Rumblings, July 1956

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Flying “through the sound-barrier” has caught the public imagination, and, naturally, books are beginning to appear about trans-sonic and supersonic pioneering. There is “Across the High Frontier,” by W.R. Lundgren (Victor Gollanez, 240 pp., 8 3/4 in. by 5 1/2 in., 16s. 6d.), which is the story of Charles E. Yeager, the American Air Force pilot who first dived through the so-called “sound barrier” in the X-1 in 1947. The pilot was exploring unknown territory and the book is naturally an adventure story; it is also an absorbing technical study, Yeager having to check no fewer than 97 points of cockpit-drill before take-off.

There is the even more absorbing book “The Lonely Sky,” by William Bridgeman and Jacqueline Hazard (Cassell, 278 pp., 8 9/16 in. by 5 11/16 in., 16s.), which is the account of Bridgeman’s air force, commercial flying and test-pilot career, culminating in the flying of the Douglas Skyrocket X-3 at diving speeds of over 1,250 m.p.h. from a height exceeding 72,000 feet when launched from a converted Douglas B29 bomber. This is a tremendously absorbing book, for the X-3 was a fantastically tricky aeroplane, propelled by four rockets burning a ton of highly-explosive liquid oxygen and alcohol per minute. The risk of taking-off such a missile, let alone flying it at supersonic speeds, was enormous, and Jacqueline Hazard, the journalist, spares us nothing in describing the skill, concentration and luck which enabled William Bridgeman, the pilot, to succeed in his great task.

The point of view of the woman test-pilot is put over in “The Sky My Kingdom,” by Hanna Reitsch (The Bodley Head, 208 pp., 8 1/4 in. by 5 1/4 in., 12s. 6d.). This German test-pilot flew almost every German military aircraft during the war from the famous Focke-Wulf 190 to the vicious rocket-propelled Me 163 which reached 30,000 feet in 90 seconds. The book opens with gliding record attempts and concludes with the time when Hanna Reitsch was one of the last to see Hitler alive. There is also Jacqueline Cochrane’s flying autobiography “Stars at Noon” (Robert Hale, 274 pp., 9 in. by 5 1/2 in., 15s.), in which this blonde American test-pilot tells of how, from humble beginnings, she aspired to become a pilot and eventually to achieve the high distinction of being the first woman to fly a military aircraft, to “break the sound barrier ” and to make a totally blind landing.

The British contributions are “Test Pilot” and the earlier “Sound Barrier” (which is really a textbook on supersonic flight), by Sqd./Ldr. Neville Duke, and “Mach One,” by Lt.-Comdr. Mike Lithgow (Allan Wingate, 151 pp., 8 3/4 in. by 5 1/2 in., 12s. 6d.), the autobiography of Vickers’ chief test-pilot, leading up to his attainment of a speed of mach one in level flight in the Swift Mk. IV, which at the time set the world’s air speed record at 735.7 m.p.h. Test flying in a less scientific age is dealt with in perhaps the best of all these books, “The Dangerous Skies,” by Air Commodore A.E. Clouston (Cassell, 187 pp., 8 1/2 in. by 5 3/4 in., 13s. 6d.). The two latter books have been fully reviewed in Motor Sport.

When you tire momentarily of reading about motor racing, try these books about the task of the modern test-pilot. They should make you all the prouder of modest Peter Twiss, who with normal jet-propulsion flew faster than any of them in level flight in the British Fairey Delta II. Perhaps one day soon we shall have a book about his very, very splendid accomplishment.

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Sir Hugh Casson is to be congratulated on the series of talks entitled “Journey Through Subtopia ” which he broadcast in the B.B.C. Home Service, commencing on June 6th. “Subtopia” is the name, a combination of “suburb” and “utopia,” coined by Ian Nairn when he wrote in Outrage, a special issue of Architectural Review, about the danger and horror of Britain becoming a universal suburb, the ultimate ideal of uniform mediocrity. To see what chances there are of subtopia being halted before it is too late Sir Hugh Casson made journeys in North Oxfordshire, Norwich, the southern edge of London, Dartmoor, along the Yorkshire coast, and to industrial Lancashire. His task has been to describe vividly and with true feeling the horrors of the growth of subtopia and to point the way, through the concerted action of interested individuals, to stopping this creeping spoilation of the English countryside.

What has this to do with you? A great deal! Pleasure motoring, for all save a minority, will become quite pointless if England becomes one enormous suburb, with no distinction between town and country. Gone will be the fascination of using the car to leave behind built-up areas and adventure along less-congested ways. The deep pleasure of the country scene on such journeys will vanish; motoring will become mere transportation from one squalid area to another through mile after mile of squalor. Such a prospect is unbearable to motoring enthusiasts and we must all listen carefully to men like Ian Nairn, Michael Wharton – who wrote on “What Can We Do About Subtopia? ” in the Radio Times of June 1st –  and to Sir Hugh Casson, who so obviously spoke from the heart in his excellent anti-subtopia broadcasts.

We have special reason to concern ourselves with stopping this day-by-day obliteration of the countryside, for the coming of the motor car started the rot and modern petrol stations are amongst the worst offenders under the heading of spoilation by buildings and advertising signs. Lend all the weight you can to Sir Hugh Casson and his supporters!

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“In round figures one may expect a goods or public service vehicle to cause injury once in 14 years and a motor-cycle to experience the same misfortune once every 20 years. The private car, however, is only involved once every 32 years . . . It follows that no legislation restricted to private cars can substantially affect the road accident problem as a whole, and that those who pin their hopes on new forms of driving test or new methods of inspection for roadworthiness are foredoomed to disappointment.” – From a powerful and convincing Editorial on the Road Traffic Bill in The Motor dated June 6th, 1956.

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“The Volkswagen must, in many ways, be considered the greatest sales success in the U.S. industry today, achieving this sale with less than 500 dealers.” – J. Bruce McWilliams writing on “The Export Motor Race” in Motor Racing.

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“. . . the motorist who achieves (a speed of) three figures on British roads does so only at a risk to himself and others that would be difficult to justify.” – Editorial in The Autocar dated May 18th, 1956.