Thomas Ovans reviews Empire of the Clouds

by James Hamilton-Paterson


These days, many of us are frequent flyers and quite familiar with the experience of being packed by a (possibly budget) airline into a long cylinder with several hundred other people and conveyed from one unfriendly airport to another.  It is therefore surprising to learn that aviation was once regarded as a very exciting topic – even by those not wealthy enough to travel by air themselves.  Perhaps the last time that public imagination was captured by an aeroplane was when Concorde was withdrawn from service and crowds gathered at Heathrow to watch the final landings.

James Hamilton-Paterson’s Empire of the Clouds (Faber & Faber, 2010) describes the post World War Two period when there was widespread general interest in aeroplanes and the aviation industry.  In the 1940s and 50s Great Britain still boasted about ten separate aircraft manufacturing companies with aristocratic sounding names like de Havilland and Handley Page.  And boasted is an appropriate word, because there was intense rivalry between these companies both over contracts to supply fighters and bombers to the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy and in seeking orders for civil airliners from the British Overseas Airways Corporation and British European Airways .  This rivalry was openly acted out at the annual Society of British Aircraft Companies (SBAC) flying display at Farnborough.  This was essentially a trade show from Monday to Friday; but on the Saturday and Sunday the public could attend – and did so in large numbers, reminiscent of the crowds at pre-war Hendon air displays.  Spectators were encouraged to come and marvel, as a matter of national pride, at the ingenuity of the designers and the skills of the pilots.

Empire of the Clouds covers the period when jet engines were becoming powerful enough to enable aeroplanes to approach the speed of sound – and indeed there was a great deal of press excitement about whether a British aircraft would be the first to “break the sound barrier”.  In fact it was the American-built Bell X-1 which recorded that particular achievement; but there was still considerable rejoicing whenever any British aircraft followed suit and captured the official air speed record (even if only briefly).   Farnborough air shows in the early 1950s were punctuated by the sound of sonic bangs, aimed at the crowd by test pilots like Neville Duke, Mike Lithgow and John Derry whose exploits made them media celebrities of their day.

Tragically, at the Farnborough display in September 1952, the unorthodox, twin-boom DH 110 flown by John Derry broke up in the air and over twenty people in the crowd were killed.  Sixty years (and several health-and-safety acts) later it is astonishing to report that, as soon as the debris had been cleared from the runway, the show went on.  Neville Duke took the Hawker Hunter through a supersonic routine similar to that which John Derry had been performing.  Duke later received a letter from the Prime Minister of the day, congratulating him on his (undoubtedly courageous) action.

In Empire of the Clouds, Hamilton-Paterson begins with John Derry’s accident and cleverly recaptures the atmosphere of the time while exposing the weaknesses of management and design which lay hidden behind the claims of the manufacturers and the appeals to national pride.  He tells a highly readable story, strong on both the human and the technical aspects, which describes how aircraft were hurried into production and service with aerodynamic and structural faults still partly unresolved.  Less than a decade after the second world war the numerous resulting deaths of industry test pilots and ordinary service personnel might have seemed more “acceptable” than they would do nowadays.  But, even so, it is hard to imagine what justification could have been made for widespread use of the Gloster Meteor fighter which would literally fall out of the sky if its airbrakes and landing gear were deployed at the same time.

One of the most poignant tales of 1950s British civil aviation is that of the Comet.  This sleek and beautiful aircraft was the first jet airliner to go into service anywhere in the world.  It flew well and for a couple of years it gave BOAC a tremendous commercial advantage and also provided the general public with patriotic satisfaction at stealing a march on the Americans who had previously dominated the airliner market.  In 1953-4, however, three Comets crashed in fairly rapid succession due – as it turned out – to metal fatigue.  Although this phenomenon had not been well understood at the time the Comet was designed, it gradually emerged that small warning signs about thinness of the fuselage skin might have been too optimistically brushed aside in everybody’s eagerness to get the aircraft into service as soon as possible.

While the Comet story ended in tragedy, other civil aircraft projects sometimes resembled farce.  The Brabazon, which never proceeded beyond the prototype stage, was a huge aeroplane intended for the North Atlantic crossing.  Its manufacturer’s airfield had to be extended in order to make a runway long enough for it to fly from (even though this meant demolishing a couple of villages).  The aircraft flew successfully but its ill-conceived specification meant it would have been completely uneconomic to operate commercially and it was soon scrapped.

At about the same time the similarly gigantic Princess flying boat was also built and flown.  This design perpetuated a pre-war rationale which argued that airliners could operate more effectively from open water than from expensive-to-build aerodromes.  Those responsible for the Princess project seem not to have been deterred by the evident readiness of a competitor to cover several parishes with concrete in order to get their own aircraft off the ground!

James Hamilton-Paterson tells all these stories – and many more besides – in some depth.  To do so he has drawn on published memoirs and on the personal memories of many of the pilots who struggled with the prototype aircraft of the 1940s and 50s and (in some cases) enabled them to be refined and developed into useful machines.  He gives a good deal of space to the experiences of Bill Waterton, who worked for the Gloster Aircraft Company.  As a Canadian, Waterton was particularly taken aback by the languid management style adopted by some British executives – the “long lunch” being one feature he found hard to understand when there were pressing design and marketing problems to be attended to!

There is no doubt that Waterton was a fine and a brave pilot.  Here are some scraps from his own account of a near-death experience: … there were two explosive cracks.  Then an uncanny, ominous silence … The nose pointed itself downward towards the ground which was only seconds away.  I had a vision of the whole tail having broken off. … But I had to do something.  With one hand on the canopy jettison handle and the stick between my knees to keep the plane flying level laterally, I inched the trim wheel back with my left hand …  Amazingly, Waterton gets the damaged aircraft back on to the ground only for a fire to break out: The hood remained jammed shut.  The heat was suffocating and the sides of the cockpit made me wince when I touched them … the Perspex alongside my head began to melt and sag inwards…

Such extracts show that Empire of the Clouds is sometimes a grimly enthralling read.  But it is also a thoughtful and sobering account of courage and technical imagination being undermined by poor management and inept politics.  Tragedies and wasted money can be attributed to too many private companies competing for too small a market; to government indecision around poorly thought-out or hastily changed specifications; and – by the 1960s – to ill-conceived schemes for merging the many individual firms into two large groups (which ultimately shrank to only one).

Arguments continue to this day about whether large and complex enterprises are better run by the public or private sector.  The evidence of this excellent book is that neither side can claim a particularly impressive record in the field of post-war aviation.

Thomas Ovans is an Irishman who lives in London.   Most of his writing has been done for technical and academic publications; but he now hopes to begin gaining a wider audience.