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Archive for the ‘Aviation’ Category

Biggles’ Big Adventures: Four Classic Stories Starring the British Empire’s Most Fearless Pilot Adventurer, Captain W.E. Johns (Sevenoaks 2007)

Some of the Biggles short stories, particularly those set during the First World War, are excellent and inventive literature. The Biggles novels, on the other hand, are usually formulaic pot-boilers. Reading them can be like watching the same play over and over again with different scenery. That’s certainly true of the four novels collected here: Biggles in the Baltic (1939), Biggles Sees It Through (1940), Biggles Flies North (1941) and Biggles in the Jungle (1942).

Each has the same plot: Biggles and his comrades Algy and Ginger face a ruthless and cunning enemy, are captured and imprisoned, escape, and ultimately triumph. Sometimes they’re captured and escape more than once. Little else varies but for the landscape, the name of their enemy and the nature of his ruthlessness and cunning. In Biggles in the Baltic and Biggles Sees It Through it’s the Nazi Von Stahlhein; in Biggles Flies North it’s a crook called Brindle McBain and in Biggles in the Jungle it’s a crook called The King of the Forest.

I’ve never managed to finished Biggles in the Baltic, because it’s so dull. There’s little memorable in any of the others apart from a bar scene in Biggles Flies North in which McBain puts a bullet through Biggles’ cup of Bovril and Biggles puts a bullet through McBain’s bottle of whiskey. All the same, reading the middle two novels of this collection has been one of the most interesting literary experiences of my life, because I carried out a simple experiment I’d been meaning to try for some time.

What did I do? I read the the novels upside-down. That is, they were upside-down, not me. I simply turned the book through 180° and read the lines of text right-to-left and from the bottom of the page to the top. It was hard work: from being a fluent, fast and careless adult reader I was transformed into a slow and stumbling learner again. I had to spell some words through letter by letter. I made mistakes and jumped to wrong conclusions about the word I was trying to decipher. It was hard work and the stories were a lot more interesting than they would have been if I’d read in the usual way. They were also more frustrating: when Biggles & Co. were captured or otherwise in difficulty, I couldn’t get to the bits where they escaped or overcame the difficulty as quickly as I wanted to.

And I was much more aware of the acting of reading – its strangeness and its power. Or perhaps you could just say that I was aware of the act of reading. It wasn’t easy and automatic any more. But it might have become so if I’d continued the experiment for long enough. My skill at upside-down reading improved even over the course of two Biggles novels. Something was happening inside my brain: I was re-learning to see words as Gestalts and not as sets of individual letters. Would I ever read upside-down as easily as I normally do? In time, perhaps. I doubt I’ll ever try to find out, but it was certainly an interesting experiment and I may try it again if another suitable book comes my way.

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Jet and Rocket Aircraft of the Third Reich by Terry TreadwellRocket and Jet Aircraft of the Third Reich, Terry C. Treadwell (Spellmount 2011)

War accelerates technology. Aircraft entered the First World War in 1914 as little more than powered kites that fell apart easily, didn’t carry weapons and barely figured in military strategy. By 1918, they were fast-climbing, power-diving sharks of the air equipped with machine-guns and bomb-racks. They had also become central to military strategy.

As this book describes, technology was also accelerated by the Second World War. But it happened most obviously on the German side. The Allies began and finished the war using propeller-driven aircraft. The Germans began with props and finished with something extra: jet aircraft like the Me-262 Schwalbe (Swallow) and rocket aircraft like the Me-163 Komet. The ingenuity and technological sophistication of these aircraft aren’t the only astonishing things about them. The odds against which they were developed and put into service are astonishing too.

The Third Reich was being hammered by British and American bombers from the west and relentlessly ground down by the Red Army in the east. Fuel, parts and pilots were in ever-shorter supply. But both the Schwalbe and the Komet saw active service. Other aircraft described here, like the Bachem BA-394 Natter (Viper) and the Heinkel He-178 Volksjäger (People’s Fighter), didn’t get that far. An unofficial name of the He-178, the Salamander, is a clue to why. The Volksjäger was commissioned in late 1944 and by then the Reich was on fire. In legend salamanders are said to dwell in fire and flourish there. The He-178 didn’t flourish, but Terry C. Treadwell delivers this verdict: “Despite the dead ends and final defeat, Ernst Heinkel had made a major contribution to the world of jet- and rocket-propelled aircraft” (pg. 122).

Treadwell seems to know his subject and navigates the complicated history of test-flights, modifications and specification changes with assurance. His introduction to the book begins in “A.D. 1232, during the Mongol siege of the city Kai-fung-fu”, which was where the “first recorded use of a rocket” took place. He discusses the development of rockets, then devotes the first chapter to the “Messerschmitt Me 163B ‘Komet’” (pp. 19-69). Even today the Komet seems like something out of science fiction: a bat-winged rocket-plane powered by highly dangerous chemicals – C-Stoff and T-Stoff – that would “ignite on contact with the skin” (pg. 41). That’s why the pilots and ground crew had to wear protective gear: a photo caption on pg. 48 describes “Leutnant Fritz Kelb wearing his asbestos flying suit climbing into the cockpit of his Me 163B”.

It was a tight fit there, because the Komet was a tiny aircraft. And it was probably more dangerous to its own side than to the enemy. Test-pilots fractured their spines and lost their lives trying to correct its failings. Hanna Reitsch, the famous “Nazi aviatrix”, nearly died when she crash-landed a Komet in 1941, for example. Hitler and Göring sent flowers to her hospital bed and “critics of the Me 163 projects saw their chance of having the programme stopped” (pg. 38). However, another test-pilot for the Komet, Rudolf Opitz, “demonstrated the Me 163B with take-off dolly attached to the satisfaction of all concerned” and the programme continued.

The Komet was still being flown as a glider at that stage. Adding an engine added more complications, more dangers and more delay. The “first operational sortie” wasn’t until 13 May 1944, when Hauptmann Wolfgang Späte tried to shoot down two P-47 Thunderbolts. But the Komet’s speed got in his way: he was chasing the Thunderbolts and about to fire when “the left wing suddenly heeled over and the whole aircraft began to shake violently” (pg. 52). Then the engine “flamed out”: Späte had “inadvertently touched the ‘Sound Barrier’, as it was later to be known”.

That exceptional speed was apparent again later in the month:

Another encounter took place on 31 May 1944, this time between a photo-renaissance Spitfire and a Komet from No. 1 Staffel. The Spitfire pilot was at 37,000 feet and about to make his first run over the target, when he noticed a white trail some 7,000 feet below and about a mile away. The Spitfire pilot climbed his aircraft to 41,000 feet and saw the tiny aircraft just 3,000 feet below him and about 1,000 yards away. The sudden realisation that the tiny machine had climbed around 8,000 feet in the same time that the Spitfire had climbed 4,000 feet was quite disturbing. The only description the pilot could give of his potential adversary was that it appeared to be all-wing and travelled exceptionally fast. (ch. 1, pg. 54)

If Allied bombs were turning Germany into a hell of high explosive, then bats were rising out of that hell. While its fuel lasted and its rocket engine functioned, the Komet was uncatchable, but like the Me-262 the Me-163 was highly vulnerable when landing:

As he ran out of fuel and glided into land, the P-51 Mustang attacked and hit the little rocket plane. The Komet made a perfect landing, but when the ground crew got to the pilot they found the pilot, Feldwebel Herbert Klein, dead in the cockpit with a bullet hole in his head. The bullet had passed right through his seat armour. (pp. 68-9)

That was in January 1945, when the Third Reich was close to final defeat. In February, the Luftwaffe High Command “ordered that production of the Me 163B cease”. As Treadwell notes, of the 364 Komets built, “only 70…ever saw combat”. Like its celestial namesake, the Komet blazed briefly and then faded to black. It was an astonishing aircraft built and flown in atrocious conditions and a worthy choice for chapter one.

Chapter two is devoted to an even stranger aircraft: the Bachem Ba-349 Natter, a vertical take-off rocket-plane designed to fly, attack a bomber formation, then fall apart in mid-air and descend to earth on parachutes. The first manned test-flight killed the pilot, Oberleutnant Lothar Siebert, but the programme continued and ten Natters were eventually “assigned to an operational air defence site at Kircheim, east of Stuttgart” (pg. 82). The pilots waited more than a week to intercept a “heavy bomber formation”, but encountered an “American tank unit” instead. The Natters were destroyed “to prevent them falling into the hands of the Allies” (pp. 83-5). Three were nevertheless captured intact elsewhere, lasting proof, as Treadwell puts it, that “ingenuity could be born of desperation”.

The remaining eight chapters of the book describe more ingenuity and more desperation: the near-suicidal Fieseler Fi 103R Reichenberg, a piloted version of the pulse-jet V1 Doodlebug; the Arado Ar-234, “regarded as the world’s first pure jet bomber”; the Junkers Ju-287, with its revolutionary swept-forward wings; and so on. The tenth and final chapter is about the most important aircraft of them all: the Messerschmitt Me-262 Schwalbe, the “twin-engined jet fighter” that might have altered the outcome of the war if it had been delivered sooner and in greater numbers. The Reich might have won or forced a truce, rather than being battered into unconditional surrender.

But because the Me-262 is more important, it’s received much more attention from historians of military aviation and Treadwell is right to leave it till last. It’s the most attractive aircraft here too: Schwalbe, Swallow, is an appropriate name. Despite its deadliness – at least when its engines worked and its airframe held together – the Me-262 doesn’t seem to belong with the sinister, bat-like Me-163 and the stub-winged, embryo-like Ba-349. Those are alchemical aircraft, born of fire, blood and flesh-eating chemicals. They belong to the final days of the Third Reich and aeronautically speaking they’ve stayed there. Rocket aircraft never became routine and captured Me-262s were the great prize carried off at the end of the war by the Americans, Russians and British.

So the strange and sinister come first, the significant comes last. That’s the way readers of this book will want it. The prose here is functional rather than polished, but that suits the subject and there’s a well-judged balance of text and photos. Rocket and Jet Aircraft of the Third Reich is an excellent introduction to those aircraft, describing both highly advanced technology and age-old politicking, as the Luftwaffe and SS compete for control of aviation in a collapsing empire. Bombs fall, cities die, and bats rise out of hell in a way that is still fascinating and disturbing more than seventy years later.

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No Empty Chairs by Ian MackerseyNo Empty Chairs: The Short and Heroic Lives of the Young Aviators Who Fought and Died in the First World War, Ian Mackersey (Phoenix 2012)

Flight is beautiful, death is ugly. But they’ve always gone together. It was worst in the early days. Aviation at the beginning of the twentieth century was very dangerous: designers, engineers and pilots were still learning and their mistakes were often fatal. It took courage simply to get in a plane and take off. Flying and fighting demanded more courage still. This book describes how aerial combat began in the First World War. At first aircraft were used for observation, not for offence, but soon pilots started taking pistols and rifles aloft and shooting at each other. Next came machine-guns and inventions that allowed pilots to shoot through the propeller. Planes got faster, sturdier and more reliable. As they got less dangerous, they got deadlier.

Like the Second World War, which began with prop-planes and ended with jets and rockets, the First World War accelerated the technology of aviation. The first planes were like giant kites with engines attached. They could fall apart if flown fast or handled roughly. By the end of the war, acrobatics were not just routine, but essential. One thing didn’t change: the brains and bodies of the men who had to fly the fast-evolving planes:

Flying in unheated, open cockpits with inadequate clothing as high as 24,000 feet in winter temperatures approaching minus 50 degrees Centigrade, made worse by propeller-driven wind chill, they suffered such intense cold that the foul-smelling whale oil they smeared on their faces couldn’t prevent icicles forming on their noses or frostbite from peeling skin off their cheeks. […] In the frenzied manoeuvres of dog-fighting they were subjected to extraordinarily high G-forces that caused them to black out and sometimes burst vessels in their eyes. They got ruptured eardrums from the abrupt pressure changes in swooping dives of thousands of feet. They were afflicted by vertigo and airsickness that had them vomiting in their cockpits; by agonising gas-filled bowels that could be relieved only by releasing copious blasts of wind. On the ground most of them lived unhealthy, largely sedentary lives and, unsurprisingly, they drank and smoked heavily. Twenty-four-old pilots often began to look forty. (ch. 26, “The Spent Capital of Courage”, pg. 265)

And often died before they were twenty-five. Although casualties among ground troops were far higher, there were far more more men fighting on the ground, so the odds against survival were worse in the air. During “Bloody April” in 1917, the “average life expectancy of a subaltern [novice pilot] had shrunk to eleven days” (ch. 27, “The Working-Class Heroes”, pg. 272). All fighting men risked bullets and high explosive in the war, but there were horrors unique to the different branches of military service. Soldiers could drown in fetid, freezing mud; pilots could burn alive in a plummeting aircraft. That’s why some of them continued to take pistols aloft: to shoot not the enemy but themselves if their planes began to burn.

The only other way out in that situation was to jump out and fall to one’s death. Parachutes were never issued to British pilots and were used only late in the war by the Germans. The legend is that they were deliberately withheld to discourage cowardice and the “unnecessary abandonment of aircraft”. But Mackersey says that no order to that effect has ever been discovered and convincingly argues that the blame rested with official inertia, ignorance and lack of imagination.

The pilots themselves didn’t lack it. They often dreamed of their own deaths. The “Irish working-class ace” Mick Mannock (1887-1918) had nightmares about dying in a “flamerino”, his apotropaic nickname for a death-fall in a burning aircraft. As Mackersey laconically says: “One eventually claimed him” (ch. 28, “Flamerinoes”, photo section). Perhaps Mannock let himself die, consciously or otherwise: the strain of risking death can begin to seem worse than death itself. Guy de Maupassant explored that idea in his story “A Coward” (1884) and Mackersey provides a real example: a flight commander who was ordered to lead a “low-level bombing raid on an enemy aerodrome”. He had an “excellent chance of surviving” and would win the Military Cross if he succeeded. But he refused the order and, threatened with a court martial, shot himself through the head (“Waning of the Spirit”, pg. 307).

Drink and debauchery were less extreme responses to Himmelangst, “heaven-fear”, as great fear is called in German. This is one of the more unusual footnotes to children’s literature in English:

Lieutenant William Earl Johns of 55 Squadron, later (writing under the name Captain W.E. Johns) to become celebrated as the creator of the immortal pilot adventurer James Bigglesworth, the hero of more than a hundred Biggles books for boys, found himself in a hospital in France suffering from both syphilis and gonorrhoea. (ch. 19, “They Also Served”, pg. 201)

The Biggles books were bowdlerised after their early appearances in an adult aviation magazine, but are an excellent guide to the exhilaration and horror of air-combat. And also to the daily lives of British pilots, who constantly played practical jokes and ran competitions with each other and other squadrons. Mackersey devotes a chapter to “The ‘Bloody Wonderful Drunks’” (pp. 181-9), violent, hard-drinking parties in which furniture and crockery were destroyed, joints strained and limbs broken: “A puzzled American pilot attached to No. 85 Squadron commented: ‘These Englishmen sure have a funny idea of a party. They want to smash everything.’” (ch. 18, pg. 187).

This was an extension of life at public school and university, where many of the pilots had been before being taught to fly by stuttering, shell-shocked instructors and thrown into combat. Did the Germans behave in a similar way? Mackersey doesn’t say, but he describes the careers of the German aces Oswald Boelcke, Erwin Böhme, Max Immelmann and, most famous of all, the Red Baron Manfred von Richthofen. All four died in combat, like the British aces Albert Ball, Arthur Rhys Davies, Eric Lubbock and James McCudden. These men foresaw their own deaths and continued to fly. Their courage and skill won them permanent fame as Knights of the Air, flying far above the mud, filth and mechanized slaughter of the trenches.

But Mackersey also discusses the wives, girlfriends and families of the aces. He covers every aspect of aerial combat in the First World War, from fighters and balloons to Zeppelins and bombers, from pilots and observers to mechanics, instructors and aircraft designers like Anthony Fokker (1890-1939), the Dutchman whose expertise was turned down by the British and French before being accepted by the Germans. No Empty Chairs is a detailed history of a fascinating and horrific period, when the heavens turned hellish and a beautiful invention was put to some very ugly ends.


Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

World Wide Wings – The Big Book of Flight, Rowland White

Mud FeudTrench: A History of Trench Warfare on the Western Front, Stephen Bull

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World Wide WingsThe Big Book of Flight, Rowland White (Bantam Press 2013)

Kite WriteThe Kite-Making Handbook, compiled by Rossella Guerra and Giuseppe Ferlenga (David & Charles 2004)

Gun GuideSmall Arms: 1914-45, Michael E. Haskew (Amber Books 2012)

The Basis of the BeastKillers: The Origins of Iron Maiden, 1975-1983, Neil Daniels (Soundcheck Books 2014)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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The Big Book of Flight by Rowland WhiteThe Big Book of Flight, Rowland White (Bantam Press 2013)

Aircraft are like birds: varied. And, like birds, the most beautiful are often the deadliest. Freight-carriers usually look like it, but even helicopters and flying-boats can look good. This book covers the lot, from the deadly XB-70 Valkyrie, a beautiful jet “designed to carry 25 tons of nuclear bombs at three times the speed of sound” (pg. 234), to the dumpy Ekranoplan, a huge flying-boat whose remains are “rusting away in a dry dock in the Russian Caspian sea-port of Kaspiysk” (pg. 269). Rowland White discusses every aspect of aviation: not just props, jets and gliders, but balloons, parachutes and rockets, plus call-signs, airport codes and Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang. His writing is enthusiastic and intelligent and the book has a solid and fashionably old-fashioned design, like something a flight-obsessed schoolboy might have got for Christmas in the 1950s.

If he had, he would have been pleased: The Big Book of Flight mixes text, photographs, line-drawings and Patrick Mulrey’s beautiful double-page oil-paintings, which capture the speed and steel of aircraft and the vastness and solitude of the sky. I like the “Project Cancelled” sections too, about interesting planes that never made it into service. Web-sites about flight aren’t physical, fingerful fun like this and the heft of the book underlines the paradox of flight: how does something heavier than air get up and stay there?

Take the “swing-wing Grumman F-14 Tomcat” shown surging aloft, jets glaring, from the deck of an aircraft-carrier on page 210. If it hit the water that stretches away to the horizon, it would sink like a stone. It’s metal, after all: solid in a way birds, with their fractal feathers and hollowed bones, have never been. But it stays aloft and plays aloft, all 70,000 lb of it. This isn’t magic: it’s engineering. Metal jet-fighters obey the laws of physics just as birds and balloons do. And jet-fighters obey the laws of genetics too, because aircraft are as much products of genes as bones and feathers are. Evolution has taken many routes to flight, but before Homo sapiens arrived they were all direct ones: genes coded for wings, light bodies and fast metabolisms. That’s how birds, bats and insects got aloft. The human route was indirect: our genes coded for higher intelligence and we invented our own wings to carry bodies that were never designed to fly.

But more than intelligence was required. The early history of flight is littered with crashes and corpses:

German engineer Otto Lilienthal published his seminal Birdflight as the Basis of Aviation in 1889 at the age of 41. He flew his first glider two years later. Over the next five years he made some 2000 flights, accumulating just five flying hours. Still, the “Glider King”, as he was dubbed, had flown longer and further than anyone else in history. But on 9 August 1896, during his second flight of the day, his glider stalled. He crashed to the ground and broke his back. Two days later, like so many previous birdmen, he died from his injuries. (“Dreams of the Birdmen: Icarus and His Successors”, pg. 15)

Before he died, Lilienthal told his brother that “sacrifices have to be made”. His work and sacrifice were an inspiration for Wilbur and Orville Wright across the Atlantic in America. But their genes hadn’t evolved in America: flight was mastered by a peculiarly north-western European combination of high intelligence and daring. This book doesn’t explicitly discuss genetics, but it’s there on every page, from the German Otto Lilienthal at the beginning to the Austrian Felix Baumgartner near the end. Baumgartner claimed “Joe Kittinger’s record for the highest, fastest skyfall with a jump from 128,100 feet (24 miles)” in 2012 (pg. 236).

The American Nick Piantanida had preceded them in the 1960s. First he was a pilot, boxer and rock-climber, then he became a skydiver. His attempt to claim the freefall record killed him: he “suffered an explosive decompression at an altitude greater than any other reached by a human being”. Like Lilienthal, he survived his crash-landing but died in hospital. Success in aviation has been won by the sacrifices of the same group that sacrificed for success in mountaineering. Flight can be seen part of the same Faustian quest.

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