She’s 95, but that doesn’t stop her taking to the skies. Sheena Hastings meets Moyra Johnson, president of the Yorkshire Gliding Club.
CLIMBING Sutton Bank near Thirsk with the car in second gear, the sky is not, as expected, dotted with silently gliding aircraft. The breeze is faint, the pale grey clouds low and sadly obscuring the broad vista across the Vale of York. Heavy rain is forecast, so no flying today.
Nearing the 100 acres of Yorkshire Gliding Club, on a plateau above the steep escarpment, a field full of caravans provides lodgings for enthusiasts during the week of one of the club’s most popular events, the Competition Enterprise. All week competitors from across the UK and a few from Europe have been soaring out above the famous White Horse at Kilburn, vying with each other to accomplish flying tasks set before them each morning and clocking up 18,176 kilometres before the clouds descended.
With no action possible today, this friendly band of fliers sit in the large, well-equipped clubhouse checking weather websites on laptops, writing emails, eating bacon sandwiches and swapping stories of work, kids, travels... but mostly it’s flying talk. They trade tales of distances, heights, speeds, journey times, stupendous views and the odd scary moment.
Holding court in the corner is Moyra Johnson, president and resident queen bee of the club. It seems that everyone wants to chat to her. These days she may only fly once or twice a year as a passenger, but her enthusiasm is as fresh as it was 76 years ago, when she was one of the first female participants in an exciting new sport which could attract a crowd of 10,000 spectators to its events. Back then she flew in a vessel that looked more like a baked bean can than an airworthy craft in which to trust life and limb.
The club was established on moorland above the White Horse as one of four UK soaring centres. The up-draughts from the escarpment and the spot’s unique geography helped the very basic aircraft of the day to stay aloft. The club’s mission was – and still is – to enable people from all backgrounds to enjoy gliding. That’s why, for instance, Scout groups regularly visit for sessions led by expert instructors.
Moyra, fit and well despite some weakness in her legs, remembers very well the early, heady days. Newspaper reporters of the time were clearly fascinated by the gliding community, which brought together people from all walks of life. The old headlines refer to them as heroes and heroines with their heads in the clouds. A beautiful young woman like Moyra Horsley was a particular magnet for attention, and photos of her then show her being helped out of her plane by attentive young men, resplendant in her tweed skirt, modish knitwear and brogues.
“I grew up a bit of a tomboy,” says Moyra, who was widowed in 1999 and still lives in York. “I was an only child, and my father was a gun maker who was made a freeman of the City of York, an honour I inherited. Daddy fought in World War I in the Navy. I could drive before I was 17, and other girls’ mothers told them not to mix with me because I was a hooligan. I couldn’t leave school fast enough and went to commercial college. I was a good secretary, working at one time for York City Council and later at the University.
“At that time our family had a garage business, and the local chemist Percy Watson bought a kit from us to build a glider. That was around 1933-34, when the sport was just starting in this country, and he made it in his living room so it had to be removed in the end by taking a window out. It was tested out at Norton near Malton and crashed.
Around that time, a group of people were organising the club up at Sutton Bank, and a piece of ecclesiastical land was acquired. A couple of huts were put on the site, and that’s how it all started. Half-way up Sutton Bank we had to stop the car and fill a bucket with water from a well for our drinks etcetera.” Pivotal members in the early days of the club included Norman Sharpe of the Sharpe greetings card business.
Moyra’s parents seem to have been happy enough to follow their adventurous daughter every weekend as she pursued her flying licence. “We took a caravan up there and they enjoyed watching. First I was taught to ‘hop’ 40 or 50 feet in a two-seater towed along by an old Rolls Royce with an instructor beside me. Then I moved on to left-hand and right-hand turns and a circuit. The final certificate involved keeping the glider flying for five minutes after take-off. I never feared for my life and my parents didn’t seem to either. They had given me great confidence in myself, and yes I did fall below the edge of the escarpment and land in a field below a few times, but I never got any serious injury.
“Very few people did, although the press made a big fuss whenever it happened. I didn’t particularly care for competition. I just loved the pleasure of being up there, like a bird in all that silence, looking down at the beauty of the Earth. And I loved the people.”
Moyra says part of the initial attraction of gliding was the dashing young men who spent every spare moment at the club. “I did enjoy the attention and the flirting. In those days I didn’t make a point of making girlfriends. As the clubhouse was built and a bar put in, I would serve drinks and listen to the talk. I learned more about flying from banter in the bar than any other way, really.” She spent every weekend at Sutton Bank, but married Ernest Johnson, a cinema manager and showman who hated flying. Moyra was all wrapped up in the world of endurance flights and record-breaking 8,000-foot climbs, and it was during this period that another glamorous local woman, one Amy Johnson, briefly appeared on the scene, before going on to establish powered flying records and eventually dying when her plane plunged into the Thames Estuary.
“I’m not sure why she joined, really – she just dabbled in gliding,” says Moyra, with a sniff. “She wasn’t around for long... but maybe I was a little bit jealous of her.”
With the outbreak of war the club was closed down, and afterwards only a few of the original members returned. But in the late 50s YGC really got back on its feet, and technological advances helped to attract new crowds to the club, where a fleet of planes was available as well as professional instructors, some of whom had also distinguished themselves in war.
An impressive circular clubhouse was built with washrooms and sleeping facilities, and members began to flock.
Today the club operates seven days a week for much of the year, and the fleet is sleek fibreglass, with electronic wizardry to supply information on location, height, wind speed and much more.
A handful of individuals own a glider (costing anything from £5,000 to £150,000); some part-own a craft and other enthusiasts use gliders owned by the club. So passionate are are some members that they’ve moved to the area from other parts of the country. One Danish member spends the summer months living nearby in a caravan. The current club record for a round-trip is 750 kilometres, by the way – but new members are welcome to better it. Moyra Johnson may no longer need a pilot’s licence, but she’s determined to keep up her commitment to gliding. “I’m still learning, every time I go to the club. Gliding people are lovely people, so why would I give up this glorious interest just because of age?”