A shared history of flight
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In many of these recent columns I have focused on the future. The aircraft I flew most recently, though, was a true survivor from the past.
The biplane registered G-ACDC is the oldest Tiger Moth still flying, and celebrates its 80th birthday this year. The aircraft, operated by the charmingly named Tiger Club at Headcorn Aerodrome in Kent, was born when powered flight itself was still young – the Wright brothers’ pioneering hop was just 30 years earlier. The DH 82 Tiger Moth was designed in 1931 as a trainer for military pilots.
Puttering along at just a thousand feet above sun-soaked fields in southern England brought out the contrasts. The farmland below was little changed from the 1930s, and indeed long before, but the crazily criss-crossing vapour trails of airliners thousands of feet above emphasised the progress made since the first Moth lifted off the ground.
In that time the development of aircraft has been marked by the hand of governments, not just nationally but between nations. The US spurred early production and improvement of aeroplanes and infrastructure on the ground by awarding mail-carrying contracts. France’s Aéropostale – now just a seemingly random name on retro-chic T-shirts – became an intercontinental airline in the 1920s, with visionary plans to fly post between Europe and South America. The Tiger Moth was designed in response to a UK Air Ministry tender.
Of course wars, of which there have been quite a few in the past 110 years, gave aviation huge growth spurts.
The debt still owed to co-operation between nations is remarkable. In his autobiography Sir Stanley Hooker, the mathematician turned engineering genius at Rolls-Royce who played a central role in the dawn of the jet age, writes about how government-sanctioned sharing and licensing of designs generated by his company and jet engine pioneer Frank Whittle transformed leading engine-makers in the US.
In Not Much of an Engineer, Sir Stanley says: “It is a sobering thought that the two great engine competitors of Rolls-Royce, which today have the bulk of the world’s aviation business, namely Pratt & Whitney and General Electric, both started with British engines – the former with the Nene, and the latter with the original Whittle W1, given to General [Henry ‘Hap’] Arnold in 1941, before the USA was a participant in the war.”
Since his autobiography was first published in 1984, other jet engine makers have risen, such as Snecma of France. But P&W, GE Aviation and R-R remain the world’s pre-eminent manufacturers of power plants for airliners.
The US was not the only beneficiary of British engineering. “With Sir Stafford Cripps at the Board of Trade, the leftwing British Government appeared perfectly happy to sell our latest engine to the Russians, and in September 1946 clinched a deal for 25 Nenes and 30 Derwents, the first few of which the team took back to the Soviet Union and copied exactly in double-quick time. They were produced in colossal numbers for the MiG-15 and 17, Il-28, Tu-14 and many other aircraft. These aircraft were also supplied to the Soviet satellite countries, and North Korea! Over 20 years later I saw VK-ls (Soviet Nenes) being overhauled in Romania,” Sir Stanley writes.
Back to the present – and looking to the future – the global reach and cross-fertilisation of aviation is reflected today in that most prized market for aircraft makers: China. This not only includes partnerships to enable manufacturing and assembly of aircraft in China by companies such as Cessna, the US business jet and light-aircraft maker, and Airbus, the European airline manufacturer. It also includes investments by Chinese companies in US aircraft makers.
The aircraft I had been due to fly on the day I went up in the Moth was the latest, fifth-generation product from Cirrus Aircraft, a US-based maker of four- and five-seat planes powered by a single piston engine. The company, which has built a reputation and following based on its whole-aircraft parachute system for use in emergencies, and other safety features, this month announced first-half sales figures better than any year since 2008 – an encouraging sign for that sector of the industry. The company is also, now, wholly owned by China Aviation Industry General Aircraft (CAIGA). Earlier this year, a Chinese investment firm bought Enstrom, a US maker of light helicopters.
The pattern will undoubtedly be repeated with other nations – Brazil’s very conscious efforts to build an aviation industry after the second world war, partly using talent plucked from Europe, have borne fruit with the success of aircraft maker Embraer. India and Indonesia will follow.
Meanwhile, the reason for the replacement in my schedule of the flight in the latest Cirrus, sporting cutting-edge technology for light aircraft, by the flight in a Tiger Moth, whose technology was not really cutting edge even 80 years ago, was sweetly ironic. The simple Moth was ready to go. The Cirrus was stuck in routine maintenance waiting for a part.
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