Recollections and reflections — a seasoned reporter’s view of aviation history
If there’s one thing that’s certain in aviation, it’s change. Those who know me will be aware that, despite my youthful looks, I’ve been observing the scene for a good 50 years, having been born just eight days after ‘Chuck’ Yeager made his first supersonic flight and when the original (weekly) Aeroplane magazine was still in its thirties. Well, now the editor has been kind enough to offer me this regular page in Aeroplane, to reflect on the aviation world as I remember it, as it is now and how it might develop. I’ll try not to harp on about things being better ‘back then’ — even if they were — or to criticise the current stranglehold that concerns around legal liability have on so many aspects of aviation. At least, if I do, I’ll attempt to balance it by underlining some of the more positive recent developments.
After all, you can now, if your pockets are deep enough, fly as a passenger in a two-seat Spitfire here in the UK thanks to the CAA’s enlightened ‘informed consent’ rule change a couple of years ago. Not all the changes have been for the worse.
Better than that, there’s quite a lot to look forward to. A number of squadrons are marking notable birthdays, while the Royal Air Force itself will have a memorable anniversary to celebrate in April next year. I refer, of course, to Alan Pollock’s epic flight in Hunter FGA9 XF442 from Tangmere to West Raynham on 5 April 1968, routing via the River Thames and under Tower Bridge. His actions would have farreaching consequences, including the abrupt curtailment of his RAF career, but opinions remain divided nearly 50 years on over his motivation and justification.
What is certain is that this low-level, flag-waving exploit was intended as a patriotic gesture of protest, and that it thankfully had a safe outcome.
Am I alone in marvelling, each time I cross Tower Bridge, ‘He flew through here? In a Hunter?’ June this year sees the 52nd Salon International Aéronautique de l’Aviation et de l’Espace at le Bourget, which remains the aerospace industry’s largest European shop window. I well remember the 1967 Salon, which brought together a wide variety of new types. Concorde was present only as a walk-through mock-up, but proved a huge crowd-puller, one notable visitor being General de Gaulle with his entourage of security personnel. Other new aircraft included two preproduction F-111As, the first production B-N Islander, a full-scale wooden SEPECAT Jaguar replica and a fuselage mock-up of the Handley Page Jetstream. Today, we know which of these types went on to have a good future (F-111, Islander, Jaguar), which would be a spectacular technical achievement but an economic basket-case (Concorde), and which would end up bankrupting the company (Jetstream). My point is that, even when you peel away the PR-speak and the hype that characterise trade shows such as Paris, it’s still very difficult to predict such outcomes at the time.
“Even when you peel away the PR-speak and the hype that characterise trade shows such as Paris, it’s very difficult to predict outcomes”
What else were people talking about in May 1967? Arguments about Mr Healey’s cancellation of the TSR2 programme two years earlier rumbled on. The F-111K looked to be a reasonable ‘slot-in’ TSR2 replacement at the strategic end of the RAF requirement, although it was already suffering its own development problems. More worrying was a complete lack of detail about the Anglo- French Variable Geometry (AFVG) jet, which was planned with shorter range and a lower payload capability to complement the F-111K. The collaborative AFVG was still very much a ‘paper’ aeroplane, yet Dassault was developing and was close to flying the seemingly competitive — and all-French — variablegeometry Mirage G, to barely suppressed British cries of ‘perfidy’. A heated debate in Parliament on 1 May 1967 centred around the comparative cost of 158 TSR2s (the RAF’s original plan) against that for 50 F-111Ks and 100 AFVGs (the replacement plan). In the event, they need hardly have bothered. We now know that the RAF would not take delivery of a single example of any of these types, and that even the Mirage G ould fail to progress beyond the prototype stage. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. ■