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4.4 out of 5 stars206
4.4 out of 5 stars
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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. Well, maybe the enthousiasm isn't argued, but it comes through brilliantly, from the moment the author saw the Vulcan being stunted (!) at Farnborough in 1954.
Fascinating stuff, but I detract half a star - not from the author, but from the production of the book - it comes with 12 pages of photos in the middle. This is a missed opportunity; the book cries out for lots of images scattered through the text, not a single block. Give us pictures of the Miles M-52 (an artists' impression would do!), the Avro CF-105 Arrow, the Fairey Gyrodyne, and all the other wonderful or just plain weird machines mentioned.
Nevertheless, if you're keen to read about cockpits as ergonomic slums, a paean to the Lightning or the way a Javelin flew - this is the book for you.
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on 15 November 2010
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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on 14 January 2011
If you're interested in the developement of British military and civil aircraft in the 50s and 60s, when the jet engine was in its infancy, and Health and Safety were considered unpatriotic; if you thrilled to exciting tales of derring do by British Test Pilots and remember sonic bangs as standard fare at Air Shows; if you have ever wondered why, with our self proclaimed excellence in aviation, so few British aircraft were ever commercially successful; this book is for you. Well written and even handed this is a book for the aircraft enthusiast but also for the economic historian, as it tracks the gross mismanagement, commercial naivety and political chicanery that brought an innovative, World class manufacturing industry down to its knees.
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on 17 November 2010
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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on 6 October 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. As such this is an entertaining and very readable book; if you've ever read Bill Gunston's "Plane Speaking" you'll be familiar with the sort of mixture of engineering greatness and official incompetence that makes for a great if desperately sad story.

Of course there are some flaws too; some will no doubt decry the author for an overly-sympathetic view of Waterton - missing the point somewhat in the process - and in detail many of the events described are inaccurate or simply flat out wrong. In 8 pages covering the TSR2, for instance, I count 14 factual errors but then I am fresh from writing a book on the type, which is around two weeks away from publication at the time I write this and James would therefore not have had the benefit of it as a reference source. However, these errors don't - for the most part - have any real effect on the overall narrative and the points being made, nor is Empire of the Clouds meant to be an authoritative reference on the history of the times or any particular project, so I think they can be forgiven.

Overall, well worth a spot on your bookshelf. I think Bill Waterton would have been secretly pleased.
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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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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! We flew out over the North Sea and saw the gas rigs, and then flew back to Hatfield... As we came in to land the co-pilot's head-set fell off, and both pilots bent down to try and pick it up. Sitting in the seat just behind, I could see the runway coming up, and the pilots were still scrabbling around on the floor. I was, I admit, getting a little nervous... and still they couldn't disentangle the cable - both of them fiddling around...

Being young and innocent, I was unaware that the main reason for the test flight was to test the automatic landing system... I guess this was a standard stunt for all the "wet behind the ears" graduates... What fun!

Loved the book, loved the aircraft... what more could one want?
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on 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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on 5 January 2011
Opened the book (hardback edition) on Christmas day. Finished it on Boxing Day. Best present this Christmas! I haven't read a book so quickly since The Secret of Cliff Castle by Enid Blyton when I was nine.

The subject matter, in particular its time setting, is very relevant to me at the moment as I am researching a documentary about The Black Arrows aerobatic team from the same 'golden' era (quite rightly not allowed to promote in a review so you'll have to find it yourselves!). The author's very readable style makes the book appropriate for a much wider audience than pure aviation history enthusiasts and I have learnt a lot in terms of presentation for broad appeal.

I think that others have expressed their views about this book far more eloquently than I could, so I will simply endorse all the positives that have been mentioned.

If I had to nitpick I would make two suggestions. Firstly, the source references would (for me) have been more conveniently placed either on the same page or at the end of each chapter, rather than at the back of the book. Secondly I agree with an earlier reviewer about the missed opportunity for additional pictures, ideally in the context of the story rather than in a 12 page collection in the middle. I wonder if this was a production cost consideration. I found myself frequently turning back to look at the pictures and source references which became mildly irritating. And I mean mildly - these are very minor issues in an overall excellent book.

Highly recommended for a wider audience than the subject would suggest.
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on 14 August 2012
This is easily the best book about aeroplanes I ever read. The moment you open it, the smell of burnt jet fuel ('paraffin' in 1950s parlance) pervades one's nostrils and from that moment onwards one simply cannot stop reading. It is actually better than Tom Wolfe's 'the right stuff' which is probably one of the biggest compliments I could give. The writer clearly knows what he is talking about and is a master in dissing current-day Britain with its lousy bankers and depressing health & safety regulations, and contrasting this with the wicked 1950s when everything was still right. The only point for improvement is that he should have added a chapter on the Saunders-Roe rocket planes (SR-177 / 53) but that is somewhat compensated by the insane chapter about the Lightning. Buy & enjoy!
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