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.