Chapter 39 wasn’t quite the end of the tale, in truth. There was one last instalment yet to complete when Spinning on the Wind went for publication, so for those who may be interested this is how past and present came together, forging a permanent bond over the weekend of 9th-10th March 2019.
It’s difficult to process the range of emotions that weighed so heavily during my first visit to Ernie’s hometown, on the 50th anniversary of his death. Bored to tears on the A1 after a seemingly endless drive up from Cornwall, I perked up considerably as familiar names began to appear on the road signs – ooh look! – Newton Aycliffe, Ferryhill, Spennymoor, Tudhoe! All the places I had heard so much about while trying to record some of Ernie’s life, I was almost childlike with wonder.
The next morning March 9th, fifty years to the day, I found myself driving along Attwood Terrace on the way to meet Trevor, passing Ernie’s former home at number 45. The sense of karma was overwhelming. If I could only knock on that door of fifty years ago and warn him about the dangerous manoeuvre he would perform just five hours and thirty minutes later – but of course I couldn’t – I was five decades too late. Yet somehow, I felt powerless.
We walked the short distance from Trevor’s home to where G-AWIF was hidden, careful to avoid the prying eyes of local yobs who would have no hesitation in mindlessly wrecking a unique piece of autorotational history. Trevor unlocked the door and there she was: the battered and timeworn little gyroplane I had last seen in May 2017, now transformed in the guise of Ernie’s own G-AVYW. She looked stunning in her fresh green paint with white trim, and proudly bolted to the airframe her crowning glory – the rare Brookland Aero Engine that providence had so generously provided just over a year ago. It was an awful shame that the original spindle rotor head had been stolen, but the offset gimbal didn’t look too out of place. Working covertly in a basic lock-up garage with nothing but hand tools, Trevor had done wonders.
In the afternoon watching the minutes tick away towards that fateful hour, it was almost surreal to be sat comfortably in Trevor’s home while the events of that terrible day in 1969 played out in my head. The schoolboy Trevor in a parallel dimension, so proud and excited as Ernie put the tiny rotorcraft through her paces. I wanted to grab the boy that he was, hold him fast and turn him away, never to witness the dreadful result of his beloved uncle’s last flight. But I was five decades too late, and Trevor’s life was never the same again. Driving back along Attwood Terrace that evening, I felt the full burden of the past. The agonising grief inflicted on the Brooks family home exactly fifty years ago at that very spot was almost palpable, the weight of emotion intense.
Early next morning we made a brief detour to Coulson Street, stopping outside the unit where Ernie had once climbed on the roof to paint the words ‘Brookland Garage,’ a legend long since weathered away. The echoes from the past were very strong and would intensify as the day progressed. Being in possession of the only tow-bar, it became my privilege to drive Trevor and his gyroplane down through the streets of Ernie’s hometown, stopping for a celebratory gathering at the Daleside Arms, where we manoeuvred the enormous trailer and its precious cargo into position for everyone to admire.
The rain had been steadily increasing all morning, but it couldn’t dampen our spirits. Elderly gentlemen were drawn to the miniature rotorcraft like moths to the flame, beaming with pleasure at the impossible sight of an authentic Brookland Mosquito. It was wonderful! Eyes shining, the years fell away as they spoke of Ernie flying over the villages, how they would scan the sky for him, and the shattering roar of the Volkswagen engine that heralded his arrival. Such a compliment to Ernie that they remember him so fondly after all that time. Beautiful.
Time to leave for Teesside Airport, where a film crew was waiting to record the historic return of a Brookland Mosquito gyroplane – and I was struggling again. How had this happened? Every Sunday afternoon, Ernie had collected the young Trevor on his way to Teesside Airport, towing the little rotorcraft behind them. Fifty years and one day after his death, I found myself sat beside Trevor, towing a Mosquito down the exact same route on a Sunday afternoon. I couldn’t get my head around it at all. Past and present collided big time when we reached the airport. Instantly familiar, there was the distinctive control tower and original wartime hangar that formed the backdrop to several monochrome photos found in Tony’s cellar. Physics and Relativity went screaming out of the window. It was all too much.
The rain had given way to shine, but a bitter wind was now howling across the open expanse of airfield, threatening to tear the tiny gyroplane apart. We clung to the rotor blades for dear life as she was positioned in front of Number 2 hangar to recreate the scene from one of those iconic photographs. Trevor’s son James took centre stage, kitted out by his father in orange overalls and brown leather jacket, exactly as Ernie had been when he posed with the Mosquito in front of that same hangar back in 1968 – Trevor had even painted the crash helmet to replicate his uncle’s. It was uncanny to be stood at that very spot as past merged with present and fused inextricably as one. The boundaries of space and time simply imploded. Watching Ernie’s family and friends gather round to record their own mementos, I was swamped by the magnitude of it all, helpless in a confusion of disbelief, sadness and delight.
For the last lap of a momentous day, we headed north to Sunderland where, with James named as trustee, G-AWIF was handed over as G-AVYW to the North East Land Sea and Air Museum, to be displayed as a permanent (and long overdue) tribute to Ernie Brooks, British gyroplane pioneer.
Incidentally, the chain of coincidence anchored in the sixties continued right to the last moment. After repeated setbacks with the publisher, I was worried sick that the books wouldn’t be delivered in time for Ernie’s commemoration. They finally arrived on March 4th – Chris Julian’s birthday.
NELSAM, the Mosquito’s new home is situated on the site of the former RAF Usworth Aerodrome – where Ernie used to take his family while developing the prototype Mosquito Mk1. It couldn’t have been more perfect.
And so concludes the final chapter of Spinning on the Wind. This book is closed.
(Thanks to Dave Thompson of DVTA for the photos at Teesside Airport)
To crown the events of 2019 and the successful disclosure of Ernie Brooks’ little-known achievements, October 6th saw the unveiling of an official Heritage blue plaque on his former Spennymoor home.
Thanks to the generosity (not to mention tenacity) of Peter Campbell, whose teenage years had been inspired by the efforts of Brookland Rotorcraft, the global reach of their pioneering work has now been recognised and endorsed by the Royal Aeronautical Society.
Fifty years after his death, Ernie Brooks has finally taken his rightful place in British gyroplane history.