- Planes and planes and planes
- October 27th, 2012
I don't know when I first became fascinated by flight. It may have been when a squadron of Vulcans thundered - and I do mean thundered - overhead at what seemed like touching distance away to land at nearby RAF Acklington in about 1960, but I believe I was bitten by the bug some time before that. Maybe it was all Group Captain Bigglesworth's fault. Flying machines have fascinated and delighted me for as long as I can remember and, while I'm not a TAP (Total Aviation Person) I know enough to scorn Flight Sergeant Sargeant describing a mere Mark 9 as the ultimate Spitfire. Look at a Mark 24 you ignorant little oik!
Maybe it was the story my mum told of a wartime experience, of being in North Wales and seeing an aircraft without without a propellor, and telling my father - who was stationed on the same base - and being told not to be so silly. She had only witnessed a proving flight of the Gloster Whittle E28/39 and had seen something transformatively significant.
The Spitfire is commonly regarded (here, at least) as the most beautiful aircraft of them all, largely because it is a fine looking plane and because of the romance of the Battle of Britain. War is, of course, more complex than that. While the Spitfire flying knights in armour were jousting with their German counterparts in Willi Messerschmidt's Es and Gustavs, the more prosaic Hurricane was destroying the Heinkels and the Dorniers and the Junkers before and after they dropped their bombs, and doing so at a fraction of the cost - in terms of outlay and repair (a Spitfire took three times as long to repair as a Hurricane for a similar item of damage)and in keeping their pilots alive. They did, of course, use the same engines, guns and ammunition as each other (at least until they swapped 303 Brownings for 20mm cannon in the Spitfire) They were different but both vital to the succesful prosecution of the war.
Another fighter also used the same engine, the Rolls Royce Merlin, and was originally produced by the Americans to a British requirement only for it to mutate into possibly the most important aircraft of the war - the much more next generational in appearance Mustang, the long range fighter that transformed the USAF's bombing campaign in Europe from a funeral cortege into a victory. The Spitfire, the Hurricane - together with the 109 and Kurt Tank's 190 Butcher Bird - look right in camouflage (as does the Mustang's brother in death, the P47 Thunderbolt) But the Mustang harked forward to the days of bright, bare metal with a flash of colour - a yellow nose or that highly significant Tuskegee red tail.
To my mind, however, the most beautiful and deadly beautiful aeroplane of them all is a true maverick, a throwback, a construction of wood as small as it could functionally be bolted to two of those ubiquitous Merlin engines - the Mosquito. As a piece of design it is as pure as the Spitfire, form dictated by function, while its structure made use of a resource Britain had in those years and which was underused in that conflict of flesh against metal - woodworkers, highly trained, highly skilled woodworkers. If any single thing can be said to have turned that war in our favour - other than Hitler's incompetence - it was the determination - for the first and last time in our history - to have the best possible person in every job. And some of those people were nutters in the eyes of most. In terms of contemporary warfare, the Mosquito was an absurd aberration. A committee would have look at it and curled its collective scornful lip. But it worked. It did its job better than anything else. As I say, its form followed its function and I think it the most beautiful of aircraft, in a brutal, deadly, fatal way. It is beautiful in the way a shark is beautiful, and for the same reason. It is the meanest thing in its particular valley of death, and observed from the outside it moves in a similar, sinuously effortless grace (if accompanied by the deafening roar of two Merlins) That beauty, however, takes on a different meaning - as does the shark's - when seen approaching head on. Like the shark's teeth, seeing those four Browning's twinkling in the wooden nose of the Mosquito meant one thing. You were going to be dead, soon.
The beauty of the Mosquito, like that of the Spitfire and - yes - the very similar beauty of the ME262 is best appreciated today because those instruments of death are no longer functional. Their teeth are drawn. As they should be. Their beauty is the abstraction of form without function, and we should educate ourselves by observing the artistic counterpart of their original purpose, Picasso's 'Guernica'. Now there is real deadly beauty whose form truly follows its function.