Empire of the Clouds: When Britain’s Aircraft Ruled the World
by James Hamilton-Paterson, Faber and Faber, London, 2010, $22.78.
Yes, the title is a bit hyperbolic, for British aircraft never truly reigned supreme over the entire spectrum from lightplanes to airliners to supersonic fighters and nuclear bombers. But with the could-a-been-a-contender de Havilland Comet, Mach 2-plus English Electric Lightning, workhorse Canberra and smoky Victor, Vulcan and Valiant V-bombers, the Brits came bloody close, as the more blasphemous of them would say. (The Harrier and Concorde went into production after the industry that created them was already spooning out its grave.)
James Hamilton-Paterson’s marvelous book benefits from the fact that he is one of those typically English enthusiasts—a nonpilot who knows more about airplanes than does many an aviator. The English didn’t have the vast airspace and armadas of Piper Cherokees and Cessna 150s that America did, so many who might have wanted to become pilots never got the opportunity. He also uses an effective device to help tell the story of Britain’s steady aviation decline, a tumble made inevitable by the many pompous fools who ruled the business who were not only nonpilots but knew nothing about aviation. By interlacing his account with the story of a brilliant but obstinate RAF hero and civil test pilot, Bill Waterton, he puts a human face on the sad saga.
Waterton was a Canadian, which made him the British equivalent of a redneck among Ivy Leaguers, and he had the stones to tell his employer, Gloster, that its Javelin fighter had major faults. He quit in disgust— though Gloster was glad to see him go— becoming the aviation writer for London’s Daily Express. He was a thorn in the industry’s paw until he returned to his homeland to find work as a test pilot for Avro Canada.
Aviation was the UK’s single biggest industry at the end of World War II. Part of Britain’s problem was that it then enthusiastically overreached, pushing the technology beyond what was attainable or, if attainable, was commercially or militarily viable. (Concorde later served as a good example of this.) The Brits constantly pursued speed records, the sound barrier, new and marvelous forms of tailless and delta-winged aircraft, eight-engine airliners and flying boats as big as cruise ships. They engineered and built their birds in archaic sheds with cottage-industry subcontractors providing parts, and made first flights of prototype jets from grass strips—leaving ruts a man could hide in, the author marvels.
Nor did it help that in 1947 the government declared that no future war would occur for at least 10 years, and now that the UK had a few nuclear weapons, there really was no need to build anything new for the RAF or the Royal Navy. And then, just when that 10 years was up, the famous Duncan Sandys “White Paper” announced that airplanes were no longer needed anyway, since missiles would fight future wars.
Hawker, Supermarine, de Havilland,Vickers, Bristol, English Electric, Gloster, Blackburn, Saunders-Roe, Shorts…names now only found in museums. Read this hugely entertaining book and you’ll understand why.
Originally published in the May 2011 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.