This review originally appeared in Wessex Chronicle volume 14, issue 2 (summer 2013)
Mike Phipp has been watching planes come and go at Bournemouth’s airport since the
1960s, so is well-placed to write the definitive book on the Wessex aviation industry. This is not yet it. He confines ‘Wessex’ to Dorset and Wiltshire and the western parts of Hampshire and Berkshire. Can you write our aviation history and exclude Westland of Yeovil, makers of the Wessex and the
Wyvern? Or Bristol, birthplace of the Brabazon and Concorde?
Or Farnborough, home of military flying? That the book actually makes frequent passing reference to all three places, and others in Wessex, only underlines its chief shortcoming. At 317 pages, however, Mike Phipp’s work does offer plenty to be getting on with.
It arranges alphabetically 26 locations used by aircraft manufacturers. The firms range from Vickers-Supermarine, with 13 locations, to single-site operations like Sheriff Aerospace of Sandown or Jackaroo Aircraft of Thruxton. There is a short bibliography but unfortunately the only thing like an index is the contents listing. The aircraft and their manufacturers have been written about before. What is new is their placing in a geographical context, allowing us to understand how the industry came into being. The south coast’s boat-builders were ready to apply their traditional skills to making seaplanes. In 1912 Saunders and Sopwith collaborated on the Bat Boat, the first flying boat to be built in Europe, with a hull based on Saunders’ racing boat construction methods. In 1959 the same firm, by now Saunders-Roe – ‘Saro’ – of Cowes, built the first full-size hovercraft, the SR-N1. And what exactly IS a hovercraft? The Navy’s were classified as aircraft until 1979, and since then as ships, but really they’re a bit of both, just like the industry that built them. Some firms went back to boat-building when aerial orders were few, with slipways rather than runways the most essential piece of infrastructure they needed to possess. Inland, it was the making of furniture, cars and railway rolling stock that was put on hold for aircraft, especially when Supermarine began to disperse Spitfire production in the summer of 1940. (Just in time, as the Itchen and Woolston factories were bombed in September.) The change has not been all one-way: Honda’s Swindon car plant stands on the old Vickers site at South Marston, with the runway now the test track. Wessex Aviation Industry is not an easy read for the non-specialist, who will struggle to keep up with the stream of carefully recorded design changes and all the details of who ordered what from whom and when. There are enough photos to keep a timetravelling plane-spotter very happy indeed. It’s at its best when the people involved come to the fore: entrepreneurs, designers and sheer enthusiasts for making the most of the air. I’m left wishing there was more about such splendidly-named characters as Major Hereward de Havilland, the family firm’s man at Christchurch Airfield in the 1950s, or Alliott Verdon Roe, who developed not one but two firms in succession (Avro and Saro). This may not be the definitive book but it does whet the appetite.