Offbeat aviation stories covered in The Aviation Historian
We spoke to Nick Stroud of The Aviation Historian.
Can you give us ten offbeat aviation stories covered in The Aviation Historian?
We’ve published some 300 articles since we started five years ago, so picking ten is hard, but here’s a few that might show the range of what we do, and which I learned a lot from working on.
1) Surprise Surprise! For our very first issue back in October 2012 I went to RAF Halton to interview former EE Lightning pilot John Mitchell and RAF groundcrew member Mike Mason, both of whom participated in Exercise Trumpet in late 1962. The Air Fighting Development Squadron had been tasked with intercepting a USAF Lockheed U-2 operating out of Upper Heyford — using Lightning F.1As from Middleton St George — just to see if it could be done. The chaps were wonderful company and having a magnificent painting by Michael Turner of an interception at 65,000ft for the opening spread was a huge honour for us. We revisited the U-2 in TAH7, when Dragon Lady specialist Chris Pocock detailed the type’s brief operational use from an aircraft carrier — yes, an aircraft carrier.
2) How America’s Local Airlines Put Main Street on the Map/Fly America! A bit of a cheat here, as it’s actually a two-part series in our third and fourth issues, in which American airline historian David H. Stringer details the development of the USA’s post-war “feeder airlines”, the local carriers which established the vital link between the nation’s small towns and big cities. It’s a huge, sprawling story, the telling of which David, one of our invaluable editorial board members and History Editor of AIRWAYS magazine, made look effortless, as he always does with everything he tackles, regardless of how complex the subject may be.
3) The Shah’s Skyhooks When we published our history of the UH-1 Skyhook, the four-seat helicopter Cessna likes to pretend never happened, in TAH3, pretty much nothing was known about its service with the Iranian Gendarmerie in the 1960s. Enter Iranian aviation historian Babak Taghvaee, who provided chapter and verse on its use in Iran in TAH10 by means of an interview with Skyhook pilot Colonel Gholam Reza-Rahbariyan, accompanied by previously unpublished photographs of the type in service. This was a terrific example of one TAH feature leading to the publication of another, thereby adding even more to the knowledge base of the subject.
4) Radiant Skies …or how America learned to stop worrying about nuclear power for aircraft and love the B-52, published in our fourth issue. Written by aeronautical engineering specialist Jakob Whitfield, this covered the USA’s troubled post-war attempts to power aircraft with atomic energy using a Convair B-36. A great story told with the help of not one, but TWO pages of magnificent technical illustrations by another of our esteemed editorial board members, Ian Bott, who was there at the very beginning of the TAH enterprise and whose work is very much part of our visual signature.
5) Defending the Reich I’m going to cheat again here and go for Luftwaffe specialist Robert Forsyth’s three-part series in TAH17–19, in which he chronicles the activities of Germany’s wartime experimental aerial weapons unit Erprobungskommando 25, whose CO, Horst Geyer, he interviewed for the series. Set up to test ambitious — and often frankly bonkers — aerial weapons systems, the unit risked life and limb to find out how workable aerial mortars, cable-towed bombs, “fireclouds” and optically-controlled upward-firing cannon fitted to an Fw 190 might be. The results were, shall we say, mixed.
6) The Hot Seat Talking of bonkers, one article I particularly enjoyed writing was this one for TAH14, detailing the US military’s developmental work on a jet-powered “flyaway” ejection seat, designated the AERCAB project. With superb technical illustrations of how it all worked from Ian Bott and some ultra-rare colour photographs taken at the time by American photo-journalist Howard Levy, this was a real eye-opener and — hopefully — as much fun to read as it was to write.
7) Trident: Britain’s Fork in the Road? This could have been any one of Professor Keith Hayward’s many features for TAH actually. When Keith retired as Head of Research at the Royal Aeronautical Society in 2015, we hoped it would give him more time to provide TAH with in-depth, fully referenced articles on the political aspects of some of the most far-reaching decisions made in the history of the British aviation industry. Happily it did and Keith opened his account with us with a probing dissection of the shambolic procurement of the Supermarine Swift in TAH11. Since then he’s tackled the Vickers V.1000, HS Trident, VC10 and perhaps most controversial of all, the infamous 1957 Defence White Paper. There’s plenty more to come from the Prof too, with the Fairey Rotodyne squarely in his sights . . .
8) To Africa in a Barrel One of the most pleasing aspects of curating TAH has been the response from authors all over the world, particularly South America, Scandinavia and Africa, all of which have rich seams of aviation history that have traditionally received scant coverage. The last two combined to make a fascinating feature in TAH13, when renowned Swedish author Leif Hellström agreed to chronicle the Swedish Air Force’s detachment of Saab J 29 Tunnans to Africa in support of the UN during the 1960s “Congo Crisis”. Numerous colour photographs were accompanied by specially commissioned profile artworks of the “Flying Barrels” by world-class illustrator Juanita Franzi, who Mick and I have been working with for nearly two decades.
9) “It Was A Jaguar D-Type on Steroids. It Was The Rolling Stones in Surround Sound After 8 Gallons of LSD . . .” Maybe not one of our more elegant headlines, but this feature by former newspaper journalist Jeff Watson was all about the brute power of the English Electric Lightning, a two-seat version of which he managed to beg a ride in during 1967. The training for the supersonic sortie, including a ride on the dreaded ejection trainer, was tough; then, as he explains in the feature, “came the ballistic trajectory to 40,000ft in a double-barrelled shotgun . . .” Beautifully written, beautifully illustrated.
10) Fire in the Belly It’s not all just about long articles on “heavy subjects” in TAH; we like to take a turn down some of the less significant, but equally fascinating highways and byways from time to time, and I’d like to include this one on the proposed idea of fitting Frank Whittle’s jet engine into an Avro Anson for testing before the Gloster E.28/39 was ready, as a prime example. Another reason is because it came about as a direct result of reader feedback; TAH subscriber Mick Jeffries contacted me to ask if we knew anything about the idea, providing a photocopy of a set of plans showing a hollowed-out Anson with a nose intake to accommodate the as yet unflown W.1 engine. Intrigued, I set to work, and after a few trips to the National Archive at Kew, had the makings of a splendid little feature for TAH20. We’re always open to ideas!
Do you have a favourite aircraft? If so, why?
Always a difficult one this, as the minute you’ve plumped for something, you inevitably think twice and change your mind. Maybe if only for the sheer hubris of the machine and its 1970s soft-porn connotations, the Convair B-58 Hustler has to be up there among my favourites. Wildly uneconomical, extremely hard to fly well and made obsolete by the introduction of SAMs, it nevertheless looked fantastic and set the tone for the steely projection of American airpower in the 1960s. Having said that, I also unreservedly love the D.H.60 Moth, the direct inverse of the Hustler. Small, economical, easy to fly and designed specifically to promote airmindedness for the masses, its “everyman” qualities represent the benign influence of aviation on humans. Hurrah to that!
What is the greatest aviation myth?
Having just completed our 60th anniversary coverage of the UK’s 1957 Defence White Paper, the notorious defence review which has traditionally seen Minister of Defence Duncan Sandys cast as a panto villain sweeping onstage in a black cape to hisses and boos from the audience, I feel well-placed to say that there is a great deal more to the story than is often presented. We ran a series of three in-depth articles in TAH18–21 on varying aspects of the White Paper and its impact on Britain’s aviation industry, with contributions from Prof Keith Hayward on the document’s political ramifications; Greg Baughen’s thought-provoking history of the RAF’s longstanding relationship with “cruise missiles” and Cold War specialist Chris Gibson’s look at the immediate aftermath of the White Paper and the procurement choices available to the RAF as a result. Sandys is routinely pilloried as a missile-obsessed fool who single-handedly destroyed the British aircraft industry; it’s so much more complicated — and fascinating — than that!
What should I have asked you?
I think you should definitely have asked how to find out more about TAH and how to get your hands on it! We’re not available in newsagents or shops — except a few specialist non-traditional outlets (museums etc) — but you can find out all about us, see previews of articles, follow our Twitter and Facebook feeds, download our free PDF index (updated with the publication of each issue) and buy a subscription, back issues or single issues from our website at www.theaviationhistorian.com. Alternatively you can give us a ring on +44 (0) 7572 237737 or write to us at TAH, PO Box 962, Horsham, RH12 9PP, UK. We’re the world’s fastest-growing aviation periodical — try it and find out why!
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