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& Bullets

Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.

 

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The British Overseas Airways Corporation – a history

 

Graham M. Simons

Airworld, 2019

Managing an airline in the period covered by this book (broadly the Thirties through to the Seventies) was broadly like riding a unicorn on steroids – few comparators to guide your way, and all the while cresting the wave of technological innovation. As a guide to the pace of change,  although both were bombers, the first flight of the Vulcan was only eight years after the first flight of the Lancaster!  BOAC, morphing from Imperial Airways and mutating into British Airways,  was habitually the British ‘flag carrier’; hence the theme of this book is the fractious inter-relationship between management and the UK government. Procurement decisions invariably had to pass through the elongated alimentary tract of various Whitehall departments, and it is little wonder that  BOAC was frequently severely disadvantaged relative to international competitors, particularly the North American airlines. Who operated on a more standalone, commercial basis.

 

The book starts with the airline encumbered with clearly inadequate equipment such as the Tudor –  British manufacturers had to focus on design and development of bombers to the detriment of evolving post-war airliner designs for far longer than their US rivals. Then BOAC was hampered by the febrile post-war political situation at home, and its potential market continued to be adversely affected by the shrinking of the British Empire.

 

When more modern equipment such as the Britannia final arrived, we are given a frightening exposition of its arrival into service, with flame-outs a major worry for pilots and passengers alike. Simons goes on to give an extensive exposition of the merits of the Comet, particularly in Mk 4 form. Whilst the later VC10 garnered a great deal of affection from pilots and passengers alike, the author sets out firstly why its procurement was disastrous, and secondly why it did not harvest wider commercial success. He is similarly clinical detailing the account of the protracted Anglo-French negotiations regarding the development of Concorde. The recent anniversary of its first flight has stimulated some rather rose-tinted views about this admittedly stupendously beautiful (and mould-breaking) aircraft. But Simons sets out why it was never destined to be a commercial success, particularly after all nations save the UK and France shied away from buying it, and proceeded to ban overland supersonic flight; with rising fuel costs being the final nail in its coffin.

 

One of the strengths of this book are the fabulous illustrations. Many are credited to the author himself; the remainder are credited to no-one at all – most strange. The text is authoritative, but at the expense of being far too long. The pace is laboured, press releases and official documents are quoted in their entirety (why?). A full passenger list is given of the first commercial Comet passenger flight, for goodness’ sake! Accident reports  are quoted with too much extraneous info. Typos are commonplace (c. 1 per page): overall editing seems an afterthought.

 

The sources are too often Hansard and annual reports. Financial information from the latter are described in a way that does not sit easily with a 21st C lay person. Overall the author chooses detail without prioritising the salient information – there are too many trees, and the wood has become invisible. The tone of the book is unremittingly bone dry: there is not a single first person narrative story in it – a massive missed opportunity, particularly given that many ex-BOAC employees would have been available for interview.

 

In conclusion, useful as a book of record, but hard work. Potential readers might also consider Speedbird, reviewed here, which is also somewhat  flawed.