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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Reading List: Empire of the Clouds

Hamilton-Paterson, James. Empire of the Clouds. London: Faber and Faber, 2010. ISBN 978-0-571-24795-0.
At the end of World War II, Great Britain seemed poised to dominate or at the least be a major player in postwar aviation. The aviation industries of Germany, France, and, to a large extent, the Soviet Union lay in ruins, and while the industrial might of the United States greatly out-produced Britain in aircraft in the latter years of the war, America's P-51 Mustang was powered by a Rolls-Royce engine built under license in the U.S., and the first U.S. turbojet and turboshaft engines were based on British designs. When the war ended, Britain not only had a robust aircraft industry, composed of numerous fiercely independent and innovative companies, it had in hand projects for game-changing military aircraft and a plan, drawn up while the war still raged, to seize dominance of civil aviation from American manufacturers with a series of airliners which would redefine air travel.

In the first decade after the war, Britons, especially aviation-mad “plane-spotters” like the author, found it easy to believe this bright future beckoned to them. They thronged to airshows where innovative designs performed manoeuvres thought impossible only a few years before, and they saw Britain launch the first pure-jet, and the first medium- and long-range turboprop airliners into commercial service. This was a very different Britain than that of today. Only a few years removed from the war, even postwar austerity seemed a relief from the privations of wartime, and many people vividly recalled losing those close to them in combat or to bombing attacks by the enemy. They were a hard people, and not inclined to discouragement even by tragedy. In 1952, at an airshow at Farnborough, an aircraft disintegrated in flight and fell into the crowd, killing 31 people and injuring more than 60 others. While ambulances were still carrying away the dead and injured, the show went on, and the next day Winston Churchill sent the pilot who went up after the disaster his congratulations for carrying on. While losses to aircraft and aircrew in the postwar era were small compared combat in the war, they were still horrific by present day standards.

A quick glance at the rest of this particular AIB [Accidents Investigation Branch] file reveals many similar casualties. It deals with accidents that took place between 3 May 1956 and 3 January 1957. In those mere eight months there was a total of thirty-four accidents in which forty-two aircrew were killed (roughly one fatality every six days). Pilot error and mechanical failure shared approximately equal billing in the official list of causes. The aircraft types included ten de Havilland Venoms, six de Havilland Vampires, six Hawker Hunters, four English Electric Canberras, two Gloster Meteors, and one each of the following: Gloster Javelin, Folland Gnat, Avro Vulcan, Avro Shackleton, Short Seamew and Westland Whirlwind helicopter. (pp. 128–129)

There is much to admire in the spirit of mourn the dead, fix the problem, and get on with the job, but that stoic approach, essential in wartime, can blind one to asking, “Are these losses acceptable? Do they indicate we're doing something wrong? Do we need to revisit our design assumptions, practises, and procedures?” These are the questions which came into the mind of legendary test pilot Bill Waterton, whose career is the basso continuo of this narrative. First as an RAF officer, then as a company test pilot, and finally as aviation correspondent for the Daily Express, he perceived and documented how Britain's aviation industry was, due to its fragmentation into tradition-bound companies, incessant changes of priorities by government, and failure to adapt to the aggressive product development schedules of the Americans and even the French, still rebuilding from wartime ruins, doomed to bring inferior products to the market too late to win foreign sales, which were essential for the viability of an industry with a home market as small as Britain's to maintain world-class leadership.

Although the structural problems within the industry had long been apparent to observers such as Waterton, any hope of British leadership was extinguished by the Duncan Sandys 1957 Defence White Paper which, while calling for long-overdue consolidation of the fragmented U.K. aircraft industry, concluded that most military missions in the future could be accomplished more effectively and less expensively by unmanned missiles. With a few exceptions, it cancelled all British military aviation development projects, condemning Britain, once the fallacy in the “missiles only” approach became apparent, to junior partner status in international projects or outright purchases of aircraft from suppliers overseas. On the commercial aviation side, only the Vickers Viscount was a success: the fatigue-induced crashes of the de Havilland Comet and the protracted development process of the Bristol Britannia caused their entry into service to be so late as to face direct competition from the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8, which were superior aircraft in every regard.

This book recounts a curious epoch in the history of British aviation. To observers outside the industry, including the hundreds of thousands who flocked to airshows, it seemed like a golden age, with one Made in Britain innovation following another in rapid succession. But in fact, it was the last burst of energy as the capital of a mismanaged and misdirected industry was squandered at the direction of fickle politicians whose priorities were elsewhere, leading to a sorry list of cancelled projects, prototypes which never flew, and aircraft which never met their specifications or were rushed into service before they were ready. In 1945, Britain was positioned to be a world leader in aviation and proceeded, over the next two decades, to blow it, not due to lack of talent, infrastructure, or financial resources, but entirely through mismanagement, shortsightedness, and disastrous public policy. The following long quote from the concluding chapter expresses this powerfully.

One way of viewing the period might be as a grand swansong or coda to the process we Britons had ourselves started with the Industrial Revolution. The long, frequently brilliant chapter of mechanical inventiveness and manufacture that began with steam finally ran out of steam. This was not through any waning of either ingenuity or enthusiasm on the part of individuals, or even of the nation's aviation industry as a whole. It happened because, however unconsciously and blunderingly it was done, it became the policy of successive British governments to eradicate that industry as though it were an unruly wasps' nest by employing the slow cyanide of contradictory policies, the withholding of support and funds, and the progressive poisoning of morale. In fact, although not even the politicians themselves quite realised it – and certainly not at the time of the upbeat Festival of Britain in 1951 – this turned out to be merely part of a historic policy change to do away with all Britain's capacity as a serious industrial nation, abolishing not just a century of making its own cars but a thousand years of building its own ships. I suspect this policy was more unconscious than deliberately willed, and it is one whose consequences for the nation are still not fully apparent. It sounds improbable; yet there is surely no other interpretation to be made of the steady, decades-long demolition of the country's manufacturing capacity – including its most charismatic industry – other that at some level it was absolutely intentional, no matter what lengths politicians went to in order to conceal this fact from both the electorate and themselves. (p. 329)

Not only is this book rich in aviation anecdotes of the period, it has many lessons for those living in countries which have come to believe they can prosper by de-industrialising, sending all of their manufacturing offshore, importing their science and engineering talent from other nations, and concentrating on selling “financial services” to one another. Good luck with that.

Posted at May 28, 2011 14:47