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As depicted on the book’s back cover Waterton looks like a prototypical RAF fighter pilot from central casting. Which he was for a while, except he is Canadian, a fact which does not emerge for quite a few pages. This is not an autobiography, it is an account of Bill W’s travails as a test pilot in a very specific (and overlooked) era.
He came over to the UK before WW2 to gain a short service commission. As WW2 was maturing, he was very proactive in seeking postings which would enhance his employability in post-war civilian life, and decided he wanted to be a test pilot (TP).
The style is unremittingly sardonic, and all the better for that. Occasionally it is very rococo to a 21st C ear – “rodomontade” anyone? And his continuous use of “ ‘plane” one can only ascribe to his being a colonial!
Clearly a Total Aviation Person, and a gifted pilot; I liked his pigeonholing of national characteristics of post-war designs. British aircraft were distinguished by “the functional crudeness of cockpits”, Germans “by the individual smell of their finish”, Americans “by the size of their cockpits and the batteries of electrical switches.” He had the good fortune to do a lot of evaluation of captured German aircraft during the war (like “Winkle” Brown). He was one of a handful of pilots seconded to the High Speed Flight to break the world speed record. Unlucky to be given a dog of an aircraft, and, as an early sign of their obduracy, Gloster refused to improve the aileron rigging, which was at the core of his handling problems. Consequently it was Donaldson who actually achieved the record.
He was in the right place at the right time to secure a TP role at Gloster Aircraft. Waterton is very obviously a man who did not suffer fools gladly. And (at least by his account) there were a lot of fools at Gloster. This is very evident from his prose, and is the main reason why the book received a very lukewarm reception when it was first published in 1956.
The Quick & the Dead
The perils of post-war test flying
William Arthur Waterton
Grub Street, 2012 ISBN 978 1 908117274