FIRST THROUGH THE CLOUDS: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A BOX-KITE PIONEER

Reviewed by: BILL EVERSHED

You are going on holiday. Your safety belt is clipped. You have a window seat and the aircraft’s engines are revving up as your plane accelerates along the tarmac at Heathrow. At ground level the weather is grey and murky but as your plane climbs steeply into the air you are suddenly blinded as you emerge above the clouds into a world of brilliant sunshine, dark blue skies, and a sea of fluffy white cloud tops.

No; you’re not going on holiday at all. You’re going back over a century in time. You are sitting alone in the cold open air on top of a box-kite: A primitive flying machine constructed of wood, struts, wire and canvas, and powered by a small rotary engine. Ahead of you is the elevator and behind you twin rudders on the fins. The two bicycle wheels gradually cease to rotate as you leave the ground. You start to climb; and you continue climbing right through the clouds. You are the first person ever to do so. And to you is the privilege of first sight of that world of brilliant sunshine, dark blue skies, and the sea of fluffy white cloud tops. But how do you know where you are? How will you ever find your airfield at Brooklands again?

There are certainly still some air-worthy Box-Kites at Shuttleworth and probably at Duxford. Have a look at them on your next visit to put the author’s story into perspective.  It is the autobiography of a pioneer aviator who trained more than a thousand others and flew some 60 different aircraft. His survival considering the tales he tells and the times in which he flew, which included several crashes and a ditching at sea, and which included WW1 and WW2, is nothing short of miraculous. But his survival is our blessing because we can learn so much of those exciting and challenging early days of aviation.

In the Navy most of us would turn to ‘Winkle’ Brown as our pioneer aviator and certainly he merits much credit. But, Merriam is also a Navy man and of a generation earlier. On personal terms with those who would become aviation giants, in industry, the RAF, the FAA or Civil Aviation.– Jack Alcock, Blackburn, Bleriot, Brabazon, Cody, Bell-Davies, Dowding, Esmonde, C.R. Fairey, Fokker, Hawker, Hoare, Hotchkiss, Joubert, Miles, Mitchell, Handley Page, A V Roe, Saunders, Short, Sopwith, Trenchard, Warneford, Samuel White, and others. Aviation was a small world in those days.

Every pilot, indeed every would-be aviator, should read this book. Of course, most will deem it beneath them to do so because they have been nurtured on becoming Instant Spacemen and may be tempted to think that they have nothing to learn from history.  But to really know what it means to fly and to understand those under your command or with whom you work who do so, you too need to read it.

It is a cracking good and easy read and a very modest autobiography of someone who achieved so much.  He certainly deserved his AFC after WW2.

You are going on holiday. Your safety belt is clipped. You have a window seat and the aircraft’s engines are revving up as your plane accelerates along the tarmac at Heathrow. Take this book with you!