Thursday, 23 August 2012


 The Quick and the Dead
By W. A. Waterton
Published by Frederick Muller Ltd. London, 1956
237 pages

James Hamilton-Paterson used Bill Waterton and his book “The Quick and the Dead”, written in 1955, as a central theme of his book “Empire of the Clouds” in which he details the sad history and death of the British Aerospace industry. Reading Waterton today we can see how accurately his book predicted that future. describes the “The Quick and the Dead as;

 “Written in 1956 but still relevant and thought-provoking today, this book is an absolute revelation on test flying with the British aircraft organizations and manufacturers in the 1950s. Written with refreshing frankness and truth - which allegedly finally cost him his job at the "Daily Express" - this account details what really went on behind the scenes in the defence world. Waterton pulls no punches in recounting the non-cooperation of civil servants in improving/altering recognized faults (often minor) when developing aircraft - to the cost of lives lost. This is an astonishing insight into the workings of the British aircraft industry.”

As one reads “The Quick and the Dead” the relevance of Waterton’s story is a continuing source of amazement, and a certain amount of trepidation. In it he writes;

“The Services have received a number of dud designs since the war. Men have died in them. Yet the aircraft companies flourish, for they have played safe carrying out Government contracts when a little speculative free enterprise and competition would have produced better cheaper ‘planes.

Three parties are concerned in this subsidized supply of military aircraft: the Service concerned, the Ministry of Supply, and the manufacturing firm.

 The Service has a difficult job. Its chiefs must assess the potential threat to the country, and devise ways and means of dealing with it. At the same time it must be prepared to adopt an offensive role in time of war. Yet the Service chiefs are hampered by a tight budget and must plan, not for today, but for ten or fifteen years ahead. It is no easy task, but once they have evolved, with M.O.S. scientists, what they want, they issue their requirements. These state the desired speed, range, height, armament, role, etc. The ministry put the requirements out to tender.

 On receipt of the specification, a firm decides whether it is interested. Some only build bombers, or transports, others concentrate on trainers, while there are those which touch nothing but fighters. If a firm is interested, its design staff’s Project Section makes what is called a “design study”. This is an illustrated brochure containing the firm’s suggestions for turning the Service’s needs into an aircraft: figures of estimated performance and drawings of the proposed ‘plane.

From the design studies received, the Service and the Ministry usually select two firms to make prototype ‘planes. Although the basic specifications are the same, designs used can be widely different – as with the Gloster Javelin and de Havilland 110. The reason for giving contracts to two firms is very practical: if one flops the other will probably come off.

Theoretically the two best proposals get the contracts, but in practice the Ministry of Supply farms out its orders so that there is always work for everyone in the industry.

 The prototypes are, of course, hand made, and although the practical thing would be to see what they are like before committing a firm to production, political events – and the desire to keep firms busy – sometimes results in ‘planes being ordered straight from the drawing board.

The firm is paid advance sums to buy materials and to tool-up. This involves the designing and building of the heavy, set in concrete jigs, and the design and manufacture of press and machine tools. This tooling-up is the biggest single expenditure in a new ‘plane, and in the case of the Hawker Hunter was reputed to have cost £8,000,000.

It has been made to measure. Very little of will be common to any other ‘plane. Every piece of equipment has been specially tailored and tested in relation to all the other items of equipment.

But there is always the possibility of something going wrong – some tiny error which will destroy years of work and millions of pounds worth of money.

…until these bugs are sorted out, the ‘plane should not be put into production. Only when a ‘plane is cleared by the experimental pilot is it fit for large scale production. Often, however, for reasons of politics or expediency, ‘planes are rushed out before they are fully up to scratch, and are issued to the Services with limitations and restrictions placed upon them in order to avoid disasters.”

What strikes one most forcibly about this description, coming from more then half a century ago, is how it  accurately it mirrors the F-35 experience. Having colluded in the consolidation of the U.S. aircraft industry the Pentagon now finds itself in the position of parceling out its contracts to the few firms that can manage them in an attempt to keep the firms alive and ensure at least the illusion of competition for those same contracts. The F-35 itself is being designed, tested, and produced all at the same time, with results exactly as Waterton observed more then fifty years ago. 

Among other highlights is Waterton's description of his experience with the CF-100 Canuck. A successful Canadian fighter, designed by Canadians for Canadian needs it was felt that a Canadian test pilot would not be out of order. The aircraft was as good or better then it's contemporaries and Waterton's description of the politics of procurement surrounding the 'plane are, if not a revelation, at least a cautionary tale.

His book was not well received when it was written, it lead to his virtual blackballing from the industry. A 1956 Flight Global Magazine review entirely missed the point of the book and managed to damn Bill Waterton with faint praise at the same time.

Flight Global archives 1956

"The Quick and the Dead," by S/L. W. A. Waterton, G.M.,
A.F.C. and Bar. Frederick Muller, Ltd., 110 Fleet Street, London,
E.C.4. Illustrated. Price ISs.

'There are only two kinds of experimental test pilots, asserts Bill Waterton—the quick and the dead: "Like dogs, 'planes usually bark before they bite. . . . This is transmitted in many ways, and a test pilot must learn to recognize even subtle variations in feel, sound, vibration and smell. Not only recognize them, but know how to act."
Yet, after reading his book, one wonders if survival could often depend on mere quickness in a jet age. Peter Lawrence was probably quick to recognize what was wrong with the second prototype Javelin when it got into trouble on June 11, 1953: but he died. Survival might depend more often on whether a man is prepared to abandon a valuable aircraft or, like Waterton himself a year earlier, try to get it down in one piece at great personal risk.
It is a pity that he was not content to write a purely autobiographical book, because there is no more lively description than this of the duties that fall to the lot of a chief test pilot. His newer profession of journalism has helped him to tell the story of the 1946 world speed record attempt and his subsequent test and demonstration flying of Meteors, CF-100s and Javelins in a way that is readable for the general public and satisfying to the technician (if occasionally irritating in its terminology). It has also taught him the commercial value of sensationalism. Waterton's criticism of matters like the aircraft industry's slowness to develop prototypes and of the demonstration "dodges" practised at the S.B.A.C. Display is sometimes justified; but he does not acknowledge that the wartime German and post-war U.S. aircraft industries have suffered setbacks every bit as severe as those experienced by our own, and for much the same reasons; or that equally artful aviation takes place at foreign displays. Not does he show much appreciation of design or strategy when he implies that our manufacturers are able to build bombers only half the size of the Boeing B-52; he apparently forgets that the great size of the American aircraft reflects its need to carry fuel and equipment for operation over much longer ranges, because its American bases are farther from potential targets than are those of our V-bombers.
It is untrue that the R.A.F. had no aircraft comparable in speed with the 1946 Meteor record-breaker in large-scale service in 1955, and mere foolishness to criticize A.R.B. pilots for lack of jet experience in 1948—before any civilian jet aircraft had flown. To offset such irritations and frequent misspellings, it is interesting to read that B.E.A. nearly bought two Meteors for a London- Paris mail service in 1948; and to find that Egyptian modifications produced a Spitfire with buried radiators, and Dakota bombing and ground strafing aircraft.”

This book is a great read. As well as being astonished by the casual bravery shown by Waterton in the normal performance of his job I enjoyed the muscular prose and, given its subject matter, optimism so typical of books of that era. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from this book even fifty years on.