"The Power to Fly"

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By L. J. K. Setright. 224 pp. 9 1/2 in. x 6 in. (George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 40, Museum Street, London, WC1. £3.75.)

I have been saying for some considerable time that, with the flood of books about aeroplanes of all kinds, it is high time that someone wrote about the engines that powered them. I thought that Putnams, who specialise in some of the finest aeroplane histories available, would publish such a work when it came to be written. Well, now it has been written, and Putnams have been beaten to it by Allen & Unwin, who have published an extremely readable and erudite book on this curiously neglected subject, thanks to the incredible energy, ability and command of readable English of L. J. K. Setright.

It has been apparent for some time that, after the sad death while in his writing prime of Laurence Pomeroy, Setright set out to follow the same course, combining prodigious wordage in an all-embracing engineering field with his own particular and meticulous brand of English and presentation. I was never quite sure that I liked this approach and, being no engineer, was not always convinced by Setrightian stipulations, theories and propoundings. But with his masterly book about the piston aero-engine, from its humble but fascinating origins to its defeat by the gas turbine, this industrious author (does he eat and sleep or only write?) has established himself as a notably entertaining as well as an incredibly informative technical historian.

There will be those who proclaim me a traitor to my own camp in thus praising the individualistic and flamboyant L.J.K.S. If this is the case, I shall be unrepentant, because I not only greatly enjoyed reading “The Power To Fly”, which could so easily have been as dreary as cooling water, but I gleaned a great deal of information from it which was of much interest. Some of it I knew before, some of it rang bells from the past, from the time when I was an avid youthful reader of C. G. Grey’s great weekly The Aeroplane and the more staid Flight (even, indeed, an occasional contributor to them), but much of it was the pure delight of unexplored history, or at all events fresh chronology, because, you see, very few books about aero-engines have been published previously.

Setright is remarkably honest, admitting in his Proemium that as piston acro-engines deserve some sort of memorial “it is desirable that some volume (volumes, more probably) more complete and exhaustive than this should be written to chronicle the close-knit saga of the aerial piston engine, before too many of the men whose memories carry so much of the story should pass from among us”. So Putnams and others still have a chance—meanwhile, here is already available a splendidly readable book on the subject, even if it neglects the niceties of divers different valve-gears, does not refer in its pages to Claudel-Hobson, and is, as it admits, concerned with the powerful military, civil and racing reciprocating aero-engines rather than the small fry like Cirrus and Gypsy.

What a story, nevertheless, Setright unfolds! His first chapters cover the beginnings of powered flight (and its propulsive-power) and the influence of the 1914/18 war on aeroplane engines. I found myself wondering where all the data came from. Perhaps Setright has discovered Burls’ pioneer book on aero-engines which I mentioned in these columns recently. (Not that I take credit for this, because I see that Setright was ready to give his story of the power to fly to the World in 1969, Allen & Unwin demurring until this year…) He may have consulted the astonishing discourses by Geoffrey de Holden Stone in the 1914/18 issues of The Aeroplane. If so, it remains his secret.

The worthwhile story unfolds, through the years of commercial aviation, to the impact of the Second World War and, as with the very few good novels, the reader (this reader anyway) couldn’t put the damn thing down. The chapter on how International racing (mainly the Schneider Trophy) and record-breaking stimulated development of in-line liquid-cooled engines is naturally the most interesting and although the author is far from enthusiastic about the beneficial influence of competition on satisfactory aero-engine development, I am relieved to note that he would approve of my oft-quoted couplet about the Battle of Britain having been resolved over Calshott Water!

At first, in spite of the vast canvas of this subject, I thought Setright tended to repeat himself, but if he does have a faint tendency in this direction it is not with a view to padding—the book is exceptionally comprehensive and commendably chronological. A few excellent anecdotes which perhaps border on the fictional have found their way in, and all the better that this is so.

The accounts of Merlin development, the extracting of ever more power from racing aero-engines like the Rolls-Royce R and the 24-cylinder Fiat AS6 (51.5-litres, supercharged, giving 3,100 h.p. and 440.68 m.p.h. in a Macchi Castoldi M72 in 1934) is interesting enough, but Setright excels himself in assessing the merits of the big aero-engine manufacturers. He is not unkind to Rolls-Royce (which would be uncharitable at the present time) but sees them as better at development work than basic design. He emphasises the true merit of Napier, whose policy was bold and far-sighted and whose stupendous sleeve-valve Sabre was the most powerful piston engine in existence when World War Two ended (able to develop a reliable 5,500 h.p. at 4,200 r.p.m. by 1941, when it powered the Fairey Heston racer built to attack Messerschmitts piston-engine Air Speed Record of 469.22 m.p.h., which crashed due to difficulties with its unavoidably large propeller). And he praises Bristol for “combining the engineering virtuosity of Rolls-Royce with the reformatory zeal of Napier, sometimes outdoing them both”—not for nothing does Setright drive a Bristol motor-car!

If this enthralling book discussed only the major British aero-motors and how they developed, or didn’t develop, it would be fully justified. But it goes vastly further, dealing with the great rivalry of Wright and Pratt & Whitney in America, the undertakings of Daimler-Benz in Germany and Fiat in Italy, as well as explaining why different design lines were followed by different nations and how commerce and Governments frequently called the tune. The author is not a timid historian and his censorship of Rolls-Royce is seen in his statement, when discussing the commercial ascendancy of Merlin Over Sabre that “…Rolls-Royce were very powerful in Parliamentary lobbying: it has been said that they could summon the aid of 50 MPs at any time, whereas it is doubtful whether Napier could call on even one”. He calls the R.-R take-over of Bentley Motors in 1931 “an unpleasantly furtive Rolls-Royce manoeuvre”. Incidentally, due credit is given to J. E. Ellor for the work he did in sorting out Rolls-Royce’s supercharger problems, from the Kestrel onwards, and to S. D. Heron, it is said, who proved that Vitallium could be cast by removing his Vitallium dentures and showing them to sceptical American engineers who were discussing turbocharger materials!

As if this wasn’t enough, the author provides three very erudite appendices, respectively on cooling, supercharging and fuel, each of these historico-explanatory discourses being almost worth the price of the book on their own. There are also tables giving the characteristics of the leading aero-engines of 1910 and 1914 and of Fiat, Rolls-Royce and Daimler-Benz engines down the years, although those for Napier and Bristol should have been included.

This may appear to be another book of lost causes but Setright makes the point that as long as we continue to use piston engines there will be ideas to be harvested and lessons to be inferred from the older aero-engines. He has obviously been impressed by their effective use of sleeve valves, which never really challenged poppet valves in the motoring world, writing of a single-cylinder Bristol test-rig with 6 1/2-in. sleeves which ran up to 8,000 r.p.m. without trouble and mentioning that “the Napier Sabre could blip up and down the tachometer scale like a car engine”. He consequently wonders whether anyone will “have the nerve to give us some small blown sleeve-valve engines for our terrestrial transport”. What a great, a memorable book, with illustrations to match.—W. B.

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