My new series on BBC2 starts this coming Friday, 8th November, and I have to say, what’s really good about making programmes for the Beeb is being able to present something of a thesis. Yes, it’s quite a big subject compressed into two hours, but within those limits there’s still a bit of scope for presenting some reasonably big thoughts.
At the end of the Second World War, Britain had the most advanced aviation industry in the world. It’s true the Germans had operational jets before Britain and it is also true that they had developed a number of experimental air frame designs, but their jet engines were nothing like as technologically advanced as those being made by Rolls Royce, for example.
Britain built an astonishing 132,500 aircraft during the war, which while nothing like as much as those produced by the USA, was way more than those made by Germany. As far as her war leaders were concerned, air power had saved Britain in 1940 and hugely contributed to victory five years later. Furthermore, she had invested huge amounts in research and development, had large numbers of sophisticated factories, plenty of airfields, and lots and lots of technical know-how. And in 1945, Britain now had the most advanced jet engines in the world and had invested much in studying German experimental airframes. This potentially winning combination promised to kill two birds with one stone: jet power could protect Britain against the new threat of the emerging superpowers of America and the Soviet Union, and by sales of military and civilian jets, could haul the country clear of war debt.
This was a sensible plan at the time and for a while seemed to go swimmingly well. On the ground, Britain looked tired, with pre-war cars, peeling paint and holes in streets where bombed houses had yet to be rebuilt. In the air, though, the astonished British public could gaze up and see a vision of the future: incredible flashes of silver, hurtling through the sky: fast jets – supersonic jets – that seemed a million years from the cloth and wire biplanes of little more than a decade earlier. These incredible jets showed that Britain was still at the forefront of invention, at the cutting edge of technology; that Britain was still a great power.
The highlight of the year was Farnborough, an air show for British aircraft only, but to which the world was invited. More than 150,000 eager spectators would come and watch on the public days. In 1952, John Derry broke the sound barrier with the De Havilland DH110 – it was what everyone had come to see, and he did not disappoint. But after the sonic boom, he climbed and then the plane disintegrated. Not only was Derry and his navigator killed in front of all there, parts of the aircraft plunged into the crowd killing nearly thirty and wounding many more.
Incredibly, the show went on. Just twenty minutes later, Second World War fighter ace, Neville Duke, performed another sonic boom in his Hawker Hunter. John Derry had been one of his closest friends.
The truth was that although firms like De Havilland were private enterprises, the pressure to sell their wares and push the limits of jet technology came largely from the government. Test pilots like John Derry and Neville Duke were not only pilots, they were salesmen too. Roly Falk, the Avro test pilot, was such a showman, he performed his displays in a pinstripe suit. When he first flew the giant delta-wing Vulcan bomber at Farnborough, he took off and immediately barrel-rolled the aircraft. A bomber! Barrel-rolled! It was unheard of. To the legions of boys and young men who avidly followed every new development, these men were superstars – the Beckhams and Rooneys of their day. Only a little braver.
There was a price, of course. John Derry wasn’t the only high-profile test pilot to lose his life. So too did Geoffrey de Havilland Jr, who was killed in the DH108. Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, probably the finest pilot Britain has ever produced, was given the unenviable task of performing the crash-test investigation by re-enacting Geoffrey Jr’s final flight. At a certain speed and height, the aircraft began to shake – and shake so badly that another plane, watching this happening to Winkle Brown, saw nothing but a blur. This caused Geoffrey Jr to break his neck and then moments later the DH108 broke up. Winkle Brown, who was much shorter, managed to regain control in the nick of time and lived to tell the tale.
But overseas orders were coming in and not just of military aircraft. The shining beacon of Britain’s post-war jet aircraft industry was, in many ways, the Comet – the first jet passenger aircraft. Beautiful, fast, sleek and smooth, it ushered in a new dawn of travel. The world began to shrink dramatically. But then it all started to go wrong. The Comet had been hurried into production and a fatal flaw in the construction of one of the cockpit windows had not been detected. Comets began falling out of the sky and then the whole fleet had to be grounded and large orders put on hold. By the time this tragic flaw had been righted, Boeing had caught up and overtaken De Havilland’s Comet – and learned many of the teething lessons too. Boeing placed its jet engines onto the wing not within it making them much easier to repair and replace. The Comets were quickly left behind, beaten by America’s greater industrial clout.
And as the fifties progressed, atomic bombs were replaced by nuclear bombs and questions were being asked of the future of jet aircraft. Surely surface-to-air missiles could deliver what nuclear bombers could provide? Or perhaps not, but by then the most efficient way of delivering nuclear warheads was by Polaris missiles delivered by submarines – by vessels under the sea, not huge jet bombers high in the sky.
Slowly but surely, Britain’s post-war plans to dominate the world’s skies had begun to unravel. By the end of the sixties, with exciting new jets liked the Fairey Delta 2 and the TSR2 scrapped, the vision which had been unleashed with such hope and confidence had almost entirely unravelled. The rapidly changing nuclear world, the dominance of new super-powers and missed opportunities had killed Britain’s empire of the skies for good.