Published on August 24th, 2021 | by Guy Warner0
Book Review – Britain’s Aircraft Industry
Britain’s Aircraft Industry – Triumphs and Tragedies since 1909 by Ken Ellis, 368 pages HB, 148 colour and 436 B&W illustrations, Crécy £27.95, ISBN 978-1-91080-942-6
Ken Ellis is a very highly respected aviation historian, author of the acclaimed Wrecks & Relics, a former editor of Flypast and the late, lamented Air Enthusiast. He is also always willing to help fellow historians, by encouraging, sharing his knowledge in answer to their queries and supplying photographs from his collection. At this early stage I must declare an interest, as I first met Ken nearly 30 years ago, admire his work and have benefited, not only from his help but also his editorial skills.
This is a weighty volume, which the author suggests is suitable for ‘dipping in’. I must take issue with this. Let the reader beware – once you have dipped in, it is difficult to stop. Ken writes in a conversational and accessible style, a good example of which can be found in the Introduction, where he relates a cautionary tale of a visit to BAe at Woodford. There is no doubt that the book is a very valuable work of reference but is also a highly readable narrative history, spiced by the author’s views, based on a lifetime’s immersion in his chosen subject.
It is axiomatic that you should never judge a book by its cover; however, I would challenge any bookshop or online browser not to be attracted by the stunning cover photo of the mighty, yet deeply flawed Bristol Brabazon. This is merely the first of nearly 600 images which illuminate and grace the text. Crécy is to be highly commended on the quality of the paper used and the excellent reproduction of the images – at a very reasonable price.
The book begins with a very helpful timeline to set the scene and to place the story in its chronological context. Have a look at Ken’s list on page nine, of what in his opinion were the most successful British designs down the years. I find it hard to disagree. The book is then divided into 38 chapters, each devoted to a single British aircraft manufacturer, arranged in alphabetical order. The sub-headings for each are miniature masterpieces of pithy and apposite concision. ‘Well I never knew that before’ facts abound, to take but one example, Shorthorns and Longhorns for the RFC, as well as SS Class blimps for the RNAS were constructed by George Holt Thomas’s Airco.
Each chapter features several very valuable tables of the manufacturer’s own products and sub-contracts (the degree of cross fertilisation is quite remarkable), giving type, length of time in production, total number built, designated role and engine fitted. The history of each company is summarised and includes potted biographies of the pioneers, entrepreneurs, designers and engineers, some well-known and others rescued from undeserved obscurity. The location of the factories, test airfields, changes of name, mergers and take-overs, plus background political manoeuvrings are all covered.
In summary, this is an excellent book, making a complicated tale comprehensible, based on prodigious research and written with a deep love of the subject.