Thomas Ovans considers a painstakingly researched work of aviation history by Peter Amos and looks for the human story behind the weights, dimensions and performance data
Miles Aircraft – The Wartime Years
ISBN 978 0 85130 430 4
Every so often London Grip likes to surprise its readers by moving away from arts-related reviews and venturing into science & technology. A glance at http://londongrip.co.uk/category/science/technology/ will show some previous excursions into these categories.
The books under consideration here are the outcome of years of meticulous, and highly specialised, research by Peter Amos. His aim has been to find out details of every aircraft designed by the various companies established by F.G. Miles since 1925. This includes not only the aeroplanes that were actually produced but also the unbuilt projects. Two volumes of this remarkable study have already been published and a third is promised within a year or so. One thing that saves these books from being entirely dry and technical (although there are some lengthy passages of manufacturing detail) is the human story that lies behind the engineering.
Frederick Miles (usually known simply as ‘F.G.’ or as ‘Miles’) was born in 1903 at Portslade, in Sussex, where his father ran a laundry. Young Miles left school at fourteen but his innate mechanical aptitude enabled him to teach himself some basic aeronautical engineering so that by the mid-1920s he had learned to fly and was a licensed aircraft engineer. Amos seems to enjoy describing the enthusiasm, energy and indifference to mishaps which enabled Miles, along with a few others, to set up a small flying school and club at Shoreham. And it was at Shoreham in 1929 that a very significant meeting took place when one of the club members, Maxine Freeman-Thomas – known to her friends as ‘Blossom’ – started taking flying lessons from Miles. Instructor and pupil seem to have fallen in love almost at first sight – which was unfortunate because Blossom was already married! Amos relates several anecdotes which capture the fraught and heady atmosphere of those days rather well, telling for example how Miles tried the extreme step of emigrating to South Africa in order to break off the relationship and avoid scandal. Feelings were evidently too strong to resist, however, and he was only gone for a few weeks. Not long after he returned, Blossom was divorced and, in due course, became Mrs F.G. Miles.
Miles and Blossom then decided that their shared enthusiasm for flying should also be their means of livelihood and they began designing light aeroplanes for wealthy private owners – a market that was growing rapidly in the early 1930s. Their second design, the Miles Hawk, was an almost instant success and they received orders for nearly fifty examples which enabled them to set up a small factory on Woodley aerodrome, near Reading. The firm’s reputation was further enhanced when their subsequent designs began gaining notable victories in air races. The company’s publicity and marketing was probably helped by the presence of the charming and very beautiful Mrs Miles as part of the design team; this would have been in marked contrast to the rather male-dominated profile of rival manufacturers. The image of being a ‘family firm’ was strengthened in the mid-1930s when F.G.’s brother George joined the staff and proved to be as original and inventive a designer as his older sibling and sister-in-law.
The company grew extremely rapidly following the award of contracts to build training aeroplanes for the Royal Air Force in the run-up to Word War Two. Working for the Air Ministry rather than individual private owners brought great changes to the dynamics of the firm however. A barn-storming, ‘lets-try-it-and-see ‘design ethos could not survive the toils and troubles of meeting official requirements and specifications which could often change quite arbitrarily. Amos has searched painstakingly through vast amounts of correspondence and gives extracts from letters which illustrate the frustrations experienced by Miles when dealing with politicians and civil servants whose agenda was very different from that of an engineer. To be fair, Amos also quotes from letters which show how the official mind can be perplexed by an inventor’s more intuitive ways of thinking.
Amos is not so good, however, at keeping Blossom in the picture as he deals with the remarkable growth of the firm in the late 1930s. By this time she had moved away from design work and taken on a highly individual role as encourager and morale-booster for the entire workforce. She edited a very chatty and cheerful works newsletter and put enormous thought and effort into training women for work in the drawing office to replace the men who were being called up into the forces. It is a pity that Amos says little or nothing about these activities (which are, fortunately, given due recognition in Blossom, a short biography by Jean Fostekew, published by Cirrus Associates in 1998.)
The two volumes already published take the Miles story as far as the end of World War Two. The third volume promises to reveal hitherto undisclosed facts about political machinations behind the financial collapse of the firm in 1948. Among the casualties of this collapse were the uncompleted Miles M52 (which might have become the first aeroplane to break the sound barrier) and the Miles Technical School where, under Blossom’s guidance and inspiration, novel and imaginative approaches to the education of young men and women were being developed.
To own all three volumes of Peter Amos’s monumental work will set a reader back some £150. Yet for a particular audience (which includes the present reviewer) this will probably seem a worthwhile investment – not least for the sake of the numerous photographs that have been collected. In fact the photographs are of unfailing interest, which is not something that can be said about the sometimes rather leaden prose. Sometimes the author’s love of facts and information seems to overcome any ambitions about readability. This is true particularly of the second volume which could have been lightened and enlivened by inclusion of more personal memoir and anecdote of the kind I have already outlined. And while on the subject of the text, it should probably be said that it relies, at times, a little too heavily on the phraseology used by Don L. Brown in his earlier – but less comprehensive – history Miles Aircraft Since 1925 (Putnam, 1968). In spite of such reservations these books contain material which is not just for ‘plane spotters’. The background of social history vividly illustrates the changes in both business attitudes and leisure activities that have taken place in Britain since the 1930s and 40s. It is particularly striking to observe how ‘corporate’ culture and language of the late twentieth century superseded a more genuine-seeming, understated (yet quite personal) pride in tangible achievement that used to characterise manufacturing industries. Perhaps this is shown most neatly in the style of advertising that some of us might just remember from childhood ..