FIFTY years and a day since aviation pioneer Ernie Brooks crashed to his death at Teesside Airport, a restored Brooklands Mosquito was again seen outside hangar number two on Sunday.

The poignant occasion also marked the launch of Spinning in the Wind –“A gyronaut’s tale” – Shirley Jennings’s biography of Ernie, the Spennymoor motor mechanic and former Smart and Brown’s foreman who, airborne, had the world at his feet. He was 39.

It was preceded by a lunch at the Daleside Arms in Croxdale, down the road from the family home in Tudhoe Colliery where Ernie had pursued his flight of fancy in a shed at the bottom of the garden.

Among the guests was Spennymoor town mayor Clive Maddison, 65, who recalled regularly seeing the Mosquito gyroplane above his childhood home at West Cornforth. “You’d usually hear it first,” said the mayor which, since the Mozzy used a converted Volkswagen engine was perhaps unsurprising.

It could cruise at 80mph, climb 750ft in a minute, use little more than two gallons of fuel an hour and was hailed the motorcycle of the air.

We’ve told Ernie’s story before, told how his single-seat aircraft was attracting global attention, how he worked with Durham-based former Austrian Olympic ice skater Adolf Schima, how the attendant publicity had ranged from the Daily Mirror to Blue Peter, from the Movietone News to Down Your Way.

Guests on Down Your Way got to choose a record. Appropriate and perhaps inevitable, Ernie asked for Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.

We’ve told, too, of the occasion on which Ernie – prematurely and self-consciously bald – was invited to sky test a Crown Topper wig above Weston-super-Mare, the deal that if he kept his hair on he got to keep the wig.

Trevor Brooks, his nephew, had been just 13 when – as usual – he accompanied Ernie to the airport for a flying display for potential customers. He heard, but didn’t see, the terrible accident.

When Shirley Jennings, herself a gyropilot and instructor, serendipitously found crates of Brookland records and parts in a cellar near her home in Cornwall, she determined also to find out more. Research has taken nine years, Trevor’s meticulous restoration of a Brooklands aircraft a little more than 18 months.

Ernie, Shirley concludes, had planned “a spectacular game of chicken” for his airport observers, but flat denies immediate reports – “the vultures of the press were quick to surround the aftermath of tragedy” – that he’d been trying to loop the loop.

The restored Mosquito travelled not on a wing and prayer, but towed behind a van from the pub – March breezing so strongly outside hangar two that the tiny craft might involuntarily have taken to the skies though flight was never the intention.

James Brooks, Trevor’s 26-year-old son, wore crash helmet and leather jacket to play the role of his great uncle – the first time, he said, that ever he’d worn a boiler suit. “I was brought up on stories of Ernie. My dad just idolised him,” said James.

Trevor pronounced himself “ecstatic”. Vivienne, Ernie’s daughter, thought the occasion “fabulous”, recalled following her dad round the region’s air shows. “It was his life, he loved it.”

The restored Mosquito will now go on display at the Sunderland Air Museum next to the Nissan factory, a permanent memorial to a magnificent man.



SEQUEL to the recent Stan and Ollie film, we wrote a column a month ago suggesting that the thin one’s links to Bishop Auckland were, at best, brief.

It prompted a near-full page riposte from a lady in Bishop and an invitation to attend a meeting of the Hog Wild tent of the Sons of the Desert, the worldwide Laurel and Hardy appreciation society. The “tents” are named after the pair’s 107 films – the Brats, the Bacon Grabbers or, in Bradford, the County Hospital.

Hog Wild’s also pitched in Bishop Auckland, one or two of the members quite hurt – wounding within tent? – by the original piece. This one may be supposed restorative justice.

Previously they met in the town hall – the Laurel Room, indeed – but after issues with Durham County Council now gather in a community room provided without charge by Asda at the other end of the main street. Just seven are present, including Darlington-based film historian Tony Hillman, who’s Grand Sheikh, and Peter Jones, the Grand Vizier. “The Grand Sheikh’s in charge but has no authority,” explains Tony, elliptically.

There, too, is Mike Jones, Grand Sheikh of the Beau Chumps tent in Sunderland, the only other North-East encampment and recently re-formed after 27 years. Its meeting last month attracted 40 people and went on until midnight. A fund raiser, Mike’s selling million dollar notes for £1.50. Very Laurel and Hardy, that.

The gathering’s convivial. A bowler hat, long the Laurels’ leitmotif, is employed only as a receptacle from which to draw the raffle tickets.

Brian Hayward, also present, lives in the same house in Waldron Street as did Stan’s grandparents and outside which is a blue plaque. “People knock on the door, I’m very happy to talk about it,” he says.

Another blue plaque in nearby Princes Street purports to mark Laurel’s birthplace, though everything suggests he was born in Ulverston, Cumbria. “I don’t know why they haven’t taken it down,” says Tony.

Love and Hisses, the first of three films, is silent, allowing conversation to continue. Frequently it involves imprecations against the county council, not least because that very day they’d voted themselves an egregious new headquarters in Durham.

Brian’s trying to lip read. “I’m sure Ollie said ‘Oh s**t’ there,” he says.

Mike Jones, who simply calls them the Hogs, is checking the Sunderland score on his mobile.

Most of them have seen the films many times. It doesn’t matter, age shall not weary them, not ossify the funny bone.

I ask Tony if they’ve any projects in hand. “You have to remember that Stan Laurel only lived here for a few months,” he says – clearly not a Northern Echo reader.

They meet on the first Tuesday of most months, have updated a Stan Laurel Trail leaflet around the town and would greatly welcome new members. The Grand Sheikh’s on 01325-354391, email

It’s much to be hoped that one or two will respond. As probably they say in Asda, every little helps.