RAF In Camera: 1950s

RAF Cameraby Keith Wilson

If you have an eye for aircraft, just mulling over some of the language in the Foreword will put a smile on your face: the immortal symmetry of the Hawker Hunter, the brutal lines of the English Electric Lightning, the improbable shape of the Blackburn Beverley, the elegance of the de Havilland Comet. They tell you that this book has been put together by people with a real affinity for the subject.

We usually cast a skeptical eye on publishers’ press releases or even the dust jacket blurbs but in this case they promise nothing the book doesn’t deliver. In fact, we could simply reproduce them and be done with the review!

In terms of aviation technology, the 1950s were a fertile period because of the transition from propeller to jet. In political terms, especially, in regard to the UK, it was also a time of transition as Great Britain redefined on the one hand its diminishing place in the world order and shuttering overseas bases while on the other developing a Cold War stance and nuclear capability. It is for those reasons that this new series begins with the 1950s; a 1960s book is next to be released (ISBN 978-1473837768) and more may be coming.

What makes this book different from others is in the main the photo selection. They are sourced from the RAF’s Air Historical Branch (whose chief, Sebastian Cox, wrote that nice Foreword) where the Service’s official photographs are archived. Among other things, this means that they have proper photos of the entire flying inventory—none of which is in service any longer—and they have shots outsiders could not have bagged such as rows upon rows of different aircraft massing for Queen’s Reviews or the like. Also, the photos are thoroughly annotated with pertinent detail as to serial numbers, dates, locations etc. While this lends itself well to writing accurate photo captions, here this is taken to something of an extreme in that captions of the same aircraft or event/location say pretty much the exact same thing repeatedly. And in only a few cases do the photo captions expand on the main text introducing each year, which is a bit of a wasted opportunity.

From lowly trainer to super-sophisticated research aircraft (cf. Fairey Delta) and including helicopters and missiles, the book presents its material in year order. This means, naturally, that a particular aircraft may be shown more than once throughout the book—and while there is an Index, it is quite spotty in regards to types/models/designations. However, in keeping with the book’s title, the Index is uncommonly detailed when it comes to theaters of operation, squadrons, exercises/actions, and geographical bits.

Wilson is a seasoned aerospace journalist and pilot; he’s also an air-to-air photographer and while he obviously didn’t take any of the photos in this book, he selected many such shots from the RAF archive. There are also quite a few formation shots, often with unusual combinations of aircraft. US readers especially will have to brush up on British aircraft names lest they don’t recognize, for instance, “Washingtons” as B-29s (cf p. 99).

The purpose of the book is to illustrate a decade in the life of the RAF and so one would be correct in assuming that the photos don’t stray too far into peripheral bits. It is a surprise, then, to find images of the Gloster Meteor variant with the extreme nose extension (which necessitated a longer tail to counterbalance it) in which a second pilot lay prone, controlling the aircraft with a side stick and ankle-operated pedals! There is only one photo with problems: an overzealous layout person cropped a V-bomber the caption refers to out of a formation (p. 242).

Anyone who spent time with the aircraft shown here will get misty eyes. Even just saying the storied names out loud will bring back memories of droning radials, shrieking turbines, and the smell of avgas.

If you are familiar with this publisher, know that at 8.5 x 11” this is one of their few larger-size books.


Copyright 2015, Sabu Advani (speedreaders.info).

RAF In Camera: 1950s
by Keith Wilson
Pen & Sword Aviation, 2015
304 pages, ca. 300 b/w & color images, hardcover
List Price: $60 / £35
ISBN-13: 978-1473827950

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