Nowadays, when watching the multitude of vapour trails that criss-cross the sky every day, it’s easy to forget that not all that long ago, human flight was still a dream. A dream made real by brave men and women who risked their lives in their rickety contraptions so that we, too might enjoy a bird’s eye view of the world.
Richard Edwards’ Heroes and Landmarks in British Aviation tries to recapture the pioneering spirit that made the early days of flight in all its romance and excitement. It follows the remarkable stories of the adventurers of the age, from the daredevils to the engineers and the businessmen, and documents their unsteady beginnings and foolhardy passion for aviation.
As always, their stories contain quite a few dead ends, disappointments and adversity, making their ultimate fame and fortune all the more rewarding to read about. They bear witness to the gentlemanly innocence of the Edwardian era, which through engineering triumphs and flying disasters was swept aside by the demands of war, which called for a different, mature kind of heroism and sacrifice. Ultimately, both wars resulted in a steeled professionalism and sense of competition which in peacetime paved the way for the corporate mindset and big business that have come to dominate modern aviation. Always taking their machines and the technology to its limits, people like Ernest Willows, the Short Brothers, de Havilland, Thomas Sopwith, Charles Rolls and Henry Royce embody mankind’s determination to always go faster, higher and further.
Edwards – who named his father Peter as co-author of the book – tells his tale in a way that’s very exacting, detailed and comprehensive, accompanying his dense tome of aviation with a number of figures, maps and charts – leaving no stone unturned. Frustratingly, the author’s earnest commitment makes for a uniquely demanding read. In places, it is in danger of having too much focus on being comprehensive, and too little on staying accessible. Heavy on facts, light on story, the book has trouble getting off the ground.
In my opinion, British Aviation could have benefited from more illustrations and photographs to guide the reader through the many airplanes Edwards describes, which would have made it easier to relate to the pilots. Likewise, although the airmen’s biographies which make up the book’s chapters are quite detailed, they also become somewhat repetitious – especially when the same breakthrough is retold several times through the eyes of several participants. As a final complaint, while it is a good idea to have a complete collection of British aviation history, international triumphs are largely glossed over – with the travails of the French being almost wilfully neglected apart from some begrudging side notes.
Heroes and Landmarks in British Aviation is an impressive feat of writing, and clearly crafted out of a passionate love of airplanes. As a technical and biographical compendium of British aviation history, it is an indispensable reference book for devoted enthusiasts – an aerohead’s bible. However, if you are only fleetingly interested in aircraft, you might want to steer clear of this one.