Category: Book Reviews

Britain’s 2000 mph Flying Fridge

Britain's 2000 mph Flying Fridge

An over optimistic description of the Bristol 188 from the 1962 ‘Lion Book of Speed’.

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Review of ‘The Big Book of Flight’ by Rowland White

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The Big Book of Flight

By Rowland White

Bantam Press 2013

Hush-Kit reviews the latest book by Rowland White, author of ‘Vulcan 607’.

Is this for children or adults? Both I think, the tone is simple and informal without being patronising, and there is enough to interest even jaded old aviation readers. Nice that it features the word ‘shit’.

Best things about it? The love. Rowland clearly cares about his subject matter and this enthusiasm is infectious. The design is distinctly retro, with a nod towards illustrated children’s books from the 1950-60s. The first illustration, of a ‘birdman’ falling from a tower is very familiar, is it from an old Ladybird book?

The greatest thing however, is the unusual content, it is not a history of flight ‘by the numbers’ and this is a relief. (You know the kind of thing: Montgolfier brothers blah blah, Wright brothers blah blah, Bell X-1 blah blah). Mr. White has gone the extra mile with this, and this is rewarding for the reader. A diagram showing what aircraft are named after (animals, weather conditions etc) is a nice surprise, as are the references to planes in popular culture. All the A-listers (Spitfire, Concorde etc) are of course covered, but what is more pleasing is that the author has made room for sexy exotica, which includes ekranoplans, the Martin-Baker MB5 and the splendid Tumencotrans Bella 1.

The book will inspire a lifelong interest in planes for many younger readers, which Rowland is clearly aware of; what he has cleverly avoided is alienating more learned readers, and he has done this by combining a wealth of little-known stories, with unexpected diagrams and lists. The tone is often conversational and humorous, and this splash of humanness is a rare and valuable commodity in aircraft books.

 Worst things: I have nothing negative to say about this book. The page on the helicopters of Prince’s William (referred to as ‘Wills’) and Harry is sycophantic and flag-waving, but in a way this fits in with the feeling of post-war nostalgia that this book exudes. Writing a foreword for an aircraft book is fraught with dangers and Mr. White falls into the trap of talking about man being inspired by birds, which will be charming to younger readers, but a trifle trite to others.  The personal account of being moved by falconry is sweet, but does have mild shades of Alan Partridge!

Conclusion: It is an ideal Christmas gift, buy it for a child and by the time the Queen’s speech is on it will have been pilfered by a tipsy dad.

Rowland White has a deep understanding of what makes a British aviation enthusiast tick, and this book lives in a part of the psyche whichever is forever Airfix.

Buy a copy here

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Hush-Kit review: The Aviation Historian: Issue 1

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There often seems to be an unoccupied space in many academic disciplines, particularly so in historical research. There are, as Hush-kit readers are probably aware, a number of highly specialist academic journals which deal largely with the technical aspects of aviation: engineering, aeronautical design and ergonomics.  Fewer cover Aviation History, but where they do exist there is a stress on military and strategic history rather than the cultural, visual and social elements of the subject.

At the other end of the scale, a scan of the shelves of any decent newsagents reveals a large number of titles for the hobbyist and enthusiast. However, whilst these also fulfill a useful role, they can lack depth of research and be limited in their scope; they do after all exist to make money for their commercial publishers.

There is in addition a large amount of valuable ‘grey literature’ contained in the newsletters of smaller groups and societies internationally which often fall beneath the radar. A new journal: ‘The Aviation Historian’ appears to be an attempt to fill the vacuum between dry academia and hobbyist periodical.

‘The Aviation Historian’ is undeniably research rich, factually dense and of academic value but is also produced with a level of pictorial illustration and in a format that should draw in readers who might be alienated by a drier formal format. As the Editor declares (in somewhat messianic style) in his introduction it is a publication intended for:

 ‘historic aviation’s “true believers”; those of us with a deep abiding passion for man’s glorious triumphs – and calamitous failures – in the quest to master the air above us and the universe around us.’

As such, it lacks some of the traditional elements of an academic journal; there are for example no long bibliographies or citations. However, the editors are contactable and anyone using the journal for research purposes could no doubt obtain sources and contact the authors. The editor also mentions in his introduction that he wants the readership to engage with the journal and perhaps draw in some of those readers producing work for the hundreds of newsletters and small pamphlets produced on the subject.

Being the first edition (No.2 is now also on sale) there are naturally no letters or conference proceedings although there is a very useful book review section.  Conversely the first issue is extremely rich in graphic information, particularly photographic material.  In fact, the graphic design of the issue is impressive not only in terms of the size and quality of the images. but in the dynamic typography and lay-out employed. It invites you to have a ‘conversation’ with the topic matter and is lively and engaging. That is not to say it is compromising the depth of information provided but merely that it is presented in a more accessible manner than most purely academic journals which is often one of their major faults.  Aeroplanes look good; a publication about them has no excuse not to look equally as stylish.

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Having clarified that the journal is well designed, I should move on to the content.

That is where this reviewer hits rocky ground, being a cultural/design historian the technical specifics and design of aircraft are not a personal strong point.

When reading the articles however it became clear that there are certainly enough of the technical and engineering elements of aviation history here to keep any ‘tech-head’ content. This engineering-resistant reader however was still able to read and enjoy and even comprehend the meaning of an article comparing the RAF’s Lightning fighter to the USAF’s Lockheed U-2 or a review of the history of the Bristol Mercury.

My point being that if you are the kind of person who shrinks from a diagram of an engine but you still find yourself gripped by such articles, a genuine enthusiast should relish them.

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There were a couple of articles in the first edition that were also strong on the cultural/social history front. Particularly enjoyable was ‘The Tragedy of Flight Three’ (this journal employs catchy titles for its content) in which Michael O’ Leary examines the DC-3 crash that killed Hollywood Film Star Carole Lombard in 1942. The article not only discusses the details and causes of the crash, the plane and the details of the flight but contextualises it socially and historically, a particular strength of this journal.  In this case there is information about War Bond drives, Carole Lombard’s role as part of a Hollywood ‘golden couple’ and her husband, Clark Gable’s subsequent war service. The Editor, Nick Stroud’s article ‘Hef and the big bunny’ on the Playboy supremo’s private jet was fascinating and frankly brilliantly illustrated. This reviewer would really like to obtain one of those Jet Bunny uniforms (anyone who can help please contact Hush-kit!). There were also articles that seemed upon a cursory glance eccentric, flying billboards anyone? Yet upon reading the article the inherent interest of the mechanics and thought involved in designing such a distinctive aircraft became clear.

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A perusal of the list of contents should be enough to reel any fan of the history and romance of flying in with titles such as: ‘Messerschpitts at Five 0’Clock!’ (intentional spelling), ‘One Furious Summer’ and ‘Ryan and the Flying Pterodactyls’. Aviation is about design, mechanics, propulsion, science, chemistry and engineering. However these activities are undertaken by individuals. The motivations are human and driven by imagination, ambition, hope, greed and sometimes aggression. The results are similarly diverse.

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At the Goodwood Revival last year what struck this reviewer were the stories behind the aircraft on display, their physical beauty and the sheer exhilaration of seeing a formation of World War II aircraft speed through the sky. It seems that ‘The Aviation Historian’ is seeking to condense these elements onto its pages in a lively, informative, accessible and engaging manner.

Review by Minerva Miller, M.A.hons (Cantab)  Msc (City)- University Librarian at the University of London

Click here for a subscription to The Aviation Historian

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THE STORY OF A KOREAN MIG ACE: ASCENT by JED MERCURIO

Writing fiction about aircraft, and more specifically the experience of flying involves overcoming intrinsic challenges.  A fundamental one is that the technical aspects of describing machinery and the use of technical terms risks alienating any reader who is not an aviation enthusiast.  Another is the difficulty in expressing the emotional response of the aviator to the experience of flight. 

Creative writing about flying tends to work best in the context of semi-autobiographical texts such as Antoine de St Exupery’s 1931 novel ‘Night Flight’ which reflected the author’s own experiences as a mail pilot. Long flights carried out for the company he was a director of, the ‘Aeroposta Argentine’ provided him with the inspiration to philosophise on the individual experience of the aviator, in Nightflight for example he expresses the lone pilot’s isolation:

“A single radio post still heard him. The only link between him and the world was a wave of music, a minor modulation.  Not a lament, no cry, yet purest of sounds that ever spoke despair.”

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Few write as well as St Exupery and the difficulties of writing about flight arguably explain a comparative lack of great ‘flying’ novels.  A good novel about flying requires enough technical detail to make it convincing but needs to be able to describe the nature of the sky and of an experience few readers will experience. This is compounded when the flight described is that of a fighter pilot and the exhilaration of flight is heightened by the adrenaline of battle.

Jed Mercurio’s novel ‘Ascent’ is ostensibly the fictional tale of Russian fighter ace Yefgenii Yeremin who during the Korean war becomes the feared ‘Ivan the Terrible’. Yeremin is a fighter pilot of the Cold War. He flies MiG-15’s covertly for the VVS. The pilots are not supposed to be there, they are given Korean phrase books to memorise so that their enemies remain unaware of their nationality and they are expected to fall on their swords if they suffer damage. In effect they are phantoms. The psychological and social effect of this situation on the Russian crew and their operations is one of the interesting aspects of the novel. They cannot become heroes or die heroes in the tradition of their Second World War predecessors and this leads to questions of motivation; Glory, duty, excitement or simply a love of flying?

The depictions of engagement with the enemy are fast and thrilling but more complex than a simple fight as in-fighting between Russian pilots, questions about why they are there and of loyalty and betrayal arise.  Yeremin’s ascent to superstar flying ace is accompanied by arrogance but he does not suffer an Icarus like fall from grace, but a quiet, political eradication. The differences between the cold war and that of the previous ‘heroic’ war are underlined.

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When the book was published in 2007 some reviewers felt alienated by the cold distant nature of the protagonist. This misses the point, for Yeremin passion and life exist in the skies and in his jetfighter.   There he is a ruthless predator in possession of his own destiny and in the sky is able to overcome the politics, betrayal and petty jealousy that he is unable to combat on the ground. When unable to fly, grounded by rain or political exile his hours are characterised by ennui and depression.

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This emotional response to the act of flying is countered by Mercurio’s emphasis on the physicality of controlling a fighter jet, the author is both a Doctor and a pilot and repeatedly describes the protagonist being thrown about in his plane and suffering:

‘His shoulders stung. The harness straps had lifted the scabs on his shoulders. He felt blood leaking from his wounds.’

For pilots in the jet age flying is not only the act of mastering a machine and the elements but also of mastering themselves, handling g force, broken blood vessel and nausea.  It was the physical mastery of suffering that took the USSR and US fighter pilots into space exploration and Mercurio’s Russian’s ability to absorb suffering is as much a factor as his good eyesight in propelling him, in the final stages of the book into the cold war space race.  The book is also visually expressive, Yeremin flies through a sky of vapour streams and light and the depictions of dog fights are thrilling. The air shimmers.  The pictoral element of his writing is further explored in the 2011 graphic novel version of the book illustrated by Wesley Robins.

I started this review by referring to St Exupery. ‘Ascent’ is a different kind of book but it shares, behind the descriptions of dogfights, soviet duplicity and personal ambition some of the same philosophical elements. What drives Yeremin is a hopeless kind of romanticism. His need to strive, his obsession with pushing himself higher into the canopy and beyond into space is ultimately, like most such endeavours; doomed. This is condensed in an elegiac and almost zen like ending which leaves you realising you have read something more than a thrilling adventure story.

‘Ascent’ Jed Mercurio published in paperback 2008 by Vintage.

‘Ascent’ (Graphic Novel) Jed Mercurio and Wesley Robins published in 2011 by Jonathan Cape

Review by Minerva Miller, M.A.hons (Cantab)  Msc (City)- University Librarian at the University of London

Hush-Kit is reminding the world of the beauty of flight.

follow my vapour trail on Twitter@Hush_kit

Have a look at 10 worst British military aircraftSu-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 

Reunited with a source book of aircraft

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I lost my favourite book over twenty years ago. I could not remember its title or the author’s name so it seemed unlikely I would ever see it again. But this week, by chance, I rediscovered it.

I had arranged to meet my friend to watch an circus performance on London’s Southbank. She was delayed, so I watched the performance by myself. I moved to the front to join 30 confused and delighted school children. The show was outside, on one of those sunny days when the Southbank is the happiest place on Earth.

The two performers climbed and spun from tall flexing poles- swinging in dramatic switchblade movements- for the climax they wrapped themselves in reels of clingfilm, which reminded me of the funniest book I’ve ever read, ‘Ulrich Haarburste’s Novel Of Roy Orbison In Clingfilm’. This contains short stories, written in the voice of an Orbison clingfilm fetishist. Each story is a contrived set-up, leading (inevitably) to Roy Orbison being wrapped in clingfilm.

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The show ended and my friend still hadn’t arrived, so I went to the book market under Waterloo Bridge. Being a mono-maniac with time to burn, I immediately looked for books about aeroplanes. The first I came across was entitled ‘Air Shows’, and was a rather dry guide from the early 1980s.
As I walked toward the next stall, I spotted a small landscape book with the image of a BOAC VC10 taking-off on the cover. Within seconds of opening it, I realised it was THE MISSING BOOK.
There have been two books that have changed my life, directly and profoundly. The second was The Wild, Wild World of The Cramps by Ian Johnston. The one I was now holding was the first.
I double-checked. It was the book. I hadn’t held a copy in twenty years. Every photo I could recall in absolute detail. I ran to the book-seller and paid the £3 pencilled in the inside cover.

Lowercase book

I have tried to avoid looking at it until now. I want to share with you my reunion feelings as they happen.

Ok, I’m ready now. First impressions- my initial copy had no dust jacket, the cover image, in the dismally dreary colour reproduction of 1970, was new to me. The title ‘a source book of aircraft‘. The lowercase ‘a’ was strangely progressive, it made the little book appear friendly. As I look at the cover, I hear thunder outside. Written and compiled by m. allward (all lowercase). The reviews inside are lovely:

“For transport enthusiasts of any age…clear illustrations and and neatly laid out vital statistics for instant identification of the beloved objects.” The Sunday Telegraph

Beloved objects, how marvellous. Beloved indeed.

The Irish Independent said:

“easy reading in a survey ranging from the first perilous contraption to the latest droop-snouted supercilious model. There also grows on the reader a profound respect to those who flew the early machines or even believed the machines would fly.”

SUPERCILIOUS! Ha ha, a little bitchy snipe at Concorde, at a time when it was a fashionable target of criticism. I was just about to open the first page when my mobile phone barked (remind me to change my ringtone). I have a visitor. Well, I’ve waited twenty years, I can wait another couple of hours. Time for tea with the artist Katie Horwich.

I’m back. My first copy I marked with crosses and ticks, showing my approval or disapproval of each type. I was about five when I first saw the book. It introduced me to aeroplanes. I fell in love with aeroplanes from seeing them in this book.

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The book is organised chronologically, starting with the Wright Brothers 1903 Flyer I. As a child I did not like the early machines. They were not sleek, they resembled piers or bridges or fences. The first sexy aircraft was the Nieuport 17 Scout of 1915. On the side is a skull and crossed bones on a heart, a tattoo-like artwork which brings the ’17 to life.
The locations of the aeroplanes in the pictures were mysterious. Large empty airfields, woods and lakes. The Empire of 1936 was on a body of water next to a castle, a frothy wake streaming from its hull.

The Spitfire was unique in having two pictures- surely this made it the king of the aeroplanes?

The handsome Boeing 314 sat on a sunlit ocean and was photographed from the air- where was it? What was it doing? The absence of captions forced my imagination to make up the story.

Rocket-propelled nazis and jet Christs
When good quality photos could not be found (or copyrights granted?) the aircraft were shown in exciting, but naïve, paintings. The paintings were crudely over-painted photos, each seemingly completed in five minutes. This naïvety could not conceal the mad excitement of the Messerschmitt Me.163; a rocket-propelled nazi fighter and the first aircraft in the book with raked back wings. If that wasn’t titillating enough, the opposite page showed a gorgeous image of the Tempest fighter. As a boy this high-sided machine reminded me of a knight’s charger, the shape speaking of massive power and nobility. The Salamander of 1944 was cool, but incomprehensible, with a black boiler trying to mount it like a randy labrador.

The Sea Hawk of 1947 was a pure, uncluttered shape. The shape of the aircraft resembling a jet-propelled Christ on the cross.

The Sabre carried USAF markings, happy and garish, and familiar to me from toys and comics. The Comet of 1949 shared the same Christian looks as the Sea Hawk. A mass of well-balanced compound curves, the Comet had the gentle look of a deer.

Flying daggers!

In striking contrast to this- the Draken and F-104 were flying daggers! They looked to me like swords or battle-axes. They were speed, aggression and purpose. I loved them, maybe the most of all. The HS 125 and Trident 2E (I have used the aircraft titles and designations from the book), were further Christians, but this time with pally, dog-like snouts.

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The MiG-23 was a revelation. It was Soviet, and therefore little was known about it. The painting showed a duet of zooming spaceships. They looked invincible. The designation ‘MiG-23’, later proved to be wrong. The aircraft was actually the MiG-25, the legendary ‘Foxbat’.

The world in the pictures was now looking more like the world I knew in 1983. The Harrier of 1966, with its ventilator-like nozzles and oversized tyres was apparently landing in Hampstead Heath, behind were winter-stripped trees. The setting familiar to a British child. The Viggen of 1967 earned a big tick; a gothic cathedral that had transformed into a fighter and flown off over some enigmatic misty landscape.

In 1969 the world ends. Concorde comes into land, in all its supercilious droop-snouted glory.

Seeing the book again was a main-lining of nostalgia that I will be unable to feel again, even if I bury this book for another twenty years.
I dedicate this article to Beatrice Brown, as without her terrible experiences on the London Underground that summer day, I would not have been reunited with this old childhood friend.

 

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Thank you for reading Hush-Kit. Our site is absolutely free and we have no advertisements. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here. At the moment our contributors do not receive any payment but we’re hoping to reward them for their fascinating stories in the future.

Have a look at 10 worst British military aircraftSu-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 

Eurofighter World undressed: Part 1

|A 17 Sqn Typhoon at RAF Coningsby fitted with one AIM-132 and the LITENING targeting pod.

There’s a famous joke in the movie Annie Hall: “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” to which the reply is “Yeah, I know, and such small portions.” . I believe that there is a similarly confusing sentiment in the latest edition of Eurofighter World, which I will deal with in Part 3. EW (Eurofighter World) is a magazine published by Eurofighter GmbH to document and promote the Eurofighter Typhoon fighter aircraft and its associated programmes. These are some of my opinions on the most recent edition, dated 2012/01 (there’s a link at the bottom if you wish to download a free copy).

EuroPizza

The title is presented as a rather tacky typographical logo- the silhouette of a Eurofighter swooping out of a colour picture of the world is painfully literal. Added to this is the inherent naffness of the company name ‘Eurofighter’. As many Europeans will remember, the prefix ‘Euro’ was applied willy-nilly to everything in the 1990s (I can remember a EuroPizza on Ballard’s Lane, Finchley) and retains a connotation of tackiness.

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Though this maybe a little unfair, as Eurofighter formed in 1986 and was among the first to use the prefix.

This aside, the cover is instantly appealing, thanks to a menacing portrait of a bombed-up Typhoon. To emphasize the multi-role capabilities, Eurofighter rarely misses an opportunity to show the aircraft carrying Paveway bombs. The front aspect of the aircraft shows off the big, glowing green HUD ( looking like a cat’s eye), and the weird curves of the PIRATE IRST ( like the staring black eye of a reptile). Beneath the gaping mouth of the intake, on the centreline point can be seen the LITENING EF targeting pod, underwing are EPW II bombs and under-fuselage four AIM-120 AMRAAMs.

Two rather tantalising coverlines promise one feature about the type’s use over Libya, another titled ‘Stealth Design: A real history of success?’. I wonder if this will conform to Betteridge’s Law of Headlines; “Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no’”. I already have my suspicions..

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Next up is the ‘Editorial’ with Eurofighter CEO Enzo Casolini, a former Italian air force officer, who looks a bit like a haunted Henry Winkler. He starts by acknowledging that this is a “challenging time” for Eurofighter. This is probably a tacit reference to the following: Eurofighter’s failure to export to Japan (who chose the F-35), failure to export to India (who chose the Rafale) and the leak of the Swiss air force evaluation report that proved damning of Typhoon. The report makes startlingly reading and can be viewed in full here (I will come back to this later): http://www.scribd.com/doc/85849045/Swiss-Air-Force-Evaluation-of-Gripen-Rafale-Typhoon

This 2008 report was based on thorough evaluation of the SAAB Gripen, Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon. Despite it being the most costly of the three fighters, Typhoon was placed second in most assessment criteria, with Rafale generally coming first and the cheaper Gripen coming last. Switzerland went for the Gripen (going for the improved E/F version, powered by the F414G engine).

It does indeed appear to be ‘challenging times’ for Eurofighter, but this message does not acknowledge that Typhoons are being produced at a faster rate than other fighter in the world and have a larger confirmed order book than any other current military aircraft (we’ll cover the subject of the F-35 later).

Why is Enzo using the word ‘challenging’? We reveal more in part two.

Coming in Part 2: Stealth-bashing, double-think and how to smash Rafale

If you like, you can download a free copy of Eurofighter World from here: