Empire of the Clouds: When Britain’s Aircraft Ruled the World

  • Published

Empire of the Clouds: When Britain’s Aircraft Ruled the World by James Hamilton-Paterson. Faber and Faber, 2010, 304 pp.

Empire of the Clouds is a cautionary tale in the loss of national capability. A world leader in jet aircraft technology in 1945, Britain needed only a little more than a decade to lose its lead decisively in the development and production of both military and commercial jet aircraft. This was the result not merely of inept political decisions—such as the 1957 Defence White Paper that cancelled many aircraft programs on the grounds that guided missiles made manned aircraft obsolete—but also of poor management at many levels within industry itself.

The book is neither a scholarly work nor a comprehensive examination of British postwar aircraft, aircraft-industry management practices, or industrial policy. Author James Hamilton-Paterson tells his story primarily from the perspective of the pilots who tested prototype aircraft. In particular he focuses on Bill Waterton, a Canadian who joined the Royal Air Force in 1939 and who was the chief test pilot for Gloster Aircraft from 1946 to 1954, when clashes with Gloster’s management led to his dismissal. As a journalist for the Daily Express, Waterton wrote scathing critiques of Britain’s aircraft industry until pressure from advertisers forced the paper to fire him in 1956.

The tales of test pilot derring-do are exciting but, unfortunately, get in the way of understanding the decline and fall of the British aviation industry in this period. For example, why was the DH.110 so poorly designed as to break apart in midair, killing two aircrew members and 29 spectators at Farnborough in 1952? Why did the Hawker Hunter take so long to enter operational service, allowing the North American F-86 to dominate world export sales? Why did the de Havilland Comet airliner take so long to develop and deliver, even before the disastrous accidents that forced its withdrawal from commercial service, leaving the field to the Boeing 707? Why were the British still flying straight-wing Gloster Meteors and de Havilland Venoms in the late 1950s while the French, whose aircraft industry lay in ruins in 1945, began operating the swept-wing Dassault Ouragan in 1952 and the Mystère in 1954? Hamilton-Paterson’s answers to these and similar questions are unsatisfactory. He repeatedly notes the excessively long lunches and stuffy, conservative attitudes of the senior managers of British aircraft companies in the 1950s, perhaps because his sources (test pilots) personally witnessed these shortcomings. However, the problems went much deeper than this, and only at the end of the book does the author note the real problem—a lack of systems engineering expertise below top management. As a result, Britain could develop cutting-edge prototypes but could not manufacture large quantities of high-quality aircraft in a timely and economical manner. This problem prevailed not only in the aircraft industry but also in British manufacturing as a whole, contributing to the decline in national competitiveness from the 1950s onward.

Hamilton-Paterson highlights the role of government decisions in the decline of British postwar aviation. For example, in 1946 the government parsimoniously cancelled the Miles M.52, which might have been the first aircraft to break the sound barrier, and stupidly gave samples of the Rolls-Royce Nene engine to the Soviets, who promptly copied and used it in the MiG-15. Worst of all, the Defence White Paper of 1957 cancelled the Fairey FD.2 (potentially a competitor to the Mirage III), the Avro 730 (a Mach 3 bomber), and the Saunders-Roe SR.177 supersonic interceptor (potentially a competitor to the Lockheed F-104), and many other aircraft. One program that survived the axe in 1957, the British Aircraft Corporation TSR-2, was cancelled in 1965 in favor of buying the General Dynamics F-111, but then in 1968 the government rescinded the decision to purchase F-111s! The author correctly notes that Britain lacked a national industrial strategy to sustain its air and space leadership after World War II and thus made many decisions based on short-term political and economic needs. Britain emerged from the war with a massive aircraft industry, and 1945 might have been a propitious time to rationalize the industry. However, in the absence of a long-term strategy, the political pain of doing so and putting many famous names out of business proved too great. When such rationalization became inevitable in 1957, Britain had already lost its leadership in aviation technology, and the program cancellations and corporate mergers served only to demoralize the workforce. Less convincingly, Hamilton-Paterson hints at a long-term political conspiracy

to eradicate [aviation] industry [with] contradictory policies, the withholding of support and funds, and the progressive poisoning of morale. . . . [This was] merely part of a historic policy change to do away with all Britain’s capacity as a serious industrial nation. . . . There is surely no other interpretation to be made of the steady, decades-long demolition of the country’s manufacturing capacity, including its most charismatic industry, other than at some level it was absolutely intentional (p. 329).

Parenthetically, the author sneers at remotely piloted aviation as insufficiently glamorous—“merely a radio-controlled model for grown-ups in uniform” (p. 332). Undoubtedly, controlling a remotely piloted aircraft is less glamorous than flying an aircraft and much less dangerous than being a 1950s test pilot. Still, from the standpoint of the British air and space industry, remotely piloted aircraft represent a realm in which Britain could in principle compete effectively. Thus far, however, its homegrown remotely piloted aircraft programs have been unimpressive, suggesting that the chronic problems of the British air and space industry outlined in this book persist to this day.

I recommend reading Empire of the Clouds with a view to understanding the lessons for the United States today. Happily, America still has the national will to remain a world leader in air and space. However, we must maintain a highly trained air and space workforce proficient in systems engineering disciplines, and we must manufacture enough aircraft in this country in order to have the capability not merely of developing ingenious prototypes but of producing operationally suitable aircraft in the numbers and of the quality required. Resting on its laurels after 1945, Britain lost the capability to develop and produce the most advanced aircraft in significant numbers and never regained it.

Dr. James D. Perry

Reston, Virginia

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."