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From the NS archive: What is the use of aircraft?

21 December 1929: We should be sleeping more comfortably in our beds if the invention of aeroplanes had been delayed for fifty years.

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In response to the development of the dirigibles R101 and R100, “BG” pondered in the magazine about the future of air travel. Airplanes, rather than airships, he suggested, might never be big enough to be commercially successful and would be better used on shorter overland routes rather than for transatlantic travel. Airplanes might shrink the distances between far-flung parts of the empire but BG was deeply sceptical about them, not least because he was worried about the military threat they posed: the science of aviation, he said, had “been suckled lustily on war”. The future, he suggested, lay not not in fixed-wing craft but in airships.


What is the use of aircraft? The question is put soberly, although in the mouths of many intelligent people it is becoming a rhetorical one, answerable if at all with an irritated negative. Progress is all very well. The human race may be happily fated to go ever faster and faster. But it can be argued quite cogently, especially by a peaceable inhabitant of these islands, that we should be sleeping more comfortably in our beds if the invention of aeroplanes had been delayed for 50 years. It is only necessary to reflect that since aeroplanes took to flying over it, the English Channel, Britanically speaking, is by no means what it was. This overriding of our insularity would not matter so much if the baby science of aviation were gently nurtured. But it has been suckled lustily on war, and unless its warlike proclivities are sternly nipped, it may easily grow into a little monster. There is a bad dream that sometimes afflicts those who are sensitive to the unstable political atmosphere of contemporary Europe, and the centre of that dream is an aeroplane high in the night air, dropping an unknown horror upon a peaceful city. This is not to be dispelled either by earnest discussions about disarmament on the one hand, or by the complacency of professional naval and military opinion on the other. The potentiality of air offensive is already enormous. No one knows what may be brewing for us in the aeronautical and chemical research laboratories of Europe.

The infant science has, of course, its gentler manners. At a cost of about £400,000 we retain the Schneider Trophy, and an Englishman has moved through the air at a speed of 850 miles an hour. Business men find it convenient to fly to Paris in “giant air-liners” – which carry about as much as a motor lorry. Wealthy people of sporting tendencies are buying Moths in gratifying numbers. One fifth of the House of Commons have only been prevented by bad weather from taking a trip in R101. And airmindedness is said to be on the upgrade. But, to put the thing in its plainest terms, these islands are so situated that the advent of air power has exposed them to an incalculable menace, while they are too small to take a leading part in the development of air transport. If this is so, asks the sceptic, what in the name of peace and prosperity is the use of aircraft?

Sir Dennis Burney, sponsor of R100, has proposed an optimistic answer in his book, The World, the Air and the Future. The cosmic nature of his title is reflected in the range, if not the profundity, of his argument, which runs about among all the knotty problems of world politics and economics and discovers that the key to their solution is the development of civil aviation. Sir Dennis may be called an imperialist in his short views and an internationalist in his long ones. Ultimately, he says, aviation, which by its very nature overrides national boundaries, will be the harbinger of universal concord. Meanwhile, hoping for but not trusting much in disarmament, we must do what we can. And Britain’s best course, faced as she is with the European imbroglio, is to turn her back on it as much as may be and consolidate the empire. The neatest way of doing this, it seems, is to bring Australia within a week of London. Let Britons get to know each other better; let capital and ideas flow fast and free along the air lines; let us make the empire markets safe for Britons; let us have a real British aircraft industry, prospering in maintenance of empire transport. With the commonwealth of British peoples on short visiting terms no one will dare to bomb Britain; and if anyone should dare, our factories can be switched on to war production, our civil aircraft transformed into bombers, in the twinkling of an eye. As a measure of insurance against attack, this is infinitely superior to our present half-hearted preparation of a direct Air Force defence and the government would do well to curtail the Air Force vote and devote a large sum to subsidising long-distance transport.

There is, no doubt, something in this “Hands across the Air” motif, but not nearly so much as Sir Dennis claims. If Australia is within a week of London, she is correspondingly near to Berlin, New York and Tokyo; and it is often found that the members of a family live in the closest amity when at a distance. Moreover, Sir Dennis’s plans leave the problem of Britain’s air defence exactly where it is. For the essential menace of future aerial attack resides in its suddenness and surprise. The first act of “the next war” may well precede the official rise of the curtain, and it is of no use to prepare to be strong in the second act if the play is designed by the enemy to conclude with the first.

However, it is very desirable, for whatever reasons, to be able to get from London to Melbourne in a week, and Sir Dennis’s plans for achieving this are much more interesting than the object he has in view. Aircraft has speed to sell and will only carry freight – such as passengers, mails and precious perishable goods of small bulk – for which a high price can be paid for time saved. The demand for a regular air service between two places increases, on the whole, with the distance between them. A business man who would not pay £5 to save four hours between London and Glasgow might well pay £100 to save four days between London and New York.

There is therefore a good argument for bold and early development of the longest air routes, and thus introduces the technical problem of selecting the type and size of aircraft with the maximum disposable load. This will be clear from an example. Suppose an aircraft with a total weight of ten tons goes at 100 miles an hour under 1,000 horse-power, and that the weight of its structure, engines and crew is six tons. Its disposable load is four tons, and this may be divided between freight and fuel in any proportion. Its maximum range occurs when all its disposable load consists of fuel: if this is 1,000 miles it will carry two tons of freight 500 miles. Now suppose a larger aircraft is built. Its total weight and horse-power are to be doubled, and it is to have the same strength and the same speed. If its disposable load is eight tons, the larger aircraft will carry a given paying load exactly as far, and at the same fuel cost, as two of the smaller craft, but its overhead costs will be lower and it will certainly be the more comfortable vehicle.

The crux of the matter is evidently the ratio of disposable load to total weight, and here a very important difference between airship and aeroplane emerges. The disposable load ratio definitely increases with size in an airship: it pays to build big. With aeroplanes the issue is much more doubtful. There is theoretical reason to suppose that the structure weight for given strength will encroach very seriously on the total weight as size increases. Thus as regards airships we are already at the 150 tons mark with R101, and there is no reason why ships of double this displacement, with corresponding gain in range, should not be built. As regards aeroplanes, about 30 tons is probably the limit of economical total weight. This gap between the two types may be bridged to some extent by the flying-boat. The very large land-plane raises the problem of landing in an acute form, for large aerodromes of specially good surface must be provided, the landing speed must be kept low (a very uneconomic feature), and the danger of forced landing is increased. The sea, however, is an aerodrome of infinite extent, and so the very large flying-boat may take advantage of an increased landing speed, while its seaworthiness increases with size. This discrimination against the land-plane is already evident in current design. The largest land-planes do not at present weigh more than 20 tons, while the Dormer Dox flying-boat, weighing 50 tons, with a landing speed of 90 miles an hour and sleeping accommodation for 60 passengers, has been successfully launched.

Sir Dennis Burney, making allowance for possible improvements in design, produces a classification of what commercial aircraft may achieve within the next generation. It looks optimistic, but if it is realised aircraft may clearly girdle the earth. The long ocean routes will be served by airships, the shorter by flying-boats; land-planes will supply overland feeder lines to the main routes, while smaller and faster aeroplanes will ply for taxi work over shorter distances.

The basis of this rosy scheme is, and must remain, the airship, for it is about as easy for an ordinary aeroplane to cross (say) the Atlantic in one hop as it is for an ordinary man to swim the English Channel, and no predictable improvement in design is likely to alter this. The question remains: is the airship likely to prove a commercial proposition over the ocean routes? It is remarkable to find Sir Dennis allying himself with his bitterest critics and saying No, so far as Rl00 and Rl0l are concerned. Recanting his former opinions, he declares that (a) these ships have come out too heavy, and neither will have a sufficient range with an adequate commercial load, even for the comparatively unexacting India route; (b) that the present arrangements for mooring and housing are totally unsuited for commercial routine. The first fault is remediable and may even be a good one at this stage if it means that the ships are merely too strong. As regards the second, it is argued that an airship must be given much more frequent opportunities of mooring along its route than is afforded by the costly and cumbersome mooring mast arrangement, and that the present system of man-handling a ship into her shed is hazardous in any but the calmest weather. This defect, if valid, is fundamental. Sir Dennis projects a radical change of plan to meet it. He proposes to make the airship an amphibian by altering its hull shape and adding floats which, when filled automatically with water on alighting, will effectively anchor it.

It is important to notice that nothing which has yet happened to R101 turns the point of these criticisms. In some respects she has confounded her critics. She rode her mast through a gale with remarkable steadiness; she has accomplished a 1,000-mile cruise without a commercial load; she is reasonably airworthy and manoeuvrable; and she is almost certainly amply strong. But her commercial test will come when she has to find a mast a thousand miles away in bad weather, carrying a full load. It is probable that with more foresight she and her sister-ship could have been built for a much smaller sum. But if the possibilities of this airship business are to be explored, large sums of money must inevitably be spent. It may be that the value of these ships is only temporary and experimental. Even so, the technical experience gained may be cheap at the price, which, it must be remembered, is less than that of a battleship.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)