Monday, 27 April 2020

A model for the future?


I have been otherwise occupied. This F4 Phantom is my latest and, without a doubt, my best ever effort. It has now taken pride of place on the mantelpiece. I'm now working on a Canberra PR.9.

It's interesting, though, that when I look at my full shelf line up, I note that every jet I grew up with is now retired. Aviation geekery used to be an interest in the present and the future. Now it's nostalgia. The major advances in aerospace are in the civil domain and it no longer captures the public's imagination. I think with the passing of the Tornado from RAF service last year, we really did see the end of the cold war technologies. We are in more than one way in a whole new era. Between Brexit and Corona, the world I knew is gone.

There is, however, nothing wrong with a bit of nostalgia. The political history of Britain's aviation industry is one worthy of study. Every post-war aircraft in RAF service was as much a political decision (or a consequence of one) as it was one of capability. The Jaguar was a stopgap, as was the Buccaneer and Phantom, as Britain was torn between the US and Europe, while trying to sustain its own aerospace exports.

As I understand it, while many get misty eyed about the VC10 and what could have been, and what a superbly capable aircraft it was (allegedly), the RAF had it foisted upon them in order to make the production line viable. For every supposedly world beating aircraft we had a half dozen failures while propping up a massively inefficient industry - not having a the first idea how people were to be otherwise employed. The only reason the Canberra bomber had a plywood fin was to give the craftsmen at De Havilland something to so when the writing on the wall for wooden aircraft was already faded.

To a point the remainers are quite right. Britain's self-image as pioneering player is somewhat trumped up. The one that really gets plane spotters misty-eyed is the TSR-2, which for its time probably was as good as they said, but there's a shed full of flops to get us to that point and it wasn't much over and above the North American A-5 Vigilante.

It didn't even improve when we went in on European collaboration to produce the Panavia Tornado. It took twenty years of concurrent development before it was a capable aircraft and the fighter variant, unfairly described as useless, wasn't nearly as capable as the F16/18 and in the end a good deal more expensive. We latterly repeated that mistake by going all in on the Eurofighter.

The Eurofighter, or Typhoon as we now call it, is undeniably an amazing machine for something that looks like Finger Mouse, but offers little over and above a later model F16 at a third of the price. It doesn't even represent European cooperation since the French went off and did their own thing with the Rafale. With the F35 we have probably seen the last European venture for some time. The atlantic pendulum swings again.

Where Corona makes things interesting is that it finally kills off the big four engined passenger jets. The ill-fated white elephant Airbus A380 will soon be making its way to the scrappers with no real interest in developing a feight version, bringing an end to another politically motivated project. Another era comes to a close - and with Brexit, very possibly the beginning of the end for aerospace manufacturing and in-service support at Filton.

In the tradition of obsolete and expensive ventures to keep people in the regions in decent jobs we now wait to see if the Tempest fighter programme comes to fruition, but Corona may see that hitting the buffers before the artists impressions are finalised. Once again the UK will have to choose between Europe and the USA is we can even afford to be in the game. Since any manned fighter is practically a museum piece at inception, and with Corona related defence cuts a near certainty, the UK has to think about whether it can even sustain an air force in the classic sense.

Between Brexit and Corona, bearing in mind that air travel demand has gone off the cliff, aerospace and defence is turning a corner. It may be that plastic aeroplanes out of a shipping container from Japan will become Britain's main aerospace interest. Not that I have a problem with that.

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