Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
The early pioneers of British aviation do not receive much literary attention, so this new title is welcome. Although the pioneer in my family did his trials at the other end of the country I still found this book - which focuses on the site at Lark Hill, near Stonehenge (with occasional references to the work at Farnborough) - very absorbing. It is well researched, with good footnotes, and written in a reasonably accessible style. The balance of prose and (good) illustrations is spot on.
There is a depressing litany of deaths as these men (and they were all men) tried to push the very limited boundaries of their flying envelope. Designers struggled to reconcile the competing demands of stability and controllability of their airframes. And pilots struggled to turn safely, particularly at low altitude. Brown spent “many years” in the Fleet Air Arm, so it is slightly surprising that his normal clarity eludes him when he addresses controllability problems. He infers that deaths from low level skidding turns were due to stalls near the ground, when technically I would have thought the aircraft had entered a spin. The author also appears to confuse the spiral dive and the spin. Little mention is made of the competing methods of trying to achieve controlled balanced turns – wing warping and ailerons. Occasionally there is extraneous detail (eg how many children an early aviator had).
The book provides good insight into the cultural stresses within the Army as some battled to create an air component. Larks also reinforces how aviation became an immensely popular spectator activity in a very short space of time – half a million people came to the Hendon air races in 1910. Indeed these pilots became the pre-eminent celebrities of the era. The resilience of these pilots and designers is remarkable. In an unusually prescient bit of government defence procurement, a comparable trial of potentially useful machines was organised for 1912. The build-up was intense, and Samuel Cody for example endured several crashes beforehand. Each time he reassembled the bits, making improvements as he went along. His physical endurance and mental toughness is astounding.
Brown fails to note that the investigation into one of the deaths in these trials instigated the creation of what came to be known as the AAIB – with Britain leading the world in accident investigation. (This subject is touched upon in Appendix H). But these small niggles aside, this is a very interesting book, and will appeal particularly to those visiting or living in this part of Wiltshire. It will also be a very useful companion volume to anyone studying the formation of the RFC or one of the biographies of Hugh Trenchard.
The early aviation pioneers of Lark Hill
Timothy C Brown, The History Press, 2013
ISBN 9780 752489896