Empire of the Clouds: When Britain’s Aircraft Ruled the World by James Hamilton-Paterson

This book suffers from a degree of schizophrenia. The gloriously evocative cover, the blurb and the quotations from reviewers led me to expect a paen of praise to the great British jet aircraft of the 1950s, although knowing some of the background to this story from Derek Wood’s “Project cancelled” (that book looks at the post-war history of the British aerospace industry based on the aircraft that got cancelled, whereas this book considers the story via the aircraft that DID get built), I was prepared for a degree of criticism. Both books tell the same story; one of alternating political interference and neglect – always interference when it wasn’t wanted and neglect when action was needed.

What I wasn’t expecting was the frankly downbeat line that was taken over many of the aircraft that did fly. Put very simply, the great British aircraft of the era were outnumbered by the types that were heralded as the thrilling shapes of the future but which failed to deliver, either through design or construction shortcomings, or often both. Aircraft such as the Supermarine Swift or Gloster Javelin did not live up to their promise; aircraft such as the Bristol Britannia or the Vickers VC.10 spent too long in development and never achieved the numbers in service they deserved; and aircraft such as the Hawker Hunter or the Fairey Delta I (which held a number of world speed records in its time) were never developed further- or in the case of the Fairey Delta, cancelled completely. Meanwhile, older types such as the Gloster Meteor, De Havilland Vampire family and the English Electric Canberra soldiered on for way too long.

There were a very great number of accidents in the development of British aircraft of the day; indeed, the book opens with the mid-air disintegration of the De Havilland DH.110 at the Farnborough air show in 1953, which led to the death of 27 people in the air and on the ground. The story of the failure of the De Havilland Comet, the world’s first jet airliner, is told, and how the little-known phenomenon of metal fatigue was tracked down as the source of the problem. The delay in bringing the Comet back into service led to the Americans seizing the lead in jet airliner development from Britain, although this book doesn’t do proper justice to the advance that was forced on the industry in tackling fatigue issues by the string of accidents that befell the Comet. But then again, the book’s point of view is that of the ordinary air-minded young man in the street, so perhaps I shouldn’t have expected that.

(The author has a slightly irritating habit of referring back to how, as a schoolboy plane spotter, he and his friends marvelled at all these new shapes in the sky, never knowing how near they were to the edge of disaster, etc. etc. but just as this starts to get to be a pain, he drops this narrative device. He could have done with repeating this theme a bit less.)

Let it not be said that he is totally critical. He gives praise where praise is due to the test pilots themselves (a lot of the book is told through the eyes of Bill Waterton, the Anglo-Canadian test pilot who lost his job as Gloster’s chief test pilot after being too publicly critical of the Javelin), and to some of the better aircraft of the period. He writes lovingly of the Canberra, whilst not glossing over some of its shortcomings, such as it being very difficult for the pilot to see out of; he is complementary about the V-bombers, whilst acknowledging that there were political pressures that led to four bombers being built and put into service to meet the requirement for one type of aeroplane (the three V-bombers and the Short Sperrin that was rushed into production and service as a stop-gap measure and insurance in case there were problems with any of the advanced designs of the V-bombers). He speaks well of the Lightning, whilst acknowledging its twenty-minute duration and servicing difficulties (oddly, he doesn’t mention the fact that the Lightning had a drawback if you had to bang out of it: you ran a high risk of losing your kneecaps through their being sheared off by the instrument panel on your way out of the aeroplane).

The blame for the state of the British aviation industry he lays jointly at the feet of industrialists, the RAF and Government; industry leaders had bizarre patrician attitudes and personal foibles, the RAF still thought they were running the Battle of Britain, and could not resist changing their Operational Requirements for types still in development; and the Governments of the day let politics dictate matters like the laws of physics in terms of what they wanted from the industry and the air force. In the author’s viewpoint, if the zenith of the era was the Lightning and the V-bomber force, the nadir was the 1957 Duncan Sandys Defence White Paper which committed the UK to abolishing manned aircraft favour of missiles. This caused the cancellation of many projects (especially as detailed in Derek Wood’s book). Of the TSR.2, the author takes a surprisingly non-partisan view. Indeed, he suggests that certain types that were promised but never came to fruition, such as TSR.2 and the Hawker P.1154 – the supersonic development of the Harrier jump-jet – would not have worked. Certainly, the technology for P.1154 – plenum chamber burning – was a project for many years even after P.1154 was cancelled, and no-one could ever make it work.

Hamilton-Paterson does, however, criticise decisions to cancel projects such as the Miles M.54 and others which, even if they hadn’t worked, would have provided valuable knowledge in pursuit of aeronautical development.

Rather in contradiction of expectations, the first two post-war Labour governments come out of the story quite well; the Attlee government is praised for taking the pragmatic if expensive decision to have multiple lines of development for the V-bombers, plus a stop-gap measure, so that the UK could have a viable delivery system for its atomic and nuclear weapons sooner rather than later. When Churchill came back to power in 1951, he was surprised to find development work on the V-bombers so far advanced. And the incoming Wilson government’s decision in 1964 to cancel TSR.2 is hailed as the wrong decision for all the right reasons; the sacrifice of a rather fine aeroplane and the writing-off of all its development costs was the necessary price to bring the industry and the RAF to their senses over their respective practices. Hamilton-Paterson doesn’t go into detail over the cancellation of TSR.2 – there have been whole books written on that subject – but he doesn’t condemn the cancellation completely out of hand. That the proposed replacement forced upon Britain by the Americans, the F-111, never materialised because of problems with their own industry and development cycles, is another story altogether.

There is much in this book to commend: some of the stories from the flight deck cause very wry smiles; and where the author can praise, he does. He reserves his disgust for the way Britain was run in the 1950s which led to national self-delusion over our place in the world and our technical and military abilities. The story of Britain’s jet aircraft is merely the manifestation he chooses to use to illustrate this; but the extension of this malaise into wider life is not lost on him. When we consider that a later Government thought that we could do without manufacturing completely and survive as a nation by merely buying from and selling to one another, we see the seeds of decline sown a generation before.

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