Sixty thousand feet. Eleven miles high. From the pilot’s seat, Flight Lieutenant Peter de Salis gave the order to shut down the rocket motor fitted in his jet’s bomb bay. Sitting to his right, Flying Officer Pat Lowe, the aircraft’s navigator, reached forward and cut the power. Without the boost from the Napier Double Scorpion rocket, the English Electric Canberra B6 began a gentle descent. Just a year earlier, in 1957, a similarly modified aircraft had claimed a new world altitude record for the Royal Air Force at a height of over 70,000 feet. Now companies with names like Avro, Armstrong Whitworth, de Havilland, Saunders-Roe – firms that just 30 years earlier had been building biplanes – were churning out designs for rocket planes, rockets and even spacecraft. Britain was looking to the future, but that meant putting brave men in harm’s way.
At 56,000 feet, Lowe selected the ignition switches and began the countdown. He fired the rockets. From behind, as a fire warning light flicked on, a terrible noise grumbled through the fuselage. A moment later there was an explosion and the mortally wounded jet began to rip apart, tumbling through the sky. An angry white mist, caused by the sudden decompression of the cockpit, cloaked the two airmen.
‘High time,’ thought Lowe, ‘that I wasn’t here.’
De Salis and Lowe’s escape remains the highest successful ejection ever attempted, but their injuries vividly describe the hostile conditions beyond the stratosphere. When they reached the ground Lowe was deaf and frostbitten, and de Salis was bleeding from his eyes, nose and left ear. He described his normally long face as a ‘bladder of lard’ – little wonder when they had been exposed to temperatures of minus 57°C and a lack of pressure that caused tears and saliva to boil. That both survived was a result of urgent work being done in labs and workshops on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the mid-1950s, with the imminent entry into service of the RAF’s high-flying V-bomber force, the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough issued specifications for a full pressure suit that could protect crews outside the cockpit. Along with diving suit manufacturer Siebe Gorman, two Manchester companies answered the call: Baxter, Woodhouse and Taylor, and P Frankenstein and Son Ltd – a textile company founded in 1854 which, since the 1940s, had been producing aviation survival gear. While all three suits were extensively tested by both the RAE, and the RAF’s own Institute of Aviation Medicine, in the end none were ordered. Cost was certainly a factor – each suit would have to have been tailor-made to fit its owner. But the real clincher was that, with the shooting down of Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane in 1960, it was clear that extreme altitude no longer offered the RAF’s Vulcans, Victors and Valiants immunity from attack.
Instead, in their Victoria Rubber Works factory in Newton Heath, P Frankenstein and Son manufactured pressure jerkins for the RAF. In contrast to the completely self-contained environment of a full pressure suit, the jerkins just covered the torso and provided a ‘get me-down’ option. In the event of decompression or ejection, jerkins were enough to keep airmen like de Salis and Lowe alive until they descended below the 40,000-foot threshold where life became sustainable. But if Britain was lowering its horizons, in America they were looking yet higher still: into space.
To help meet the challenge, on 12th March 1962, NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center placed an order with Frankenstein’s Air Sea Rescue Department for a pressure suit. They paid $7,150.08. In planning a mission to the moon, NASA had to contend with extremes of temperature more severe than any previously encountered by aircrew – in the Sun temperatures on the lunar surface would be 100°C or more, while in the shade they could plummet to minus 120°C. Work done by Frankenstein, and the Institute of Aviation Medicine, looked like it might offer a way to regulate the astronauts’ temperatures.
Since 1959, the IAM’s Flt Lt Dr John Billingham had been working on a concept for a liquid-cooled flying suit – designed to provide some comfort to RAF pilots flying in the heat of the Middle East. By 1962, however, Frankenstein had produced more fully engineered prototype suits and in 1963 NASA hired John Billingham himself to head up their Environmental Physiology Branch, in Houston, where he had responsibility for outlining the requirements for NASA’s spacesuits. Given that one experiment at the RAE saw Billingham shut in a heat chamber for four days in temperatures as high as 47°C while subsisting on nothing but 8.9 litres of haemolymph fluid squeezed from 4,500 North African snails, he was probably pleased to get away. With Billingham safely installed at NASA, his ideas followed. The liquid-cooled garment concept he’d developed with Frankenstein’s help became a key component of the white Michelin-man spacesuits worn by Armstrong, Aldrin and the moonwalkers that followed them.
But Frankenstein’s lasting contribution to the space race didn’t end there. As if playing a part in NASA’s crowning achievement was not enough, the Manchester firm was also responsible for some of science fiction’s most enduring images. The iconic red, yellow and blue spacesuits worn by the crew of the Discovery in Stanley Kubrick’s classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, were all manufactured by the Frankenstein Group.
Established during a boom for new raincoats that consumed over two-thirds of the raw rubber imported into the UK, the company had always been an innovator. Yet, while they might have begun life in Britain’s wettest city making clothes to protect the public from inclement weather, the demands of World War II handed them a higher purpose: preserving life. Alongside the men in sheds at the RAE, in both fact and fiction, the resourceful men of Manchester were to make a peculiarly British success of it.