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X-Planes of Europe: Secret Research Aircraft from the Golden Age 1946-1974

by Tony Buttler and Jean-Louis Delezenne, Specialty Press, North Branch, Minn., 2012, $56.95.

It’s rare when a reference book can also be a guilty pleasure. X-Planes of Europe has all the facts and figures necessary for an expert to have at hand. But perhaps even more important, it’s a treat just to dip into it randomly and savor a time of action and adventure that probably will never be seen again in the aviation industry.

The two authors—clearly experts who love their work—have welded the disparate histories of 38 unique experimental aircraft into a compelling narrative of European research. Their selection of photographs, mostly black and white, is remarkable, as are their succinct, informative captions. The drawings included, especially the cutaways, are excellent.

The great strength of X-Planes, however, is the comprehensive manner in which the authors tell the back stories of the aircraft— tales of the designers, the engineering, the governmental intrusions, the bravery of the test pilots—along with precise details on structure, performance and even ultimate potential. Any author who can explain in an interesting manner the structure and the successive meltdowns of the French and British aviation industries is clearly a great writer as well as a talented researcher. The book is poignant in its descriptions of what was once a healthy competitive world of relatively small companies with big ideas, valiantly competing with the American and Soviet goliaths.

Many readers will find surprises, such as the Swiss Arbalète and its wicked-looking successor, the (unflown) Aiguillon jet fighter. And it is entertaining to pick out favorites from the wide selection of vertical-lift, delta-wing or rocket-powered aircraft. One section that’s certain to impress covers the variety of ways in which vertical lift was investigated, from the barrel-shaped SNECMA Coléoptère to the VFW VAK 191B. The book also covers sad missed opportunities, such as the cancellation of the gorgeous Bristol 188. This is a wonderful book, pure and simple, well worth its cost for even a beginner’s aviation library.


Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.