Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
Wings over Water The story of the World’s Greatest Air Race and the Birth of the Spitfire
Jonathan Glancey Atlantic Books, 1 October 2020
Glancey documents the gestation and history of possibly the most important competition in aviation’s history – the Schneider Trophy. It follows neatly (as a prequel) from his last book – a biography of the Spitfire.
The author’s style is certainly mannered: I can think of few other writers who would have described the Supermarine S6B as “puissant”. As this is on the first page of the prologue it gives the reader a taste of the sometimes pretentious style to come. He soon disappears on a weird riff about the architect Le Corbusier, perhaps less weird when one remembers Glancey’s day job for much of his career has been as an architectural critic.
The book starts with a review of the early days of fixed wing development in Europe, evoking the huge popularity of meetings such as those at Reims, acting as an outlet for the competitive instincts in brave (or foolhardy) young men, but also as a forum for the exchange of technological ideas. Another diversion off-piste is a discussion of the wonderful film Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines – we get the cast list, for goodness’ sake.
Once into describing the Schneider competitions, the book is on surer footing. The Schneider certainly attracted some of the characters of the Edwardian era: who knew, for example, that Armand Deperdussin, a talented designer of the time, was indicted for a massive fraud? Another character was Lord Carbery – there are no references in the book - a major irritation, as it would have helped to follow sources for this episode.
Reginald Mitchell was of course the father of the Spitfire, and Glancey sets out how he was recruited in a very junior role at Supermarine as early as 1917, yet his talents were soon recognised, and he progressed to chief designer only two years later. When France won the Gordon Bennet Trophy in 1920, they held it in perpetuity, meaning that the Schneider became the pre-eminent speed competition.
One of the joys of the book is that it shines a light on characters that deserve to be better remembered – Henri Biard, for example, Supermarine’s chief test pilot in 1922, and winner of the Trophy that year. Glancey is also good at hunting out human interest stories, even if he is prone to flowery prose – Biard “careers” down from 200 feet in the 1923 competition. By the mid-Twenties governments around the world had started to recognise the strategic advantages of high speed flight, and the political advantages of demonstrating superiority to rivals. This adds another interesting thread to the narrative. British lay readers may be surprised to learn how much the Italians feature in the history of the Schneider (they designed beautiful aircraft as well as cars). The story of the 1926 Italian team filling the floats of their Macchi M39s with Chianti (ahead of their voyage to the competition in the US, as they were rightly concerned about the standards of gastronomy they would encounter) is delightful.
For anyone with an engineering bent, the Schneider story is absorbing- piston engines were taken to their limit and beyond, given the metallurgical knowledge of the time. In 1929, for example, the Italians used a 57.3 litre Isotta Franchini engine developing 1800 h.p.! Danger and violent death is never far away. One should also note that the Italians were both good hosts, and good losers – General Italo Balbo did not hesitate to attend events in celebration of British victories. They did, however, take the world speed record with the Macchi MC 72 in 1934.
There is a good passage giving credit to TE Lawrence (aka Aircraftsman TE Shaw) for his part in the development of the RAF’s rescue launches, which started out in effect as communication and rescue boats for the British Schneider team. Glancey also shines a light on overlooked Italian designs which were later developed into reasonable WW2 fighters. But whilst prose can tell the reader something about a revolutionary aircraft, a picture tells so much more. It is a shame that there are not more copious illustrations in this book: there are some excellent line drawings by Ralph Pegrum, but several fascinating-sounding aircraft are mentioned with no photos.
Towards the book’s end, the Spitfire takes shape; and there is an interesting vignette about its Supermarine contemporary – the ungainly Walrus seaplane. Such was Mitchell’s genius that the factory test pilot looped this apparent brute at low level on its initial flights. Glancey goes on to describe the end of the flying boat era, and reminds us that the great social levelling occasioned by WW2 around the world was another reason for the demise of the flying boat – which was essentially an elite form of international travel.
The epilogue – a sort of philosophical retrospective – is excellent. Overall this book has some irritating flaws, but is rarely less than interesting.
An oversight or two: he mentions that Churchill, involved in deciding UK government funding for the 1927 team, “would be proud during the Second World War to wear his RAF wings badge”, without mentioning that he was not entitled to wear it. Despite over 100 hours of tuition he never managed to fly solo!
A few pages later Glancey describes the Packard X-2775 engine as “essentially a pair of V12s, one upright, the other inverted, both joined to a single camshaft”. I think he means a single crankshaft.
Aircraft and pilots don’t “loop the loop”, they “loop”!
The careworn S6B in London's Science Museum