Notes from underground

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Archive for the category “aeroplanes”

Beaufighters over Burma

Beaufighters Over Burma: 27 Squadron, Royal Air Force, 1942-45Beaufighters Over Burma: 27 Squadron, Royal Air Force, 1942-45 by David J. Innes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I spotted this book in the library, thought “That’s interesting”, then took it out and read it, interrupting all my other reading to do so, and found it more absorbing than many novels. Having finished it, I’m left wondering why.

It’s not particularly well written, and has the rather annoying habit of some writers of military history of putting a list of all the medals a person was awarded after their name in the text. But I still found it fascinating, and I find aircraft of the Second World War particularly fascinating.

I’m not sure why I, a convinced pacifist, should find that particular conflict so interesting. Perhaps it is because I was born during the war, and I was four years old when it ended, and so war seemed to be part of the normal state of things, and when it ended, the world seemed to be in an abnormal state. My uncle, who had been in the paratroop regiment, had a couple of books called Aircraft of the Fighting Powers and I read them with great interest when I was about 9 or 10 years old, and had the specifications of several of the aircraft memorised, even though some of them were probably inaccurate to confuse the enemy.

One of the things that struck me about Beaufighters over Burma, however, was the logistics and bureau7cracy of war, with people being posted into and out of squadrons for no apparent reason. That must have been an enormously costly exercise in itself, and I wonder who decided such things and why. There was this squadron with trained crew and pretty expensive aircraft, and they would have pilots and navigators transferred in and out and all over the place, for no apparent reason. And in the days before computers, who kept track of these things, stores and supplies and personnel, not to mention petrol and ammunition to keep the planes flying and shooting up the Japanese occupation army in Burma, and trying to disrupt their supplies of petrol and ammunition and personnel.

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No Highway: re-reading a book after 60 years

No HighwayNo Highway by Nevil Shute

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s interesting to re-read a book after a long time, and see whether your opinion of it has changed. I first read [authoer:Aldous Huxley]’s Brave New World when I was about 17, and found it very exciting and stimulating. I re-read it when I was 57, and after 40 years found it rather flat and dull. I’ve just finished reading No Highway after a gap of about 60 years, and found it as good as when I first read it.

It was interesting to see what I remembered and what I had forgotten. I was about 13 or 14 when I first read it, when I was still crazy about aeroplanes and wanted to be a pilot. By the time I was 15 my ambitions had dropped, and my main interest was cars. From the age of 11 to 14 most of what I read had something to do with aeroplanes, and if No Highway had not been about aeroplanes I would probably not have read it at all.

When I first read the book the most memorable things were the technical bits to do with the aircraft. I could recall the love story vaguely, but I could not recall the British Israelite angle at all, though it is quite prominent in the story, though I did recall the part with the planchette.

De Havilland Comet

De Havilland Comet

I read it about the time that the first commercial jets, the De Havilland Comets, were in the news because of unexplained crashes. I seem to recall that when it was determined that the cause of the crashes was metal fatigue I knew what that meant because it was central to the plot of No Highway but it is possible that it was the other way round — that I understood the point of the plot because of the real-life incidents with the Comets.

It was the first book by Nevil Shute that I had read, and because I had enjoyed it I went on to read others written by him, though I still thought (and after re-reading it still think) )that No Highway was one of his best. I think it has aged well. Of course, one is aware that it belongs to its time, and that many things have changed since then. On the technical side the most obvious thing is air navigation. Back then the cabin crews were small (because the planes were smaller and carried fewer passengers) but the flight-deck crew was large, including, in addition to two pilots, a flight engineer, a navigator and a wireless operator. Advances in electronics have made the last two redundant.

Social attitudes too are different. One of the most noticeable is that sex has replaces smoking as one of the most commonly-described recreational activities. Another is that sex roles were much more rigid back then: males were useless at cooking and cleaning and buying clothes for children; females were useless at research and design.

I find the social differences interesting too, because I’m also reading a historical novel, Dissolution by C.J. Sansom. When reading historical novels I always have one eye out for anachronisms, things that the author gets wrong about the period in which the novel is set. No Highway is set in our past, but it was contemporary when it was written. So when I first read it, it was much closer to the time in which it was set and I did not notice such things, but the second time around, it gives an authentic view of a vanished past.

There are some less obvious things too. The scientist doing research on metal fatigue, Theodore Honey, also has some other interests that seem bizarre to his colleagues and associates — calculating the end of the world from the dimensions of the Great Pyramid and the like. These interests made them doubt his competence as a scientific researcher, and that would probably also be the case today too. But what his contemporaries thought was equally crazy was his designing of moon rockets, yet within 10 years the launching of artificial satellites showed that that was feasible.

Another, and perhaps a minor one, yet which strikes me as significant, is when the designer of an aircraft is announcing plans for important modifications. The accountaint asks if this will require night-shift work and overtime, except on Sundays. The chairman of the airline then asks that “in view of the extreme urgency of this matter to us, may I ask if Sunday work can be authorised?” To which the designer replies, “On no account would I agree with that. If you want work done on Sundays, you must go elsewhere. It is uneconomic upon any account, and it strikes at the root of family life, which is the basis of the greatness of this country.”

That reminded me that there was a brief period, in the middle of the 20th century, when the interests of Mr Gradgrind were eclipsed, and more basic human values were allowed to take precedence over economic ones. It lasted until the 1980s, when Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan reinstated Mr Gradgrind.

Give it another 60 years, and some things in the book may need to be annotated, because there will then be no one around who lived thourgh that period. But I thought it was a good read back then, and it’s still a good read now, and probably will be in 60 years’ time too,

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The 1950s and today

Sixty years ago my father gave me a pocket diary that some business firm he dealt with had given him, and I began recording what I did each day. Well, some days.

Since then I’ve transcribed most of my old hard copy diaries into a database, and each day I look back to see what I was doing 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 years ago. Sixty years ago today I didn’t do much that was worth recording. But sixty years ago yesterday I went to the circus with Elizabeth Dods. She was 14 and I was 11, and she was crazy about horses, and used to come to ride ours. She eventually married Frank Hodgkinson (and her brother David married Frank’s sister Vanessa) and I lost touch with them.

1950sBut today someone posted this on Facebook which got me thinking about the 1950s again, and the differences between the 1950s and today.

And thinking about the differences between the 1950s and today, I think that graphic on the right is pretty accurate. The thing that was most inconceivable about today back then, the thing that never entered even our wildest dreams, was the personal computer, and the computing power now incorporated into cell phones.

Back then computers were enormously expensive machines that filled whole rooms. They operated with valves, because I think transistors were only developed in the late 1950s.

I remember standing in our cow paddock one night, probably in 1952 or 1953, looking at the rising full moon and the stars, and a friend, Eddy Viles, said, “One day soon a rocket is going to the moon.”

That was conceivable. And before the 50s were out, by the time I was 16, the first artificial satellite was launched, Sputnik I. It caused such excitement that we used to rush out of prep at school to see it fly over. And within 12 years a rocket had reached the moon, and much of it was controlled by computers, but personal computers were still unimaginable.

De Havilland Comet

De Havilland Comet

One of the things that still amazes me is the development of passenger airliners. In 1952 we had jet airliners, and three times a week the De Havilland Comet I used to fly over our house from Palmietfonein, south of Johannesburg, to the still uncompleted Jan Smuts (now O.R. Tambo) airport in Kempton Park. The runways at the old Palmietfontein airport were long enough for the Comet to land, but not long enough for it to take off fully loaded, so it had to fly empty to Jan Smuts and load up there.

Less than fifty years before the Comet, the Wright brothers had not yet made the first powered flight in a heavier than air aircraft. Compare their machine with the Comet, and ask what someone fifty years earlier might have imagined.

More time has passed since the Comet I began regular flights between London and Johannesburg and today than passed between the the Wright brothers and the Comet I, and in the 60 years since the Comet I the changes in aircraft design have been minimal. A Boeing 747 is bigger, but the main design difference is that the engines are in nascelles under the wings rather than in the wings themselves. The biggest changes are inside, not seen in the external view — in the navigational equipment, which brings us again to computers. I think the Comet I still had an astrodome in the roof, for the navigator to take sightings of the stars, and that was in fact a fatal flaw, for metal fatigue in some of the joints caused some of the early Comets to crash.

But looking again at the Comet, I think that people born the early 1890s saw more change in their life time than any generation before or since.

Someone born in 1893 would have been 10 when the Wright brothers flew, might have been a fighter pilot in the First World War, would have been 60 when the Comet flew, and might have travelled on it as a passenger. They would have been 76 when men first stepped on the moon, and might have used a personal computer before their 90th birthday.

A quick introduction to Russian culture

This week I scanned some photos of my first trip to Russia in 1995 into my computer, and posted some on Facebook, and thought I’d post some here too.

IL-62I flew from Johannesburg to Moscow on an Aeroflot Ilyushin IL62, an interesting experience. When I’d spend two years studying in the UK I returned in 1968 on a Vickers VC 10, and the two aircraft looked very similar. Both had four engines in the tail, and I was delighted to be able to fly in both.[1]

The flight, via Togo and Malta, lasted 17 hours, and my friend Andrei Kashinski met me at the airport with his friend Maxim Zapalski, who had a car, and, since it was my first visit to Moscow, they took me straight to Red Square. Andrei had arranged accommodation for me in the guest house of the Danilov Monastery, where he was supervisor of the rebuilding programme. He insisted on feeding me, though I had just had a substantial breakfast on the plane. He phoned another contact, an online friend Sergei Chapnin, who arranged for me at attend a youth conference at a parish in Klin, about 80 km north-west of Moscow along the St Petersburg road. The priest, would be coming to Moscow, and could give me a lift to Klin.

Kurenkov HomecomingSo back in the car with Andrei and Maxim, and they took me to a flat in a block in north-west Moscow. Guests were expected, but I was the unexpected guest, and the first to arrive. The flat was tiny, but crammed with books on every wall It turned out to be a welcoming party for Alexei Kurenkov, who had just returned on the plane from New York, where he was studying at St Vladimir’s seminary. And there was a fantastic feast — my third of the day, and though I had lost track of the time it felt like mid-morning. It was July, and I’d flown from winter to summer, from short days and long nights to long days and short nights.

So my first practical lesson in Russian culture was within an a couple of hours of arriving. Russians eat a lot, and you can’t visit a friend without being fed. My fellow blogger Clarissa describes this and other aspects of Russian culture in her blog Clarissa’s Blog: What You Need to Know About Your Russian-Speaking Friend:

A Russian-speaking party is very different from the Anglo-Saxon party, for example. For one, nobody stands while trying to balance the plate and the glass. Everybody sits around a big table. Regardless of the economic situation of your Russian-speaking hosts, food will be abundant and will consist of several courses with many food choices. Nobody will ever ask you eat off a paper plate and drink out of plastic cups. The table will be beautifully and properly laid, there will be beautiful table linens and dinnerware.

And that’s the truth. The more people you visit, the more you eat. If you visit a lot, you can end up having six or seven meals a day.

In South African culture, or should I say South African white urban culture, if you are going to drop in to see someone unexpectedly, you try to avoid doing so at meal times, so that your hosts don’t feel obliged to feed you. In Russia, there is no avoiding meal times, because meal times are whenever guests arrive.

It took me a little while to get used to this. I once made the mistake of thinking I could pop in to say hello to someone before jumping on the Metro to go to a service at a Cathedral. No chance of that. Fortunately the Cathedral was full and anyway in Orthodox services people arrive late all the time.

Rural black culture in South Africa is still a bit like that. You can drop in to say hello to someone and then when you want to go they say you must wait, because someone has gone out to catch a chicken to slaughter for a meal. The amazing thing (to me) about Russia is that that kind of attitude has persisted in urban culture, even in big cities like Moscow.

Notes

[1] The VC 10 and IL 62 were my favourite passenger aircraft, and here is a comparison:

The Il-62M had a dispatch rate with Aeroflot of 97% with some examples logging as many as 17 flight hrs/day, and it was described as the most reliable type in the fleet at that time (Gordon et al., 2004). It set several international records in its class, mostly exemplifying a range capability far in excess of the conservative Aeroflot calculations applied in Soviet times. Some of these records were set by an all-woman crew of five captained by Iraida (“Inna”) Vertiprahova. With 10 tonnes of freight, the Il-62M had a maximum range of 10,300 km compared to 9,412 km for the VC10 carrying the same weight. With a 23 tonne payload, the Il-62M range was 8000 km, compared to 6,920 km for a Boeing 707 with maximum payload.

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