Saturday, July 9, 2022

A Technical Appendix About Airplane Crashes and Revisiting the Great Siege With Derek Leebaert


Per Wikipedia: Derek Leebaert is an American technology executive and management consultant who writes books on history and politics, which evoke insights on leadership. He is the winner of the biennial 2020 Truman Book Award and also one of the founders of the National Museum of the United States Army

I'll admit to being a bit surprised. I was alerted to Leebaert's 2018 Grand Improvisation: America Confronts the British Superpower, 1945–1957, by a highly positive review on H-Net last month, and have been picking my way through the book, which is peppered with references leaving me with the impression of a long-time foreign relations specialist putting a book together from an eclectic selection of notes the author no longer has time to check. (In particular, many references to articles in Time are surely taken from clippings rather than a skim of the 650 issues covering the period from the end of WWII to the Suez  Crisis, easy enough to do in a library or online.  

With that and a few other petty caveats, and after the de rigeur jurisdiction policing (it's okay for historians to invade technology and archaeology and linguistics, but the favour is not to be returned!), I will endorse the H-Net reviewer, and, apparently, the New York Times, this is a pretty good, if not always convincing book. Okay, there I go with the caveats again, but I honestly do not think that John Snyder was the eminence grise of the Truman Administration and single-handed architect of the postwar order. I just don't. 

Leebaert's main argument is directed at the "rise of the American empire," which he wants to postpone from 1945 to 1957. Inter alia, that requires arguing that Britain was a much more significant presence on the world stage in this period than most accounts allow. To get even more specific, he has a brief with Peter Clarke's "last thousand days of the British Empire" thesis that brings the curtain down, not with Indian independence, but with the financial shenanigans of the next year. Without going so far as to actually read Clarke (the horror!), I'm going to guess that  he is using "thousand days" loosely. Whatever. The key point is a call to re-evaluate the "end of the Great Siege" waged by Germany against Britain, to see its end at Suez rather than the 19 September 1949 reduction of the exchange rate of pound sterling from 4.08 USD to the pound, to 2.80.

 Well, first, the financial argument will take a heavy load, and is fairly convincing. "Economists," I am told in some reading I did mainly to get the sequence of events right [Schenck, 2009], do not believe that there can be two reserve currencies in a world system, but that is what we had between 1945 and 1957, and for much of that period, due to the persistent American trade surplus, a far larger amount of the world's wealth was held in pound sterling than in USD. As Catherine Schenck notes in the introduction to the paper linked above, in 1947, sterling represented 87% of global foreign exchange reserves, and it took until Suez for the dollar to catch up. 

In that light, the devaluation of the pound would have wiped out a very large part of the savings of a very influential group of people even if it had not hit major, involuntary, British creditors such as Iran and Egypt in particular. The great crises over Abadan, the end of the Farouk regime, and the 1956 Suez war were clearly shaped by this blow. Also, in retrospect, it was quite a blow against global inequality! 

But let's talk about trivial things instead. Like flying.  

Leebaert's argument is wide ranging. He is not oblivious to the  specifics relevant to this blog. Farnborough '51 is one of a series of "spectacles" that misled the world about the underlying fragility of the British situation, even if he spends more time on the 1948 Olympics and the Festival of Britain. At one point we hear that the British have the world's only heavy jet bomber "and the world's fastest jet fighter." These off-the-cuff observations are a bit facile. We have to pile on the caveats to make them work, and surely what matters in the air is  actual RAF bombers attacking Malayan guerillas and spending fifty million pounds a month doing it (all spending taken together), and not some  "V-bombers" in the pipeline. 

There is one exception to this:

As of March, 1952, the de Havilland Comet is rushing towards its first service flight, 2 May 1952. Vancouver's own airline, Canadian Pacific, is going to be operating the Comet across the Pacific from Vancouver to Sydney. De Havilland is building its overhaul base in Sydney, rather than in Allan Fotheringham's "sleepy village in the rain forest," but it strikes close to home. CP is only a decade out from being a consortium of bush pilots led by Wop May, and America's got nothing like this. Prince Philip will fly the Comet home from the Helsinki Olympics in August, and thirty thousand passengers will fly the Comet in its first year of operation. The only things holding it back are delays in the Avon engine that, it is hoped, will make the Comet 4 Atlantic capable, and Weybridge's inability to guarantee early deliveries, discouraging many airlines from placing orders. A new production line at Short Belfast is supposed to make up the production shortfall, and will play its strange part in the cancellation of the VC7. However, the story of production failures is essentially a familiar one, also afflicting the Centurion tank. The workshop of the world can't make enough stuff!  

CP's plans for the Comet were curtailed when it lost its first hull at Karachi. With only one plane left in its order, it could not operate the planned service, and no replacements were available. Everyone's plans for the plane were curtailed by a series of mid-air hull losses in 1954. Airliner crashes were a dime a dozen at the time, but planes falling apart in mid-air were not, and the structural problems implied, were found and fixed only after an exhaustive investigation that delayed the resumption of Comet service to the point where the American crash jetliner development programme caught up. With their larger passenger capacity, the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 were able to overcome de Havilland's first mover advantage. 

In retrospect, this story is distinctly autumnal, another imperial recessional. Britain had no business being in the uniquely American business of airliners, except perhaps arguably as part of Airbus. The Comet was technological hubris, or perhaps just horrible luck that doomed the Empire right there, since otherwise Comets would have flown off the production line by the hundreds earned vast quantities of dollars, and propped up sterling by itself. 

The financial side of this story is one thing. It is far from clear that sterling needed to be propped up, and as long as it was propped up, the excessively high exchange rate made it difficult and perhaps unprofitable for Britain to be "workshop to the world." This is the technological that concerns me here, and in particular the airline accidents of the winter of 1951//2. 

December 16 – A fire breaks out in the right engine nacelle of a Miami Airline Curtiss C-46F-1-CU Commando (registration N1678M) as it takes off from Newark Airport. As the plane attempts to return to the airport, it strikes a vacant house and a brick storage building in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and comes to rest inverted and partially submerged in shallow water along the bank of the Elizabeth River, after which a severe gasoline fire breaks out and spreads to the brick building. The crash and fire kill all 56 people on board and seriously injure one person on the ground. At the time, it is the second-deadliest aviation accident in United States history and the second-deadliest accident involving any variant of the C-46.[99]
December 22 – Arriving at Mehrabad Airport in Tehran, Iran, in a snowstorm, a Misrair SNCASE SE.161 Languedoc (registration SU-AHH) circles the airport twice and then crashes west of it, killing all 22 people on board.[100]

December 27 – An Aeroflot Lisunov Li-2 runs out of fuel and makes a forced landing in a clearing in the Soviet Union near Namtsev in the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic 90 kilometers (56 miles) from Yakutsk. It strikes trees, crashes, and catches fire, killing all 20 people on board.[101]

December 29 – Flying at low altitude in instrument meteorological conditions so its crew can maintain visual reference with the ground, a Continental Charters Curtiss C-46A-50-CU Commando on a charter flight from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Buffalo, New York, strays off course and crashes into a wooded hill near Little Valley, New York, killing 26 of the 40 people on board.[103]

December 30 – A U.S. Air Force Douglas VC-47D Skytrain crashes in mountainous terrain 56 kilometers (35 miles) north of Globe, Arizona, killing all 28 people on board.[104]

]January 10, 1952: Aer Lingus Douglas Dakota 3 (registration EI-AFL) on a Northolt AerodromeDublin flight crashes in Wales due to vertical draft in the mountains of Snowdonia, killing all 23 people on board. It is the airline's first fatal crash in its fifteen-year history

January 19 – Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 324 – a Douglas C-54E Skymaster on a charter flight from Elmendorf Air Force Base in AnchorageTerritory of Alaska, to McChord Air Force Base in TacomaWashington – diverts to Sandspit Airport in SandspitBritish Columbia, after feathering its No. 1 propeller due to a broken oil cooler. The C-54 touches down at Sandspit but then attempts a go-around. It stalls during the attempted climb-out and ditches in water beyond the end of the runway. All or nearly all of the 43 people aboard the plane evacuate without serious injury, but 36 of them die of drowning or exposure in the near-freezing air and water temperatures they encounter outside the plane.[10]

January 22 American Airlines Flight 6780, a Convair CV-240, crashes into a house in Elizabeth, New Jersey, while on final approach to Newark Airport, killing all 23 people on the plane and seven people on the ground. It is the first fatal accident involving a Convair CV-240. Among the dead are Robert P. Patterson, a jurist and former Undersecretary of War under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and former Secretary of War under President Harry S Truman; former war correspondent John F. Chester; and U.S. Civil Aeronautics Administration officials George T. Williams and John D. Rice, both engaged in the development of airport radar systems and navigational aids at the time.[12

February 4 – A Sabena Douglas C-47A Skytrain suffers a propeller failure in flight over the Belgian Congo. Debris from the propeller failure cuts some of the aircraft's control cables, causing the crew to lose control. The plane crashes near Kikwit, killing all 16 people on board.[

February 11 – Just after National Airlines Flight 101, a Douglas DC-6 (registration N90891), takes off from Newark International Airport in New Jersey, its No. 3 propeller reverses. Misunderstanding the problem, the crew feathers the No. 4 propeller and attempts to return to the airport, but the aircraft crashes in Elizabeth, New Jersey, narrowly missing an orphanage and killing 29 of the 63 people on board and four people on the ground.[15][16] It is the third in a string of airliner accidents at Newark International since December 1951 and prompts the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to close the airport until November 15.[16]

February 17 – Flying over Sicily, a Hunting Air Transport Vickers Model 614 Viking 1 (registration G-AHPI) strays off course and crashes into Monte la Cinta, killing all 31 people on board. It is the second-deadliest aviation accident in Italy's history at the time.[17]

March 22 The KLM Royal Dutch Airlines Douglas DC-6 Koningin Juliana (registration PH-TPJ) crashes into a forest on approach to Frankfurt International Airport in Frankfurt-am-Main, West Germany, killing 45 of the 47 people on board. At the time, it is the deadliest aviation accident in the history of Germany.[23]

Read from accident reports, this list frustratingly inconclusive when read from accident reports. The Miami Airlines accident was clearly caused by an engine fire, and can be written off to poor maintenance. The cause of both the Sandspit and 11 February Elizabeth accident were propeller failures. The Continental Charters accident was caused by decisions almost too inane to call "error." Rather than make an instrument-only flight in difficult weather conditions, the crew attempted to fly through the Alleghenies on the deck, in order to maintain visual reference to the ground. In reality, crew error is the most likely cause of all the unexplained accidents. The KLM and LaGuardia Convair accidents were almost certainly caused by crews trying to get visual identification of the ground, while crew of the American Airlines Convair failed to de-ice the carburetors. Crew error also contributed to the 11 February Elizabeth crash, as the crew cut the wrong engine. 

It is the "visual reference" that is astonishing here. It is one thing for a Continental Charters crew to distrust their instrument flying skills. If it is true that a National Airlines and a KLM crew were similarly flying by the seat of their pants, the rot is deep. 

But there's a problem here. Four of the planes in this ignominious list are late-war/pre-war attempts to replace the DC-3. Four are DC-3s in various guises. Several more attempts to replace the DC-3 might have gone on the list had they been flying in any numbers at the time, but the Airspeed Ambassador has been delayed in service, the Martin 2-0-2 is in the doghouse after its own tale of woe, and the Swedish and Brazilian attempts to enter the market had been, sensibly, shelved by this time. 

In retrospect, it seems foolish for these firms to have entered the fray in the first place. The Curtiss Commando was the last Curtiss-Wright airliner, not that the company had had much luck before. Martin was in receivership, Convair is seeking to merge with Henry Kaiser, which, for those without the patience for the postblogging's framing story, I will try to put in a 2022 perspective:

Airspeed is out of the game. Even Douglas is regretting its "Super DC-3" upgrade, although, to be fair, Scottish Aviation made that game work for them. At the time that these projects were greenlit, it must have seemed a foregone conclusion that the DC-3 would have been swept from the (First World) skies by its tiny, two-person cabin. (The separate radio shack makes the DC-3 look a great deal more safely crewed than it was.) Talk about a plane that needs to be flown by the seat of its pants! But, when push came to shove, the world's regulators could not bear to deep-six the DC-3, and it soldiered on. Real airlines competing against the DC-3 needed to take note. 

I could take a bit more about instruments and navigations, but that really isn't the point of this post. Air safety is. Reading between the lines, flying in 1951/2 was not very safe, editorials in the aviation press notwithstanding. It is perhaps not as much more dangerous than rail and auto as these spectacular crashes would suggest, for here Robert Wood has a point. But regulators are absolutely for sure not doing a good job, and regulatory capture is a particularly serious issue in the United States and the Netherlands. (I have my doubts about France, too.) 

It's in this light that I take the Comet crashes of 1953. To go further Internet-of-2022, when  compared to the safety records of, say, the Stratocruiser, much less the 2-0-2 or the Avro Tudor, the Comet's problems are par for the course. What really seems to matter here is that British industry was unable to build enough Comets, fast enough, to take advantage of its first-mover advantage. As we survey a landscape in which machine tool purchases, capital investments, raw material imports, and wage competition are being held back, this technological story turns out to be a financial one. 

We may, in fact, take this a further step back. Leebaert limns a fascinating story but falls a bit short of fully connecting the dots. On 22 May, 1952, Labour Minister Walter Monckton admitted in the House that a scheme to bring 10,000 Italian coal miners to work in British coal mines had been formally ended due to labour union resistance. This frames the timing of a problem that Leebaert implicitly traces back to Bevan's resignation from the government in the spring. As Labour Minister, Bevan would have had a hand in the widespread British recruiting of Italian labour, for construction and other sectors as well as mining. As a man with significant influence in the Welsh colleries, his alienation from the government would have been a problem in easing the Italians into the mines in the first place, but Leebaert observes that the problem was especially pressing in Wales. The upshot is the failure of British hopes to export coal, the decision to buy American coal instead, and a significant blow to the British balance of exchange, leading up to the intertwined exchange and rearmament crisis of which Bevan warned. 

The story of the Comet is not directly connected to the spring 1952 exchange crisis or rearmament "stretchout," as it was first envisioned. But the systemic problems of excessively high exchange rates, anti-inflationary capital investment controls, and import restrictions, are.  In sitting down to write this post, I did not intend to make this point so strongly, but Catherine Schenck has me tentativelly convinced: You can't be "workshop to the world" and the bonus world reserve currency at the same time. 


  1. So, I need some clarification on the "in 1947, sterling represented 87% of global foreign exchange reserves" (noting from the paper that this means that roughly half of the world's reserves outside of the US in practice, because gold was still the actual dominant reserve) because I'm not understanding what it means. Does this basically mean that India, Pakistan, semi-demi-hemi colonies like Egypt and the White Dominions, and heck even the colonies themselves, mostly stored their foreign currency reserves in Sterling (and outside of Latin America I would expect the colonial mainland currency to be the dominant exchange reserve, so mostly Sterling, with some Franc or Peseta or whatever for their colonies).

    Basically, is the argument that these countries turned all of the dollars they earned into steel or wheat or whatever, and sat on the Pounds because they couldn't buy cool things like the Comet, in practice? And that is replacing the previous "they continued to save Sterling because of affinity for the old country" theory?

    I'm just very confused here, tried reading the source paper, and still didn't understand.

  2. "On 22 May, 1952, Labour Minister Walter Monckton admitted in the House that a scheme to bring 10,000 Italian coal miners to work in British coal mines had been formally ended due to labour union resistance" > now this is interesting for a couple of reasons. First of all quite a few places did get Italian immigrants, sometimes a continuation of prewar migration and sometimes new. Secondly, the UK was about to start absorbing immigrants from the subcontinent and the Caribbean at a rate of knots, so it's kind of surprising that Pakistanis were apparently acceptable when Italians were not.

    Of course an important detail is where they ended up; as a rough rule, "the cities, not the coalfields", and textiles, manufacturing, or services rather than coal'n'steel.

    1. but "city" here should be read to be "urban centre bigger than a pit village", most definitely including Yorkshire and Lancashire mill towns (which, you know, have ornate city halls and public galleries and whatnot)