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92 of 95 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a biography (and obituary) of Vulcans, Lightnings and Viscounts
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...
Published on 15 Oct 2010 by Henk Beentje

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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Like the Daily Telegraph obituary of the UK air industry
A reasonable but slightly drifting book on the decline of the British aerospace industry. The author is clear in his love of British aircraft and their place in both his personal life and his country's history since WW2.

Though well focused in many parts about specific people, projects or places, the book is unbalanced by the author's opinions and...
Published on 12 Dec 2010 by A. Somerville


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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Elegy to a bygone age: what happened to our "belief in the future"?, 22 Jan 2012
By 
The Guardian (UK) - See all my reviews
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James Hamilton-Paterson is a successful author whose other works cover themes as diverse as classical music, undersea exploration, politics in The Philippines and cookery-themed humour. With such a seeming hotch-potch of interests you'd be forgiven for thinking he might not be the ideal writer to tackle the history of British aircraft design and manufacture between 1945 and the mid-1960s, the iconic aircraft it produced and the industry's eventual decline.

Surprisingly, `Empire of the Clouds' is in every way a superb piece of work, born from the deep passion of a true enthusiast. The author brings insight and knowledge about the companies and their often autocratic founders, disastrous cost-cutting, failures of management and tolerance of outdated industrial practices. Together with bean-counting, vacillating politicians and duplicitous national airline carriers, this lethal cocktail of ineptitude eventually resulted in the slow destruction of a world-leading industry.

However, the book is in no way downbeat in tone. On the contrary, it's an elegy to a bygone age before the design and production of new military and civilian passenger aircraft became so expensive that only international conglomerates or huge corporations could hope to deal with the complexities, and before the depressing triumph of dreary health and safety obsessives bludgeoned the initiative, romance and sheer daredevilry out of aviation forever.

The stars of the book are the aircraft of this romantic era fertile with new ideas, and the heroes the test pilots who flew them. If you have a passion for these wonderful aircraft then you're in for a treat. The eloquent stories of the less-than-perfect Gloster Meteor, the twin-boomed De Havilland designs culminating in the Sea Vixen - concept-based on Messerschmitt's Me163 Komet rocket-plane but with a twin-boom tail added for stability - the formidable but flawed delta-winged Gloster Javelin, the superb and long-serving Canberra which became a global export triumph, the extravagantly funded V-bombers (Britain ended up with three good designs where one would have sufficed); the Hunter - surely the most graceful jet aircraft ever - the Comet, Viscount, Britannia and VC10 airliners are told in a lively style sprinkled with humour and a genuine love for the subject matter.

It's a shock to learn that many test pilots through the late 1940s and 1950s were killed doing a job for which they were paid a merely average wage around £1,500/annum (the present-day equivalent of about £25,000), the then-going rate for a highly experienced ex-RAF pilot to literally risk life and limb daily. Outspoken Anglo-Canadian test pilot Bill Waterton, almost killed when the prototype Javelin he was flying shed its elevators at low altitude over Wiltshire and who later became a vocal critic of the industry in his Daily Express column, enjoys (possibly too much?) prominence in the author's narrative.

Before the age of computer-modelling software, no-one really knew how an aircraft would behave in flight until it took off. The first chapter, `Death at Farnborough' describes how the DH.110 flown by John Derry and Tony Richards broke up at the Farnborough air show on 6 September 1952, and how one of the burning engines killed 29 spectators and seriously injured another 60, as well as of course killing Derry and Richards. Now the DH.110 had a fatal design fault and was not ready for public display; De Havilland wanted to show it off to prospective export customers before it was ready. Neither the contemporary media nor the public pored mawkishly over the tragedy as they might today: aviation was understood to be a dangerous business and we were at the very edge of technology, and this kind of incident was accepted as the price of progress. There were (amazing from today's perspective) no calls for `increased health and safety regulations', and the next day the crowds turned out at the show in even greater numbers, despite the rain. "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there" wrote Leslie Poles Hartley. They certainly do.

A fine illustration of the UK Government's failing the industry is offered by the story of the Fairey Delta, which the manufacturer was forced to take to France for testing because of the UK Government's noise-restrictions on supersonic flight. Marcel Dassault was delighted to offer his company's facilities at Cazaux for Fairey to test their radical new delta-winged design, the last British aircraft to hold the world speed record. Dassault learned from the British company's delta-innovations and later said "If it were not for the clumsy way you tackle things in Britain, you could have made the Mirage yourselves". The Dassault Mirage, based on the Delta design, became a highly lucrative export for France for the next 20 years; the Fairey Delta was scrapped by a myopic and incompetent UK government who had decided, in 1957, that there was no future for manned aircraft but that from now on, ground-launched missiles would replace them.

Although Hamilton-Paterson's book is full of textbook lessons in how not to run an industry, his writing at times verges on the poetic. His story of a 1968 return trip from Stansted to Hong Kong in a Britannia cargo plane, wherein he spent a great deal of the journey on the flight deck relaxing with the crew and during take-off and landing simply lay down on the cargo of cotton bales, evokes a long-gone era before the processing of millions of passengers with security-obsessive industrial thoroughness became the depressing routine which now attends international travel.

The English Electric Lightning, Britain's only 100% home-produced Mach 2+ interceptor, was the apotheosis of power; a manned missile designed for pure performance which could reach 60,000 feet altitude in 60 seconds and fly comfortably over 80,000 feet where the curvature of the Earth is clearly visible. Famous for awesome acceleration and prodigious thirst, it was uniquely able to intercept the American U2 spy-plane and retired in 1988 after 28 years of front-line service. The author's description of witnessing nine of these temperamental beauties in flight sums up the romance of this long-gone era to perfection:

"The battering of 18 Avons on reheat seemed enough to jar the planet from its orbit...we were cocooned in thunder, annihilated by din...it was beyond exhilarating, a brutal, beautiful efflorescence of pure technology. An ex-Lightning pilot has words for a luckless modern generation: `Next time you watch one of those motoring programs on TV, remember that for someone who has flown a Lightning, driving a Ferrari is about as exciting as driving a Trabant.'"

De Havilland, Supermarine, Hawker, Gloster, Vickers, Handley Page, Avro, Fairey, Bristol, Blackburn; once household names of companies employing hundreds of thousands of skilled workers in Britain's largest industry at the leading edge of high technology, are no more. The decline of smaller family-owned aircraft companies and their `consolidation' into conglomerates has been a global phenomenon (yes, in the USA and in France too). Once aircraft bearing these iconic names, standard-bearers of `belief in the future' and the courage and tenacity of the human spirit, soared across the skies and filled our days with dreams of greatness. Now we are more likely to obsess about health and safety regulations and `blame culture', the trivia of overpaid celebrities whose exposure to genuine danger rarely extends beyond `rehab' or `reality TV'; we are ruled by credit default swaps, centralised debt obligations and irresponsible bankers (the perennial duplicity of elected politicians however remains a depressing constant).

Once we reached for the stars; now we reach for the video game. Reading Hamilton-Paterson's poetic elegies to triumphs of complex technology such as the Lightning and the emotions they once stirred in souls fortunate to live in a more optimistic bygone age, the reader can't help but feel that despite obvious progress in many areas, as a nation and perhaps even as a species we are now somewhat diminished from what we were.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Birthday Surprise for my Husband, 4 Nov 2010
By 
R. K. MCCRIMMON "ABroad with a View" (Southport, UK) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
I saw this book reviewed in the Sunday Times and immediately ordered it on Amazon. My husband joined the Air Force in the late 1950's and was not only surprised, but very pleased with it as it covered a period he is very familiar with. I would recommend buying it for anyone with RAF experience as it has given my husband hours of enjoyment and was a great birthday surprise!
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What might have been, 17 Mar 2011
By 
P. J. Connolly "Caractacus" (Wiltshire, England) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This is an enjoyable, well written and interesting book. The author is a knowledgeable observer rather than an insider. Nonetheless it is refreshing to read an account that takes unashamed pleasure in the sheer drama and spectacle of watching military aircraft go through their paces. As a book it is something of a hybrid that does not entirely work but has more hits than misses.It mixes some distinct themes :

- the career of test pilot Bill Waterton
- the story of the British aviation industry post the second world war
- an analysis of particular aircraft types as seen from the test pilot's perspective
- the author's own aviation experiences through this period

One day someone will write a definitive history of the industry during this period but this is not it.This is a test pilot oriented view and whilst their role is critical they are one part of the team. The role may be dangerous and glamerous but a successful programme requires much more. This book is inclined to look askance at the role of other parties, be they designers, production directors, managers or politicians. Justifiably so at times but they were not all malign incompetents. I have spent my working life in this industry and by and large have found it staffed with decent and hard working people who have a real enthusiasm for their jobs. The industry certainly no longer produces complete aircraft but it remains impressive and wide ranging nonetheless. The author seems to recognise that to a degree but is seduced by what might have been and remains wedded to the view that assembling aircraft of our own design is a badge of honour that we have tossed away rather carelessly.
Enjoy the book for its real merits but treat the author's perspective with a little scepticism.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, exhilarating read., 14 Jan 2011
I was very pleased to receive this book for Christmas. It is a very well written, in a highly personable style, standing as a detailed testimony to the highs and lows of post WW2 aircraft production in Britain.

Despite my knowledge of the various aircraft type covered,, the book is unique in bringing out the stories of the people involved, often citing highly personal histories of test pilots, politicians, aircraft manufacturers and airmen.

James Hamilton-Patterson writes with emotion, pride, awe and wonder. The objectivity and analysis displayed throughout on the successes and the failures is thought provoking and nostalgic, encouraging further analysis and research in a number of areas. The latter chapters engender some frustration borne out of 'what might of' or 'could have been' if our nations ingenuity and creativity been allowed to flourish without governmental or fiscal restriction but that is to be expected given the realities of post-modernism.

I wish to this day I could consider myself more confidently a "New Elizabethan", the romance of which would help to counter the cynicism and frustrations of modern life. Highly recommended. Do read it.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Incorrectly titled book?, 13 Feb 2011
By 
Mr. D. B. Lloyd (UK) - See all my reviews
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The book was bought for me as a present, though I had read about its publication. There are some very interesting parts in it - it would be churlish to suggest otherwise, though I found the author's obsession with Bill Waterton a little overwhelming. The background stories to the test-flying are absorbing, but they seem to focus only on military aircraft, and this is where I have to take issue with the author.

To dismiss airliners as 'aerial buses' as he does on p8 is simply petty. Just as much effort went into the design and production of the Viscount, the BAC 1-11, the Avro 748 and the DH 125, as the military aircraft he describes in such detail. He bemoans the fact that so few of the military aircraft were produced in any quantity, yet all the previously-mentioned aircraft were produced in their hundreds, providing much-needed skills and jobs and helping Britain's balance of payments enormously. His lack of understanding of civil aviation is clear from the fact that despite all the derring-do stories of test pilots, there is no mention of Mike Lithgow's death whilst flight-testing the 1-11. Quantas [sic] on p195 is another example. In Chapter 8 there is some discussion on the Comet, and passing mention of the Viscount and a few other aircraft, but the theme soon returns to the military.

If you're going to title a book as 'Empire of the Clouds' and subtitle it 'When Britain's Aircraft Ruled The World', then it seems only logical to include all of the Empire and all of the aircraft in there. I appreciate that the author may not have had total control over the title(s), but any book dealing with Britain's aviation history deserves to be more balanced in its' approach to their achievements.

So did Mr Hamilton-Paterson write this book for himself or for the reader?
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent 'read'., 18 Oct 2010
By 
Martin Bull - See all my reviews
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I'll try not to repeat what the two previous reviewers have said - this book is an unexpected 'gem'. I've been fortunate enough to hear the author deliver a lecture about the writing of it ; he is an excellent 'raconteur' and this, coupled with the fact that he's a professional writer, makes for a rare thing - a specialist aviation book which is a delight to read.Thankfully, it isn't a book for the 'rivet-counter'.
Any British schoolboy between 1950-1970 will know the aircraft and the test pilots ; this book delves deeper into what is ultimately a sad and frustrating story.
Highly recommended - wonderful stuff, and guaranteed to have you hunting down titles from the comprehensive bibliography.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent read, 2 Nov 2011
A must for anyone interested in the aircraft of the 50,s and 60,s and also in the trials and tribulations of the aircraft industry at this time. Some of the issues raised are almost unbelievable. Highly recommended.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Empire of the Clouds, 13 Jun 2011
Bought the paperback originally, read that, and then decided to buy the hardback to keep in my aviation collection. Excellent read, on a par with Vulcan 607 as a cann't put down book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A much deeper story than you might think, 22 April 2011
Firstly, you need to read well into chapter 3 to get past the public (i.e.private) schoolboy plane spotter. Secondly, be willing to accept Bill Waterton as a linking theme rather than as an obsession. Then, if you like old aeroplanes, you will smell them here. Feel free to overdose on the nostalgia, but also keep a grip on what Mr Hamilton-Paterson is saying about modern British history and how we have got to where we are. If you want to know how Britain is where it is, you could read two massive tomes by David Kynaston about post-war and 1950s Britain (excellent though these are), or you can read this beautifully written book about the aircraft industry and simply project the issues and values to all of Britain's industries and how they have been treated by managements and governments since 1945. As the author points out, the French knew how to develop a technological industry. You simply need engineers - not bankers and accountants. And you need focus - not 3-hour lunches (even the French don't do that). It doesn't matter that he doesn't say very much about commercial aircraft. Apart from the Comet, the Viscount and the VC-10, there was nothing radical about our commercial aircraft. And of these, only the Viscount was a commercial success in the Boeing league. This is not a comprehensive study of British aircraft since 1945, but a beautifully constructed personal essay that tells a story that we should not ignore. This is not just a book for people who like old aeroplanes. And, for once, I have no complaints about the editing.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How did we end up here?, 31 Mar 2011
A horrible truth, reading this great book, is that you could remove the names of the aircraft companies and you'd have the story of the demise of the car, motorcycle, commercial vehicle and shipbuilding industries - pretty much any heavy or manufacturing industry. How on earth was this allowed to happen?
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Empire of the Clouds: When Britain's Aircraft Ruled the World
Empire of the Clouds: When Britain's Aircraft Ruled the World by James Hamilton-Paterson (Paperback - 5 May 2011)
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