Grounded at 101 - the magnificent man still fixing flying machines

Ernie is still working at the grand old age of 101.
Ernie is still working at the grand old age of 101.

Aviator Ernie Horsfall could be excused for having his head in the clouds after more than half a century piloting light aircraft.

But the remarkable aeronaut, who is still working at the grand old age of 101, gives me a pretty down-to-earth response when I ask him if he still enjoys flying.

Ernie ready to cut the plane shaped cake on his 100th birthday.

Ernie ready to cut the plane shaped cake on his 100th birthday.

“I don’t go flying for fun any more,” he snaps. “Because there is very little fun in it. I’ve absolutely no more regard for flying than either getting in a car or on a scooter. It doesn’t mean a thing to me.”

A surprising answer from a pilot who has more than 3,000 flying hours to his name and who seemed destined to take to the skies from the day he was born.

Ernie landed on April 21, 1918. It was the very day that First World War ace The Red Baron was finally shot down - and the same year the Royal Air Force was formed.

Yet, even though the joy of flying has somewhat diminished over the years, his life is still inextricably wrapped up with aircraft.

Despite having to stand down as a Pilot In Command (PIC) at the age of 93 - only because insurance companies would no longer cover him at the controls - Ernie still gets up in the co-pilot’s seat and is still working as an official aircraft inspector for the Light Aircraft Association. His current airworthiness project is a plane built over the past eight years by an enthusiast in Lancashire.

“The paperwork is two-and-a-half inches thick and it’s full of my signatures,” says Ernie at his home in Fulwood, Preston. “We’re almost there. But there’s been a slight hiccup over something the owner forgot to do in the paperwork. I don’t like hiccups in paperwork - I’ve never had one before.”

Born in Bradford, Ernie is a typically straight-talking, no-nonsense Yorkshireman who says it like it is and not necessarily how others would like to hear it.

For a start he tells me he doesn’t much care for reporters following an experience back in the 70s when a journalist arrived unannounced in his hangar at Blackpool Airport and managed only a couple of questions before Ernie gave him a mouthful, jumped in his car and sped off.

It is quite possible that he is still working at 101 because no-one dares tell him to stop.

But the chaps at the LAA are adamant he is still fully operational as an inspector because he’s as good, if not better, as anyone in the same field - most of them less than half his age.

“It’s exceptional what Ernie is doing,” the LAA’s chief inspector Ken Craigie tells me. “I keep in touch with him and monitor him in respect of his ability to inspect. There is no age limit. It is based on health and ability. The wealth of knowledge and wisdom he has makes him more useful to us than someone much younger.”

Ernie’s suitability for the role is based on 54 years of building, re-building and owning dozens of light aircraft since he took delivery of his first back in 1965. At 43 he was a bit of a latecomer to flying, but he has more than made up for it since.

The fascination for taking to the skies developed during the war when, as an Army staff sergeant, he took a trip in an RAF flying boat in 1943. But it was almost two decades later when the bug really bit him and he took lessons with the Luton Flying Club.

After that it was up, up and away.

Over 58 years in the air Ernie has filled five pilot logbooks and clocked up more than 3,000 flying hours.

Despite losing his insurance to be at the controls, he has still been taking off to attend light aircraft festivals, piloted by his good pal George Brennand, who is gardener from Chorley . . . and a mere 87.

The pair have been visitors to the Alderney Fly-In in the Channel Islands for decades. Last year George won the prize for the “Most Senior Pilot,” while Ernie picked up the “Spirit of the Fly-In” award for the oldest participant at just 100.

“I’ve been going to Alderney for donkeys years, but I decided not to attend this year,” Ernie tells me. “Normally we go for two or three days, but George has a place there and he was planning on staying longer this time. I’m not able to whip up and down stairs so easily with my legs, so I backed out.

“To be honest I could be up (flying) most weekends if I wanted. I go to sit with a group of owners and pilots (at a flying club) every Saturday morning and we talk about all sorts of things to do with aeroplanes. I love that and it’s enough for me.

“But, as I said, flying doesn’t really mean anything to me now after doing 3,000 hours. I don’t miss it.

“As far as I’m concerned flying was hard work - modern flying is even harder work. The regulations are so strong now that people just don’t fly any more.”

I get the impression Ernie would have been mightily impressed with the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, if their flightpaths had ever crossed. However the WW1 fighter met his end just hours before Ernie popped into the world.

“He died about lunchtime and I was born about teatime on the same day,” he tells me. “The church bells were ringing - but not for me.

“I’ve got the same birthday as the Queen, who I’ve met in the Banqueting House in Whitehall. I shook hands with Prince Philip. I’ve also met Prince Andrew who presented me with an award at the RAF Club in Mayfair. What a magnificent place that is.”

Ernie has been an engineer all his life - and a good one at that. He was already working in that field when WW2 broke out and the Army called him up to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME). He made Staff Sergeant and spent six-and-a-half years in the forces.

Back on Civvy Street he worked at Vauxhall Motors where he became an experimental/development engineer and later a senior manager. But his passion turned from cars to planes and a love affair with flying machines began.

“Most of my aeroplanes have been French ones. I’ve owned one or two English, but the majority have been from France. I’ve spoken French from school and I’ve lived there, so I can converse. I’ve been able to get these aeroplanes at silly prices and brought them over here, done them up and then I’ve sold them at silly prices too.

"I’ve owned around 56 and I’m proud to say most of those are still flying. No man has ever put a spanner on my aeroplanes, or even painted them. Only me.

“I inspect aeroplanes now, that’s about all I do. And I’m not intending to pack it in just yet. It’s easy enough to do, if you know what you’re looking at. I know from 20 yards away what I’m going to find before I get there.

“But I’m glad I don’t own one anymore. What with modern officialdom and administration, they have made it so difficult now. Light aircraft are not flying any more because, with aviation laws, if you transgress in the slightest they will take your licence off you.

“I refuse to fly in small aeroplanes any more because my legs are stiff and awkward. If we had to get out in a hurry I’d slow the pilot down, as most only have the one door. I’m not bothered about being refused insurance. I understand. But I’d be prepared to take the controls of any aeroplane if it was in trouble. Why not? Any pilot can become ill.

“Looking back I’ve had a few hairy moments. There have been three or four times when I’ve got down on my knees and kissed the ground when we’ve landed.

"One time I flew into Blackpool when the airport had been closed for three days because of bad weather. The controller said ‘how did you find the runway?’

“So it’s fair to say that I’ve been pretty lucky.”