It’s a curious thing to be sock in the middle of the world’s biggest commercial airshow, fighter jets screaming above your head, countless business meetings and “Hulloahs how are you? What chew up to?” and bump into a close personal friend in odd spots on several occasions. We are both there to work of course, but both profoundly affected by recent personal events and wanting to explore more than just cash and connections. We are happily look for the angels in our lives. I won’t embarrass her by naming her but we love what we’re finding.
Naturally I’ve been in the chalets, too, laughing with Thales and Panasonic pals and catching up with the lovely ladies of Bombardier. Planning new exciting projects with them, and with Vadim Feldzer and Jean Rosanvallon, Dassault Falcon Jet’s CEO. We’ve talked the various family of stretched X’s at Falcon. I also like the evolution of Evo at Piaggio and the new 350 strutting its stuff on the static for the Canadians. There are plenty of headlines about all this from my pals at Ain, AvWeek and Flight, so do go there for the technical news.
What I think it all means for the industry is that the business aviation sector is on the up. And wearing my inflight entertainment and connectivity hat, the world is reshaping around invisible forces. It always did – we’re just cleverer at naming them now. Data is the buzzword. Sending it from the sky to the ground. Harvesting it, curating it, analysing it – selling it on. Who owns what and how can we manage it? The questions of the day. No matter what, we’re still bound for the foreseeable future to the narrow metal tube that sits in the sky and takes us to our destinations. The imaginary world we inhabit is purely our own though and this is where the invisible forces are coming into their elements. The latest designers are moving beyond the big 5 – visual and aural, oral, tactile and olfactory to give us an entire sensory experience involving memory and fantasy to take our minds off the fact we are travelling through time at warp speed. A haven in the sky
So heading to heaven, I left the showground early on Wednesday afternoon to fulfil a promise I’d made to an extraordinary young woman who has thrown her everything at an art project that truly took my breath away. Tatiana Ojeh heads up Artliner, and has worked on the Wind Tunnel Project along with V&A curator Salma Tuqan: There’s plenty of press about it – it draws to a close this weekend, and I’d urge you to go and see it. I happened to arrive at exactly the time Tatiana was showing Gerald Howarth MP, his chief of staff Rollo Hope and Stephen Ball CEO of Lockheed Martin UK. They generously allowed me to join their tour and, despite our vast differences in lifestyles and job roles, I’d say we were all pretty united in our feelings about the experience.
The installation takes place in 1917 and 1935 grade 1 and 2 listed buildings, which opened to the public for the first time this summer. Q121 is the largest return wind tunnel in Europe, built to test aeroplanes from the First World War onwards, including Spitfires and Concorde.
It consists of two big concrete circles facing each other. One contains an enormous mahogany fan with 600kg blades to suck air through the space between the two holes, and across the frames of aircraft placed in the middle. The fan backs onto a corridor segmented into three different rooms, which returns to the main hall, circulating the air in a continual smooth loop.
More concrete screens separate each room, comprising equally placed aerodynamic concrete fins to maintain the undisturbed airflow. A small amount of daylight plays around the chambers, adding to the ghostly presence of past technological hope and obsolete machines.
However, the installation starts with a wander into the mouth of the old Q121 tunnel, which is left largely untouched. There’s a cardboard collection of handprints of local children and workers who’d spent their careers in the tunnels. It was light and grey and dusty and enticing, with old adverts and equipment abandoned for decades. We were all in a jolly and curious frame of mind, as we entered the main artery to look at the enormous propeller, which was facing specially installed speakers, all done up like an old gramophone and equivalent boxes, suspended from the ceiling chains like a nineteen thirties schoolroom. Some naughty soul had once clambered up to the top of the round bricks surrounding the fan and graffitied his name on the ceiling. Ladders or a rope, I wondered? It is dusty, but still light, with the daylight from the opening creeping around the corner. The fan and its opposite cave were protected by large nets, which felt like they were preventing the beast from escaping and crushing us in its maw. Underneath the fan was anti torpedo chain mail netting, coincidentally left there. Gerald and I wandered over to feel it in our fingers. It was almost too heavy to lift, yet looked like simple coils of heavy twine. Nothing to do with the function of the tunnel, but felt absolutely in keeping with the nature of the project. Artist Thor McIntyre-Burnie had added seats facing the fan blade and played us a haunting piece of history.
19 May 1942, the BBC recorded the song of a nightingale in a garden in Surrey. They had done this annually since 1924, when it was the world’s first outside broadcast. However, at the heart of the war the microphone had accidentally captured the roar of bomber engines heading out to attack Mannheim. They stopped the broadcast in case the enemy got wind of the RAF’s intentions. The combination of the two birds, war and natural evokes chaos and piece, fear and faith, life and death.
Interestingly we listened to this piece at the exact time the F-18 was screaming overhead. And yet that worked perfectly for me, in a perverse way. The cumbersome dials and test switches housed in booths littering the building are the exoskeleton of today’s fast jets and data driven devices screeching around today’s skies. This is the evolution of aviation and we were sat in its bones.
Tatjana then led us into an anteroom behind the back of the fan. To reach this you walk through the beautiful curved pillars that look like a series of 40ft high fish gills. You are then at the back of the workings of the machinery and right into the pipe. A huge dusty empty room. The beginning of the ironed out airflow.
Another turn through more monstrous gills and you come to the best bit. The soul of the installation, in a long dark womb, with a door opening into the propeller hall. Tatjana closed the door and instructed us to turn off our cell phones or anything that gave artificial light so our eyes gradually got accustomed to the gloaming. We leaned back against the wall, which was covered in foam and supremely comfortable and comforting. There was silence. And then they played a moving rendition from a local male voice choir, some of whom were original engineers from the tunnels. The F-18 was blotted out. I did not want the moment to stop. Stillness in the heart of darkness, lighting up the chaos outside.
We paced back through the test lab and into the daylight. Said our goodbyes. The bus driver who took me back to the station told me that he had ferried generations of local families who had worked at the tunnels and wanted to show granddads and grandkids what it was all about.
Tatiana and Victoria asked me what I thought. That would be hard to articulate in a quick blog, and do an injustice to the installation. What I felt afterwards was stirred and joyful. For me, I can safely say your project was a success.
Thank you so much for inviting me to share the experience.