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Empire of the Clouds: When Britain's Aircraft Ruled the World [Paperback]

James Hamilton-Paterson
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (147 customer reviews)
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Book Description

5 May 2011

In 1945 Britain was the world's leading designer and builder of aircraft - a world-class achievement that was not mere rhetoric. And what aircraft they were. The sleek Comet, the first jet airliner. The awesome delta-winged Vulcan, an intercontinental bomber that could be thrown about the sky like a fighter. The Hawker Hunter, the most beautiful fighter-jet ever built and the Lightning, which could zoom ten miles above the clouds in a couple of minutes and whose pilots rated flying it as better than sex. Just what was it like to be alive in that marvellous post-war moment when innovative new British aircraft made their debut, and pilots were the rock stars of the age?

James Hamilton-Paterson captures that season of glory in a compelling book that fuses his own memories of being a schoolboy plane spotter with a ruefully realistic history of British decline - its loss of self confidence and power. It is the story of great and charismatic machines and the men who flew them: heroes such as Bill Waterton, Neville Duke, John Derry and Bill Beaumont who took inconceivable risks, so that we could fly without a second thought.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber; Reprint edition (5 May 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571247954
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571247950
  • Product Dimensions: 12.6 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (147 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 51,008 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


An exhilarating book. Empire of the Clouds is by turns, thrilling, joyful, wistful and provocative. Bravery and beauty somehow escape the incompetence and capriciousness of officialdom in what is a very British version of The Right Stuff. I loved it. --Rowland White, author of Vulcan 607 and Phoenix Squadron

This is a fascinating account of what is likely to be Britain's final foray into military aviation. Mr Hamilton-Paterson is a knowledgeable and accomplished writer and his enthusiasm and his anger are infectious. --Len Deighton

A book of aerial wonder, sonic booms, exquisite aircraft and British heroes, beautifully told. --Jonathan Glancey, author of Spitfire

'The golden post-war age of British flying innovation and derring-do is beautifully evoked in a superbly written history.' --Sunday Times

A book of aerial wonder, sonic booms, exquisite aircraft and British heroes, beautifully told. --Jonathan Glancey, author of Spitfire

Book Description

A brilliant, nostalgic and provocative look at the golden age of British aircraft, from the post-war jet age to the recent sad decline.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
90 of 93 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The book: the writer feels, at times, that this is a biography of Bill Waterton, top test pilot (and critic of cant and sloppy practices). It is more than that, though; it is an overview of the British military and civil aviation of the late 1940s and 1950s. Of the aero industry, the many designs coming from the many independent aircraft companies, the test pilots who flew the prototypes; and of the failure of management to follow up success, the ineptitude and capriciousness of government, civil servants, and airlines. It describes the tragedy of great promise, shot down by loss of nerve, vacillation and incompetence: "the casual draining of a painfully acquired reservoir of national know-how that amounts to a form of treason." It also describes the heady enthousiasm of this particular period of flying, and goes into detail of the 'plane models involved.

The author: James Hamilton-Patterson has written on President Marcos of the Philippines, the World's Oceans, Elgar; has published poetry, children's books and the brilliant trilogy (so far, but we can hope) on Gerald Samper, Tuscan sybarite and cook extraordinaire.

My opinion: if you're not particularly keen on airplanes, don't bother. If you are, however, you're in for a treat - this is great stuff. A very appealing writing style: knowledgeable, well-researched, witty, informative - and enthousiastic, even poetic in places ("brooding anhedral"). The 'planes such as the Meteor, the Vulcan and the Lightning (and many more) are treated like the personalities they are. The test pilots who flew them, the companies that built them, the politicians and civil servants who scrapped them, or vacillated until they became obsolete... there is both enthusiasm and fury here, but both very well written and argued.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars cloud busting 15 Nov 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Great book and for those of with early memories of Vulcans & Lightnings in the early 60's its one not to be missed. Well written and the saga of the demise of the British jet hopes is both illuminating and comprehensive as is the 'lot' of the test pilots. Overall the book gives an excellent understanding of why Great Britain lost the lead in civilian and military manufacture, but stresses the genius of invention that existed in the UK.. e.g.jump jet technology. My only wish was for more photos to illustrate the text... but a very worthy book not to be missed.. particularly at the Amazon price
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63 of 68 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thoroughly worthwhile 6 Oct 2010
The book's subtitle - When Britains' Aircraft Ruled the World - is a conceit that it soon discards. Decades of mismanagement, political blundering, profiteering and cost-cutting all conspired to produce a succession of stunted, limited aircraft long on personality and short on utility, and it is refreshing for the bad as well as the good of those times to be discussed. There is precious little ruling of the world to be found here, and the book is really a fascinating mixture of a nostalgic look back at the airshows of the 1950s and the ever-more impressive military aircraft fielded by the RAF up to the late 1960s weaved into a respectful and long-overdue rehabilitation of the reputation of one of Britain's bravest test pilots, W.A. 'Bill' Waterton. Brave because he was eventually fired by Glosters for being too much of a pain in the rear with his outspoken opposition to what he saw as deliberate efforts to cut costs and mask faults in their aircraft, which ended up costing lives. Waterton's experience led him to remain outspoken as an aviation journalist afterwards, laying bare the idiocy and duplicity of an entire industry and its political masters before he finally returned to his native Canada and faded into obscurity. Empire of the Clouds puts this all into perspective and lays it against the background of that entire sweep of UK aviation history from 1946 to the present day.

The author's use of language is frequently poetic to the extreme and evokes feelings of nostalgia even if you weren't around in the 1950s to remember the events he describes as well as provoking wide grins of recognition if you have even the slightest love for the roar of a jet fighter or bomber cavorting in front of a crowd.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars When aeroplanes were real aeroplanes 17 Nov 2010
By Peter
I wanted a book which gives a twenty first century review of Britian's aircraft industry after the Second World War, at the beginning of the jet age, and this is the answer. The passage of time can and does modify views and impressions. It is a great book for all aircraft enthusiasts who can remember back to the days (like me) when aeroplanes looked like aeroplanes and Britain made a significant contribution to the wide variety of flying machines and the Farnborough air display was always exciting and innovative. It is an excellent follow-on to "Britain's Aircraft Industry, What Went Right, What Went Wrong" by Arthur Reed and published by Dent in 1973. There are more anecdotes and personal accounts in "Empire" than the Reed book which make it immensely readable - and nostalgic.
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63 of 69 people found the following review helpful
By Mark Shackelford TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I grew up in the 1950s/60s and was an avid plane spotter - always looking up to see the amazing (weird and wonderful) products of the UK aviation industry.

This book brought it all back, and highlighted the astonishing bravery of the test pilots - flying in ordinary clothes, in planes that were of dubious design, and working for a pittance, for the autocratic peers of the industry.

Rightly or wrongly a variety of governments meddled with and, in effect, destroyed the UK aviation industry - we are left with BAe who make the wings for the European Airbus. During the glory days of this book, we were building (badly in many cases!) a huge variety of military and civilian aircraft - Meteors, Canberras, Lightnings, Vulcans, Vampires, Comets, VC10s etc etc - beautiful creatures of the sky - and the things that made us look up.

I remember a particular Latin lesson at school in the 60s, when a rather delicious sound was droning past the window and the whole class turned to watch. "And now a pause to marvel at the modern piston engine in flight" entoned the Beak.

The book details the extraordinary companies (De Havilland, Hawker Siddley, Gloster etc.) many and various businesses who had made the wonderful aircraft that helped us win World War 2, and who were still expecting to continue with their designs and be funded by the tax payer... perhaps the government was right after all?

Fun times! My first job was working for Hawker Siddeley at Hatfield - on Tridents and what was to become the BA146. As a new graduate trainee I was given the opportunity to be "ballast" on a Trident test flight - so I jumped at the chance. The plane was empty of seats - just some lumps of lead as weight, so I sat up near the cockpit. Bliss!
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars A great read
I bought this book after watching a documentary on British post war aircraft on bbc 4. A really good read , catches the excitement of what it would have been like to see these... Read more
Published 9 days ago by J. Moulding
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Text with two narratives - Youthful Enthusiasm then...
This is a good read, anyone interested in that niche period from 1945 to 1950 where Britain's Jets ruled the skies this is THE book to read, however, once we go beyond the heady... Read more
Published 19 days ago by J. Bond
4.0 out of 5 stars Britannia rules the skies
In the 1950s and 1960s, “Britain’s aircraft ruled the world” – at least, they did according to this book’s subtitle. Read more
Published 28 days ago by History Geek
5.0 out of 5 stars british aircraft
This book, from an obviously captivated author,records the aviation activities during Britains glory days when we ruled the skys namely the 1940s and 50s. Read more
Published 1 month ago by G. I. Forbes
4.0 out of 5 stars A good aero-read
I purchased this book after having seen the author, James Hamilton-Paterson featured as a 'taking head' on a BBC 4 TV documentary about the history of the British Aviation... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Og Oggilby
4.0 out of 5 stars A sad read

Cover 4/5 - Vulcan an appropriate flying craft to have on the cover especially in the original white. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Alexander Kreator
5.0 out of 5 stars That great British tradition of creativity and quality
An excellent and authoritative read about a period in our history which raised our spirits from an all-time postwar low. A great reminder of what we can and still do best.
Published 3 months ago by cebegee
4.0 out of 5 stars An Interesting Insight Into British Post War Aviation
There aren't many books which deal with the sad, but perhaps inevitable decline of the British aviation industry post-WW2. This one is a very good place to start. Read more
Published 5 months ago by N. Cronin
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
If you like this subject then you'll love this book !! A right riveting read !! I loved it and bought a copy each for my brothers.
Published 6 months ago by C. Wood
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic book
An excellent book full of interesting technical details, exciting and dramatic events with evocative writing that conjures up memories of the great days of all-British aircraft at... Read more
Published 6 months ago by SteveT84
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