Top positive review
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a biography (and obituary) of Vulcans, Lightnings and Viscounts
on 15 October 2010
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.