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& Bullets

Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.


With reviews of books that cover these topics



Rise and Fall


Tony Blackman

Grub Street, 2013 (pb)

ISBN 9781909166028

Another book from this prolific author of both fiction and non-fiction. There may be an enigma (how did later variants become such bastard offspring?), but there is no variation on Blackman’s tried and tested theme – a relatively scientific exposition of the type’s development, followed by lots of aircrew tales. As a very unscientific type, I find the second half of his books much more enjoyable. The first half is at times set out as though Blackman is giving some briefing in a darkened room at Avro’s Woodford factory. One half expects a few punchy questions to be fired off at the end of each chapter to test you have not fallen asleep!


The preface outlines the security issues surrounding the book’s compilation and whets the reader’s appetite for what is to follow. Early on the reader might wonder what sort of book he has purchased, as Blackman goes into an over-enthusiastic description of the evolution of submarines. It is, of course, a prelude to his setting out of the history of anti-submarine warfare, in which the Nimrod was to play such a leading part. Blackman goes into tremendous detail on the systems of each of the variants, and he can only do so now that the type is, sadly, out of service.


Some of the prose appears to be lifted from some-one else’s story, but is not attributed. Many of the tales are however attributed, and one of the most gripping is Joe Kennedy’s account of flying in the Nimrod that became the first airborne command & control centre for dealing with the Piper Alpha disaster – a conflagration on an offshore oil rig , for younger viewers.


Ironic that the Nimrod’s career was split fairly evenly between taking lives – either directly as a sub killer, or indirectly as an airborne control room for fighter and battlefield controllers – and saving them as a key element of Britain’s search & rescue network. As Blackman runs through every role, one normally is left thinking – why does Britain no longer posess that capability?


One episode is described that neatly bridges the opposing ends of the role spectrum: the Nimrod assists in vectoring British helicopters to land on a Soviet nuclear sub to lift an injured Russian sailor.


Once into the second half, the airmen’s tales unsurprisingly inject some needed humour – an air engineer’s reference  - during a court martial – to a judge as “the one wearing the sheepskin headgear”, particularly tickled my ribs.


There is a comprehensive review of Nimrod accidents; that which befell XV 230, and which provoked the Haddon-Cave inquiry, is the most interesting. Blackman has some stimulating views on what H-C missed. As he moves to describe the drama of the axing of the Nimrod AEW variant, GEC receives both barrels (as well as BAe). It would have been interesting to hear accusations levelled at the managers responsible, not merely the name of their employer.  The true cost of the botched procurement is only hinted at – perhaps an estimation falls outside of the scope of this book.  And then we move to the MRA4, where BAe managed to construct fuselages that could not be mated with the associated wings – Blackman explains this well. It sounds as though it could have been an extremely capable aircraft – I was most struck by a map showing that it could operate for two hours on task off the Ghanaian coast from a base in the centre of the UK. As the project sank deeper into the mire, one can only conclude it was a classic case of clear lines of responsibility not being set out – even within BAe.


Few people will want to remember the Nimrod as being one of the worst examples of post-war defence procurement or aircraft project management. Instead the book serves as a testament to the skill, endurance (and heroic appetites!) of British Nimrod  aircrew. It will probably find a ready market amongst this nostalgic bunch.

Blooper alert

There are occasional rashes of grammatical mistakes (eg page 15) which give succour to those who allege that (test) pilots are an illiterate bunch.


The picture of page 35 is not of a Sunderland, as captioned, but of a Shorts S35 Shetland. The caption on page 146 is incorrect.

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