Mark Broadbent's 2010 blogGAR Entries

NOV 25 2010
'Empire of the Clouds' Review

James Hamilton-Paterson’s ‘Empire of the Clouds’ tells the story of Britain’s post-World War Two aircraft industry. It’s a time capsule back to the era when British industry was churning out jet fighters and bombers, airliners and helicopters that, it seemed, were proof of an industry – and a nation – leading the world in the skies just as Britannia had in the past ruled the waves.

He explains the technological developments and science involved with exploring high-speed flight, and the projects – some destined simply to be experimental prototypes – that emerged. He’s adept at explaining the technical intricacies of compression and supersonic flight, and at telling the story of aircraft like the Vulcan, Meteor, Comet, Lightning and TSR2 that resulted in the following years.

Hamilton-Paterson also emphasises the heroism and sacrifice of the men who explored the unknowns. Running through the book is the personal story of Gloster chief test pilot Bill Waterton, the author’s childhood hero, who became an outspoken critic of the way the British aviation industry operated.

Waterton’s inclusion as a case study shows the real point of ‘Empire of the Clouds’. This book isn’t just an unabashed nostalgia trip. Hamilton-Paterson engagingly shows how that for all the industry’s activity, the exciting displays at Farnborough and the breathless reportage of pioneering flights and new records that made test pilots the celebrities of their day, the industry was wracked with long-term, structural faults.

The industry’s failure to modernise post-1945, its “rough and ready” attitude to development, a failure to invest and an ignorance of test pilots’ views, combined with government indecision and interference fatally undermined the industry’s long-term prospects. The idea that the twenty years after 1945 were golden days for the British aviation industry, he argues, is far more apparent than it was real. Technological leads were lost and opportunities were unfulfilled. This is a book that has a quiet anger about how a prolific industry squandered potential.

This isn’t a groundbreaking analysis. The reasons are familiar, and there’s nothing in ‘Empire of the Clouds’ that will be unfamiliar to clued-up enthusiasts of the time’s aircraft. I suppose that will lead some to question the point of the book, but it isn’t intended to be a reference tome and the point is to create a readable, engaging insight into the period which it does well.

There are a couple of negatives. The conclusion is slightly reductive. Although the move towards co-operation with other nations can’t be ignored, his argument that the Harrier marked the end of independent aircraft design and manufacture is factually incorrect as it ignores the BAe 146/RJ and Hawk.

There’s also a slight Little Englander tone that creeps in. Hamilton-Paterson notes that many other countries have managed to maintain indigenous aircraft manufacturing lines when Britain has not. This is largely true, but it does rather ignore – not to say devalue – the work of organisations large and small around the UK in developing those aircraft and the less glamorous systems, avionics and engines that go into them, and the valuable design and R&D aspect of the industry that still exists here.

Hamilton-Paterson is on far firmer ground with the stories, the projects, the politics and the aircraft further back into history. And while it contains no real surprises, ‘Empire of the Clouds’ overall is an engrossing, nostalgic insight into a fascinating period in aviation history.

GAR wants to interact with its readers so if you have a question for the author or a comment to make on this feature, please click on the button below. The best comments will appear right here on GAR.

Deprecated: mysql_connect(): The mysql extension is deprecated and will be removed in the future: use mysqli or PDO instead in /var/sites/g/globalaviationresource.com/public_html/comments/displaycomments.php on line 8

2010-11-25 - Peter . C. Harper
Brilliant!!! In the book by Duncan Cubitt "Vulcan last of the 'V' Bombers", yours truly is on page 120 campaigning still strongly and doing interviews for TV during our campaign to save the Vulcan at the Dream Flight Airshow back in 92 at Cranfield. Those were the days !!!

Global Aviation Resource's photographic and written work is subject to copyright and may not be reproduced or distributed in any form without express written permission.

If you would like to discuss using any of our imagery or feature content please contact us.