The year of reading airmindedly — XII

Project 2014, Bristol Boxkites at Point Cook

There's something for everyone here, from low-tech flying replicas to hi-tech death from the skies!

Andrew Cockburn, Kill Chain: Drones and the Rise of High-Tech Assassins (London: Verso, 2015). Every so often I decide I should make an attempt to stay current with present-day military aviation, and I think that's why I bought this. It turns out it's only partly about drone warfare – certainly it's not the book for rivet counters – but it's an excellent and critical history of the American pursuit of perfect intelligence from drone surveillance combined with increasing reliance of targeted killing of high-value targets (AKA assassination), from Vietnam through to the end of the Obama administration. And, more to the point, how the hopes placed in both the technology and the strategy are deluded, leading not to victory but just more and more civilian deaths (but also, not incidentally, more money and more power within the military-industrial complex). Semi-random semi-interesting fact: W. Hays Parks, who I've come across as the author of an article on precision and area bombing in the Second World War, turns up here as a Bush (I)-era US Army lawyer 'whose views on legal boundaries for the use of force tended to the robust' (90), insofar as he helped undermine Carter's ban on US use of assassination. There are some tensions in Cockburn's account: he contrasts the illusion of omniscience and omnipotence that drones give to operators and generals half a world away from the battlefield with the A-10 pilots loitering overhead who really can see and understand what is going on underneath them – but those illusions apply just as well to human eyes in the sky as they do to electronic ones, and can be traced all the way back to the early 20th century (and in fact earlier). Nevertheless, this is a sobering read. I probably need to make more attempts to stay current with present-day military aviation...

Colin Cruddas, Sir Alan Cobham: Flying Legend Who Brought Aviation to the Masses (Philadelphia: Frontline Books, 2018). Cobham is another of those figures who everyone* knows about, but not a lot about. Cruddas, as the former archivist of Cobham plc, is well placed to tell Cobham's story, and indeed this is a serviceable account of his flying and his business activities (which of course were intertwined), though much less so of his personal or intellectual life. It's the kind of book that I wish had references of some (any) kind, but I anyway learned a lot from: for example, the idea for Cobham's famous landing on the Thames outside the Houses of Parliament came before the idea of the Australian flight which it concluded, and it wasn't his idea either! Apart from his long-distance route-proving flights and his later refuelling enterprises (by which time, admittedly, he does tend to disappear from the narrative), there's a great deal of detail about his aerial theatre outfit, the National Aviation Day Displays (prefigured by his Municipal Aerodrome Campaign in 1929). This is the selling point for me. 'Cobham's Flying Circus' (which term he hated) really was a big affair – Cobham estimated 3 million paying spectators between 1932 and 1934, nearly a third of whom also paid for a joyflight – which must have had a big effect on airmindedness in Britain (and South Africa and Ireland; a mooted tour to India never took place). Certainly deserves more attention than I've given it, anyway.

Ron Gretton, Geoff Matthews and James Kightly, Bristol Boxkites at Point Cook: Commemorating the Centenary of Australian Military Aviation 1914–2014 (Werribee: Project 2014, 2014). Yes, this is yet another friend's book I am only belatedly getting around to reading! It's also another great one. The Bristol Boxkite was a very early British aeroplane, one example of which (CFS 4) made the first military flight in Australia, at Point Cook on 1 March 1914, and went on to be used in the flight training of the first cohorts of Australian military aviators. As the centenary of the flight approached, Gretton and Matthews conceived the idea of building a flyable replica of CFS 4: Project 2014. Much easier said than done, since no original Boxkites have survived, nor any plans. So they had to work from such information as could be gleaned from contemporary sources as well as the flying Boxkite replicas built for the 1965 film Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. Long story short, they built it, it flew, and it's now in the possession of the RAAF Museum. Longer story, read this book. It starts with a historical discussion of the development of the Boxkite, the first flight at Point Cook, and so on. What I particularly liked here was how clearly James (I'm pretty sure!) explained how the assumptions and terminology of modern aviation differ from those of early aviation, and how this is not just a matter of us knowing more about how to fly. Then there's a section on the actual design, construction and assembly process (including the necessary and sensible compromises with modern OHS requirements: the replica has at least ten times the number of instruments as the original did). There follows a vivid account of the first flight by the test pilot (a retired air vice-marshal, no less). On top of all that Bristol Boxkites at Point Cook is profusely illustrated, with many of the photos being taken by James himself. Copies may be hard to find now but it's a valuable record of an important project.

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2 thoughts on “The year of reading airmindedly — XII

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  2. Thanks, Brett! The Boxkite book was a 'passion project', and long story short, I parlayed Ron's original idea into a very different format - the book's actual shape, incidentally, chosen by Andrew Willox, reflects the Magnificent Men film brochure! I expanded the content significantly, and we put a lot more in. I thought it was important to build out a lot of the context, too, and I'm pleased, albeit a decade later, to see it went over as intended! Anyone after copies - good luck. We produced a limited run of 750 titles, and no more. So happy hunting.

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