64 of 69 people found the following review helpful
This review is from: Empire of the Clouds: When Britain's Aircraft Ruled the World (Hardcover)
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.