Sunday, 19 February 2012

Per ardua ad astra

Here's a picture of one of the last generation of piston-engined airliners, Lockheed's stylishly elegant Constellation. Why? Just because it's gorgeous. I don't need any other excuse:
Those old piston-engined airliners would have fascinated me even had they never left the ground, but the thought of such beautiful mechanisms actually travelling through the sky was almost too much to take.

Clive James Flying Visits

 Mind you, the first jet airliner was a thing of beauty, too. Check out this picture of a De Havilland Comet resplendent in its BOAC livery.*
 Photograph © RuthAS published under a Creative Commons Licence)

There are a couple of pictures in my dad's photograph album, showing a gleaming silver Comet undergoing trials in Cyprus (taken when he was doing his National Service, as an admin erk with the RAF). Back in Britain's last age of austerity, the Comet must have looked like the future. Not just some marketing bullshit about a brighter future, but something real, substantial, riveted together and ready to fly. The democratisation of air travel was still decades away, (first came the phase when "jet set" meant the globe-trotting elite) and the planes that would deliver it, on the far side of a series of those tragic Comet crashes, were mostly American, but a real future was being built, starting here and now. Dan Dare may have been fantasy, but a bit of the future promised by the Eagle Comic would be delivered.

Britain was further ahead in democratising health - the National Health Service was being built and starting to deliver for ordinary people. Educational opportunity was being widened in the wake of the 1944 Education Act. A million new homes were being built. In a nation exhausted, grieving and debt ridden after half a decade of total war. Of course there's a list of things as long as my arm of things that were deeply wrong with '50's Britain, things nobody in his or her right mind would want to go back to, but at least there was a workable vision of the future. The future contained both excitement and real improvements to the lives of ordinary people and a substantial portion of what was being promised would really happen, or was already happening.

Compare and contrast with the view form today's Austerity Britain, at the tired fag-end of the New Elizabethan Age. Never mind building anything, we're just looking on in mild bafflement as a succession of clueless, over-indulged ex-public schoolboys break the NHS up for whatever scrap value their cronies can squeeze out of it. Better education, housing, jobs the promise of a brighter tomorrow? Sorry, we can't afford any of that. Not because we've just made unimaginable sacrifices to help defeat an existential threat of pure evil. No, just because a few influential people believed that a muddled mess of mergers and takeovers, trading in obscure financial instruments and people selling property to each other at ever more inflated prices was the future. And gambled our future on this sorry excuse for a vision and lost big, and presented the rest of us with the bill, and convinced us that it was all our own fault for selfishly wanting hospitals, schools and libraries and stuff.

But don't worry folks; we may not have a future, but we can still party like it's 1952, to celebrate the fact that a random member of the population has spent the last fifty years living in several gigantic houses, wearing hats and waving. We can't top the ascent of Everest, but we can all enjoy watching Andrew Marr trying to out-toady Gyles Brandreth. And why not come along to our national sports day - we've even designed a special logo that looks like it came from a pound shop, but actually cost the best part of half a million quid? Good grief.

Britain was less prosperous then, but it did have one thing we lack today - 'change you can believe in', as the saying goes. I'm sure there's a brighter future out there somewhere, but it's damn near impossible to see it from here.

Anyway, back to the Constellation and the Comet. They represent a surprisingly small subset of aircraft - ones named after heavenly bodies. You'd think that celestial objects would be a popular choice for machines aspiring to break the surly bonds of earth, but it doesn't seem to be so. If we strip out the workaday nomenclature of letters and numbers (Boeing 737, Airbus A340, etc), the most popular aircraft names seem to come from birds and winds (fair enough). Names with a night sky theme don't seem to stand out very far above the background noise of more random, idiosyncratic names (and they do get pretty idiosyncratic - what were they thinking when they came up with "Vickers Wildebeest"?). You've got the Gloster Meteor, the Martin Mars the Canadair North Star and not many others. 

However there's one notable cluster (or constellation) of astronomically-themed aircraft names. Lockeed, makers of the Constellation kept their starry night thing going for years. Not even counting starry names that don't refer to actual celestial bodies (Tristar, Starfighter, Starliner, Starfire, JetStar, Quiet Star), Lockheed have given us the Vega, the Orion, (so good they used it twice) the Sirius, the Altair, the Lodestar, the Neptune,** the Little Dipper, the Big Dipper, the Shooting Star, the Saturn, the Hercules (a constellation as well as a Greek tough guy) and (as Lockheed Martin) the Galaxy

They didn't do a Comet, though. Which might be just as well, given how unlucky the British Comet was. I'm not superstitious or anything, but after the Brits had called their jetliner after a star of ill omen, they had to literally pick up the pieces when it started to demonstrate the effects of metal fatigue in the middle of scheduled flights. A few years earlier the Nazis built themselves a rocket-propelled wunderwaffe called the Messerschmidt 163 Komet, which proved as hazardous to its pilots as it did to the allies. The Japanese had a dive bomber called the Yokosuka Suisei ("Comet"). There's quite a famous photo of one of these, pressed into kamikaze duty, trailing smoke in its last, doomed, dive.

 Superstition thrives on such unfortunate coincidences.

*Bonus points for the livery, by the way - doesn't the speedbird symbol on the tail look so much crisper, more purposeful and altogether better than the post-privatisation Union Flag tailfin currently adorining British Airways aircraft? BA have used a couple of fuselage logos related to the original speedbird, the "speedwing" and the "speedmarque", but neither of them look anything like as good.

** OK, this may have referred to the sea god, rather than the planet.