- 1 Something About Myself
- 2 Strange but Untrue
- 3 The Way of the World
- 4 R101
- 5 Vive l'entente cordiale
- 6 Mission creep
- 7 Muddy pawprints
- 8 rudimentary jottings (a.k.a. the Box of Shame)
- 9 The odd useful link
Something About Myself
Although I generally confine myself to editing articles on the early history of aviation, my primary interest is actually painting and the visual arts. I refrain from any editing in this area because I am not interested in maintaining the requisite NPOV. Au contraire. I'd have to take people like Damien Hirst, the William Bouguereau of our times, and the utterly vacuous Jeff Koons seriously. Which, incidentally, does not mean that I subscribe to the 'a child of six' could do it attitude to modern art. Firstly, most six year olds are way too sensible to waste their time making some of the entirely empty things one comes across. Secondly, they wouldn't be able to pitch their products sufficiently well. Picasso did what he did because he could draw like an angel by the time he was six:(probable exaggeration): a challenge was needed.
Strange but Untrue
What makes a reliable source? Not me, I can assure you. I most probably read it on a beermat, or in a book I left on top of a tram. It was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead. Ford? Shakespeare? Webster? Can't remember, and I'm not going to look it up. I also have a memory like a colander and very poor typing skills, exacerbated by toastcrumbs in the keyboard.(I am fussy about the beermats, though: I only read ones with a proper bibliography and an index.)
Certainly not the newspapers: I have been periphally involved in a few events that have been noticed by the fourth estate, and a dollar to a donut the youth in jeans and a hoodie will turn out to be middle aged man in brown suit. As for the net....when you post some bit of guff up somewhere and find it as the first google return on the subject within milliseconds, you simply have to stop caring. The number of times I've come across a direct cut and paste from some lump of wikimerde I've just blown away....
Probably the the only truly reliable book is the (fictional) 'Book of Bokonon, the holy book in Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle. The opening words of the book are (don't quote me) "Everything in this book is a lie". As for Gospel truth, which gospel are you talking about? Matthew? Mark? Thomas?. The recent editing I've been doing on wp has been a real education, and the number of clear errors I have found in sources that should be reliable are beyond enumeration.
The Way of the World
or, A Woman killed with Kindness. I'm not sure which I find most depressing:
- The huge number of aircraft whose entry is the result of somebody having been given the Bunty Big Girls Book of Obscure Aircraft, Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1487 for Christmas, and which in effect say "errr, there's an aircraft with this name, guess what, it had some wings and an engine!" OK sure stubs are better than nothing but a lot I've come across show that the writer has no real knowledge of the subject they are writing about. In some cases every putative fact in the article has been wrong. And editing a really bad article into something that is at least not grossly wrong is harder than starting from scratch. IMFFHO.
- The general lack of any interest in the technicalities of aircraft and concentration on their military use.
- The general anglocentrism of entries: (see below)
Fingernails on the blackboard
Some words I loathe:
- Hop. Only Bunty uses the word in an aviation context. Imo. Use only for beer flavouring or monopedel locomotion. Lazy English.
- Conventional (when used of pre-1912 aircraft). Then, there was no such thing as conventional, and things like the Edwards Rhomboidal and (lawks a mercy) the Seddon Mayfly were being built in all seriousness. Breguet described his early biplanes as monoplanes with two wings: pick the bones out of that.
- Succeeded (only because it is difficult to find a satisfactory synonym, it gets used a lot and I am rubbish at getting the second 'c' into it)...its those toastcrumbs.
- Plane. A geometrical term or a woodworking tool, yes. A flying machine, no.
- Pioneer. Post Wright brothers, there were few real pioneers. Blériot, Voisin, Roe, a handful of others. Later early aviators were not true pioneers: the trail had been blazed. Not to belittle them: they were certainly remarkable and very brave, and most probably imbued with the conviction of immortality peculiar to the young.
- Garner used to mean gained or got. I would like to shove the entire 12-vol OED up the jacksy of whoever was first responsible for dragging this totally unecessary use of an agricultural term (the noun has the same root as granary) into the American language. It surely isn't English. Actually, according to the OED it was Alfred Lord Tennyson (into the valley of cliche.....), so I guess the muppet who picked up on it gets the prize. Still there are compensations: the article on a dull rock band which typoed it to garnished, conjuring up a wonderful image of a bunch of ZZ Top clones lovingly adorned with little bits of lettuce and tomato &c.
- Substantive Most properly a grammatical term (the noun formation of a verb), with a secondary meaning 'to make substantial'. Increasingly used as a substitute for substantial, important or big by illiterate oafs who think that long words are ipso facto better than short ones. (as opposed to smartarses who lard their writing with Latin tags. Pretentious? Moi?)
- Iconic No excuse whatsoever for using this word. Classic is only a notch down on the idiocy scale.
O Tempora , O Mores
In my more ill-tempered moments I have taken to patrolling new pages. Alan Coren was advised by his publisher that anything about golf, cats or Nazis sells: Coren produced Golfing for Cats, with a big swastika on the cover. I am contemplating the ideal WP article based on what appears in the new page lists: a variety of beetle who played half a season for some windwept non-place's soccer team who then, after an entirely non notable attempt to become a pop star, starts a mundane business, the Acme Spam Distribution Company. Building the infobox would be a laugh, I suppose. (I'm not dissing coleoptera, it's just that there are possibly more species than there are articles on WP.)
It was a dark and stormy night....
The doubtlessly exhaustively researched figures in this book need treating with a degree of caution and a calculator to hand. Clearly whoever proofread or edited this book was innumerate. In a story which is largely about the slow but inexorable collision of vast massses of numbers, this is important. For a nice plate of printer's pie, take a look at the formula given on p.468 (fn). Stuff that into Excel and weep: my hopes of constructing a R101 replica from beer cans lie in tatters. Nevertheless, I'd rate this as fundamentally reliable, although doubtless written to correct the often ill-informed overcriticism of the R101 and the personalities involved, Thomson in particular. But one does get tired of the Mills and Boon sub-plot. There is also a totally infuriating reference (p. 5) to dark matters which cannot be spoken of even now attributed to Cave-Brown-Cave, who had been in charge of the engines at Cardington, in conversation with the author in 1943.
Because of his urbanity needs to be read with a great deal of caution. However bad the ralationship between Cardington and Howden was, his characterisation of the R100 as "slinking home uncelebrated" after the Canada flight is not bourne out by the facts: Thomson was there to welcome them and his speech was broadcast by the BBC. But it's a very readable and informative account, and the only exception that can really be raised is that he possibly places undue blame on Lord Thomson. The design team are described as mediocre rather than incompetent. Shute's influence on writing about the subject has been baleful, and too many of his assertions have found their way into the literature on the subject. An example is his statement that £40,000 was spent on building an entire bay of the ship, which was then scrapped, which I have come across in several books. Several points here. One, the metalwork was not scrapped. It was tested to destruction, a very different proposition. Shute attributes this figure to Hansard, but the only reference to this sum of money in parlimantary debates that I can find is a figure for draughtsmen's salaries. Secondly it's an implausibly large sum of money: the entire additional bay that was added was costed at less than £15,000, including fitting, gasbag and a contingency allowance of 10%.
Gentlemen of the press
And of course everybody who doesn't write for The Times.
Its my bet that both Britain and France were scoured in order to unearth any alarming R101 stories: they didn't come up with much.
The Simon Report
I wouldn't describe this as cracking read but it is a very long way from being a turgid and evasive doorstop. It's got a good general introduction to the subject of airship history, and useful drawings of some of the features of the airship. I'm curious as to why Somerset libraries, who have an excellent aero collection at Yeovil, only have one copy, (of the recent paperback reprint), and that in the reference shelves. Still, you can read it online, but I prefer books, which can be left on trams.
cut to the chase
err...was it any good?
Not very, I fear: and the marginality of all airship operations is scary.
The question devolves into a number of issues:
- how sound was the design?
- was it in an airworthy condition when it set off?
- was the decision to proceed wise given the metcast
- The whole boiling pressure to go thing.
The whole airship project was controversial at the time, as a project using large sums of public money. One of its most vociferous critics was the naval architect E.T Spanner, whose alarmist and often misinformed criticisms were published in several books.
It was intended as an experimental program. Regrettably, what was found out about airship design proved of little practical use due to the decision to terminate the Imperial Airship Scheme: but one thing that had found out was that much larger airships than the R100 and R101 were necessary. Preliminary design studies for these were already in hand when the R101 made its last flight.
If the differences caused by the eventual weight of the diesel engines are removed, a comparison of the various figures shows that the difference were not great: the R100's strucural weight was lower and gas capacity higher, but not hugely so. Certainly some of the experimental design features of R101 cannot be considered successful, most notably the gas-bag harnessing. But although the R100's flights were not entirly flawless, little mention is ever made of the implosion of the ships tailcone, or a sudden structural failure which caused a pair of its fuel tanks to break free, which fortunately happened when it was not flying. In contrast, every flaw of the R101 is emphasised. My opinion is that it was on the poor side of ordinary. Not brilliant, not appalling. Just ordinary. Beta minus (minus?). The list of flying machines flawed by too much weight and not enough power is hardly short.
Like many disasters, it is misleading to think of the loss of the R.101 as having a single cause. Certainly there must have a proximate cause, probably damage to the cover, but this, like the asassination of Franz Ferdinand, was only the trigger. The weather conditions in which the final flight took place were a major factor. The ship could have been carrying as much as four tons of rainwater on its cover, wind conditions would have exposed any weakneses in the cover and if water had penetrated the envelope the goldbeaters skin of the gasbags would have been weakened. Weather forecasts are at best educated guesswork: the operational decision to make the flight is clearly wrong only with the benefit of the exact science of hindsight.
Many of the accusations of "appalling design" point to relatively minor matters that, while they may have contributed to the craft's problems, cannot be considered to have caused the disaster. The design's major failing, made critical by the weight penalties of the diesel engines, was the gas-bag harnessing: given the systems flaws, the decision to let the bags out so causing the chafing problems, seems in light of current safety standards to be unwise. Nevertheless, any loss of gas does not seem to have been the cause of the crash: the leakages that came to light in the summer of 1930 took place over a period of time considerably longer than the eight or so hours of the R101's last flight. Moreover the gasbags had been repaired. On this subject there is a claim that the gasbags were surging fore and aft by up to 20 feet. Again this has been repeated many times and does not stand up to even cursory scrutiny:
- 20 ft is nearly half a bay. We know that the gasbags were scant inches from the frame, which in R101 were of considerable depth.
- Admittedly before the harnessing had been let out, an observation was made of the surge while the ship was moored during a storm. The surging was four or five inches laterally and "considerably more" fore and aft. Considerably more in this context must be a large number of inches: say twelve or sixteen. Not three hundred of so, which is a different order of magnitude.
The one clear failure in the development story is Colmore's reaction to McWade's letter. This was glossed over in the Report: but Colmore was one of the dead. Here the inherent weakness of a self-regulating organisational setup is exposed, with Colmore first consulting involved parties about the matter, taking their word and so failing to refer the matter upwards: but since gradual loss of gas was not the cause this is irrelevant when considering the causes of the crash. It is also a flaw in the system rather than a flaw of the ship. Interestingly this problem of self-regulation had been criticised by the Board of Inquiry into the [R38] disaster.
The problems with the cover are possibly another matter, and one surprising feature of whole saga is problems due to the use of rubber cement on doped fabric: surprising because Richmond was a specialist in this area: indeed 'Dope' was his nickname.
Vive l'entente cordiale
The articles on early French aircraft and aviators are woefully underdeveloped, so I'm attempting to bring a little light to the darkness. Its not easy: there seems to be little that is reliable written on the subject, certainly in the English language: my library (and I'm talking about the entire stock of Somerset and Avon here, which has a very good aero collection at Yeovil due to Westland Aircraft and the nearby RNAS Yeovilton) yields not a single hit for "French Aircraft". It does, I suppose, throw an interesting light on national characteristics. Napoleon got it wrong: the English are a nation of train-spotters. So its hardly surprising that very few French pre-1914 aircraft have anything approaching a decent entry, yet between 1909 and 1911 the French were the world leaders in aircraft technology.
Oneof the major figure whose entries is almost non-existant is Gabriel Voisin, but I'm not surprised by the sketchiness of the wiki article, since it is probably impossible to write about this egregious chancer and knob-jockey with any degree of objectivity. The more one learns, the more loathesome he becomes. I'm shocked to see there's a book due out soon called GV and the world's first practical flying machine. Presumably based on his self-aggrandising 'autobiograpy' and the Bunty Big Girls Book of Obscure Aircraft (op. cit). £34.99? You are having a giraffe.
The only book on the early French machines that seems to be readily available is French Aeroplanes Before the Great War by Leonard Opdycke, and while this is certainly better than nothing and does have some truly astonishingly improbable pictures, it is fundamentally rather sketchy: it is basically a cabinet of curiousities, with no real attempt to put together a proper coherent account of the products of the major manufacturers. It has many inaccuracies, (eg dating Tatin's Aero Torpedo to 1908, very odd since it has a Gnome rotary and that engine had not yet appeared) and even internal inconsistencies, and is moreover another of those books that has clearly not been properly proof-read: the dates of Ferdinand Ferber's first four aircraft are given as 1911, 1988, (undated) and 1901. The 1988 is surely meant to be 1898, but 1911?? 1891 is way too early. And Gnome is always rendered as Gnôme.
Astonishingly, the book has clearly been compiled without any reference at all to obvious sources such as Flight or l'Aerophile: for example there's no mention of the Zodiac that Bristol based the Boxkite on, nor of the pretty little 1912 Deperdussin racer which preceded the Monocoque and was the first aircraft to top 100 mph. (both are detailed in 'Flight') and his bewilderment at some of the features of the Breguet III, subject of a very detailed description in l'Aerophile.
What's in a name?
Sometimes it seems that those early aircraft had more names than they had struts. Recalling two jokes, one the saying that a (modern) aircraft is ready to fly when the weight of the airframe is exceeded by the weight of its documntation, and the other being along the lines of get two academics together and you'll have three points of view on a subject. Unlike most of the serious editors on the aviation pages I am not an aviator: I can boast about 40 minutes as P2 of a Schleicher Ka-4 Rhönlerche II. For me, flying means smashing up another Indian fighter kite or going cattle class. However (like a lot of the great men of early aviation history) I am a technical draughtsman of some skill end experience (I remember using rotring pens) and know something about drawing office procedure: drawing schedules, issue numbers, the whole boiling, and I don't see how you can bring any sense to the business of knocking out airframes if there's more than one type on the go without drawing numbers & so on. As my mama used to say, if there's no titleblock its not a drawing, just a bit of paper. This diatribe is really prompted by my struggle to write an article on the Deperdussin Type A. The early Deperdussin aircraft, with the exception of the 1912 Racer (a one-off) and the Monocoque, are really impossible to tie down to types. In a way its easier to regard them as one design, morphing from the spindly early Type A of 1910 to the more solid but fundamentally identical aircraft of 1914, and available in small , medium and economy sizes, with your choice of
relishes engine. Where do you draw the lines? There's a very informative article in Pegase on Deperdussin aircraft, and even the author of this basically just gives a gallic shrug and gives up.
You could not encounter a character more different from Gabriel Voisin. The more I find out about Blériot, the more I like him.
I really must stop checking the wikilinks in articles I edit. For instance, I took a look at Gustave Eiffel, something to do with Eiffel aerofoil sections, and the next thing I know I'm up to my oxters in yet another sketchy, badly constructed and generally poor article. The principle being Cripes!!!... if I, with my limited knowledge, can clearly see this is horribly inadequate, its time to pull on the kicking boots. As misfortune has it, I've a rather nice book (nice if your tastes runs to books with lavish illustrations of structural metalwork, that is) on Gussie, never more than skimmed it.....
A good example of what happens when you toss a pebble in the pond is the result of my recent expansion of the Bristol Racer. This leads to Frank Barnwell (I wanted to know why he briefly left Bristol), which needed a bit of footling with and, just to ensure the synchronisation of hymn-sheeets, his brother. Who, notably, was the man who enabled Noel Pemberton Billing to win his bet with Frederick Handley Page. I only looked at the H P article to see why it was redlinking (I was mistakenly hyphenating), but it was such a shocking void that I had to wade in. Unfortunatly, in around 1915 I got distracted by the Handley Page O/100. If there is one thing I cannot abide its an aircraft article without a technical description, and moreover the flight development program of the type was not without its moments.......
I started so I'll finish...later
I am not a finisher by nature.... loose ends are left.
I suppose most of the sensible-looking and truly functional aircraft already have an article on them, which may explain why many of the above aircraft are either (at best) marginally flyable and/or of the Strange but True category. Or it may be something to do with my personality. Its entirely appropriate that the first aircraft article I was responsible for was the Blackburn F.3. However, I do have standards, and most of the aircraft are actually notable in some way, the one exception being the Aerial Wheel, which I slung together out of sheer badness. Actually I'm quite proud of the article on the Aerial Wheel: I've known about the (alleged) machine for a long time, because it is the opening entry in Peter Lewis's book on early British aircraft, so I was surprised that I was actually able to add to the entry there. More to do with the ability to do a computer search of the Flight archive than anything else, but all the same. What still mystifies me about this thing is the origin of the drawing Lewis gives: although the aircraft manufacturers were meant to supply the WO with drawings, not many did & the Aerial Wheeel Syndicate were being cagey about their contrivance due to pending patents. The drawing may provide a clue as to why the beast never got out of the shed: the side elevation and plan view do not agree (always, always, do the third projection, even if you don't think it will tell you anything....) Incidentally, a simple Bristol board & obechi model actually performed quite well as a glider. Not much excuse for the Edwards Rhomboidal, either, except that there's an article on the Seddon Mayfly - I was provoked, your Honour. (Why do people call a putative aircraft "Mayfly"? Such a hostage to fortune. This one didn't, nor did the dirigible of the same name. The splendid Miss Lilian Bland's effort did, however. One can only put its appearance in the (generally) ghastly and in this case patronising Worlds Worst Aircraft (Winchester's book of that title, there are at least two others) down to sexism
rudimentary jottings (a.k.a. the Box of Shame)
...because of the horribly long time some of these have been here. I am attempting to clear the backlog, but keep running across new things. You really don't want to look in my sandbox.....
British Army Aeroplane No 1 What a lot of names for the same aircraft! More than you could shake a stick at. More shaking sticks than you could shake a stick at, for that matter. Much as I love struts and wires, there are limits, and this one strains them a smidge. But Cody himself, you've got to love the man.
- http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/cb344143803/date - l'Aerophile
- 186 French licenses
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