Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

Book Review


A Review by Andy Burgess
The Company and its Aeroplanes
D H Middleton
Terence Dalton Limited 1982
ISBN: 0 86138 009 6 Forward by:
The Marquis of Zetland (former Lord Ronaldshay)
[Founder of R K Dundas Limited, agents for Airspeed in India]

Don Middleton started writing this history of Airspeed in 1968 in an attempt to record the spirit of the company he joined in 1938. He was a personal friend of Hessel Tiltman and had many conversations with him about Airspeed as well as access to other Airspeed personnel and information.

The book is organised around the sequence of the main aircraft projects undertaken. In reality Airspeed had limited resources and worked largely on one major project at a time. With a little overlap therefore the stories of the aircraft take us chronologically through the history of the company.

The book is a fascinating account of the trials and tribulations of a small company, as well as an insight into the struggling British aircraft industry of the 1930s. After a brief biographical introduction to Norway and Tiltman, Middleton goes immediately to the aftermath of the R100/101 airship projects and the formation of Airspeed Limited on 4th March 1931. He notes that on 7th March 1931 Norway married Dr Frances Heaton, house physician at York County Hospital. Apparently "He left for a honeymoon in Switzerland taking with him data from which he was to calculate the wing section ordinates for the glider." 'The glider' was to become the A.S.1. Tern, the first aircraft produced by Airspeed.

Written in an easy style this book is very readable and throughout various anecdotes are recounted which adds to its attraction. The first Tern glider was almost lost in an accident caused by the driver of the towing car who "habitually drove at high speed with or without the trailer". The irate owner of the field in which it finally came to rest contacted Norway, threatening to set it on fire! Tales of the somewhat hair raising flying techniques of those days abound. One of Sir Alan Cobham's pilots describes small field take-offs: " I taxi like hell to the corner of the field, turn round quick, hold aileron hard one way, when one wheel lifts I snatch it off whilst the other isn't looking!". Later Middleton describes an incident at a struggling small airline operating an A.S.5. Courier to Paris. Two men arrived just before takeoff to impound the aircraft in settlement of a fuel bill. The pilot invited the bailiffs in to see the machine and then promptly took off. In France the two unwilling passengers were arrested for arriving without passports.

As an aviation enthusiast I enjoyed the book immensely, but what does it offer the Nevil Shute Norway fan? Almost exactly half of the book involves Norway, up to the point in 1938 when he resigned as Managing Director. The author has clearly used much of 'Slide Rule' for his information, but there are more details giving an insight into Norway the businessman and also some pointers for the plots for his novels.

His efforts to sell aircraft to the Greek government are referred to, with Norway spending "three frustrating weeks in Athens". His experiences are claimed to have formed the background for 'Ruined City'. He also researched the story with the Airspeed General Manager, Townsley, a recruit from Swan Hunter who had taken a major interest in the company in 1934. For several months he had quizzed Townsley about shipbuilding and the problems of the yards. Townsley was apparently put out when the book was published as it contained so much of his information, for which he complained that he got nothing. Norway apparently offered him a ticket to the film when it was shown in Portsmouth!

When the A.S.6. Envoy was chosen for the King's Flight Norway got insights into the difficulties of the Royal Family when travelling and must have put this to good use in 'In the Wet'. Interestingly Middleton states that the head of the King's Flight was not impressed when all the senior staff wanted to get involved with the project. He eventually insisted that he would only deal with Norway and the head of the Experimental Department, which was in charge of the machine.

As a source for information on Nevil Shute Norway however, one has to read between the lines due to Middleton's close association with Tiltman. By 1938 Norway and Tiltman were in conflict over the future of the company. This resulted finally in Norway leaving to pursue his writing. Middleton suggests that Norway was "never an easy man to deal with", and Tiltman originally decided to resign and wrote to inform Lord Grimthorpe. When criticised for his action by Grimthorpe Tiltman reconsidered and then put it to the board to decide between them. Norway went. The reason given is that they could get a new Managing Director more easily than an aircraft Designer, however Middleton states that Tiltman was then appointed Managing Director. Relations between the two remained strained until Norway died (Middleton erroneously states in 1962).

Clearly this was a turning point in Norway's life and this book is interesting if only to study the background and lead up to this event. Did Tiltman conspire to oust Norway who he may have felt was overshadowing him in the company? In aviation terms Norway had a startling career. Working up to be Project Manager of the R100 at only 30, then starting his own company and being elected a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society at only 34. Tiltman, slightly older, appears to have been more of a 'back-room' person, but was undoubtedly still ambitious and forthright. After de Havilland took over control of the company there were disagreements and Tiltman himself left Airspeed in 1942.

Middleton recognises Norway's strengths describing him as "one of that rare breed, a first class technical man with a good appreciation of marketing". However when he recounts the use by Norway of the economics of the Airspeed Ferry against rail travel he comments that Norway lost some 'commercial sense' as he made no allowance for overheads or profit. I think Middleton lacks some commercial sense himself, as there would have been little point in using figures that showed rail travel cheaper. I think this actually illustrates Norway's more cavalier tendencies in manipulating figures to get an advantage for his company. Shades of Henry Warren in Ruined City. Not illegal, however somewhat 'sharp' practice.

One interesting statement Middleton makes is that Norway was carrying out market research for the original biplane project he planned for Airspeed whilst in Montreal with the R100. Had he already planned to leave the airship project before the R101 disaster?

I would definitely recommend this book as background to Nevil Shute Norway's life and indeed as a generally good 'read', particularly if aviation is your interest. The book is out of print and getting a copy might be difficult, mine came from New Zealand. However it has a good quality binding and copies should have survived well.