(2012) Captain Eric Brown with Dennis Bancroft, Spellmount, The History Press, hrdbk, 222pp, £18.99, ISBN 978-0-752-47014-6
of the my joys of the 2000s has been attendance at the annual conference of the British Rocketry Oral History Programme (BROHP), at Charterhouse School each spring. I did not know about the first one, but I was invited to speak at the second one about the Waverider re-entry vehicle – an edited and updated version of that talk appeared earlier this year in “Rocket Science”, edited by Ian Sales.
BROHP's aim was to record the testimony of the people who took part in Britain's rocketry and space programme, back in the days when on tiny budgets they produced vehicles such as Black Knight, Blue Streak and the SR-53, whose capabilities rivalled the best in the world and in some areas remain unmatched today. The conferences bringing them together were fine events, despite the 'where did it all go wrong?' theme which ran through everything, sad tales of missed opportunities and government indifference.
The pattern was set still earlier with the Miles M.52 project, which could and should have given Britain the first penetration of the Sound Barrier – and with jet propulsion, in level flight, at a higher level of technology than Chuck Yeager's rocket-powered Bell X-1. The project was inspired by intelligence information on the German jet and rocket programme, indicating that they were working on an aircraft to reach 1000 mph, faster than sound. It was actually 1000 kilometres per hour, but the task of matching the supposed German capability was assigned in May 1943 to Miles Aircraft and Frank Whittle, and they rose splendidly to the challenge.
The test pilot was to be Captain Eric 'Winkle' Brown, RN, one of the many extraordinary people I met through the Charterhouse conferences. A prewar protégé of Goering's, his technical education and command of German made him invaluable at Farnborough during the war and in interrogating German experts afterwards; he is the world's most experienced test pilot, with a tally of aircraft types in the Guinness Book of Records which is unlikely ever to be equalled. He was the only Allied pilot to fly the Me-163 under rocket power, the first to perform carrier landings with jets, and his autobiography Wings on My Sleeve doesn't cover the half of what I have heard from his own lips over the Charterhouse years.
Eric has now written the detailed history of the M.52 project – a fairly short text, heavily backed up with photographs and technical drawings, followed by his own assessment of what went wrong and what might have been. In March 1946, at an advanced stage of preparation for test flight, the Ministry of Supply summarily cancelled the project, ordering all prototypes, materials, drawings etc to be destroyed. Technical data passed to the USA, particularly on control surfaces, was incorporated into the Bell X-1 in which Yeager broke the Sound Barrier the following year, but Britain threw away a technical lead from which our aircraft industry never recovered. In February 1955 a Government White Paper bemoaned the decision, which 'seriously delayed the progress of aeronautical research in the UK'. Whittle's engine, which was capable of much higher speeds, was never built; if it had been, in Eric Brown's view, with continuing development and with the modular construction of the aircraft, both would still be at the forefront of research today.
Cost and concerns over pilot safety were the reasons given for the cancellation. Major personal factors were Whittle's departure from Power Jets, which then ceased production of jet engines, and the late influence of Barnes Wallis, who famously refused to risk more human life after the losses in the Dam Buster raids. On Wallis's advice the piloted flights of the M.52 were replaced by a series of piloted rocket tests, which achieved nothing but cost far more than the aircraft itself would have done. Eric Brown's comment on the issue is that as a professional test pilot, he was paid and was ready to take risks. I have mixed feelings on that: the capsule escape system for the M.52 was incorporated into the Bell X-2, but failed to save the life of Milburn Apt when it broke apart at Mach 3. Escape at Mach 1 might or might not have been a different proposition, but the world would be a duller place without Eric.
For years conspiracy theories have argued that the cancellations of the M.52, etc, were all due to American influence, not wishing the competition. The late Geoffrey Pardoe certainly believed that was the case with the Blue Streak's potential as a satellite launcher, had we gone our way instead of pursuing the failed Europa programme. Dennis Bancroft, Eric Brown's collaborator, does not share that view of the M.52 issue. But the book ends on a revelation. 'As if to underscore the possibility of a financial deal having been done over the M.52 between Britain and the USAF, there no longer exist any records attributable to John Wilmott, the Government Minister of Supply and Aircraft Production at the relevant time. How could there be absolutely no traceable evidence of Mr. Wilmot's term of office?' To which one can only add, 'How indeed?'
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