Names with wings

ITS TITLE IS curious (but probably the best available, considering the content) and the frontispiece of a Greek warrior donning armour implies one may have picked up a book on ancient history by mistake. After that, it gets better by the page.

The system — or, more recently, perhaps, the lack thereof — of allocating names to British military aircraft and their engines is not a subject for the superficial aircraft enthusiast, but those with a serious interest will find this book to be a mine of information. The Greek gentleman could be Hercules, Hector or Lysander (we are not I told), but does it not seem more than a coincidence that the last two were army cooperation aircraft of the late 1930s? And, forgetting the Lockheed Martin import, why was the other one a piston engine? All is explained.

Gordon Wansbrough-White has clearly devoted a considerable part of his life to painstaking research in the official archives and elsewhere to unearth the documents which decreed, with legalistic precision worthy of the Civil Service, how military aviation equipment should be labelled. Of course, there have been several revisions through the years, and all are covered with liberal extracts from the actual documents.

If that were all, the book would be interesting only to the most determined researcher. However, the author presents the information logically, with appropriate explanation and adds a wealth of background detail in order to educate the novice reader. Some systems were more inspired than others and, for example, page 33 describes the narrow margin by which RAF history was spared the likes of the Fairy Faggot, Blackburn Baboon, Armstrong-Whitworth Accomplice and Short Shoveller (all names which were genuinely short-listed for use).

With that foundation laid, Wansbrough-White elaborates on classifications (such as famous people, insects, mythology), then does the same for some of the better-known examples (Anson, Meteor, Tornado etc). The book finishes with a 70-page comprehensive alphabetical cross-reference, with brief historical notes and name derivations, from FBA A&B 1914 flying-boat, nicknamed the Flying Banana to Kassel Zogling, 1935 glider. Illustrations a-plenty, all in black and white, come mostly from the journal Aeroplane.

The only possible criticism is that the book does not contain an appendix on the parallel system of assigning mark numbers and role prefix letters, which are covered more in passing than in detail in the main text. Required reading for all interested in British Military aviation history.

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