Brenda Horsfield: Glider pilot who also flew Spitfires and worked with David Attenborough on educational television series


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Brenda Horsfield was an intrepid glider pilot, a distinguished BBC television producer and a witty, independent woman with trademark long blonde hair. She had a degree in English from Oxford but her television programmes often had scientific themes. She was a Cheltenham Ladies’ College girl but from early on showed distinct anti-establishment tendencies. She could be sharp but also had a gentler, shyer side.

At the end of the war she joined the WRAFVR (the Women’s Royal Air Force Voluntary Reserve) and became a pilot, at one point flying Spitfires. But her real passion was for soaring silently on thermals in a glider. She became an expert at this sport and in her late eighties and despite many infirmities she continued to glide over Hampshire, up the final month of her life. She would spend summers living in a caravan close to her take-off point at Lasham aerodrome, near Alton.

She was born in Wallington, Surrey, in 1926, the daughter of a civil servant, Reginald Barnard, and his gifted musician wife, Margaret. Her father died when she was six, leaving her mother to cope alone with Brenda and her infant sister.   Money was short, so Mrs Barnard ran a Scottish dance troupe and played the piano for silent films while her elder daughter watched and listened in the stalls.

Family finances and well-being improved when the widow married a pilot, Derrick Horsfield, and both sisters took his name. The new family lived in an old watermill at Lindfield in West Sussex where, during the war, their Elizabethan barn became an Officers’ Club.

Brenda was a delicate child, spending a year in bed because of asthma. But she recovered well enough to win a music scholarship to Cheltenham Ladies College. From there she won a state scholarship to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford where she read English, existed on an economical but fattening diet of condensed milk and sardines. She was a beauty and her younger sister remembers her lying on silk cushions smoking Sobranie cigarettes. 

Her post-Oxford decade is a little mysterious. It involved working on exhibitions and in journalism and publishing, as well as joining the WRAFVR, in which she became an Acting Pilot Officer. Her gliding obsession dates from this time and early on Redhill was her base.

She resurfaced professionally in 1956, working on women’s programmes for BBC Television. By 1960 she was directing a medical series, Replacements for Life, about spare parts for the body. She interviewed well-known scientists for The State of the Individual, a 1962 series edited by David Attenborough. By the mid-1960s she had moved to the Further Education department, where she remained until her retirement, producing an eclectic mix of programmes. 

She researched deeply, read widely and delivered authoritative series on, among other topics, the weather, the history of railways, Native Americans, Britain’s geology (On the Rocks), science fiction and sailing. She collaborated on many of the books accompanying these series and also wrote in 1972, with Peter Bennet Stone, Great Ocean Business, on the movement of tectonic plates on the ocean floor.

Meanwhile she went on gliding, and pressing the case for the proper recognition of women pilots. As the chair of The Women’s Pilots’ Association she made a contribution to defining the terms of 1975 Sex Discrimination Act. This process led to the formation of the Equal Opportunities Commission.

After leaving the BBC, Horsfield continued to dispense advice on diet and health matters to former colleagues through the BBC pensioners’ association journal. And she flew on, appearing regularly at the Lasham launch-point in Hampshire in her beloved Triumph sports car. A fellow flyer recalled that despite the difficulty of getting in and out of the glider she would manage to make a good circuit and soar for an hour or more.

One of those who helped her to keep soaring in those final months summed her up like this: “She was a formidable woman – and only a brave man would argue with her.”

Catharine Margaret Brenda Barnard (Brenda Horsfield), television producer, author and pilot: born Wallington, Surrey 18 January 1926; died London 25 November 2014.