Nushin Elahi on the remarkable life of Ted Barrett, the oldest active pilot in the UK
“I knew it was you at the controls,” explained Ted gently, “because the aeroplane had a slight tilt towards the left as you took off.’ Of course he did. There’s not much that escapes the sharp eyes of Ted Barrett, the oldest active pilot in the UK.
Young Ted, as all his friends call him, or Gordon as he was christened, is also turning the ripe old age of 99 in May 2020. Two days before his birthday he receives the Royal Aero Club’s Old and Bold Trophy, one which needs no further explanation.
Ted’s association with the recreational side of aviation covers all facets of this incredible sport. He has been a member of virtually all the aeronautical clubs in the UK, including the BMAA, LAA, BHGPA and BGA.
He has flown gliders, motorised and non-motorised, GA planes and microlights with his licenses: LAPL, PPL and NPPL (M).
Ted became a registered engine inspector in 1946, on Wellingtons, and in the intervening 75 years has worked on aircraft such as the DC8, the Dakota, the Dove and the Britannia, among many others.
Ted’s certified engineer status dates from 1946, and he has kept it current to date. He’s a registered engineer with the CAA, which recently renewed his licence for aircraft including the Boeing 707 and earlier variants of the 737. Not, Ted wryly notes, the most recent models, including the Max!
He’s also an LAA inspector and until recently did gliders too.
His licence to fly was acquired with the Lord Brabazon certificate in 1950 and he’s one of the last remaining holders of this. He still flies as P1 whenever he can, and as a passenger with almost anyone who offers him a flight.
Ted is quite used to being feted and having people lining up to rub shoulders with him, but that hasn’t gone to his head at all. A humbler man would be hard to find.
He lives for flying and flies every few days, going up with whoever wants company in their aeroplane. Don’t imagine though that he’s just a passenger. No, if that aircraft is banked rather sharply, “wingtips reaching for the ground,” as he puts it, you can bet Ted is at the controls.
“I do like that sort of thing,” he admits rather shyly. “Always have, but not many pilots let you do that.”
Whiling away the hours between flights at an airfield, you are lucky if you get to spend it with Ted. If there is a problem with the hangar door, with a flexwing’s solenoid or an engine’s beat, Ted will be there, listening and offering to help.
He talks with delight about the things he sees around him, and those who take his advice do so because he’s as sharp as ever, not because they are indulging an old man.
In fact, says a fellow pilot, Ted generally hangs around not saying much until help is needed, then he might offer a suggestion or two – and you would be a fool if you didn’t listen.
He’s trained on Rotax 912 and Jabiru engines and can see problems brewing long before anyone else. One of the few times he turned down a flight was when he noticed fibreglass debris in a fuel filter and suggested the pilot spend the time cleaning out the fuel tanks instead.
Living in Bishop Stortford, Ted Barrett is a regular at most of the airfields in Essex, Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire, where he is welcomed by all. He knows that area of the world so well, a flight examiner was amazed recently at how competently Ted could take him from A to B without the use of any charts.
A pilot through and through, he says he navigates with the three Rs – roads, rivers and railways. Going to drive to an event instead of flying? You will find Ted pouring over the aviation charts, until he gives a satisfied nod and tells you which roads we will be driving on to get there.
When someone offers him a flight, there is only one answer Ted gives, “Yes!”
“You’ve got to have a purpose in life to keep you going,” he says.
Getting Ted to talk about himself is like prizing a clam open, but once going, it is hard to keep up. But no matter who I ask, his conversation is a kaleidoscope of brightly coloured, brilliantly lit snippets of stories.
At first, it’s frustrating. I couldn’t write a CV from this lot. Every time I think I have a handle on it, I find out something more until I realise that at that advanced age you don’t need a CV and that brilliant kaleidoscope is exactly what Ted’s life has been – a steady stream of wonderful memories. And that’s why he never stops smiling.
“Yes, you can talk to me about anything. I’m interested in everything that goes on,” he admits.
Throw a random subject at him, and you will find he has something to say about it: South Africa – he was stationed there in the war in 1942, and would love a map of the Cape to refresh his memories; Amsterdam – he and his wife used to make an annual pilgrimage to see the bulbs in bloom; television cameras – his brother worked at Alexandra Palace, and he’d often go and visit him in the studio. Indians from the Punjab visit the airfield, and he can greet them in their own tongue.
Ted never resists the new. If he’s unfamiliar with a subject, he reads up on it. He listens intently to what others say, which is why he stays so bright. You can call him late at night, and he will tell you he’s “playing around” on the tablet someone gave him. He was happy when someone put him on Facebook, but don’t expect him to answer his mobile phone.
It is four years ago that Ted told me about listing to the left. I am now a qualified pilot clocking up the hours as P1, and I don’t think the aeroplane still has a slight tilt towards the left as I take off.
Ted was my first passenger and gave me the most wonderful compliment that day: “I couldn’t have done it better myself!”
He loves being anyone’s first passenger. He just loves flying, and when life throws him lemons, the one sure-fire way of making him smile again is to take him flying.
We have had quite a few adventures, Ted and I, on the road to me becoming a confident pilot. I still don’t know all the details of his life as an engineer in the war, or his work at Stansted, or which particular engines he has worked on, but I do know the love story of how he met an Irish nurse at a dance, the woman who became his wife, Eileen.
He is a firm believer that his passion for aviation is what has kept him so youthful, and he is a constant inspiration to other younger pilots who look at how many years Ted has enjoyed flying and hope to get the same from this wonderful sport.
Everyone who knows Ted loves him. And everyone wishes that they could grow old like Ted, but for that, I suspect, you need a heart of gold at the start.
His favourite words of encouragement are: “But you did it!”, no matter what the weather, or any of the adversities you may have faced. And with those four words, he proves every time why he is such a source of encouragement to so many pilots. And that will be his legacy.