Farnborough: The Glorified Dogsbody
By JOHN PUDNEY This, one of the few concessions to sentiment which Farn- borough allows itself, is a happy reminder of that rip-roaring cowboy, actor (like his celebrated and illustrious namesake), balloonist, kite inventor and aeroplane designer, whose robust spirit must surely still haunt this oldest and most distinguished aeronautical research centre in the world. Cody, who arrived as Chief Inspector in Kiting to the Balloon School fifty years ago when the first buildings were being erected at Farnborough, Is happily still connected with the place by blood as well as in spirit. His two sons worked there after he was killed in a crash just before World War I, and only a year or so ago I made arrangements for his grandson, then in charge of the Fabrics Section, to appear with one of his grandfather's aero- engines in a television programme at Lime Grove.
The honoured tradition of Farnborough lies in research and development. The top scientists may come and go, but the highly skilled rank and file who work there are the reality of that tradition. Not only have several generations of, various families worked there, but it is still possible to meet men who as boys worked on experimental military balloons and kites and lived on to assist in the rush job Farnborough was called upon tO do in piecing together one of the first V-1 missiles to land here, in order to find out what Hitler was up to.
Apart from Cody's tree, there is little enough in the façade of the fifty-five acres of haphazard buildings you see across the runway from the Display enclosures, to suggest the signi- ficance and variety of ingenuity, invention and creation that lie beyond. Those with a taste for aeronautical history may nevertheless still notice part of the original balloon sheds dating Farnborough about 1905, when the Establishment was first moved to rarnborough and known as HM Balloon Factory. The Royal Aircraft Establishment which serves as the back- cloth to the Display originated in various other places and has carried a number of titles in the course of its history : but it IS Farnborough which has become the household word. Its Very sprawling shape, without apparent pattern or plan, is Indicative both of the continuity and the flexibility of the work that has been done there. Its origins can perhaps be traced back to the need for aeronautical research and development when a balloon centre was first mooted following the success of the new Air Arm in the service of the British Army at Mafeking. From that day to this, under various guises, the essential purposes of Farnborough have continued to exist and to expand. Side by side there has always been the quest for new knowledge—the probe of the future; and the test of existing knowledge—the solution of operating problems. The present function of the RAE, to paraphrase the defini- tion- of the Ministry of Supply which is responsible for it, is that it shall provide a background to basic scientific know- ledge for the Services and the aircraft industry and that it shall study projects for the future in order to be able to give advice to the Government and to industry. It would seem to the layman like myself that Farnborough has always been a Glori- fied Dogsbody. Its head must never be wholly in the clouds. Though it must expect to cope with the great variety of the problems of the future, sometimes it must accept at a moment's notice the vital problems of the present. During the war there was the urgent need to discover the workings of the V-1. It took Farnborough three weeks to put together the pieces, produce a copy and run the thing on test—an experiment that sent honest citizens running for shelter for miles around. Farnborough was, however, by no means ignorant of such devices. As far back as 1917, visionaries had designed and built pilotless aircraft. In 1929, they had, in fact, created such a machine, called a Larynx,' a flying bomb which flew distances of over a hundred miles above the deserts of Iraq. Signifi- cantly, by 1946 Farnborough had already formed a very active Guided Weapons Department.
The film No Highway dramatised for the general public with a good deal of skill and accuracy the work of Farnborough touching urgent problems. That aspect of things, which is not by any means typical of the vast complicated routine of research and development which goes on there day by day, has been dramatised again inthe realistic tragedy of the Comets. It is typical that Farnborough should have been charged with the task of finding out what is wrong. The most recent state- ment by the Minister of Supply made in July suggests that the RAE experts are meeting with some success. Not for the first time, the world is watching urgent work at Farnborough.
Meanwhile Air Display spectators, as they witness the prowess of contemporary British airmanship and see perform- ances by civil and military aircraft which have all the precision of ballet, will be offered no clue of what is happening behind the backcloth.
It goes without saying that a large part of the present and future projects are secret. They are not necessarily militaristic. If not the birthplace. Farnborough can be said to be the nursery of air navigation, of aircraft safety, of flight control. George,' the automatic pilot, was.born there. Looking over the history of fifty years, the diversity of effort is staggering.
The number of projects is always of necessity limited. The present and the future are all that matters. At Farnborough ideas become redundant and the departments formed to support them are scrapped long before they have currency in the out- side world. No doubt good ideas have been scrapped through pressure of other business. Nobody, for instance, seems to know why the sands of the Iraqi desert brought oblivion to the successful Larynx.' That shrewd historian Sir Walter Raleigh wrote of Farnborough : ' It has been a story of small things, of interrupted experiments and tentative advances : of the caution of the Government, and the boldness of the private adventurer. There is nothing new in the story; the air was attacked and mastered in the English fashion, When we are confronted with great issues, it is our habit, or so we are fond of saying, to " muddle through"' There may have been muddling through. There may have been mistakes. But the present position of Britain as a major air power, always a step ahead of the rest of the world in aeronautical enterprise, owes an untold amount to the unpre- possessing huddle of utilitarian buildings which is the back- cloth to next week's Air Display.