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Published November 27, 2020

Since time immemorial, people have looked up to the sky and wanted to fly. Today, of course, air travel has gone from an unachievable dream to a matter of routine, but along the way, there have been certain ups and downs.

One particular “down” marked the end of Britain’s involvement in the airship industry.

Long before the Wright Brothers made their historic flight near Kitty Hawk, adventurers had already taken to the sky.

In 1783, two French brothers named Montgolfier demonstrated the lifting power of hot air, sending a 35 foot paper sphere into the sky. Things progressed so quickly that, before the year was out, the brothers had demonstrated their hot air balloon in the grounds of Versailles before King Louis XVI, the passengers on this occasion being a sheep, a duck and a cock. Then, in November of the same year, they sent their first human passenger into the sky. Declining to fly it themselves, the opportunity was initially offered to some criminals who otherwise faced execution. However, a courtier by the name of Jean Philistre de Rozier declared that, “The honour of being the first man to fly should not go to a convict, but to a gentleman of France,” and volunteered his own services. He flew halfway across Paris to the cheers of gathered spectators and landed safely.

Perhaps it was early gestures like these which ensured the romantic aura surrounding airships, or perhaps it was the near-silent grace with which they could maneuver through the sky. Regardless, even for some time after the Wright Brothers’ success, many regarded airships, not airplanes, as the future of aviation.

At the beginning of the 20th century the most successful airships were of German design. They were so successful that you probably recognise the name of the company, still used today to refer to the rigid type of airship – Zeppelin. From 1910 Zeppelins were flown commercially, carrying more than 10,000 passengers before the outbreak of World War One.

Meanwhile, the first British airship was built by an aeronaut named Stanley Spencer, who funded it by putting an advert for baby food on the side.

According to an official report dated July 1912, “Up to the end of the year 1911 the policy of the government with regard to all branches of aerial navigation was based on a desire to keep in touch with the movement rather than to hasten its development. It was felt that we stood to gain nothing by forcing a means of warfare which tended to reduce the value of our insular position and the protection of our sea power.”

In other words, Britannia happily ruled the waves, and they didn’t want to encourage anyone to develop air power that could attack their island nation. 

The First World War affected aviation, as it did everything else. The Germans used Zeppelins as scouts and bombers; the British developed their own in response as well as a range of non-rigid blimp-type airships. Under the auspices of the Navy these were used for scouting and patrolling for submarines. 

After the war, the Treaty of Versailles prevented Germany from building any large airships for some years. This gave the British a small chance to get in ahead of the game, as they launched the Imperial Airship Scheme in 1924, while those restrictions still applied. 

The idea of the Imperial Airship Scheme was to improve communications between Britain and it’s more far-flung colonies by establishing a regular airship route between them. 

The man in charge of the scheme was Lord Thomson, the Air Minister, who had high hopes of creating an air travel network that would link the colonies with quick, comfortable transport. Speaking in the House of Lords, he said,

lordbirdwood-3456813 Lord Thomson. Source: Wikimedia Commons

“I can foresee the time when noble Lords will leave this House and the terrace in gliders with light engines, winging their way westward along the valley of the Thames, northward to Scotland, and southwards to Hampshire, Berkshire and Kent. On their way—and this is my main point—they will need to rest, perhaps in some great caravanserai in order to take a rest or greet a friend, and that great caravanserai may be one of the giant airships floating serene and safe high up and far removed from terrestrial dirt and noise.”

An initial scheme was to provide funding to a private company who would build an airship fleet for Britain; in keeping with Thomson’s Labour principles, he had adjusted this to avoid leaving the industry in purely private hands.

The private enterprise would continue, with the engineering conglomerate Vickers building an airship designated the R100. However, the Government’s Royal Airship Works, based at Cardington in Bedfordshire, would also build their own airship, the R101. This led some to label them as the “Capitalist” and “Socialist” ships, respectively. Those two airships would then basically be in competition with each other, with the idea that the next generation of British airships would take the best parts of each.

The other main difference between the two ships would be the approach taken by their design teams. 

The R100 would draw heavily on existing standards for airship design. The team was led by Barnes Wallis, the man who would go on to design the Dambusters’ bouncing bomb, and included the engineer and novelist Nevil Shute Norway, who characterised their approach as conservative and pragmatic. However, they were also constrained by a fixed budget, which forced them to make some serious economies.

Meanwhile, the R101 was intended to make use of cutting-edge techniques, which entailed extensive research and experimentation. The final design had several novel features, and Shute viewed it as extravagant and overambitious. The report of the eventual inquiry noted,

“In the construction of the R.101, the designers broke away almost completely from conventional methods and in every direction an attempt was made to improve upon standard Zeppelin practice. Some of these inventions were a natural consequence of the great size of the airship, while others aimed at securing interchangeability of component parts. These novelties in design, however, were not confined to the general anatomy of the hull, but extended to many important details such as gasbag-wiring, relief valves, steering mechanism, and even included the adoption of a novel design of heavy-oil engine.”

Between the financial constraints of the R100 and the research requirements of the R101, neither ship would be ready to fly until 1929.

Come 1926, however, the restrictions on German airships had been lifted, and they quickly started work on the Graf Zeppelin, the most successful airship in history. She launched before either of the British ships, and her immediate success set a high bar for their performance.

biblioteca-valenciana-nicolau-primitiu-qopkiw4e52k-unsplash-1024x763-9813349 The Graf Zeppelin over Valencia. Source: Unsplash

R101 was the first of the two British ships to take to the air; she was walked out of the huge hangar at Cardington by a team of 400 ground crew on the 12th of October 1929. Her maiden flight, on the 14th, took a suitably press-friendly course over London, floating above landmarks like the Palace of Westminster and St Paul’s Cathedral. Afterwards, Major George Scott, an official of the Royal Airship Works, told the BBC,

“We had a very satisfactory flight” and that “the ship handled very well, and was largely controlled with ease… The noise of the engines was very slight in the passengers’ car. You could not hear very much, and it was very comfortable indeed… We did not run it at full speed or anything approaching it.”

Major Scott’s position in relation to the R101 was apparently a little contentious. As the Director for Flying and Training, Scott was responsible for operational matters on both airships. He was not officially in charge of the airship in flight – that duty fell to Captain H. Carmichael Irwin – but he was still frequently to be found in the control cabin during its flights, giving orders.

He was also the inventor of the mooring tower, something that set them apart from the Germans. While the Zeppelin would land and load on the ground, the British ships would stay airborne, tethered by the nose to the tower, which included a lift for swift transport of passengers and cargo, and pipes through which the vital hydrogen gas, fuel and water could be pumped onto the ship. The tower also reduced the amount of manpower needed for a landing, and meant that the airship’s arrivals and departures were not restricted to perfect weather.

A second trial flight took place on the 18th of October, this time carrying Lord Thomson as a passenger, and taking a little over nine and a half hours.

After a brief return to the shed to address some engine issues, she flew again on the 1st of November, taking a route over Sandringham House so that the King and Queen might see her, on a seven hour flight, then set out again on the 2nd for an overnight flight that took her out to the Isle of Wight and back.

After a couple of shorter flights which seem to have been more promotional in nature, she set out on her longest test flight on the 17th of November. She flew all the way up to Scotland, round to Ireland and then back via Wales, spending 30 hours and 41 minutes in flight.

This first series of test flights highlighted a number of issues with the R101 – not least of which was her lack of lift.

The requirements laid out for both the R100 and the R101 stated that they should have a “useful lift” of 60 tons. This refers to the amount of weight available for passengers, cargo and stores. Any less than that, and an airship would struggle to be competitive with other forms of transport. This was particularly important for the R101, because she was intended to fly the route between Britain and India; the lift of an airship would be reduced in warmer weather, so she would operate on a much narrower margin than the R100 on its route to Canada.

However, when the huge airship had undergone a “lift and trim” test in the shed at Cardington prior to her first flights, they found that she only had about 35 tons of useful lift. A report prepared by Reginald Colmore, Director of Airship Development, following this test said;

“It would be impossible to attempt to operate the ship on the Indian route even for demonstration flights with only this disposable lift available. At Karachi during the midsummer months the air density is such that there would be a loss of about seven percent of the gross lift of the airship, or say eleven tons, which would reduce the disposable lift to twenty-seven tons. Even if crew, ballast, etc. were reduced to a minimum, the ship could not leave the ground with more than say seven tons of fuel and even then it would be necessary to leave at the best time of the day.”

The report went on to detail various ways in which weight could be saved and the lift improved, basically by removing any and everything that could possibly be considered non essential, including some of the girders in the ship’s frame, replacing the glass windows of the promenade deck with lighter Cellon windows, and adjusting the gasbag wiring system so that the gasbags could be inflated more fully.

The measures suggested show just how desperate they were to make the flight to India work. Twelve of the passenger cabins were to be removed, as well as two toilets; the hot water tank in the toilets was also a casualty, with a note that hot water could be obtained from the galley, and one of the radiators was to be removed as, “… for the flight to India, any question of passenger car heating should be abolished.”

It was also noted that, “It is not proposed to carry parachutes for this flight.”

So, while the R101 was in the shed over winter, these suggestions were put into effect, and the ship was stripped down as much as possible. However, it still wouldn’t be enough, so another, more drastic step would follow.

Once the R101 had popped out in June of 1930 to make an appearance at the Royal Air Force Display at Hendon, she would go back into the shed, where she would be literally cut in half so they could lengthen her and stick an extra gas bag in the middle. That, according to their calculations, would finally give her enough lift to make the trip to India.

And it would be just in time; Lord Thomson had his sights set on a round trip in the R101 during the Imperial Conference, intending to return triumphantly and go straight to the meetings on transport, a walking demonstration of the superiority of airship travel. That meant flying to India and getting back to London for the 19th of October.

By now, another factor had been added to the pressure on the R101 team; their competitor, the R100, had successfully made her demonstration flight to Canada, leaving on the 29th of July and returning mid-August.

So, when the R101 came out of the shed on the 1st of October they were able to squeeze in just one more test flight, lasting a little under seventeen hours, before preparing to leave for Karachi on the evening of the 4th of October.

Lift and weight were still very much a factor as they loaded their supplies, and they were restricted in the amount of luggage they could take – according to the notes given to the press, “The amount of luggage allowed to each Officer or Passenger is thirty lbs., and to each member of the Crew fifteen lbs.”

Fifteen pounds is 6.8kg; many airlines today allow more than this just for your carry-on luggage, and this was all the crew members had for a round trip expected to take fifteen days.

Of course, as is often the case, those rules weren’t actually applied to those at the top. Lord Thomson brought a rather astounding 254lbs, or 115kg, of luggage, including two cabin trunks, four suitcases, two cases of champagne, a dress sword weighing three pounds (1.36kg) and a luxurious carpet which weighed 129lbs or 58.5kg by itself.

For perspective, remember that they had removed two toilets from the airship to gain a weight saving of 130lbs.

Alongside Thompson, the other passengers were;

Director of Civil Aviation, Sir Sefton Brancker, Deputy Director of Civil Aviation, India, Squadron Leader W. O’Neill, Squadron Leader W. Palstra, who was there on behalf of the Australian government, Major Percy Bishop, the Chief Inspector of Aircraft, and Lord Thomson’s valet, James Buck.

There were also six men travelling as Officials of the Royal Airship Works; Vincent Richmond, the airship’s director of design, and his assistant, Squadron Leader Michael Rope; Major Scott and Wing Commander Colmore, Alexander Bushfield of the Aeronautical Inspection Directorate, and Foreman Engineer HJ Leech.

The Officers of the R101 were:

Flight-Lieutenant H Carmichael Irwin, AFC, the Captain. Squadron Leader E L Johnston, OBE, AFC, the Navigator. Lieutenant-Commander N G Atherstone, AFC, 1st Officer. Flying Officer M H Steff, 2nd Officer, and  

Mr M A Giblett, MSc, the Meteorological Officer.

There were thirty-seven crew, making up a total of 54 men on board.

A crowd gathered to see the R101 depart, despite the cold weather typical of a British October evening. There were family members and friends of those on board, men and women who had worked so hard over the last six years to bring this moment about, and others simply there for the spectacle.

In “The Millionth Chance: The Story of the R101”, author James Leasor described the great airship’s departure.

“…the telegraphs rang in the engine cars; the Engineers pulled open their throttles, and the great diesels began to thunder. As R. 101 pulled out of the cone at the masthead, her bow should have soared up, but instead it dipped slightly. She was so heavily laden with extra fuel oil for the 3,000-mile journey to Egypt and with passengers and their luggage, that she had no resilience left. Also the concave surfaces of the top panels had been gathering moisture all day and this accumulated water added greatly to the gross weight. Even such a small dip was dangerous, for she was at most a hundred and eighty feet -the height of the mast -above a crowd of thousands, and her total length was seven hundred and seventy feet. A relatively small dip could bring her bows down among the spectators, for Irwin had no height at all for manoeuvring. He had not a second to lose; he had to bring her nose up again, at once. The only way was to release ballast from her bows -which would leave him without much more to let go should her bows become heavy again in flight. No matter. If he did not release it immediately, there might not be a flight. Irwin gave the order. The water sprayed out into the air in great gouts, and caught the light in a million tears, reflecting it like a cascade from some fairy-tale fountain. The wind from the spinning propellers vaporized it, blowing this strange cold rain down on the upturned faces of the watchers.”

r101_cropped-7171132 Source: Wikimedia Commons

She crept away slowly into the night, flying at about 25miles per hour and at a height of about 1,500 feet. The route was, at first, quite familiar, as they had flown many of their test flights over the same parts of South East England. However, those flights had been made in good weather; the weather forecast on this occasion was not so good, so they were heading into somewhat unknown territory on two counts.

Even while they were still on this side of the Channel, their progress alarmed some on the ground. The wife of author Shane Leslie saw the airship overhead near Hitchin, and later told reporters from the Daily Express:

“Everything was lit up by a ghastly red and green light. We rushed out -and there was the R. 101, aiming straight for the house. She was so low it didn’t seem as if she could miss it. I said, “Well, this is the end of my cottage,” and rushed over the nearest fence, while the servants scattered in the other direction. She cleared the trees of our drive and the house by the smallest margin. I never thought she would make it. We could see the people dining, and the electric bulbs in the ceiling. She seemed to be going very slowly, and her engines seemed weak and unbusinesslike. I suppose we are the highest point (600 feet) she had to pass before she crashed. As the green and red tail lights moved away up the drive, horror descended on us all, in spite of the sudden relief of escaping what we thought was certain doom.”

Meanwhile, as far as we can tell, the passengers aboard had no idea of the alarm they caused. They would have been relaxing on board, enjoying a flight that was much quieter than that experienced on an airplane, and making the most of the facilities. The promenade deck would not have been much of an attraction at this point, since it was already dark and they couldn’t expect to see much, but they could relax in the lounge, enjoy a meal in the dining room, and retire to the special smoking room. Yes, despite travelling beneath millions of cubic feet of flammable hydrogen gas, they had still made it possible for the gentlemen to enjoy a cigarette. The smoking room was lined with asbestos in the floor and ceiling, and had lighters chained to the tables so that nobody could absent-mindedly pocket one. Lighters, matches and other sources of flame were otherwise not permitted onboard. It was just one of the R101’s innovations.

At 8:21pm, the R101 signalled back to Cardington, with no indication of any concerns:

‘Over London. All well. Moderate rain. Base of low clouds 1,500 feet. Wind 240 degrees (about West-South-West). 25 mph. Course now set for Paris. Intend to proceed via Paris, Tours, Toulouse and Narbonne.’

They messaged again at 9:35: – 

‘Crossing coast in vicinity of Hastings. It is raining hard and there is a strong south-westerly wind. Cloud base is at 1,500 feet. After a good getaway from mooring tower at 18.30 hours ship circled Bedford before setting course. Course was set for London at 18.54. Engines running well at cruising speed giving 54.2 knots. Reached London at 20.00 hours and then set course for Paris. Gradually increasing height so as to avoid high land. Ship behaving well generally and we have already begun to recover water ballast.”

The confidence of this message seems odd, as another observer on the ground was extremely concerned about the ship’s behaviour. A Mr Reginald Cook, of Pett Level near Hastings, later told the Daily Mail that,

“the airship was not more than 500ft up and that her speed was only about 40m.p.h. She seemed to him to be flying badly, and he almost warned the Dungeness lifeboat to keep a lookout for any accident.”

As the great airship crossed the Channel itself, it would have been very difficult for them to see where they actually were; dark skies, dark sea, and no landmarks or lights meant they relied on instruments, and dropping flares to check for drift. About two hours later, though, they were once more approaching land; they signalled back to Cardington, “Crossing French coast at Points de St Quentin. Wind 245 true 35 mph.”

A more extensive message followed at midnight.

“To Cardington from R. 101, 24.00 GMT. 15 miles SW of Abbeville. Average speed 33 knots. Wind 243 degrees (that is WSW), 35 miles per hour. Altimeter height 1,500 feet. Air temperature, 51 degree Fahrenheit. Weather -intermittent rain. Cloud nimbus at 500 feet. After an excellent supper our distinguished passengers smoked a final cigar, and, having sighted the French coast, have now gone to bed to rest after the excitement of their leave-taking. All essential services are functioning satisfactorily. The crew have settled down to watch-keeping routine.”

Shortly after one o’clock, R101 signalled Croydon Aerodrome, who had been aiding them with position-keeping, thanking them for their assistance. Meanwhile, French operators were also beginning to track the airship; a message from Le Bourget airport at 1:51am calculated their position about a kilometre north of a landing ground at Beauvais. R101 gave a short acknowledgement of this: “Le Bourget from airship. Acknowledge. Thanks.”

And then nothing. 

Eugene Rabouille lived near Beauvais, and despite the terrible weather that night was out setting snares for rabbits. He saw the R101 passing overhead.

“I clearly saw the passengers’ quarters, well lit, and the green and red lights on the right and left of the airship. Suddenly there was a violent squall. The airship dipped by the nose several times, and its fore part crashed into the north-west edge of the Bois des Coutumes. There was at once a tremendous explosion, which knocked me down. Soon flames rose into the sky to a great height -perhaps 300 feet. Everything was enveloped by them. I saw human figures running about like madmen in the wreck. Then I lost my head and ran away into the woods.”

Another witness was a M. Louis Petit, a storekeeper in nearby Allonne. 

“Suddenly I heard a noise like a long roll of thunder. I ran out in the street, and quite low above the church opposite I saw something which looked like a lit-up village. I knew the “Zep” was due to pass over us, and I realized that something was wrong. The ship was moving broadside on. Suddenly all the lights in the airship went out, and a moment later they were all turned on again. Then again they went out, then on and out again. I remarked to my wife that each time the lights went on, the airship dropped a bit lower. Then with all the lights on, the airship nosedived. There was a mighty explosion -oh, something that you cannot imagine! It was as if the whole world had exploded. I telephoned to the police that the airship had crashed over the fields…”

Shortly after this, Le Bourget confirmed the terrible news, using the airship’s official registration number: “G-FAAW a pris feu!” – it caught fire.

Despite the immediate conflagration, there were survivors. George Darling, a British man who was at the time living in Beauvais, had seen the airship, realised she was in difficulties, and followed her in a car. 

“I was some  distance behind when she came down with a terrible crash. Flames instantly appeared at one end, but they had not a substantial hold when I arrived. I was amazed to see a blue-tunicked man standing dazed. It was Leach[sic] who said that nobody was aware the R101 was in difficulties until a few minutes before the crash. He knew the captain was trying to communicate with the engine room to stop the engines when the ship dropped and the wind seemingly dashed her into the hillside. Then the ship exploded and there was another explosion five minutes later. Then Bell and Binks appeared from nowhere.”

The men attempted to break into the control room to look for other survivors, but the flames – fuelled by the massive amount of hydrogen aboard – quickly drove them back.

Foreman Engineer Leech had been in the smoking room at the time of the crash, taking a break. This was set in the middle of the airship – inside the balloon, at the bottom, just behind where the control car was suspended. In his statement later, he said:

““I went to the smoke-room for a cigarette. I had been there 10-15 minutes when the ship’s nose went down very rapidly to an angle of 40 degrees. Tables and all loose articles slipped down towards the forward bulkhead. I slipped from centre of my settee to the front end which was against the bulkhead. Ship dived a considerable distance before resuming on an even keel. Remained on an even keel for a minute or less, engine still running at cruising speed: then dived again same angle as before. Between first and second dive I picked up some glasses and a siphon and laid them on table. Engine telegraph rang after 2nd dive began. Crash came a moment later. Shock of impact not great – more a crunch than a blow – I was not even shaken. Within 2 seconds of striking, a blinding flash of fire appeared to originate from above the control car. I saw the mass of flame through the door of the smoke room.”

Interestingly, he described this flash of light as being very white, and not like a hydrogen fire at all. It was later suggested that this explosion came from a box of flares stored in the control room, which in turn ignited the hydrogen.

“Upper passenger deck collapsed on to the tops of the settee backs, leaving me a space of 3 feet full of fumes and smoke but no flames. I heard people screaming and moaning in the crews quarters and upper passenger deck, which was then blazing. I tore a settee away from the bulkhead and scrambled through the opening, and found myself inside the hull on the starboard side. The outer cover had then been completely burnt away from that section, except for the cellon windows which were still blazing and through which I had to force my way.” 

Engineers Arthur Bell and Joe Binks had been together in one of the engine cars, hanging below the balloon towards the rear of the airship, at the time of the crash. 

Binks recalled that the engine seemed to land “quite lightly” and skidded “only a very short distance”, with fire breaking out immediately. He later told newspaper reporters,

“We were saved by the bursting of the service water tank above our heads. This sent a deluge of water down upon us and put out the beginnings of a fire in the car. We crouched in the bottom of the car with rags over us, and then made every effort to get out. The framework was hot and crumbling, but we managed to crawl through it.”

Lucky while this escape was, for Bell it was even luckier. The men were supposed to take turns in the engine car, and Binks had been late in coming down to change shifts, as he had overslept. If he had woken up on time, Bell could easily have been making his way through the ship, perhaps on a fragile walkway amidst the gasbags, at the time of the crash.

Two other engineers, Cook and Savory, also survived, as well as wireless operator A. Disley.

The survivors of R101. Source: Picryl

Two riggers, Radcliffe and Church, also survived the initial crash; Church was taken to hospital by a M. Debeaupuis, who stayed with him through the night while the rigger’s fiancée and father rushed to Beauvais. Sadly, the young man succumbed to his injuries two and a half hours before they arrived. Radcliffe also died in hospital. Thus, only six men out of the 54 aboard survived. All of the dignitaries on board – Lord Thompson, Sir Sefton Brancker, the experts from the Royal Airship Works – perished in the flames. 

Identifying the dead would be a difficult – and in some cases, impossible – task. The fire had swept through the airship, leaving little more than a massive tangled pile of girders, and one  newspaper reported that, “Some of the bodies are so shrivelled that they would fit in a child’s coffin.”

On October 9th, the Courier and Advertiser wrote,

“Reporters spoke to relatives of the deceased, who had visited Westminster Mortuary to attempt identification of their loved ones. The brother-in-law of Mr W.R. Gent, the chief engineer, said:“I was advised not to look at the bodies, but I was able to identify my brother-in-law by a few of the articles which belonged to him – his watch and his ring. It was a sad sight to see the belongings of the dead men lying in little piles on the table. Most of the articles were of metal – watches, rings, pencils, spectacles and the like.”

Lady Brancker was reported to have identified her husband’s monocle.”

The town hall at Beauvais was renamed, for the time, “The Chapel of Repose for the Sons of Britain”, and used as a mortuary, with the walls draped in black cloth and the coffins covered by Union Jacks. Each was numbered; the same number would be on a small box containing anything that had been retrieved from the body, by which they might be identified.

After lying in state at Beauvais, the coffins were taken by train to Boulogne; a sombre procession took them to the station, with more than a hundred thousand spectators. At Boulogne, they were transferred to two British destroyers, HMS Tempest and HMS Tribune, to take them across the channel. A special train then took them from Dover to London’s Victoria station, arriving at midnight. They went on to lie in state at Westminster Hall. A memorial service was held at St Paul’s Cathedral, attended by the Prince of Wales and dignitaries from many other countries, while a requiem mass was said at Westminster Cathedral, for the four Roman Catholics who had died on board. 

One week after they had set out from Cardington, the dead returned, in forty-eight coffins, each bearing a plate made from the R101’s aluminium. Just fourteen of them bore names; the rest simply said, “To the memory of the unknown airman who died on October 5.”

Amidst crowds of mourners – the entirety of Bedford was in mourning – a sombre procession brought the coffins to their final resting place, a mass grave in St Mary’s churchyard in Cardington. 

Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald said he was, “grieved beyond words at the loss of so many splendid men, whose sacrifice has been added to that glorious list of Englishmen who, on uncharted seas and unexplored lands, have gone into the unknown as pioneers and pathfinders, and have met death…”

John Masefield, the Poet Laureate, wrote: “The sudden loss of so many of our best must touch every feeling heart with the thought that these men died while advancing man’s mastery over the elements, increasing his knowledge, and breaking down his boundaries. The men of this race have ever been pioneers, content to spend themselves thus. May a sense of the immortality of all high endeavour comfort those grieving for them.”

  • The funeral procession in London. Source: Picryl
  • mass-burial-of-48-victims-of-r-101-crash-cardington-86a63a-6477489 The burial service. Source: Picryl

But even amidst the grief, there were questions. Everyone wanted to know how the R101, which had appeared so elegant, so graceful, and which was supposed to be so advanced, had come to its fiery end. 

There were various theories put forward. Perhaps the oddest came from a correspondent writing to the Western Morning News, who believed that astrology was the answer. 

“At this last new moon there was no planetary body in signs of air, but a strong concentrated force of five planetary bodies in earth vibrations, four of them in the sign Virgo, which modern astrologers, by research, have proved rules the part of France where the gravity and pull of earth were greater than that of air this month.”

The Western Times reported this, and more scientific discussions.

“Probable causes of the tragic disaster are discussed by a French airship expert, M. Kapferer, in an interview with the “Excelsior.”He does not think that the airship caught fire while in the air, but believes that when she crashed into the hilltop near Allonne, the shock of the collision burst her forward gas-bags, thus allowing the very inflammable hydrogen to come into contact with the engines and hot exhaust pipes, which would set it alight at once.With regard to the height at which R101 flew, M. Kapferer says that an airship of her length should keep an altitude of not less than five times her length. Thus the R101, which was 777 feet long, should not have got below 3,800 feet, but according to present reports was never above 1,400 feet.

The suggestion that a mistake by the pilot just before the disaster might have been responsible for the airship’s fatal plunge is dismissed by M. Kapferer, who says that British pilots are too skilful to make blunders of that kind.”

In fact, the R101 would never have flown much above two thousand feet, because her gas bags were fitted with valves which would begin to vent her hydrogen above that level. This was necessary because hydrogen expands at higher altitudes, and if not vented would cause the gasbags to burst. 

While the media speculated, an official inquiry commenced; there were ten days of witness statements, then it was adjourned to allow expert witness Sir Leonard Bairstow to conduct wind tunnel experiments on a scale model of the airship. The report was presented to parliament in March, 1931. 

The inquiry had to look at every feature of the ship, both traditional and novel, with an eye to whether it may have been to blame for the crash.

The most important part of the airship – the bit that provides that lift – is, obviously, the gas itself, and the giant gasbags holding it. They were painstakingly made from “gold-beater skin” – a particular membrane taken from an ox’s intestine. It had taken something like a million oxen to make the R101’s gasbags, which were prepared on-site by a team of women who scraped, washed, stretched and glued them into their final form. The R101 design team had tested various other materials, but came to the conclusion that gold-beater skin, the tried and tested option, was the best then available. The report said,

“The gasbags when incorporated in the airship were doubtless as perfect and free from defects as it was humanly possible to make them. But after the ship had been through some of its preliminary trials, and particularly after an increase in the size of the gasbags had caused serious chafing against the frames of the ship, leakage of gas through holes in the bags developed to an abnormal and indeed alarming extent. But although holes in gasbags are very far from being desirable, it must be borne in mind that the escape of gas from a small hole even at the top of a bag is relatively small… and, unless small holes are very numerous, the resulting loss of gas is not a matter of serious consequence.”

So, were the holes very numerous?

The report said;

“When she was brought into the shed at the end of November, 1929, a most careful gasbag inspection was made. Each bag was taken out of the ship in turn and examined for holes in the fabric; every gasbag except one was found to be holed, and in some of them the number of holes was considerable. For example, bag No. 11 had 103 holes in the fabric; bag No. 5 had 57, while some other bags were in much better condition.”

This was prior to adjustments made to the gasbag wiring system; it had been designed to keep the gasbags away from girders which they might rub against, and thus prevent holes, but in the effort to attain the lift they needed the wires had been relaxed to the extent that they did rub against the girders in places they hadn’t before.

r101-framework-9253718 The framework of the R101 . Source: Wikimedia Commons

On the 3rd of July 1930, a memo was sent to the Secretary of the Air Ministry by Mr F McWade, the Inspector in Charge of the Aeronautical Inspection Directorate – the man who would have to sign and issue the airship’s certificate of airworthiness and permit to fly.

“Owing to the modifications which have recently been carried out on the Wiring System, the gasbags are now hard up against the main longitudinals and rubbing very hard on the nuts of the bolts positioning the stirrup into which the tie rods are screwed. Further, the gasbags foul very badly the heads of the taper pins at the points of the main and intermediate struts at the inner ridge girder ends. This matter, in my opinion, has become very serious, as the points of fouling occur throughout the ship and amount to thousands.”

So, yes, there were numerous holes. They had put padding in place instead, but McWade’s memo pointed out problems with this solution.

“Padding to the extent now necessary is, in my opinion, very unsatisfactory, because the bags move when the ship is in flight and the padding becomes loose and the projection complained of is again exposed.”

However, the memo didn’t make its way to Sir John Higgins, the member of the Air Council who would have dealt with such matters. Instead, the Director of Aeronautical Inspection, Colonel Outram, got in touch with Wing Commander Colmore, who wrote back with the reassurance that “We have little doubt that padding will be a permanent remedy and, if this is accepted, then it is certainly not a large undertaking to put the matter right.”

Another way gas might escape from the gasbags was through the relief valves, as mentioned earlier. While valves themselves weren’t innovative, the R101 team had designed a new type. 

“In the trial flights, these valves appear to have given general satisfaction, though it cannot be claimed that the weather conditions encountered, or the changes of altitude attempted, were at any time sufficiently severe to constitute an exhaustive or conclusive test.”

There had also been issues with the cover of the airship – the massive silver balloon that made it look so striking in the sky. Again, the design team had experimented with new materials but none proved suitable, so they had used chemically treated cloth, just like the German Zeppelins. However, there was still an attempt at innovation. The chemical treatment they used, cellulose nitrate, was known as “dope”, and was intended to make the material weather tight, reflective and taut. The standard technique was to put the cloth cover on the airship frame and then spray it with the dope, which required workers to hang from the rafters at dangerous heights, and took a long time. Instead, the R101 team decided to put the dope on first, then attach the cover and pull it tight.

This had not been successful. The canvas rotted and had to be removed, replaced with a canvas doped in place.

The ship’s engines had been another innovation, and another issue. Because the R101 was intended to fly to India, the designers had decided to use diesel engines instead of petrol – diesel was less flammable than petrol, which was considered to be a fire risk in hot climates, and the engines would be more efficient, needing less fuel overall. Unfortunately, the diesel engines were heavier than expected, and didn’t provide as much power as planned. 

Early designs had given the R101 metal propellers which would have been adjustable to provide forward or backward thrust; they hadn’t worked either, and had been replaced with fixed wooden ones. Since the airship needed to be able to maneuver backwards to dock at the tower, they had initially had four engines set to go forward, and one solely to go backwards; later two of the engines were adjusted so that they could be used either forwards or backwards, so all five could be used going ahead. 

As to the actual cause of the crash, the inquiry found that there was no structural weakness at fault and no failure of the control gear. While the weather was bad, the accident could not be explained solely by the weather. The crew were regarded as competent, and failure on their part was thought unlikely, although the recent shift change may have meant that the crew were not quite “in tune” with the motion of the ship, and so might not have been able to react as quickly. 

In the end, the report said;

“The experts (both theoretical and practical), who gave evidence to the Court believe that the explanation of the disaster must be associated with a substantial loss of gas.”

Professor Bairstow told the inquiry that, “if the ship steadily lost gas, her increasing heaviness would nevertheless not call for more than a very slight adjustment of the elevator until she approached a critical condition.”

However, other experts thought that a long, slow release of gas would have been noticed by the crew; none of the survivors said that anything was wrong prior to the crash.

Dr Eckener, the German expert on airships said,

“It may now have happened that in a slight gust of wind the ship made a movement downward which the new coxswain of the elevator did not immediately and correctly counteract, because he could not be quite clear about the condition of the ship. The movement became steep because the ship now received a current of air from above on her nose, thus accentuating the effect of the head-heaviness. The gas between the gasbags and the outer cover escaped to the tail of the ship, thus increasing the pitching moment still further. Owing to this unusual violent movement of the ship the already damaged gasbag sustained a larger rent from which the gas now quickly escaped.”

This theory was largely accepted by the other experts and so, while the specifics couldn’t be determined, the immediate cause of the crash was assigned to leakage of gas. 

This would have been exacerbated by the issue of her weight, as they were so close to the margin of what they could lift.

However, the other question was more telling. Should the R101 have been in the air that night in the first place?

The report said; 

“Originality and courage in design are not to be deprecated, but there is an obvious danger in giving too many separate hostages to fortune at one time. Indeed, the only effective security against the risk of trying many new experiments in design simultaneously is a prolonged series of trials designed to test out the airworthiness of each new feature in turn.”

The R101 had only made twelve flights, including its final, fatal one, and she had not done any full-speed tests. In fact, she only flew one test flight in her final form before setting out for India. It seems obvious that the airship just hadn’t been tested thoroughly enough, and the report said as much:

“the R.101 started for India before she could be regarded as having emerged successfully from all the exhaustive tests proper to an experimental stage.”

This, of course, leads to the question of why this was allowed. It could perhaps have been understood if every flight had been perfect, but they obviously had not been.

One of the issues pointed out by the inquiry was that, “the officials at the Air Ministry in London… were, almost without exception, men whose training and experience had been gained in the course of service with aeroplanes as distinguished from airships. When, therefore, questions arose at Cardington…, which are peculiar to airships, there was a natural tendency at the Air Ministry to rely upon the advice and judgment of the airship experts who were congregated there.”

In other words, the R101’s design team didn’t have anyone to turn to for a second opinion or expert advice. The only other airship experts in the country were those working on R100, and the adversarial “Socialist vs. Capitalist” setup of the airship scheme had made them less willing to collaborate.

However, at its heart the issue of why R101 was allowed to fly comes down to politics. 

Lord Thomson was the one who set the date, based on the timing of the Imperial Conference. On July 2nd, he wrote, “I should like to be able to count definitely on starting for India during the week-end September 26-28th. I ought to be back by October 16th.”

A Minute from Sir John Higgins, sent to the Secretary of State on July 14th, suggested that the lengthening of the R101 might be delayed until R100 had made her flight to Canada – in case R100 couldn’t make it, and R101 had to step in. 

However, in a reply the same day, Lord Thomson made it clear that the schedule for the R101 had now been set in stone:

“So long as R.101 is ready to go to India by the last week in September this further delay in getting her altered may pass. I must insist on the programme for the Indian flight being adhered to, as I have made my plans accordingly.”

When Colmore told Thomson that the R101 wouldn’t be able to leave the hangar by September 22nd as hoped, Thomson replied, “that he could probably arrange for the Air business of the Imperial Conference to be put off until about October 20th if necessary”, thus making it clear that Colmore must do whatever possible to ensure that the R101 would work to his schedule.

An official Permit to Fly had to be obtained before the R101 could depart – and this, too, was rushed. The independent consultants, Professor Bairstow and Professor Pippard, made their determination based on design paperwork provided to them by the Royal Airship Works, and official permission was given by Bairstow over the telephone.

Although from the information available they were satisfied that the R101 complied with the “specified requirements of the Airworthiness of Airships Panel”, Bairstow’s letter dated the 1st October notes that, 

“A good deal of general thinking and comparison on limited information has been required in reaching our conclusion and we have not had time since receiving essential information from the R.A.W., to prepare a sufficiently considered written report. We are proceeding to put our first draft into final form.”

They were still working on it when the airship crashed. In his draft, Bairstow wrote, “We have necessarily had to change our procedure and decide the question of airworthiness on general considerations and not on specific calculations.”

Thus, although he had given permission to fly, he had not done so with the fullest of information, and there was room for doubt.

Wreckage of the R101. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Originally, it had been proposed that the R101 should have to complete an endurance flight lasting 48 hours before she could be declared ready to fly; now, her final test flight was supposed to last 24 hours – but it was curtailed short of seventeen. No written report of this flight was available to the inquiry – it was thought to have still been on board the R101, and destroyed with her, assuming it had been made. However, Colonel Richmond’s diary noted that it had been, “Impossible to carry out (a) full speed test owing to the early failure of the oil cooler in the forward starboard engine.”

The Inquiry concluded that,

“It is really quite beyond dispute that the reason why this final trial flight was shortened was because the intention to start on October 3rd or 4th left so little time for preparation after it was over.”

They continued;

“…while there is no reason to suppose that the R101 did not start for India until after any defects ascertained during her last trial had been remedied (and the officers in charge of her would certainly have refused to start if this had not been so), it is impossible to overlook the fact that the trials of the reconstructed ship were cut down to a degree that would never have been thought proper if it had not been for exigencies of time.”

Squadron Leader Booth, the captain of the R100, told the inquiry that the officers concerned;

“…were confident in the ship and in their crew, but, at the same time, I feel that their decision to leave, or their agreement to leave, at that time was biased by the fact of the Imperial Conference coming off, and the psychological moment in airships when they could carry the Secretary of State to India, and bring him back to time. It biased their judgment in agreeing to fly. If that Imperial Conference had not been coming off, I feel confident that they would have insisted upon more trials, as was done in the case of the R100 before she left for Canada.”

And this is truly the most heartbreaking part of this disaster. Any design problems with the R101 could, eventually, have been overcome, but the team just weren’t given the time. It had been made clear that this flight had to happen – and that, if it didn’t, there wouldn’t be any more state funding for airships. 

Although Lord Thomson repeatedly stated that he was led by the advice of the experts, and that safety should come first, he nevertheless created an atmosphere in which everyone felt that the trip to India could not be postponed or cancelled any further. 

The report also noted that, “There was the knowledge possessed by all concerned that the carrying out of this first flight to India was in any case an experiment involving a first experience of conditions which… must be faced sooner or later by resolute men…”

The crew had confidence in their ship, and its design, even though it hadn’t been proved thoroughly. They knew that the trip would be dangerous whether it was done now or later, just because it was something that hadn’t been done before, and they accepted that. 

And, the R101 had been in development for so long that it would be natural for everyone involved to want to reach the finish line – to prove that all those years of hard work had been worthwhile. 

So, while it’s hard to say that it was purely political pressure and imperial hubris that set the R101 on the path to disaster, both obviously played a large part. The circumstances in which they left are perhaps best summed up by the last entry in the diary of Lieutenant-Commander Atherstone, the airship’s First Officer, which read;

“Everybody is rather keyed up now, as we all feel that the future of airships very largely depends on what sort of a show we put up. There are very many unknown factors, and I feel that that thing called “Luck” will figure rather conspicuously in our flight. Let’s hope for good luck and do our best.”

Sadly, luck was absent that night; and their best was not enough to save the British airship dream from the flames.

r101_memorial_allones-9258222 R101 Memorial at Allonnes. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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