Aerial theatre

Pearson's Weekly (London), 28 January 1909, 615

In September 1909, rather late in Invasion's run, an article appeared in Pearson's Weekly explaining not only some of the pyrotechnical mechanics behind the spectacle, but also the underlying airpower theory. Because it was not merely an popular entertainment and a commercial one at that, but a response to the question 'Invasion by aeroplane, is it possible?'

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Illustrated London News, 12 June 1909, 7

This photo, according to the Illustrated London News, shows 'THE FIRST SHELL DISCHARGED FROM AN AEROPLANE OVER ENGLAND'. But it doesn't really, because the 'aeroplane' almost certaintly wasn't real but a non-flying mock-up strung on a wire or something, and while the 'shell' no doubt contained gunpowder it probably wouldn't have done much damage unless it happened to blow up directly in your face. This was June 1909, and the 'aeroplane' was part of a nightly (except Saturdays) live action pyrotechnic entertainment at the Crystal Palace's football ground called Invasion, described in an advertisement in the Globe as a:


Of which last the Westminster Gazette wrote sardonically, 'We admire that final touch. England is destroyed to make a foreign holiday'.

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Art.IWM PST 13758

The ostensible purpose of the Air Services Exhibition was to raise money for 'the FLYING SERVICES HOSPITALS' and 'VISCOUNT FRENCH'S WAR CHARITIES', as you can see in the poster above. But those laudable aims didn't mean it wasn't also propaganda (as you can also see in the poster above). And, despite the name of the exhibition, it wasn't about the RFC and RNAS generally, but about the air defence of Britain. Not only did the exhibits consist largely of Zeppelin destroyers and destroyed Zeppelins (and Gothas), but two senior members of Britain's military aviation establishment gave speeches at the opening of the exhibition on 1 November 1917, which as it happened was the morning after a Gotha raid on London, Kent and Essex. Unsurprisingly, they both spoke on the topic of air defence.

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West Ham and South Essex Mail, 2 November 1917, 3

This advertisement, which appeared in the East Ham and South Essex Mail on 2 November 1917, excited my curiosity. An exhibition of German aircraft... held in the East End of London... just after the Harvest Moon raids? I'm there! Or would be if time travel was a thing. As it's not (yet...) I'll have to go via the BNA instead.

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Sydney Mail, 8 June 1938, 9

A cloud of smoke billows up from a building during a low level bombing attack carried out by biplanes. The First World War? Air control in the Middle East? Fascist bombers over Spain, or Japanese bombers over China? No, it's an air raid carried out by the RAF against Nottingham on 15 May 1938.

Of course it wasn't a real air raid: it was a mock one, something I wrote about recently in the collection edited by Michael McCluskey and Luke Seaber, Aviation in the Literature and Culture of Interwar Britain. The photos above and below were published in the British and Australian press, and I wish I'd known about them earlier because they're great illustrations of the topic and I might have been able to include them in my chapter.

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Michael McCluskey and Luke Seaber (eds), Aviation in the Literature and Culture of Interwar Britain

I've got a chapter entitled 'Spectre and spectacle: mock air raids as aerial theatre in interwar Britain' in a new Palgrave Macmillan collection just out, Aviation in the Literature and Culture of Interwar Britain, edited by Michael McCluskey and Luke Seaber. Here's the abstract:

This chapter argues that aerial theatre, in the form of annual air displays at Hendon and on Empire Air Day, was used by the Royal Air Force (RAF) to generate a sensationally modern image of technological sublimity through violent spectacles of aerial warfare, including the performance of mock air raids. This was amplified by a second, incidental kind of aerial theatre, performed as part of Air Defence of Great Britain (ADGB) exercises and air raid precautions (ARP) drills in the form of mock air raids on British cities. These attracted curious and even excited audiences, conscious that they might be seeing previews of their own deaths. In combining spectre and spectacle, the RAF’s mock air raids underscore the ambivalent nature of airmindedness in interwar Britain.

It's my third article pushing the aerial theatre concept, and it builds on both of its predecessors ('The militarisation of aerial theatre' and 'The meaning of Hendon'). Here I narrow my focus specifically to mock battles, particularly those portraying air raids on civilian targets. But I also widen things out by drawing a distinction between what I call formal aerial theatre, meaning the sorts of air displays I usually write about such as the RAF Display (Hendon) and Empire Air Day, and incidental aerial theatre, in this case mainly meaning the annual ADGB exercises from 1927 onwards, as well as, beginning in 1936, ARP drills. 'Incidental', because while the point of these exercises was to determine the effectiveness of air and civil defences, they also involved RAF aircraft carrying out simulated attacks on actual urban targets in a very public and spectacular fashion. Those living in and around these targets were exposed to this aerial theatre whether they wanted to be or not. In fact, many people came out to watch these exercises as entertainment: in 1928, for example, 'omnibuses took parties of sightseers to the hills around London' to watch their city get theoretically pounded to rubble. Which I found quite fascinating, and so I wrote a chapter about it!
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Washington Times, 15 April 1916, 19

Here's one for the mock air raid file. On the evening of 15 April 1916, a lone aeroplane circled over Washington, D.C., and -- without warning -- proceeded to (pretend to) attack it. It first flew over the White House, then the State, Army and Navy departments, and then, over the Washington Monument and the nearby polo grounds, it carried out the main part of its display: dropping about 300 small bombs (actually small 'exselsior' fireworks), which detonated about 1000 feet above the ground and could be heard all over the city.

Crowds in the streets, on their way to the theatrers, heard the reports of the explosions and looked skyward. Traffic in Pennsylvania avenue and other streets came to a standstill. People stood dumfounded [sic].

Trails of fire streaked the heavens. The explosions continued. The buzz of a powerful motor could be heard distinctly.

The streaks, which can be seen above, were 'the traces of magnesium flares attached in tubes to the wings' of the aeroplane.
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NHS Spitfire

Exactly six months ago today, I posted about some aerial theatre in the time of coronavirus. That was the first time I mentioned the pandemic on Airminded, and it is, of course, still here (Victoria is -- hopefully -- nearing the end of its second wave, with 42 new cases reported today, down from a peak of 686 on 4 August, and a total of 737 deaths), but so is the aerial theatre. The Aircraft Restoration Company's NHS Spitfire Project evolved out of the Clap For Our Carers social media movement to support NHS health workers. That ended back in May, but the NHS Spitfire is still flying around the UK (and is still looking for sponsors).
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Wide World Magazine, April 1909

The 'flight' -- The machine reached the edge of the slope, shot out a few yards into the air with the impetus it had acquired, and then dropped with a crash onto the rocks.

I am very nearly done with N. R. Gordon, who built at least five completely unsuccessful flying machines over a period of several decades, from well before Kitty Hawk to after the First World War, when how to fly was pretty much a solved problem. But a post at the Aerodrome alerted me to the existence of some further photographs of his first and most ambitious attempt, before a large holiday crowd at Chowder Bay on Boxing Day 1894. The most remarkable is the one above, which shows Gordon's oddly sinuous machine just at the moment of being launched over the precipice. In the background there are many small boats out on the bay, and in the foreground eight or nine people with their backs to the camera, watching the flying machine. All the accounts frame the trial as a failure -- or worse, as I'll come to -- but at this very instant the possibility of success was still there. Did these spectators believe, or hope, that they were witnessing the beginning of the conquest of the air?
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