Knights of the Air

Knights of the Air

The Life and Times of the Extraordinary Pioneers Who First Built British Aeroplanes

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552 pp, 22 photos

Knights of the Air is the story of the men who spent their youth designing and building England's first flying-machines: the men who pioneered the British aircraft industry. Some of their aircraft have achieved immortality-the legendary Pup, Camel, Spitfire, Hurricane and Lancaster. But of the men who designed and built them, men like Frederick Handley Page, Tommy Sopwith, George Holt Thomas and Geoffrey de Havilland, perhaps only Rolls and Royce are still household names.

These pioneers of aviation development began to build their empires during World War I, although several of them crashed during the bleak period that followed. World War II revived their fortunes, as somehow they met the challenge of enormously increased production and helped save England from invasion. They tested the early jets and speedily built the first post-war jet airliner. But already they were making errors which would result in bankruptcies, forced mergers and foreign takeovers.

Peter King describes the knights in all their glamour, skill, idiosyncrasy, greed, flair, and desire for power. Quotations from previously unpublished papers, from colleagues and contemporaries, and from customers (governments, the British Air Force, commercial airlines) for the first time describe how willful they could be, as well as how brilliantly enterprising and entertaining.

The book follows their rise and fall through the earliest days of wood-and-wire biplanes, the flying boats, the air shows and joyrides, the development of fighter planes, the designing of the Spitfire, and the Comet disasters to the coming of supersonic transport. King has masterfully reconstructed the careers of these extraordinary pioneers.