Shirley Jennings managed to get her foot in the door of the world of gyroplanes, or autogyros, shortly before tightened regulations in the UK made them and their pilots practically disappear, having first trained as a fixed-wing pilot. Autogyros are characterised by their free-spinning rotors and separate propeller that provides forward thrust – instantly recognisable when you see one in a photo like the above. Shirley was the first British woman to qualify as a gyroplane pilot since 1934, and remains the only woman to have ever flown a single-seat gyroplane in the country.
Two pioneers of the early, homemade gyroplanes were County Durham-based Ernie Brooks and Cornwall-based Charlie Force who was based in Cornwall like Shirley herself. Ernie and Charlie built their gyroplanes around the same time, at opposing ends of the country. These enthusiasts were on the edge of a new age of aviation, and had to teach themselves to fly and build aircrafts by reading a manual.
Ernie briefly became world famous for his gyroplane adventures, but unfortunately he died in 1969 in a tragic accident that was witnessed by his 13-year-old nephew, Trevor. Shirley’s mentors were Chris Julian, an aviator who himself was trained by Ernie’s contemporary Charlie, and Tony Philpott. Tony had acquired much of Ernie’s stock and paperwork and taken it down to Cornwall, and after his death Shirley gave a hand clearing out his belongings in his cellar.
It was here that she discovered the remains of Ernie’s work, and his incredible appetite for tiny rotorcraft inspired Shirley to try to piece together his story in a book, which was still relatively unknown even among gyro-pilots. Among the papers, she found that Ernie had promised his young nephew a gyro for his 18th birthday, which tragically went unfulfilled.
But due to her work and a string of coincidences, in 2017 Shirley managed to gift Trevor a Brookland Mosquito plane of his own. This weekend is the 50th anniversary of Ernie’s death, and to commemorate it his home town of Spennymoor will celebrate his achievements, and Trevor will parade his now beautifully-restored gyro around the town, to finish at Teesside Airport where Ernie was killed.
Shirley’s book, Spinning on the Wind: A Gyronaut’s Tale, is out now with SilverWood Books and makes for a great read about a lost part of aviation history.