Empire of the Clouds: When Britain's Aircraft Ruled the World, By James Hamilton-Paterson

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Bear joke. You know the Bear Joke. Abbreviated version: hunter, gun, slaughter. Vast bear survives. Bear inflicts sexual indignities on hunter. Hunter limps painfully home, comes back next day with increased firepower, more carnage. Bear escalates bestial revenge. Third day. Hunter crawls back, bruised and bleeding, with tank, flame-thrower, reduces forest to charred smoking stumps, bleak silence littered with charred fauna. Bear appears. Looks at hunter. Hunter looks at bear. Bear says: "Be honest. This isn't about hunting, is it?"

Empire of the Clouds isn't about aviation. Or it's about aviation in the same way a red rash is about meningitis. James Hamilton-Paterson is interested in test pilots, the fearless, yet reassuringly mortal heroes of his youth. He is interested in fighters more than in bombers; in bombers more than in civil transport aircraft. But the real question, all along, is: what the hell happened?

It's a question which bubbles to the surface when anyone contemplates Britain in the last hundred years. And it's as relevant now as it's ever been. We've got no manufacturing industry to talk of. We're fished out, mined out and sold out. Our bankers are a busted flush. Our service industries have nobody to serve. Our politicians are entwined in a pointless rhetorical homogeneity. All we have left to take to the world's table is our astonishing intellectual fertility. In the world of ideas, Britain has, since the Enlightenment, punched wildly above its weight; yet in the last century it has almost ritualistically done itself down. And now that ideas and intellectual property are almost all we have left – look at the recent crop of Nobel science laureates from British universities – our politicians are planning to cut back education. Good thinking, chaps.

Hamilton-Paterson's particular genius in this case is to pick the right example – the aircraft industry – to make the general case.

From the first description of an Avro Vulcan ambling a hundred feet over the Peak District then thunderously blasting up vertically on its pillars of reheat fire, to Alan Pollock's celebrated full-power, low-level and unannounced triple pass over Parliament in his Hunter, thrice interrupting a Commons debate before passing through the centre of Tower Bridge to mark the cheeseparing closure of Tangmere aerodrome, his material, his enthusiasm and his research keep what would otherwise be an adagio of decline racing along like a Vampire F1 on a hairy initial-and-pitch.

Yet all along, we are thinking: this is the story of Britain. Time and again, we have it; and time and again, we throw it away. It's not just the jet engine which powered the transport which in turn shaped the modern world; it's not just the radar or the ill-fated Comet, the car industry, coal-mining, the railways, education; it's everything. More and more, you come to realise that the old saw is true. Come to a Briton with an idea and he'll give you ten reasons why it won't work; take the same idea to an American and he'll give you ten reasons why it will.

But Empire of the Clouds is not mere cultural history by stealth. You could perfectly well read it for the two star roles, the test pilots and the aeroplanes themselves. As a New Elizabethan, 11 years old at the Coronation in 1953, Hamilton-Paterson fell under the spell of Eagle and Boy's Own, the RAF recruiting advertisements ("Your future is in the air and can start when you're fifteen") and not just Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, but John Derry, Neville Duke, Roland Twiss, Ronald Falk, Bill Cunningham... test pilots all, and household names. The last one in the line was probably Brian Trubshaw, the Concorde senior test pilot; now, though the Empire Test Pilot School at Boscombe Down is still, along with Pax River in the US, the most celebrated flight test academy in the world, the test pilots themselves are not stars, but quiet, logical types who go home to their wives each day and fully expect to draw their pensions, not (as once) if they still exist, but if their pensions do.

There was, in the aftermath of the Second World War, what Hamilton-Paterson calls "prodigious talent, skill and inventive energy" in the British aero industry. "Maybe," he adds, "we could start by wondering whatever had become of all those national high spirits, the dash and verve and daring."

In air-to-air photographs of prototype aircraft, he continues, "inside the cockpits, their grinning faces turned towards the camera only yards away, are men often in their shirtsleeves, or wearing a jacket and tie... nothing better illustrates the gulf between the world they inhabited then and our own today than the way they dressed to fly. It is not just the informality that strikes us but the lack of kit... we look back at men carrying out a morning's worth of potentially lethal spinning trials wearing the jackets from their demob suits and with nothing on their heads but a dab of Brylcreem."

It was a very British style which took a long time to die away; longer, indeed, than the British aero industry. I remember a few years ago going to Toulouse to do a segment for the BBC's The Air Show about Airbus Industrie. We were going to fly back in a new Airbus, fully rigged out with test equipment, and during the course of the flight I'd get my hands on the controls. Out on the apron bright and early, we filmed the technicians and engineers arriving and the co-pilot doing the walk-around.

But where was the man himself? The test pilot?In due course, a slight, affable northener appeared, wearing what looked like M&S cavalry twills, a pair of ordinary brown shoes, and a houndstooth tweed jacket. He looked for all the world like an assistant bank manager on his day off, or a physics master from a top-rank grammar school. "Hop on, then," he said. It was the test pilot. Dressed for a day in front of the second-year sixth. A proper, English test pilot. I was beside myself with pride and pleasure.

But if the ghostly influence of the post-war test pilots remains, the aeroplanes they tested are long gone. A typically British mess of complacent businessmen (one test pilot had to abort his careful schedule when the company man in the right-hand seat demanded they return for the four-course management lunch), political fannying-about, loss of nerve, obstructive and gutless civil servants with jobs for life, and a general incompetence unimagineable anywhere else: aeroplanes being built in one place, dismantled, tracked by road to the nearest manageable (grass, sodden) runway, reassembled, then taking off in a thick furrow of splashing mud. Aeroplanes being specified by the Ministry, then the specifications being changed, then the project withdrawn, the jigs and tools destroyed, the drawings incinerated. The remarkable Fairey FD2 had to be tested at Dassault's base in Cazaux, south of Bordeaux, because of British rules prohibiting supersonic flight. UK insurers quoted impossible premiums until Marcel Dassault found a French company that would insure the whole programme for £40. Meanwhile, Dassault was taking notes, and his own internationally-successful Mirage III eventually bore a remarkable resemblance to the Fairey FD.

In the end, it was the preposterous Duncan Sandys who decapitated the British aero industry; oddly symmetrical since it was Sandys himself who was said to have been decapitated in the famous "headless man" photographs with the Duchess of Argyll. It all came to nothing.

You'll look in vain for Gloster or De Havilland, English Electric, Avro, Supermarine or Vickers. The Valiant, the Hunter, the "lovely little Fairey Delta" and the DH110 which killed De Havilland's second son: they are mere memories. Britain's advantage in transatlantic jet travel was lost with the Comet. (I sat alone in the cockpit of the last airworthy Comet at Boscombe Down. It was fully fuelled, and I was very tempted.)

In short, as in long, we blew it. Empire of the Clouds is a splendid, meticulous and stylish story of wonderful machines and the men who made them. It is also a tale of fudging, incompetence, malice, complacency and ignorance. It is a story of defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. It is a very British tale indeed.