Withernsea’s first Blue Light Weekend this summer is set to incorporate the town’s biggest-ever air show – and among the airborne visitors will be veteran pilot Nick Lee in a wartime Tiger Moth. By Sam Hawcroft
‘Don’t call it a plane – that’s something carpenters use. It’s an aircraft…’
Nick Lee is gently chiding about the correct terminology when it comes to his passion, vintage aviation.
However, he came to it relatively late in his long flying career, having only begun flying Tiger Moths in 2019. Before then, he was in control of rather larger beasts, spending many years at the controls of Boeing 747s until his retirement last year.
Growing up in Berkshire, Nick had always wanted to fly. “I used to go to the air shows in my local area and watch the aircraft, such as the Spitfires, which were my absolute favourites,” he says.
Nick joined the RAF in the late 1970s, because there was no civilian training at the time. He carried out two tours – one on maritime patrol on the Nimrod, and another as an instructor on the Jet Provost at Church Fenton.
By the time he left the air force about a decade later, the airlines were recruiting, and he began his career in 1989 at Cathay Pacific, based in Hong Kong, where he and his wife lived.
When he turned 65 last year, he was flying with Nippon Cargo Airlines, but because of rules that prevent anyone over that age being an international pilot, he had to hang up his flying shoes on his birthday. (Are flying shoes a thing? Well, if Nick’s Twitter feed is to be believed, yes…)
“I had to retire last April,” he adds. “On the 16th I was all right to fly – on the 17th, I wasn’t.”
In recent years Nick has been focusing more on his love of old aircraft – which, of course, are a world away from the hi-tech instrumentation on modern jets, yet they work on the same principles. It’s rather like the difference between driving a model-T Ford and the latest automatic incarnation with all its digital bells and whistles. As Nick puts it, piloting a 747 is like “driving a block of flats into the air”, whereas a Tiger Moth is, well, altogether more basic.
“You pretty much go back to flying by feel,” he says. “And especially with the open cockpit aircraft, you don’t really have to look at the instrumentation. You’re generally just looking outside and feeling what the air flow is doing and getting the idea of what you need to do from that, as much as anything.”
It’s not just the experience of flying, though – the history is almost tangible, says Nick.
“It takes you back to the early days of flying. You get to think about the people who sat in these aeroplanes before you have.
The Tiger was used for training RAF crew during the war, so the people who have sat in the cockpit before me might have gone on to fight in the Battle of Britain.
“The aeroplanes quite often carry their own history of the people who have flown in them and the things that they’ve done, so that’s one reason I love vintage aircraft – they’re quirky, generally, and they’re interesting to fly. They do have their issues that you have to keep an eye on, but it’s a lot of fun.”
It was in 2015, after Nick returned to the UK from living in Hong Kong, that he got his first vintage aircraft. Four years later, he was invited to instruct on the aircraft, and started working for the Tiger Moth Academy when it formed at Breighton airfield, near York, last year. “Until 2019,
I’d never flown one before,” says Nick. “They say it’s an easy aircraft to fly, but it’s a difficult aircraft to fly well.”
So, what can visitors to the Blue Light Weekend on Sunday, August 13, expect? “The Tiger Moth is capable of doing aerobatics,” says Nick, “but I don’t have the authority to display it in that way. What I can do, though, is pretty much everything up to aerobatic, so you will see the aircraft doing what we call wing-overs, which are a fairly steeply banked turn that starts off with a climb; then the aircraft turns quite steeply and descends back down to the altitude where it started. I’ll be displaying down to 100ft.”
This might bring some reassurance to those who are still wavering over whether to enter the Blue Light Weekend’s raffle to be taken on a flight in the very same Tiger Moth – piloted not by Nick this time, but by Patrington-based pilot Sgt Dave Walker, aka “Para Dave”.
The winner will be able to decide for themselves how adventurous they want to be – but, according to Alison Rawson, who owns the aircraft and runs the Tiger Moth Academy, it’s less about daredevil tricks and more about the “sheer exhilaration” of flying high above the region in an open- cockpit biplane, an experience that many find profoundly moving, too.
“You can be in the air like a bird – you can lean out and see all those things below,” she says. “We typically fly clients from Breighton to York, around the Minster and back again, or over to the Humber Bridge – and it’s incredible to see those landmarks from the air.
“You can’t even get the same idea from a drone because they don’t go high enough. Looking down on everything from such a height, and it all feeling so tiny – it really puts your life into perspective.”
To enter the Tiger Moth raffle, visit give.bluelightwithernsea.com. Alternatively, paper entry forms are available from the Gazette office.