A sector worth praising to the skies

Features editor

Our next issue contains a profile of the aerospace sector, one of Britain’s most consistently successful industries — though, as with many UK success stories, you could be forgiven for not knowing about it.

In our upcoming issue we profile a sector which, although occupying a world-leading position, constantly developing new technologies, growing strongly year-on-year and employing tens of thousands of people, is strangely unknown in the UK. The UK’s aerospace sector is the second largest in the world, but like a worrying number of British success stories, it’s seen as an industry in decline even to many within engineering.

There are parallels here with the automotive sector, also doing well in the UK but largely below the radar, although the sector’s stories are different. For automotive, it’s a case of real decline followed by redevelopment along different lines; industrial strife and mismanagement in the 1970s, along with poor designs and quality control, led to output falling dramatically, but new working practices, overseas investment and R&D – and design-led innovation have led to the sector reaching new record output levels.

But aerospace never actually went away. Extremely well-known companies such as Supermarine, Hawker, Avro and de Havilland were gradually subsumed in corporate manoeuvring so their names disappeared, but the businesses carried on. Meanwhile, the industry itself changed, with more and more aircraft being built by consortia of companies rather than developed and built entirely within one factory or company.

So it seems, to the outside observer, that the companies that built the Spitfire, Hurricane, Lightning, Harrier, Vulcan and Comet are no more, and the country that fostered them no longer builds planes. And, indeed, the only aircraft developed and built entirely within the UK today is the Hawk trainer jet (no mean aeroplane, though).

But what the UK does have is a very strong place in the global supply chain, designing and building arguably the most complex and interesting parts of many of the world’s most advanced aircraft: the wings of all the commercial Airbuses; the titanium-rich sections of the Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, and of course Rolls-Royce is carrying on the work of Frank Whittle, inventor of the turbojet, in developing and building the engines for a significant proportion of the world’s civilian and military aircraft.

Space, too, tends to sink below the radar. Last month, the Guardian published a list of ‘days out you wouldn’t have thought of’ including a vist to the National Space Centre in Leicester. It was an amazingly patronising and snide piece including phrases like ‘You might think Britain doesn’t have a space industry but it turns out we lead the world in… well… some satellites.’ Indeed we do, but you might have thought developing Europe’s Mars Rover and building space telescopes deserves a bit more enthusiasm. And that’s before we even get to Skylon, another descendent of Frank Whittle’s invention.

As we all know, the British press prefers bad news to good, and sneering to celebrating. So it falls to publications like ours to try to redress the balance. It’s something we’re pleased to do, but we wish we didn’t have to.

Our profile of the aerospace sector will appear in the October issue of The Engineer. The hard-copy version should reach readers next week; the digital issue, including additional content, will be on-line next week.