane and tail unit spars, whilst Irish linen fabric from A. H. Vane & Co. was applied to the completed wing structures by Jan Cooper. Streamline rigging wires manufactured by Bruntons Aero Products in Scotland and flying control cables produced by John Geary of Martin Aviation Services further built up the Fox’s internal and external structures. The interplane struts on UK-built Fox Moths were special-to-type steel tube items, superseded on the later-build Canadian production DH83Cs by DH82C Tiger Moth tubular struts. Newbury Aeroplane Co. adopted the available DH82C parts for this project. Cowlings and fairings were fabricated by panel wheeling specialist Steve Moon of Aviation Panels in Hampshire. The beautiful cockpit framing essential for recreating the ‘Speed Model’ variant of the DH83 was produced by Ted Gautrey, himself owner of the G-ACCB Fox Moth restoration project. Ted worked also on undercarriage components and on the long exhaust silencer, which embodies a cabin heater. Owner Bruce Broady was himself absolutely central to the build, sleuthing original drawings and data from every possible source, or provisioning near impossible to find components and raw materials from all over the world – as only a roving airline pilot can.
The 140hp four cylinder Gipsy Major 1c engine chosen for G-CIPJ, with its high compression pistons offering at least 10hp power increase on the stock Gipsy III or Gipsy Major 1, and embodying a splined crankshaft, the highest specification alloy cylinder heads and fully screened ignition, was overhauled to zero-hour condition by Paul Lipman of QDM Services. Vintage Engine Technology (‘Vintec’) tested the carburettor and magnetos, the latter after overhaul by Tony Stairs in Hendon. From Invincible Airscrews in Australia (via prior use on G-ACEJ) came the reproduction wooden DH5520/H propeller, finished beautifully by Hercules Propellers in the UK. The completed aeroplane was painted in butyrate silver and green with its latter-day New Zealand registration adorning the wings and fuselage. This simple touch remains a defining feature of the restoration – it is one of very few types on the G-register to have been granted an exemption allowing it to temporarily display an overseas civilian identity in lieu of its British civil registration (such practice is only commonplace with ex-military restorations, whereby military codes and serials are displayed), and all credit to Mike Poole (formerly UK CAA), CAA Aircraft Registrations and David Gill of the CAA of New Zealand for making it happen.
The Newbury Aeroplane Company’s extraordinary recreation of ZK-AGM saw the aeroplane awarded the Flying Duchess Trophy as the overall Concours d’Elegance winner at the DH Moth Club’s final and 30th International Moth Rally at Woburn Abbey on 15-16 August 2015, just days after its first flight. A few weeks later at the Sywell LAA Rally the Fox Moth picked up the John Randall Trophy for Best Vintage Aircraft, and the Personal Plane Services Trophy for the Best de Havilland Aircraft. At the following year’s Goodwood Revival it won the Freddie March Spirit of Aviation Concours d’Elegance for the finest aeroplane on show. For all of these events the Fox was in the hands of its test pilot Charlie Huke, accompanied by his pilot wife Anna.
It was almost two years before Mark Miller accepted Bruce’s invitation to fly the aeroplane, and after Charlie’s briefing he did so on 14 May 2017. “Once you’re inside, your day’s work is half done”, jokes Miller. “The other half is getting out without damaging anything!” Cockpit access is via a footstep on the lower left longeron beneath the cockpit canopy. “I put my left foot in that, my left hand then just about reaches the rear cabane struts, then I swing my right leg over just missing the canopy to get my right foot to stand on the seat. When I first came to the Tiger Moth I felt this idea of standing on the seat upholstery to be quite wrong, but you have to!” The cockpit is roomy below decking level, but at shoulder level the upper fuselage curves in. “I’ve always believed in sitting as high as I reasonably can and that makes for a tight fit. I’ve looked in the mirror after a day’s flying and my shoulders have been red!”
The cockpit itself is beautifully turned out. The angular matt black instrument panel and deep grey cockpit wall, coaming and false floor contrast exquisitely with the silver of the fuselage and wings. Instrumentation and systems are pure 1930s de Havilland. The panel is fairly spartan, with from left to right only a tachometer, oil pressure gauge, air log, turn and slip indicator, inclinometer, air speed indicator, watch, altimeter and (at extreme right) a Husun magnetic compass. The turn and slip Mark describes as the master instrument, such are the Fox Moth’s very skittish yaw characteristics. “Then again, if you can’t recognise yaw by feel, you shouldn’t be flying,” says Mark, “but on a windy day when turning low over the ground it is no bad thing to cross-check your judgement of whether the aeroplane is crabbing or not – so a quick glance at the slip needle is useful.”
The trim lever falls to hand nicely on the left of the cockpit and adjusts through around 40° on its quadrant to impose spring bias on the control column. Though the trim lever needs to be two thirds of the way forward (nose down) for take-off, Mark only sets the trim after his engine run-up to avoid holding aft stick against the spring force.
Placed well above the trim lever are the throttle and mixture controls, mounted on a quadrant under the cockpit coaming. “I don’t understand what was said about the Tiger Club’s aeroplane,” Mark comments, “as it’s a nicely engineered throttle and mixture control. What’s different to other Moths is that the throttle lever is nearest the pilot and the mixture control is on the outboard side of the throttle lever, which I think is much better. In, say, the Hornet Moth the mixture is on the pilot’s side of the throttle lever, and both are small levers, therefore it can be difficult to manipulate the throttle without getting tangled up with the mixture lever. All Moth mixtures are rich when the lever is positioned aft, and if the mixture has been leaned in-flight, bringing the throttle back to descend brings the mixture automatically back into rich at the same time – an excellent piece of idiot-proofing”.
Fuel is fed by gravity from a 25-gallon tank built into the upper wing centre-section. “The Fox Moth has a bespoke tank that is not the shape it appears to be from the outside, so I keep handy a drawing of the cross-section for reassurance when dipping the fuel. Because of that shape, fuel consumption seems fast to begin with before slowing to a more expected rate. The fuel cock control is strange. It’s a flexible control and it terminates on the centreline of the aeroplane. Directly in the centre of the pilot’s vision is a knob that says, ‘Pull On’ – better than ‘Push Off’! It’s quite stiff to operate, which is good as it won’t vibrate off in flight. The fuel gauge is below the tank in a departure from the Tiger Moth arrangement. If you refuel with cold fuel from an underground installation, even on a hot day the sight glass becomes milky with condensation and you can’t read it until it dries off.”
The application of the correct hand starting procedure on the Fox Moth is, Mark cautions, even more important than for most vintage types on account of the pilot and propeller swinger being well apart and without a good line of sight.
“The essence of it is that it is the swinger’s life that is at risk, so they are in control”, he explains. “The swinger will first satisfy himself that the aeroplane is chocked and then leads the start sequence.”
‘Fuel on, switches off, throttle closed.’
“He’ll lift the right-hand cowling and press the tickler button on top of the carburettor to prime the engine. It’s important to listen for the trickle when the float chamber has filled up with fuel and is spilling down into the induction manifold. Stop then to avoid wasting fuel, killing the grass and creating too rich a mixture for start. Gipsy manifold drains often block up with debris or viscous oil and fail to drain the excess fuel, which could become a fire risk. Bruce’s engine is so clean that this is seldom a problem. Wait and see the fuel finish draining out of the bottom, then secure the cowling.”
‘Switches off, throttle closed.’
“The swinger next pulls through the propeller four times to suck mixture into the cylinders. He then brings the propeller towards the starting position, which is where you can run into trouble with the Fox because it’s so high. Stretching to hold the propeller with your right hand, the compression may be ebbing away before you’re able to start it. You might be able to do something to help – for example, parking the aeroplane with its tail on slightly higher ground to lower the nose and make the propeller more accessible for the swinger.”
‘Throttle set’ – the pilot opens the throttle, around one inch at its top.
‘Contact’ – the pilot switches on the right-hand impulse magneto ready for the propeller swing, and “it WILL start on the first swing – so long as not too many onlookers are watching!”
Once the engine fires, the left magneto is turned on at once and a five minute warm-up is commenced before moving off. Taxying requires continual weaving to clear the way ahead, using alternate left and right rudder to steer and application of full rudder if required to bring in differential wheel braking. “Bendix brakes should always be used sparingly to avoid the brakes heating up and fading,” Mark warns, “which could happen if you had a long crosswind taxy on a hard surface. The brake lever is there only to apply both brakes for parking. If you were pulling on that to slow down a landing, or believing it would check a ground loop, you’d be heading for big trouble.” Visibility ahead is the primary concern. The small opening window on the instrument panel through to the passenger cabin is “a fun feature” that “allows a bit of a second check, diagonally through the cabin door windows beyond, on what may be ahead” (and enables limited pilot-passenger communication), but there is “probably an inevitability about having a taxying mishap if you flew the Fox Moth a lot”, particularly given the abundance of marker boards, runway lights and the like at most airfields. Standard pre-take-off vital actions at the holding point entail Mark running through TTMMFFGGHH checks – trim, throttle friction, mixture, magnetos, fuel, flaps (simple enough – there aren’t any!), gyros (ditto), gauges, hatches and harness. This litany misses ‘controls full, free and correct sense’, which have of course to be remembered. An engine run-up sees the throttle opened to 1,600 rpm for magneto checks; engine sound and airframe vibrations are likely to be a better indicator of excessive mag drop than a gauge reading, such is the inaccuracy of a wavering vintage tachometer.
“The next challenge can be to find the runway when you have such poor visibility on the ground!” Mark quips with a smile. “Having sanity checked that alignment is good, I apply full power quite slowly and raise the tail after what must be around 50 yards, certainly not forcing it up and especially not if crosswind. Keeping it straight with mostly left rudder is mainly a peripheral vision job and the pitch attitude is obvious as the ground ahead comes into view with the tail rising. The effort required to raise the tail can be markedly different depending on how many passengers you’re carrying; with a couple of bodies facing forwards in the cabin you’ll need plenty of down elevator to get the tail up. A common feature of Fox Moth cockpit bulkheads are marks where the top of the stick has scratched the wood of the panel.”
There is, Mark says, “a tendency with Gipsy Major-engined Moths not to open the throttle fully on take-off” owing to the resistance created by the interconnected throttle and spring-loaded carburettor air intake flap valve. At low and medium throttle, the intake draws warm air from within the engine bay for carburettor ice protection. When the throttle is opened further the flap moves to admit cold air through an air scoop from outside the aeroplane. “That movement translates to a feel of stiffness in the throttle beyond a certain point. Listen to a Tiger Moth on ab-initio or conversion training and you will often hear a surge of power as the instructor urges the pupil to open the throttle fully. The Fox Moth throttle and mixture controls operate by alloy rods which curve their way eight feet forward under the cabin roof upholstery and through guides, so there is added friction at the throttle lever.”
Once the tail comes up “it’s another world, and any worries about visibility disappear. Ben Cox assured me of that from his experience with G-ACEJ”. Visibility once airborne is actually excellent, owing to the high cockpit position giving a trailing edge-on view of the top wing and there being clear sight downward to either side of the fuselage.
Notwithstanding Neil Williams’ advice to fellow Tiger Club members, Mark has found in extremis that the Fox Moth can cope with a strong crosswind. Departing Sywell at the end of the 2019 LAA Rally, “ATC called Runway 21, wind 290/18 to 20 knots”, he remembers: “I thought, I’ve had no directional control issues whilst backtracking the length of this aerodrome, no fight with weathercocking into wind as you might with a Tiger Moth or Auster, and it feels quite stable – not heeled over as the Tiger would be. It’s a brilliant undercarriage; they got the stiffness of the suspension just right. So, with the threat of still worse weather coming, the least of the evils was to go for it. Lots of aileron into wind, firm forward stick to pin the aeroplane down and to prevent it hopping sideways, and plenty of airspeed before breaking ground. You don’t dither between ground and sky in that situation, you get airborne on your terms once ready – decisively. I was amazed that the aeroplane had control in hand, it coped easily. Maybe the large fore and aft side areas balance out. I don’t think I would’ve taken off in that wind with the Hornet Moth or the Rapide.”
Once airborne at around 50 mph, skimming the ground to build at least 65 mph for the climb, Miller says that the Fox Moth “is an aeroplane where you can almost forget about the instruments. The layout of the instrument panel and shielding by the decking makes it impractical to glance in at the ASI on take-off and landing; I’d rather be looking outside and keeping an eye on what’s happening, erring on the fast side if in doubt. The ASI is the correct type for the Fox Moth and has a rather compressed scale. The difference between 50 mph and 60 mph is maybe 3/8 of an inch. It’s not that easy to interpret in the heat of the moment. The non-sensitive altimeter is similarly scaled – problematic if you’re trying to cruise just below controlled airspace.”
The Fox Moth is climbed at 65 mph IAS for test purposes, with full throttle giving 2,100 rpm (its maximum continuous limit), but otherwise Mark climbs at 70 mph for better engine cooling and view. Full throttle on the level with the DH5220/H wooden propeller first fitted returns an indicated airspeed of 109 mph at 2,375 rpm (a shade below its five-minute limit of 2,400 rpm).
In more recent times he has been operating G-CIPJ with a metal Fairey Reed A66753/X1 propeller. This ex-MoD Chipmunk propeller was overhauled by Deltair Aerospace and united with an original Fairey Reed spinner acquired by Bruce Broady; indeed, a metal propeller is accurate for the aeroplane’s 1938 recreation as ZK-AGM and was customarily seen on ‘Speed Model’ Foxes. The Fairey Reed brings smoother running and an improvement in the already good climb and cruise performance. Mark notes a significantly increased rate of climb – 766ft/min versus 666ft/min at near identical test conditions – and a comfortable cruise airspeed of 105 mph at 1,950 rpm (an improvement on the 95 mph obtained with the DH5220/H propeller).
“In handling terms, the Fox Moth is unremarkable,” continues Mark, “but this one has an overwhelming feeling of being symmetrical and true. It’s all really pleasant. It has a lowish VNE of 125 mph and feels extremely smooth and steady in the shallow dive needed to attain it. You need firm push force on the stick to maintain that attitude and counteract its desire to pitch up, which is right and proper.” He describes the rudder as light and effective in operation, while aileron response is maybe a slight improvement on the Tiger Moth. That, he muses, may be a result of the Fox Moth’s greater fuselage width displacing the ailerons slightly further outboard, plus of course the wings now being unswept.
“Directionally, it’s extremely loose at all power settings and airspeeds”, he says, “Neil Williams was spot on there. If you don’t keep both feet planted on the rudder pedals, the Fox will deviate sharply with ever increasing amounts of yaw – either way. Directional instability isn’t the word for it! Too much keel area ahead of the CG I should say.” Stalling on the other hand is described as a non-event, with a clean break straight ahead at under 50 mph but no buffeting or the like to warn of an impending stall. With a full fuel tank and two rear seat passengers on-board, Mark noted a different characteristic on one stall test. “There was a little bit of a left wing heaviness as I approached the stall rather cautiously,” he explains, “and the aeroplane was wallowing as I held the stick hard back. I eased off as I had a nasty feeling it could possibly flick. When I next approached the stall more briskly, it broke cleanly straight ahead as you’d hope. Speed-wise it must be remembered that though you are flying on Tiger Moth wings, when loaded it is carrying more weight and hence stops flying at slightly higher airspeeds.”
In the circuit the downwind leg is flown at around 80 mph, turning base at 70 mph and reducing to around 65 mph over the hedge, maybe a little more in gusty conditions. “The Fox Moth doesn’t like too slow an approach”, he reveals. “For biplanes in general the purpose of wing stagger is to reduce the adverse influence of one wing’s lift on the other’s, so-called ‘biplane effect’. Low pressure over the top of the bottom wing can offset higher pressure under the bottom of the top wing, which translates to a net loss of lift. If you are too slow in a Hornet Moth, the sink rate can get really high. I think that’s probably because of the lack of stagger and proximity of its wings. In the case of the Fox you have a generous wing gap but there isn’t much wing stagger or the wings wouldn’t fold. The way the sink rate increases as speed bleeds off suggests to me that biplane effect is kicking in. You can use that to your advantage, and it can be a useful tool for descending. The poor ASI indication and risk of a high sink rate mean I tend to fly the approach a little faster than I normally would in other Moths, just to keep a more acceptable rate of descent.
“With my preferred wheel landing, there’s no real necessity to fly a glide approach,” Mark says, “so I tend to come in with a trickle of power, as for the Dragon Rapide, only closing the throttle fully as the aeroplane touches down. It feels more stately on the approach than the Tiger Moth. Wheel landings go against the grain in an aeroplane of this vintage, but with the Fox it’s about preserving forward visibility for as long as possible… and staying on the runway! I would only try to three-point it in a forced landing situation.
“Lovely as it is,”, Miller says in summary of the DH83’s handling, “I can certainly see how the aeroplane’s vices – in particular its lack of forward visibility on the ground and the fact it was considerably heavier than the Moths they were used to flying out in New Zealand – led it to suffer so many accidents when operating air taxi services from remote rough airstrips. Plus they didn’t have the get-up and go given by high compression pistons.” All seven Fox Moths flown commercially in New Zealand suffered serious accidents, some of them on multiple occasions. It was a sobering attrition rate that spoke to the perils of high-hours outback flying.
Southland Aero Club’s ZK-ADC, the founding father of the New Zealand Fox Moth fraternity, ditched in surf at Big Bay, Fiordland, on 30 December 1936 when landing to drop off one of its four passengers en route to Franz Josef glacier. Eyewitnesses recalled the aircraft “nose-diving from a considerable altitude” almost vertically into the surf as it approached the beach.
The Gisborne Times painted a bleak picture of the crash site: “The remains of the ‘plane were 125 yards away from the engine. The benzine tank was visible on its twisted supports, and the landing wheels could be seen on the badly twisted undercarriage. The tail wheel was still attached to the rear two feet of the fuselage. The fabric of three of the wings was tangled up with the hopelessly smashed spars and there was a twisted mass of wires. One of the doors of the cabin was some distance along the beach. Very little of the plane was recognisable. Every spar was smashed at least once and the ribs of the wings were strewn all along the beach. There were many pieces of the fuselage but hardly any were bigger than a square foot”.
The pilot, Arthur Bradshaw, had been badly hurt in the crash. He was bloodied by deep head wounds that exposed his scalp in two places, two of his fingers had practically been severed, and he had a sprained ankle. He fought through extreme pain with little regard to his own condition to drag the four passengers from the wreckage; he carried through the surf one particularly badly wounded woman who had fractures to her right thigh, left forearm and pelvis, helped two others back to the shoreline, and then attended to the wounded, after which he collapsed. 21-year old journalist Sutton Jones was the only casualty, having been killed by the impact. The three wounded passengers were loaded onto improvised stretchers and carried over hundreds of yards of sand hills to a nearby trampers’ hut for treatment. Having witnessed the crash and assisted tirelessly with the rescue of the Fox Moth occupants, local Big Bay farmer David Gunn set off on a “superhuman” day and night trek, walking four miles, rowing a further 13 and climbing a 14-mile track to reach the nearest telephone to call for the air ambulance – the trip taking him 21 hours when it would normally take four days.
ZK-AEK, one Air Travel (NZ) Ltd’s aeroplanes, force-landed on the beach at Haast and then at Arahura, crashed into a log on landing and was then damaged again when it was charged by a bull on take-off. It later crashed on the Franz Josef glacier in a downdraught on 29 October 1943. The pilot, Orville ‘Ozzie’ Openshaw, was flying four WAAFs over the glacier on a sightseeing trip when he “ran into an air pocket” that “took him down like a shot and made him powerless to lift or guide the aeroplane” (Auckland Star, 1 November 1943). In its rapid descent the Fox Moth’s left wing reportedly struck an ice pinnacle, spinning the aircraft onto the crushed ice below.
Having collected themselves, the five occupants faced the task of descending across the icefield and down the rocky mountainside with neither climbing boots nor mountaineering apparel – Openshaw led them between crevasses studded all over the icefield at distances from five to 15 yards apart and described as over 50ft in depth until they reached cover suitable to hunker down overnight.
A four-man rescue party convened with the group the following morning, and they finally reached the glacier hostel after a nine-hour descent. Openshaw and his passengers had spent almost 30 hours on the glacier – his flying and potentially life-saving leadership were commended by both Bert Mercer and the four grateful passengers.
The Marlborough Aero Club’s Canadian-built DH83C ZK-APT tipped on its nose at a Bluff sheep station in early March 1948, just a few months after commencing operations in New Zealand. Whilst awaiting the arrival of parts from Canada it was torn from its moorings by strong winds, carried through fences and scrub and off a cliff, ending up shattered on a terrace 150ft below the airfield; the aeroplane suffered another two significant accidents (including striking a tree stump on landing) before it was grounded in 1962.
In September 1953, DH83C ZK-AQM overshot on landing at Otautu farm airstrip and crashed into the Patea River, killing its two passengers. Nine years later, DH83C ZK-AQB ditched offshore Motiti Island shortly after take-off – both pilot and passenger survived. And what of poorly ZK-ADI? Repaired following its encounter with the wild steer and eventually re-registered postwar as ZK-ASP, it had a particularly calamitous time, surviving five landing accidents until it was sold and exported to an American owner in 1973. Incidentally, the bullock it struck in 1935 wasn’t its last animal ‘kill’ – during a forced landing near Taupo in March 1970, -ASP collided with a sheep and overturned, such were the occupational hazards of the Kiwi Fox Moth pilot.
Just a few months earlier, -ASP had suffered the indignity of ditching on a beach at Great Barrier Island, from where it was airlifted to safety by a Royal New Zealand Air Force UH-1H Huey.
On that note, it would be remiss not to recall the sad fate of Bert Mercer (pictured above, right). His Air Travel (NZ) flourished, taking over Cook Strait Airways’ route to Nelson during the Second World War. During a flight as a passenger in the company’s de Havilland Dragon on 30 June 1944, the pilot was forced to fly low through the Hope River area. The Dragon was caught in severe turbulence and crashed on the side of Mt Hope, near Kawatiri. One passenger was killed outright, and the pilot and four surviving passengers – Mercer included – were seriously injured and trapped on the mountainside. Mercer didn’t make it through the night, succumbing to exposure and his wounds before the rescue team arrived the following day. As a testament to his character, hundreds of West Coasters, aviators and high-ranking air force and army officials attended his funeral in Hokitika.
“With thousands of hours of flying to his credit, Captain J. C. Mercer was one of the best-known pilots in New Zealand,” eulogised the Evening Post, “and grew up with aviation in this country. Captain Mercer did much to place aviation in New Zealand on the road to progress. His ability was undoubted and recognised by all who-knew [sic] him. He attained 10,000 hours, which means: 1,000,000 miles or more, in the air in 1941, when he was guest of honour at a celebration held in Hokitika”.
His airline continued to service the Westlands for 30 years and it was only the completion of the Haast Pass road in 1965 that ended a wonderful chapter in New Zealand’s aviation history, one in which the Fox Moth, and ZK-ADH/AGM in particular, had been integral.
“When I was at the stage of being apprehensive about flying Bruce’s Fox Moth, I used to think, how the hell did they manage flying it in New Zealand, off small strips, in turbulence and in crosswinds?” reflects Mark Miller. “Now having flown it myself in tamer but still variable conditions and gusty winds, I can see how that wouldn’t have been so much of a problem. For air transport to remote communities, you need an aeroplane that would be able to operate in not particularly good visibility and from rough airstrips, and the Fox would be able to do that. As a joyrider I well see how it was so good. You can sit up there in the cockpit driving the cab, as Norman Giroux so famously did off the beach, and let the loaders do all the hard work.
“It is amazing to me how productive de Havillands were from 1925 to 1939. They are remembered just as much for the relatively basic aeroplanes they produced then as the exotica which came later. It just shows how a simple concept is what’s needed at times – if you run a low-cost air service to get people across an estuary or round to the other side of a mountain, you don’t necessarily want any bells and whistles. The Fox Moth did the job perfectly well and on the seven gallons per hour of one Gipsy Major.
“The key to the Fox’s agreeability from the pilot’s point of view, I think, is the very fact that first deterred me. You’re sitting way back in the airframe. Everything ahead of you – in the way of seeing what you might hit – is Fox Moth. But being sat so far back gives you an excellent perception of pitch attitude, it’s almost as if you’re detached and watching the aeroplane fly. As said, the top wing is well ahead of the pilot and you can see vertically down left and right, which is unusual in a biplane. Very good for navigation.”
Miller’s thoughts return to Neil Williams’ advice, penned 50 years before he had the opportunity to fly G-CIPJ. “The rumoured content discouraged me from first flying the Fox until conditions were perfect and I felt especially current”, he says. A copy of the offending March 1967 Tiger Rag finally fell into his hands in 2019, two years after that first flight. Cherished hours since at the controls of the Fox Moth, including long cross-countries and some air display flights, have contextualised both the Tiger Rag write-up and his impressions of the type’s air taxi career in New Zealand. “While my hero’s comments do have elements of truth, some of his findings are more of a commentary on a then pretty shoddy example of the breed. All types can so easily be damned on the basis of poor examples which have drifted away from their as-designed and built condition.
“I marvel at how perfectly this one has been done”, Mark adds with admiration. “This aeroplane tells us exactly what the Fox Moth really is and what de Havilland were thinking and intending. I always walk away from it thinking how lucky I am to have flown the finest example of its type, and that’s exactly what Bruce Broady’s Fox Moth is. The definitive surviving DH83.
“Almost everything about it could be seen as mildly wacky or is slightly awkward – access for refuelling in particular – but the fact it’s so idiosyncratic is what makes you smile. Take the cabin doors, for instance. The door handles appear to work backwards. I imagine the reason for that is that a passenger’s elbows are likely to knock the door handle and reversing the action avoids downward pressure opening the cabin doors. The Fox has a sense of humour too. If you lift the left cowling to look at the engine, the curved shape causes it to retain oil in its lower rear corner, which then drips off and down your right trouser leg. The Leopard Moth is the same – the first time I was pre-flighting one of those, Henry [Labouchere] was watching me as I opened the cowling and called out, ‘I can see you know bugger all about it!’ As I looked at him slightly quizzically, the oil ran off the bottom and all down my trousers!
“There’s no real point writing up a critique of the Fox Moth’s directional instability 90 years after its first flight; that’s just how it was, and is. It’s part of its character. I prefer to pontificate on the privilege and sheer interest of experiencing an aeroplane 80 or 90 years on and being able to appreciate how it and its pilots achieved what they did. A lot of the satisfaction of flying aeroplanes like this is in mastering the control coordination to keep the aeroplane accurately in balance while manoeuvring.
“The Fox Moth is certainly ‘different’ and may be an acquired taste, but to me it encapsulates the complete spirit of vintage flying in one compact package of wood and fabric biplane. This one has no electrics at all, which in today’s skies can be quite a liberating feeling. In 2017 I took it non-radio from Audley End, westward around Luton and then London, clear of Farnborough, and east to the Goodwood Revival for a second visit. An hour and three quarters at low level and in misty visibility, on compass and wristwatch. Yet I lived that flight as I hadn’t done any in years. I felt completely at one with the aeroplane and the beating heart of its Gipsy. It was magic.
“I find being aloft in the Fox Moth to be by some margin the most overpoweringly vintage flying experience that I’ve had.”