When Frank Horner drives to Nanaimo once a month from now on, he won’t be doing it as a member of the Aircrew Association.
Like so many other groups and organizations from the Second World War, the Aircrew Association is no more.
“It came to an end this summer,” he said. “It’s like so many of these things. They’re just running out of membership. Even the Legions are changing their membership requirements to get younger people in. Everybody is running out of that particular generation.”
The news came particularly hard in light of the news that his beloved Falcon Field Association also wound up operations this year.
Horner got inolved in the Aircrew Association in 2007, when Nanaimo organizer Ned Stanley gave him a call at his home in Qualicum Beach.
“The Aircrew Association was a social club, an international collection of anybody who had been on the Allied side who had a flying badge,” he said. “Just like the other groups from around the world, it was a monthly lunch meeting where we would talk about our airforce days and so on.”
Like other veterans’ associations, they contacted Horner — now 86 — in a bid to attract younger members.
“When I first started going in Nanaimo, there were 16 people involved,” Horner remembered. “Now there are less than half that.”
The steady winnowing of membership was not confined to Nanaimo. Every year, around the globe, meeting conversation often involved reminiscences of old so and so, who had been a member but who had recently succumbed to old age.
“Like so many of these organizations that rely on the wartime generation, they were just losing membership and those who were still involved were getting too old to take on the responsibility for running these things. There wasn’t any future but to close it down.”
Horner had always been fascinated with aviation and he began his flying career as soon as he was eligible. In 1942, still in school, he signed up as a future member of the RAF in London at age 17.
The following year, he joined the PNB scheme, which was a training program for pilots, navigators and bomb aimers.
In 1944, Horner crossed the Atlantic to train as a pilot at Falcon Field in Mesa, Arizona.
“It was a Royal Air Force unit, with American civilians as instructors, using the RAF syllabus. I finished in seven months, from June of 1944 to January of 1945.”
The top pilot in his class, Horner was sent back to the UK for active service, but he was never to pilot a plane under enemy fire.
“In the UK things were slowing down because the war was coming to an end. A lot of the fellows never went anywhere and just transferred to the fleet air arm — and they didn’t necessarily continue flying, either.”
Horner was posted to a heavy conversion unit, where he was preparing to pilot a bomber. However, two of his crew members moved on to training duties, and his air crew was split up and given ground jobs.
That wasn’t good enough for Horner, who had flying in his blood, so he requested to go back into flying.
“Much to my surprise, the request went through. The plan had been to form what was to be called Tiger Force, which was going to be a bunch of RAF squadrons of heavy bombers based in Okinawa to bomb the Japanese mainland by night while the Americans with their B-29s would bomb during the day.”
The dropping of the atomic bomb put paid to those plans.
Over the many years since that dramatic time, Horner traveled numerous times back to Arizona to visit Falcon Field, which contained so many memories of his youth. He kept in touch through the Falcon Field association and was on hand in 1991 for the 50th anniversary celebration, which featured an appearance by Falcon Field founder and actor Jimmy Stewart.
Since then, like the Aircrew Association, membership has waned and withered.
“Falcon Field had a big thing for Remembrance Day last year and that was their final thing,” he said. “You can regret those things, but time marches on and you have to accept that this is the way things go. It’s like your youth disappearing. You’re sorry about it, but you can’t do anything about it.”