TOP 50 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 22 January 2012
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the companies and their often autocratic founders, disastrous cost-cutting, failures of management and tolerance of outdated industrial practices.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.