Biplane to monoplane: twenty years of technological development in British fighter aircraft, 1919-1939
In the summer of 1940 around five thousand aircraft clashed during several months for control of the skies over Britain. The fighter aircraft used by the German Luftwaffe and British Royal Air Force were, for the most part, very similar. They were monoplane airframes made with a metal structure and covered with fabric or metal skin, their engines produced around 1,000 h.p., and the aircraft themselves achieved speeds of around 350 to 370 m.p.h. They had retractable undercarriages and were bristling with armaments. These aircraft stood in stark contrast to those used just over twenty years earlier in the First World War. Those machines were biplanes, almost exclusively made from wood, covered in a doped fabric, their engines produced around 400 h.p., with speeds at around 120 m.p.h., they had fixed undercarriages, one or two machine guns and were largely un-armoured. In a little over twenty years the basic form of fighter aircraft had changed, and the materials used in their construction had changed. The engines, guns, interior structure and even the operational roles to which they were assigned had been altered to greater or lesser extents. The period 1918-1939 was, therefore, very important in the development of British fighter aircraft, as it was in aviation technology more generally. The inter-war period suggested itself for several reasons. Firstly, the historiography upon which part of this thesis is hinged deals largely with its latter years and the years leading to World War Two. Due to this concentration on the mid-late 1930s, there is no real sense of what was going on in the 1920s, or attempts to understand the changes that the technology, and the institutions behind them, went through over the years. Secondly, following the First World War, the British aircraft industry was possessed of some considerable degree of competence and experience. To study the development of aviation technology before the war would be to catalogue the efforts of a number of pioneers each doing their own thing and following their own beliefs. To look at such development during the First World War would be to look at what happens when money is no serious object to research and development, production space, labour, management and so on. In looking at the inter-war years, we can examine a new industry that has just come out of a very considerable baptism of fire (in the case of Britain this baptism came just five years after her first successful flight was conducted). We can examine an industry that had to deal with enormous cutbacks, governmental micromanagement and lacking, for a long time, a fertile market in which to operate. Furthermore, the twenty years of the inter-war period allows us to look at a protracted period of technological change enabling us to account for the many varied and changing factors influencing the development of British fighter aircraft. Finally, the approach of the Second World War, the danger of Adolf Hitler and National Socialism and the proliferation of the Luftwaffe was not lost on policymakers and so this period also allows us to examine the effects of wider international events on technology. As it will be shown in the section dealing with historiography there has been plenty of work examining the British aircraft industry, individual aircraft and even the technologies which appeared over the twenty years that this thesis covers. However, there has been a great scarcity of work attempting to explain how such technologies appeared, how they linked together and how aircraft technology changed over the period. These are important questions, not only in terms of providing comprehensive explanations for their creation, development and existence but also in providing crucial context when attempting to pass judgement (as many historians have done) on the industry and the technology it created, and the politics and bureaucracy involved in shaping the technology. Using the example of British fighter aircraft during the 1920s and 1930s, this thesis will look at how the pace of technological change was set. How and why did British fighter aircraft develop the way they did and at the pace that they did? In particular, it will address the central issue of how the shift from the wooden biplanetype fighter of 1918 to the metal monoplane-type of 1939 came about. And can this change be conceptualised as a ‘paradigm shift’ from one ‘technological paradigm’ to another? This is particularly interesting because many consider that aviation now needs to carry out another paradigm shift, due to concerns about environmental impacts, especially as regards climate change.