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I've already posted my Red Arrows pics from the Cosford Airshow, but I took a lot more than just that. As well as the flying display, there was a lot to see on the ground too.

The RAF Museum at Cosford has a lot of historic aircraft, including some unique experimental and development planes. One of the nice features of the Cosford Airshow is that every year the organisers and the Museum wheel some of these planes out of their hanger and onto the flight line so you can imagine them as they were in their heyday.

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This is the Avro 707C. If it looks like a miniature Vulcan, that's because it was developed to test the flight characteristics of the Vulcan's delta wing.

Lots more aircraft! )

Now to sort through the photos of Flying Stuff Other Than The Red Arrows.
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I have literally hundreds of pictures from Cosford on Sunday, but I've started sorting through my pictures of the Red Arrows display first. The cloud base was rather low so the team flew the 'flat' display (no loops) but it was still as spectacular as ever.

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I am rather pleased with this sequence. My Canon 70D can shoot at 7 frames per second in high-speed continuous mode, and this is just the sort of thing that's meant for.

About two seconds. But a very spectacular two seconds. )

The full album is here.
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About six years ago I got to see the last flying Vulcan, XH558, shortly after she had returned to the air for the first time since 1993. I've been meaning to catch her again sometime, and so when I saw that there was a Cold War Tour of former V-Bomber bases planned for 25th September I was pleased to note that one of the sites was the former RAF Gaydon, now home to the British Motor Heritage Museum.

Fortunately, my diary remained clear other than a short client conference that morning so at about 12.30 I headed off down to Gaydon. Getting there early proved a good idea; even at 1.30, an hour and a half before the scheduled flypast time, the main car park was nearly full. I took the opportunity to have a look around the museum itself, which was offering half-price discounted entry for the day; lots of interesting bits of British motoring history, including the first production examples of the Land Rover Series One, Mini and Range Rover, various weird Land Rover variants (including one on tracks!), assorted Lotuses, Aston Martins and Jaguars, and a DeLorean in Back To The Future get-up.

About half an hour before the due time, I wandered out to the landscaped earth bank where by now a good two or three hundred other spectators were waiting. I'd bought my Canon 70D and 70-300mm zoom, although I noticed a fair few photographers with significantly snazzier and more expensive-looking kit lined up and waiting. I'd installed the Vulcan tracker app on my phone, and watched as it headed past Cambridge and due west towards us. The commentator from the Vulcan Trust was only slightly more in the picture than we were - he was listening in to local air traffic - but a few minutes behind schedule he announced that XH558 was inbound.

And then an approaching roar. There she was.

Lots of photos! )

One more pass, with a spectacular wing-over, and then she was off north-east towards her next flypast at RAF Wittering. There was a round of applause - in some ways odd (the crew could hardly hear!) but very heartfelt. The Vulcan is an incredible aircraft, and it's a thrill to see her in the air. Depending on how the life of her engines can be managed, and as ever on whether enough funds can be raised, XH558 may have one or two more years flying, so take the chance to see her while you can.
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Empire of the Clouds: When Britain's Aircraft Ruled the World


I have a confession to make: it seems that I have something in common with Margaret Thatcher. She apparently chose Telstar as one of her Desert Island Discs, and whatever else I might not agree with the Iron Lady on, I'd back her on that. But for me it is, despite its self-consciously futuristic mood, an incredibly nostalgic piece. Rather oddly so, because what it makes me nostalgic for is an era that was over nearly half a decade before I was born. You see, I cannot hear Telstar without it conjuring up black-and-white newsreel images of 1950s British aircraft displaying at Farnborough, of RAF Lightnings and Vulcans streaking overhead, and of Blue Streak thundering into the sky over Woomera. Yes, my nostalgia is for the glory days of post-War British aviation, despite being born a generation too late to have experienced it. How must it have felt to have been a young aviation enthusiast at the time?

Well, we don't need to wonder, because James Hamilton-Paterson was one, and describes the era in intense, almost poetic detail in Empire of the Clouds. (This was the first I'd heard of him, but on digging a little it turns out that he is a well-regarded if reclusive novelist; on the strength of his writing in this, I may have to search out some of his fiction.) As a book about the sheer joy and excitement of aviation it is a delight, but as well as the author's recollections of his obsession with the aircraft and test pilots of the 1950s - household names of the day - it is also an excellent at at times very critical history of how the British aviation industry went from a world leader in the 1940s into a shrunken vestige of itself by the 1960s.

Among aviation geeks - a tribe I count myself as a member of - there's a popular myth of how an innovative and dynamic British aircraft industry was mismanaged to ruin by short-sighted, technically ignorant mandarins and self-serving politicians. Exhibit A in this story is always the TSR.2, cancelled by the incoming Labour Government in 1964 at the behest of the Treasury / the Navy / the Americans (pick your villain) when it could have been a world-beating strike aircraft. But Hamilton-Paterson, whilst pulling no punches on the almost vindictive manner of the TSR.2's cancellation (with plans being burned and production jigs wrecked, so as to preclude any risk of the project being restarted) is also frank about the aircraft's problems. It was late to first flight because of chronic mismanagement arising from little more than personal grudges between heads of the still-fragmented aircraft industry, and was not, he suggests, quite the wonder plane it's usually made out to be. Its small wing, intended to allow fast, low-level flight, actually gave even the lightweight prototypes a poor takeoff performance; Hamilton-Paterson points out that pictures of the TSR.2 taking off look very dynamic, but the very nose-high flight angle was due to the poor lift offered by the limited wing. A fully-operational version, he suggests, might have had dismal takeoff performance and been rather hairy to land.

(When I was in the RAF a colleague recounted a conversation from way back with an engineer who'd been involved with TSR.2, and had reckoned that it's incredibly complex but pre-solid-state avionics would in practice have been a maintenance nightmare, and that it might never have entered reliable service, at least without a major update. Putting that together with Hamilton-Paterson's comments it is hard to avoid the feeling that some of the contemporary criticisms of the TSR.2 may have been well-founded).

But similar problems are noted for other aircraft. In the early 1950s in particular many aircraft were rushed into production when really little more than prototypes, and whilst this may have been forgiveable in wartime (the Gloster Meteor was a deathtrap for years, and was never entirely purged of its vices) it was less so for aircraft such as the Javelin (unstable), Lightning (unreliable, underarmed and fuel-thirsty), the Hunter (very pretty but would suffer engine flameout if it fired its guns in early versions) and of course the Comet airliner, which had to crash several times before its design faults were noted.

In large part, Hamilton-Paterson puts this down to the refusal of governments to force the industry to rationalise. The merger of classic names such as Avro, Handley Page and so on into BAC and eventually British Aerospace is often decried, but Hamilton-Paterson argues it came too late, so that the 1950s was full of half-finished prototypes put together by design teams that often lacked the breadth of skill to tackle the barely-understood complexities of supersonic aircraft design. (As another author commented on the Victor / Valiant / Vulcan V-Bomber force, it seemed as if the Air Ministry forgot that the original plan had been to pick just one.)

Empire of the Clouds is at times anecdotal, and although each chapter is heavily referenced I couldn't help but note that some of the more spectacular stories are conspicuously devoid of acknowledgement - meaning, I suspect, that they owe more to the Officers' Mess Bar than they do to flight logbooks. But this isn't a technical history; it's a social one, reminding me of nothing so much as Francis Spufford's Backroom Boys, or Harry Pearson's hilarious memoir of wargaming Achtung Schweinehund. For anyone fascinated by the shiny silver aerial exotica of the 1950s, this book is a must.
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Good heavens, did I take a lot of pictures at Farnborough. About 650 in all, although that's in part because I was using continuous-shoot mode quite a bit to try to capture some of the more spectacular bits of formation flying. It's taking me a while to select, clean up and post the good ones, so you'll be getting a steady stream for a while yet. Here are a few from the Eurofighter Typhoon display, which really did make the subsequent F-16 routine look rather pedestrian.

Fast and Loud )
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As seen from the balcony of [livejournal.com profile] purplecthulhu's flat; clicking will lead to a larger image.

Many Flying Things )

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Simon Bradshaw

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