Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Future Past

I was watching a TV documentary about the Bristol Brabazon the other day and it occurred to me how perfectly the ill-fated airliner symbolised everything that seems to me to be wrong with the UK.   Before going on, I'm probably going to have to give a brief explanation of what the Brabazon was, aren't I?  Basically, it was a huge transatlantic airliner developed in the late 1940s - it was supposed to push Britain's aircraft industries to the fore of civil aircraft production post war.  It was a truly massive aircraft - if you've ever seen the giant hangar at Filton airfield in Bristol, you'll have some idea of its size, as this was orginally built to house the Brabazon.  Unfortunately, despite being a magnificent looking aircraft, the Brabazon was backward-looking, both in some of its vital technology and in the basic premises about air travel that it embodied.  Despite the fact that the UK had developed the jet engine during the war, resulting in the deployment of the Gloster Meteor fighter in 1944, the designers of the Brabazon felt that it was still too risky a new technology to use in a civil aircraft.  Consequently, the Brabazon used piston engines.  But it wasn't just this use of yesterday's engine technology which hamstrung the Brabazon - despite its massive size, it carried surprisingly few passangers.  But they would have traveled in relative luxury.  It was a distinctly pre war vision of air travel, available only to a privileged minority.

Not surprisingly, the Brabazon never went into production - there was one flying prototype and another incomplete aircraft intended to use the new-fangled turbo-prop engines, (basically a jet engine driving a propellor, which, among other things, reduces fuel consumption).  But it was typically British: it looked to the past for its vision of the future.  It wasn't the only British aviation project of the era plagued by this backwardness: at a time when the Empire was shrinking, Saunders Roe was busily developing the Princess flying boat. That's right, a flying boat, just at the time when the world's airlines were starting to abandon such technology.  Almost as massive as the Brabazon and, likewise, powered by piston engines, it was an equally beautiful aircraft.  But like the Brabazon, a folly.  But some things never change.  Nowadays, egged on by politicians and the media, Britain seems to be looking to its past like never before.  The whole 'Leave' campaign in the EU referendum seemed to centre upon appeals to our 'glorious' pre-EU imperial past.  A time when we didn't need those pesky Europeans - we could just trade (or exploit, if you like) imperial possessions.  (Apparently there's a future where we can do that again - they've all been patiently waiting for us to end this EU nonsense and start buying New Zealand lamb again, or something like that).  An era when Britain was still a world power, thanks to its oppression of various other countries and cultures.  And it isn't just with respect to the whole EU debate - much of the current Tory party's ideology seems to be based around the idea of returning Britain domestically to some kind of fantasy past, when we had a manufacturing industry, wealth was respected and the lower classes knew their place.

Such futures have about as much chance of long term success as the Bristol Brabazon and the Saunders Roe Princess.  We need to look forward, not back and learn to let go of the past.  To be fair, we aren't always entirely backward looking.  Following the demise of the Brabazon, the UK succeeded in developing a truly technologically advanced airliner - the Comet.  The world's first jet powered airliner, the De Havilland Comet was a true world beater and, initially, enjoyed huge success. Unfortunately, in true British fashion, it suffered huge set backs due to poor project management.  It went into production with under powered engines, due to delays in the development of its planned power plants, which, in turn, meant that the early aircraft had to be built with lighter skins, contributing to the metal fatigue which resulted in several fatal crashes.  Whilst the problems were rectified and the Comet 4 could be found in passenger service as late as 1981, it was too late - the lead in civil jet liner design had been taken by US manufacturers, with the DC8 and Boeing 707.  That's the trouble, even when we have a potential world beater, we still manage to fumble it somehow, often by sitting on our laurels and congratulating ourselves instead of building on our success and pushing on with the next development, thereby allowing others to pass us by.



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