'Four million rivets flying in close formation': thus RAF folklore on its Shackleton early-warning patrol planes. Aircraft development has been so closely analogous to the century's historical, political and cultural changes that individual designs have often in retrospect assumed a symbolic weight out of all proportion to then contemporary technological success. The Short Stirling, the first of the RAF's World War Two heavy bombers, stands as an aerial metaphor of Britain's half-cock response in the mid Thirties to the Nazi war threat. The Air Ministry thought that all new aircraft should be compact enough to tit into the RAF's existing hangars, so the Short Stirling was built with wings that were too short to provide an adequate degree of lift; which meant that the undercarriage had to be extended to a flimsy height to give the wings enough rake to get the bomber off the ground; which meant that if Stirling crews weren't shot out of the sky over Europe they were all too often killed back at their home airfield when the undercarriage gave way on landing. When the Rolling Stones' Keith Richard talks dismissively about 'Brabazon bands' he is alluding to an ill-fated post-war British airliner. A rock band can be beautiful to look at, sound as sleek and smooth as you like, the gnarled Richard is saying, but these days you can't just rumble endlessly along the runway: you've got to get airborne fast and with a great roar. The American B-52 is now for ever pigeon-holed as the sinister visual emblem of car pet-bombing: a sooty pencil-plane excreting strings of bombs like rabbit-droppings.
LRB 11 March 1993 | PDF Download