Course correction

With my book's publication imminent and my return to the job market beginning to, if not loom, then at least creep up, it's time to think about what's next in terms of a research programme. I had been thinking of something to do with mystery aircraft, and indeed my next small research project, on scares during the First World War, was intended to be part of that. But after turning this idea over for a while, and trying to outline a grant proposal, I don't think this is quite viable, at least not by me, or not by me right now. It's either too big or too small. It's too big in the sense that to do mystery aircraft properly and bring out what is interesting about them, in the sense of speaking to larger historical questions, Britain is too narrow a compass: I really need to do a comparative study across all the English-speaking countries at a minimum, and ideally take in Europe as well, from the 1890s to the 1940s. It's too small in that I'm not sure that what is interesting about mystery aircraft scares is actually all that interesting: at least not interesting enough for a grant committee, and maybe not enough to warrant three years of my life plus a book. And the smaller I make the project, the less interesting it gets. There's probably a happy medium to be struck between these problems (okay, so I maybe don't need to include every single mystery aircraft wave from Australia to the United States, and let's be honest, how interesting is anything I do likely to be?) But perhaps I need to develop more as a historian first. Perhaps I need to step back a bit and look at the bigger picture.

What I am now thinking should be my next project is what I have termed the aerial theatre, the use of aviation spectacle to construct national identity and project national power. This is small enough, in that I can focus just on Britain's aerial theatre, while still drawing comparisons only when and where it is helpful. And it is big enough, in that there is a huge variety of topics I can pull into the aerial theatre concept, many of which I have long been interested in and would love an excuse to study in a more sustained way. Hendon is the prime example, both in its civilian phase under Claude Grahame-White before 1914, and its military phase under the RAF between 1920 and 1937. But I keep thinking of many, many things I could look at. Like Hendon, some of these were organised by civilians and some were organised by the military; some had only incidental civilian audiences, some had only incidental military purposes. The Daily Mail prizes, like the London-Manchester race in 1910. Grahame-White's 'Wake Up, England!' campaign, which toured seaside resorts in the summer of 1912. Empire Air Day, the RAF's 'at home' day in the 1930s. The Air Defence of Great Britain exercises between 1927 and 1931, held around London. Even combat operations, like Operation Millennium, could be considered aerial theatre: it was explicitly designed, in part, to be a media spectacle, to impress people at home and abroad with the power of Bomber Command. I could go on and on, and hopefully will (just not now).

So there's clearly much greater scope with the aerial theatre than there is with mystery aircraft. In fact, I have already argued that phantom airships can be thought of as a virtual and unintentional projection of German aerial theatre. But still, is all this interesting in a historiographical sense? Is it telling us anything new that we didn't know before? Is it more than just an excuse to research what I want to research? I think the answer is yes. As I defined it above, aerial theatre is about national identity and national power (among other things). How it is about national power is fairly obvious: by massing a large number of aircraft together, or making them do incredible feats, you are displaying your nation's airpower, for the spectators watching from the ground, in the cinemas, overseas. Except this always involves comparisons, and again I've already argued that the aerial theatre before 1914, being almost exclusively civilian in character and directed at making the argument that Britain needed to be strong in the air, had the effect of convincing people that Britain was weak in the air compared with Germany. The situation was very different in the 1930s, as the RAF made a conscious effort to show off its strength at Hendon and Empire Air Day; and yet few people seemed to have found security in that, perhaps due to the belief that the Luftwaffe was far stronger, or because under the knock-out blow paradigm the bomber would always get through. (That said, P.R.C. Groves did complain that the aerobatic displays at Hendon fooled people into thinking that the RAF could defend them from bombing.) Not until 1939 or so did the British feel strong in the air. So it may be obvious but it's not straightforward, and that makes it interesting.

How aerial theatre is about national identity is less obvious, but also not straightforward and hence also interesting. It's tied closely to the national power aspect. I don't think it can be argued that aviation played any great role in British national identity before 1914. But jumping forward a few decades, this had changed: just think of how the Spitfire has become a British national icon. Obviously the Second World War, and the success of British airpower played a key role in this, as did the aerial theatre of the Battle of Britain: a literal spectacle for the British public, visible daily overhead, even if it wasn't intended as such. Indeed, I will probably need to extend my chronological reach into the postwar period. But the process can probably be traced back earlier: to the nationalistic displays of aerial might at Hendon, to the RAF victories in the Schneider Trophy, to the exploits of British aviators like Alan Cobham and Amy Johnson, to the victories of RFC aces during the First World War, even, inevitably, back to Grahame-White when he tried to wake up England. These can all be construed as aerial theatre. The danger here, though, is that I am broadening the concept too much, taking it too far from the original concept (per Jan Rüger) of organised spectacles, designed to entertain as well as awe. Maybe thinking more broadly will make the aerial theatre more interesting; maybe it will dilute it to the point of uselessness. I'll need to be careful.

How does this aerial theatre relate to airmindedness, which after all is a perfectly useful concept with some historiographical weight behind it? One way to look at it is that aerial theatre was a vector for airmindedness: it was a key way by which the British were made airminded. Moreover, by focusing on what was essentially propaganda, official and unofficial, aerial theatre makes explicit the point of airmindedness -- what the point of airmindedness was claimed to be, how it would change the nation for the better, what it was that aviation was doing and would do for Britain. So I think aerial theatre has the potential to tie airmindedness more closely to politics, ideology, nationalism and imperialism. Airmindedness with a purpose, perhaps. It would also seem to fit in well with David Edgerton's warfare state thesis, as well as with the affective nature of aviation, as explored by Peter Adey and others, and with my own work on the boundaries between civil and military conceptions of aerial warfare (well, that's one way to look at it).

Now it only remains to think about it some more, and to do the work. Lots of work.

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9 thoughts on “Course correction

  1. I think the theater aspect sounds great: I think there's a literature on performative aspects of nationalism that would ground this and give it some more connections; and there's got to be literature on the "Blue Angel"-like institutions to which your work would be a precursor/prequel.

  2. Christopher

    The phenomenon of the air races both domestic and international is worth exploring in respect of of airmindedness. By this I do not mean the Schneider Trophy (though that would need to be covered) but the more local British competitions involving the RAF.

  3. Post author


    Thanks -- yes, I imagine there's plenty of that sort of thing I can plug into (teaching the rise of nationalism from the imagined communities/invented tradition perspective this trimester helped get me thinking along these lines). I'm sure there'll be something on the Red Arrows and other aerobatic display teams, though I think post-1945 airmindedness is rather understudied. I'd also be interested in the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and warbird airshows, as an example of airmindedness and aerial theatre becoming more interested in the past than the future (i.e. the opposite situation to the pre-1945 period).


    Sure, that's the sort of thing that could fall under this umbrella -- though how exciting the events in question are is distinctly secondary to its usefulness in understanding aerial theatre! It could connect to the naval theatre too, or rather the civilian version of it, the Blue Riband and all that.


    I certainly want to pay attention to the less well-known races, displays and meets. There's a valuable article by Jack Williams on 'The upper class and aeroplane sport between the wars' which is a good entry point into this stuff.

  4. Post author

    Thanks for that link, it will be useful for comparative purposes. After all, there's presumably a reason why the RAF Display was initially called the RAF Pageant.

    Wohl will certainly be in the mix, given that he wrote a book called The Spectacle of Flight. But his approach is mostly literary and through individual personalities: for example, I don't think Hendon, as a mass experience, is even mentioned even though it was one of the premier spectacles of flight in the period. Scott Palmer's Dictatorship of the Air is probably closer, but my real point of departure is the sea, with Jan Rüger's The Great Naval Game and particularly his idea of a naval theatre.

  5. I think your direction could well be productive. I'd add in the importance of aerial displays as a technological showcase. Beyond the nationalist project of demonstrating the scale or capacity of air arms, there was also the significant commercial factor - consider the impact of the Dornier 17 in Zurich's 1937 International Military Aircraft Competition, as one example. Rather like the European and American armaments manufacturers who sold or licensed small arms, artillery and warships beyond national borders from the American Civil War onwards, aerial pageants were important venues for drumming up customers, whether Hurricanes for Belgium, Cr 42s for Sweden, MS 402s for Finland, etc. Without knowing the contemporary historiography on transnational aircraft sales, this might be a valuable counterpoint to suggesting that spectacle only served national pride or airmindedness, as opposed to post-Depression balance of trade figures, or globalised capitalism.
    There was also the ambiguous role of displaying captured military aircraft at the end of conflicts. Some fitted into the standard war trophy impulse, which has been written about by military historians, but I'm always struck by British and American displays of German (and to a lesser extent Japanese) aviation technology in 1945-46. The Farnborough exhibition of Captured Enemy Aircraft in 1945 is perhaps an extreme example; there was a wonderful contemporary cartoon in which a British test pilot boggled at the thought of flying such advanced/irregular configurations. Was this display a tribute to moral victory over Nazism, the productive might of Allied industry, awe at the undreamed-of technological innovation, or a spur to British design offices? The aeronautical raiding parties scouring German manufacturing and test plants for plans and prototypes from early 1945 are well documented; this is increasingly true for the ways in which these designs and concepts fed into British, American and Soviet post-war designs.
    On the other hand, I remain amazed by the fact that there is so much emphasis on the weird and wonderful shapes fielded by the Germans as an indicator of their technological precocity, yet the USA developed and tested many equally adventurous shapes: the XP-54, -55, -56 competition, XP-79, XB-35, and the Skikorsky HNS-1. But I digress from your prospects!

  6. Post author

    Thanks for your comments, Peter! There would definitely be a technological angle to it, air races (Schneider, MacRobertson) too were ways to show off national technological sophistication and hence the fitness of the nation for the air age. In terms of the commercial aspects, that was always there, from the pre-1914 Olympia exhibitions (which were aviation spectacles, just grounded ones) through Hendon (I think SBAC had a trade exhibition there the day after the RAF Pageant from 1932) and of course Farnborough is primarily about advertising products, which is a shift from the pre-1939 days. So it's there, but there's an important change over time. In fact one of the endpoints I'm thinking of is either 1966, when the first foreign exhibitors were allowed at Farnborough (as long as there was still British involvement), or 1974, when the first foreign aircraft were allowed. So again that seems like a significant (or at least a convenient) turning point in terms of what Farnborough and what aviation says about Britain. No more splendid isolation.

    I hadn't really thought about the war booty thing, though that is useful since I do want to have some sort of comparative or transnational dimension. It reminds me that in 1919, Folkestone was offered a Gotha bomber as a war trophy, presumably because it had been bombed by Gothas during the war. Apparently they turned it down, though, on the grounds of cost (they'd have had to build somewhere to put it) -- a shame because none of them exist any more. But as you say, how these sorts of displays were meant to be interpreted, and how they were interpreted, is unclear and probably unstable.

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