R 101’s ill-fated final flight brought Britain’s long-range dirigible program to a tragic conclusion.
In 1904 novelist and poet Rudyard Kipling penned With the Night Mail, a “Story of 2000 AD,” tracing a voyage from London to Quebec by “Postal Packet 162,” an atomic-powered airship. By the 21st century, he predicted, flight would dominate international security and commerce, as maritime power had at the beginning of the 20th. In this he was correct, though it would be the airplane, not the airship, that would dominate civil and military aviation. Still, his foresight was remarkable. Fifteen years after his story appeared, when the British airship R 34 crossed the Atlantic, its crewmen carried a copy with them, in – scribing it and presenting it to Kipling upon their return.
Though Britain never pursued the airship as assiduously as Zeppelin-obsessed Germany, the UK nevertheless harbored its own lighter-than-air enthusiasts. But their dreams largely spawned nightmarish reality. Britain’s first rigid airship, the weakly structured Mayfly of 1911, never flew. After consuming three years of development, it broke up in gusty winds while it was being floated out of its shed. Britain’s wartime dirigible program bore little fruit, save for R 34’s Atlantic crossing. Even that airship had only narrowly avoided disaster: Winds slowed R 34’s passage to such an extent that the airship barely made land before its fuel was exhausted.
In 1919 Britain’s cabinet approved selling R 38, a Royal Navy airship then under construction, to the U.S. Navy. Inspired by wartime German “height climbers,” R 38 featured an exceptionally lightweight frame. When it first flew in the summer of 1921, it experienced a series of disturbing control problems and structural failures. On August 23, while circling over Hull, R 38 broke apart and blew up, killing most of those aboard, including its designer and 16 U.S. Navy men.
It seemed the British airship’s heyday had passed. The government had expended £2,315,000 on eight ships that flew only 1,540 hours, an average of just 193 flying hours apiece. No consensus existed as to its future. Former First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill derided airships as “gaseous monsters,” railed about “the general failure of the airship service” and argued against further expenditure. Even airship enthusiasts such as Vickers designer Barnes Wallis were turning toward heavier-than-air craft, recognizing that they promised greater speed, better economics and easier operation.
Ironically, the airship’s salvation sprang from the resurrection of Germany’s pioneering airship firm. By 1926 Luftschiffbau Zeppelin had arisen phoenix-like; the company even formed a partnership with Goodyear in the United States. When British airship proponents saw the stately Zeppelins, they perceived not weakness but strength. “When the Near East is in a disturbed condition,” Sir Samuel Hoare, Britain’s secretary of state for air, argued in 1923, “an airship that can cover great distance without landing has advantages over the aeroplane.” A dirigible could span the distance from Australia to England in about 11 days, and cut travel time to India from 15 days to five.
A coalition of airship enthusiasts seeking faster imperial communication, and naval officers seeing the airship as a cheap aerial cruiser, now came together to support its development. Commander Dennistoun Burney, inventor of the mine-sweeping “paravane,” advocated starting a six-airship transatlantic service. After some hesitation, Britain’s Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) concurred, likely because it feared repeating an embarrassing prewar episode when it had failed to support British aeronautics. What’s more, King George V allegedly heard of Burney’s scheme from him at a royal levee, then applied his own considerable pressure on the CID.
In October 1923, Hoare announced the British government would fund building six large airships for imperial service. After Britain’s Labour Party briefly took power in 1924, however, the government decided to start with only two, for testing and evaluation. One, R 100, would come from the privately owned Airship Guarantee Company. The other, R 101, would be built by the government’s Royal Airship Works at Cardington. Comparing the two would reveal whether the “capitalist” or “socialist” approach worked best, and the government could then decide whether—and how—it should build others.
Most accounts depict R 100 as the product of genius laboring in the face of official neglect, and R101 as the product of incompetent government bureaucrats in thrall to the social experimentation of a reckless, radical air minister, Brigadier Christopher “Kit” Thomson, 1st Baron Thomson of Cardington. Neither view is correct. R 100 had more than its share of technical faults, and R 101 its share of advances. Nor was Thomson, who succeeded Hoare as overseer of British aviation in January 1924, the disastrous political appointee of myth. Britain’s aviation community welcomed his appointment, and he had compiled a distinguished military record before entering politics. As air minister he advocated—and steered—a careful path between government control and unconstrained private enterprise and, like his predecessor, proved to be a strong advocate for civil and military air issues. Nevertheless, his connection with the airship program has eclipsed virtually all other aspects of his public life. Thomson shared the prevailing passion for a global network of imperial air routes. In words that could have come from Kipling or Hoare, he wrote that Britain must establish a “girdle of air transport more than half-way round the earth [so that] the Empire will gain a new lease of prosperity and need fear no rival in the air.”
When Hoare and the Conservatives returned to power, they could have undone Labour’s transformation of the Burney plan, abandoning the overtly confrontational “private” versus “public” approach. Instead they continued it. Thus the common image of socialist bureaucrats forcing a defective airship upon Britain’s capitalist lighter-than-air community is simply false. Indeed the Conservatives, not Labour, held power over the critical five years in which R 100 and R 101 were developed.
Consuming more time and funding than had been hoped, the two airships did not make their first flights until late 1929. By that time Germany’s Graf Zeppelin had repeatedly crossed the Atlantic and even flown around the world, an additional goad to Britain’s airship advocates. R 100 and R 101 were more than 700 feet long, with a diameter of 132 feet, a volume of more than 5 million cubic feet of hydrogen, multiple engines in individual control cars, provision for 100 passengers and about 10 tons of mail, maximum speed of 80 mph and continuous cruising speed of 70 mph.
The “private” R 100 was the product of a team led by Burney, with Barnes Wallis as chief engineer and Nevil Shute Norway as chief loads calculator. Relations between Burney and Wallis soon deteriorated. Brilliant and driven, Wallis had left Vickers and the Royal Navy cynical and resentful of wasted effort. Before joining the R 100 team, he contemplated emigrating to the United States, already convinced that the future belonged to the airplane. (He subsequently transferred into Vickers’ aircraft branch, where he designed a string of notable airplanes and weapons, including the Wellesley and Wellington bombers and the Tallboy and Grand Slam supersonic bombs).
At Cardington a team led by Lt. Col. Vincent Richmond built the government’s R 101. Though vilified in some accounts for an alleged lack of experience, Richmond in fact had a strong technical background and broad relevant experience. He’d supervised blimp construction for the Royal Navy, studied German aviation, lectured on airship design at the Imperial College of Science and Technology and served in the Airship Research Department of the Air Ministry. He picked gifted subordinates, particularly Harold Roxbee Cox (the future Lord Kings Norton), a brilliant doctoral graduate and structural expert. Cox, who ensured that R 101 was beautifully streamlined, would later play a major role in British aviation.
Overall, R 100 was neither as “good,” “cheap” and “capitalist,” nor R 101 as “bad,” “expensive” and “socialist” as commonly suggested. Although Airship Guarantee built R 100 for less than R 101’s cost, the difference was slight: £471,000 vs. £527,000. R 101 was always the more advanced of the two, possessing such state-of-the-art features as powered flight controls. When those differences are considered, the small cost differential between the two is readily understandable. In addition, Airship Guarantee and the Air Ministry worked to different purposes. The former was simply building a single airship, while the latter was constructing an industrial base. For the ministry, R 101 was but a single part of a larger system, including a research and development establishment, an overseas infrastructure and complex support facilities. Naturally its costs were higher than those of Airship Guarantee.
Sadly, what should have been a straightforward comparative exercise degenerated into acrimony. Roxbee Cox later recalled that Wallis and Richmond were “openly scornful” of each other. Their bitterness spread through their teams, which criticized each other and shared information grudgingly. Even the air minister, Hoare, complained that he “tried my best to keep the peace and to hold the balance between the two centres of construction, but it was not an easy task.”
R 101 first flew on October 14, 1929, and R 100 on December 16. The government ship scored a significant publicity coup by taking 75 members of Parliament on a short flight, then completing a 30-hour sortie over England, Scotland and Ireland, passing in salute over the royal retreat at Sandringham as King George V watched. But R 101 had its share of problems: Winds ripped its fabric covering while it was moored, and it experienced such serious hydrogen leaks that it gave onlookers a memorable low-altitude flyby at the 1930 RAF Hendon airshow. After 10 flights it was lengthened from 724 to 777 feet, adding 500,000 cubic feet of volume for additional hydrogen so it could fly to India, and making it, for its time, the world’s largest airship.
In comparison, R 100 completed some relatively benign trial voyages around the British Isles and the English Channel. Its problems were similar to those R 101 faced, including rippling and tearing of its fabric at higher airspeeds, as well as hydrogen leakage. More serious, on one flight its pointed tail cone collapsed from unanticipated aerodynamic pressure changes. Had its gas cells extended farther aft, that incident might have doomed the ship. As it happened, R 100 was re – paired with a less aesthetically pleasing rounded stern.
In late July 1930, R 100 crossed the North Atlantic, voyaging from Cardington to Montreal and back. Commanded by Squadron Leader R.S. Booth and piloted by R 34 veteran George Herbert Scott, the airship left on July 29 with a total of 44 crewmen and observers, including Burney. The weather deteriorated the next day, which also saw gas leaks, minor engine problems and some fabric shedding. Scott had to order riggers out onto the port fin, where they attached new fabric—while hanging onto a structure that was 1,000 feet over the ocean. Thus patched up, R 100 reached Canada, heading down the St. Lawrence River to Montreal.
While a violent storm was pummeling the ship, crew and passengers saw an alarming vision: a crucifix blazing in the night sky. Then someone realized it was Montreal’s huge electrically lighted Mount Royal Cross, and everyone calmed down. They continued on, docking at St. Hubert field three days and six hours after departing England.
When R 100 returned to England in mid-August, departing Montreal on the 13th and landing just 57½ hours later, it immediately entered its hangar to be lengthened. Attention then focused on R 101, which was being readied for a proving flight to India.
The enlarged R 101 emerged on October 1, 1930, amid a crisis. Technicians had mistakenly applied a type of dope to its fabric covering that caused it to rot. Though workers replaced the affected sections, suspicions lingered that some weakened fabric might remain. Then, too, R 101 was up against a deadline: Thomson planned to make the trip, but he needed to be back in Britain by mid-October for a conference. R 101 embarked that day on a duration test, remaining aloft for 17 hours before an engine oil leak forced its early return.
It’s unclear what happened over the last days of preparation for the India trip. Some accounts say there was a rift between Thomson and Sir William Sefton Brancker, director of civil aviation, who allegedly expressed concern that R 101 was not ready for such a trip, and was even unsafe to fly. But that scenario is highly unlikely. Thomson had stressed to the Royal Airship Works that his travel schedule should not influence its decision about whether the craft was ready to go. For his part, Brancker was a highly experienced aviator, founder and master of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators, and it’s inconceivable he would have risked his own life and the lives of others if he had significant reservations.
Late on the afternoon of Saturday, October 4, Brancker, Thomson, Richmond, Scott and 50 others went up the mooring mast at Cardington, entering R 101 at its nose. Its captain was Flight Lt. H.C. “Bird” Irwin, with Squadron Leader E.L. Johnston, arguably the most experienced aerial navigator of his day, serving as navigator. By the time they were ready to take off, the weather had deteriorated, with rising wind and spatters of rain. Finally the first of the airship’s five Beardmore diesel engines coughed to life, and at 6:36 p.m. R 101 slipped off its mast and disappeared into the clouds.
Unknown to Bird and his crew, they had launched into a violent band of wind and rain. R 101 flew northwest from Cardington, circled over Bedford, then followed a southeast track toward London. After an oil warning light lit up, crewmen briefly shut down one engine before determining the light was faulty, then resumed full power. Flying at about 1,500 feet—barely twice its length—R 101 roared over the city at 60 mph just after 8 p.m., pitching and rolling in increasingly strong winds. Irwin received a revised forecast, predicting hours of winds gusting to 50 mph across a broad front from England through northern France. In retrospect it’s clear he should have turned back, but R 101 was holding its own, and he may have felt he could pass through the area before encountering the worst of the weather.
About 9:35 p.m. R 101 headed across the Channel, departing the British coast near Hastings. Inhabitants of Fairlight Cove who saw the big airship pass overhead later swore they heard music wafting downward. That was likely true. Irwin sent a series of generally upbeat messages while R 101’s passengers dined, moved to the lounge and then, if they desired, entered a sealed room where they could smoke, before they prepared to spend the night in comfortable cabins. At 11:36 the airship crossed over the French coast at Pointe de St. Quentin.
Winds now forced Irwin to shift to a southerly course, taking R 101 west of Abbeville, flying on as wind-whipped rain drove against the airship’s outer covering. Its groundspeed had by then dropped to less than 30 mph. At 2 a.m. it passed so low over Beauvais that its engines woke some inhabitants.
As R 101 approached the rising terrain of the Bois de Coutumes, it suddenly pitched downward. An airman raced to dump ballast, while the helmsman tried to keep the ship level. For a few seconds it nosed up, then dropped again. At 2:09 R 101 crashed into the woods as coxswain G.W. “Sky” Hunt called out: “We’re down, lads! We’re down!”
The airship instantly burst into flames, which swiftly consumed the fabric covering and killed 46 of its 54 crew and passengers, including Thomson, Brancker, Richmond, Scott, Irwin, Johnston, Hunt and virtually the entire leadership of the Royal Airship Works. Just eight crewmen escaped, two of whom later died as a result of their injuries.
Only hours later that Sunday morning Britain went into shock as the cries of newsboys hawking special editions informed incredulous churchgoers of the disaster. Roxbee Cox wrote dispiritedly, “It is, I am afraid, the end of airships in this country.” Condolences arrived from governments, groups and individuals around the world. The Royal Aeronautical Society mourned losing “some of its most brilliant technical members.” Sir Samuel Hoare, in the Times, lamented the deaths of those aboard, concluding, “With them has gone a great treasure of gathered knowledge and invaluable experience.”
A Royal Navy destroyer returned the remains of R 101’s many victims home as waves of French and British airplanes passed overhead. After lying in state, following packed services at St. Paul’s and Westminster cathedrals, they were taken in somber procession to Euston station as thousands watched. A funeral train transported them to Bedford, where waiting hearses carried them to Cardington. Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops presided over their final communal interment as more aircraft, an honor guard and a firing party rendered final salutes.
The Crown established an accident board chaired by Sir John Simon, a noted jurist, whose investigation began on October 28. It was the beginning of what member J.T.C. Moore-Brabazon described as a “long and sticky” examination, during which the board took testimony and other organizations furnished support, including a series of wind tunnel tests by the Aeronautical Research Committee to assess the airship’s performance in stormy conditions. The final report, issued the following year, pinned R 101’s descent on a sudden loss of buoyancy due to an unidentified cause. Chafing of the cells by bracing wires and internal structure constituted one possibility; abrupt rolling, which might have resulted in the venting of too much hydrogen gas through automatic pressure relief valves, was another. Charles G. Grey, editor of The Aeroplane, suggested that perhaps a powerful downdraft had flung R 101 into the ridge (that was what happened when the helium-filled U.S. Navy airship Akron was lost in a storm off the New Jersey coast less than three years later).
After examining these and other possible causes, the board decided the likeliest reason for the crash was a failure of the covering or internal structure that allowed the full fury of the airstream and storm to open gas cells in the nose. Its conclusion heightened suspicions that some of the rotted fabric had remained. When R 101 crashed, electrical shorts from breaking wires triggered the conflagration. But the exact cause and mechanism of its demise were unknown. The report concluded, “Whatever the precise circumstances may have been, the explanation that the disaster was caused by a substantial loss of gas in very bumpy weather holds the field.”
Memories of the R 101 disaster gradually faded over the next quarter century—until they were dramatically revived by engineer-novelist Nevil Shute’s Slide Rule (1954), journalist-novelist James Leasor’s The Millionth Chance (1960) and biographer J.E. Morpurgo’s Barnes Wallis (1972). Shute, Leasor and Morpurgo fueled their own firestorm, suggesting that R 101 was as good as lost the moment it left Cardington and effectively charging Thomson, Richmond and the Royal Airship Works with gross incompetence and mismanagement. In contrast, they virtually sanctified R 100, Barnes Wallis and the Airship Guarantee team, portraying their work as having been sacrificed on an altar of socialist experimentation. But Shute was hardly dispassionate: He had served as the chief stress calculator on R 100, and R 101’s Richmond had once turned him down for a job.
Leasor, then Morpurgo, built upon Shute’s one-sided interpretation. The influence of their seemingly authoritative books, written while many official papers remained beyond examination, reflected the sad fact that, after that fateful night on the Bois de Coutoumes, few survived who could have spoken up for R 101 and its builders.
Not until the early 1980s did a more balanced analysis of the R 101 transport executive Sir Peter Masefield. His program appear, written by airship expert and air To Ride the Storm concluded that R 101 was hardly inherently flawed, and far from doomed on its last flight. At any point up to its final, fatal descent, Bird Irwin could have turned back, using the winds that had hindered his progress to speed his return. As for the “radical” Thomson, in a 1982 letter to historian Douglas Robinson, Masefield argued that he “fulfilled those attributes which most professionals would ask of their political chief,” enumerating his conscientious study, determined planning, securing political and financial support, reliance on professional judgment and then “backing up the team by deciding to accompany them to prove his faith in their handiwork.”
Masefield’s research, and engineering simulations undertaken in the 1980s at the University of Bristol, present a sobering picture of the airship’s last moments. R 101 pitched down abruptly, briefly leveling as the helmsman applied corrective elevator. It could not maintain its attitude by helm control alone, however. Dirigibles remain aloft through both lifting gas and body lift produced by their passage through the air. R 101’s props generated five tons of crucial thrust, furnishing a vital nose-up force helping to keep it aloft. Perhaps concerned about his proximity to the ground, Irwin had ordered a reduction in speed. But that resulted in a further loss of lift, and so R 101 fell to earth. After it hit the ground, calcium flares imprudently attached under the control car, not electrical shorts, likely produced the intense flames that triggered the lethal hydrogen-air conflagration.
Scrappers dismembered R 101’s skeletal wreckage, and R 100 followed it to the breaker’s yard. Its partisans viewed R 100’s destruction as revenge for its having performed better than the “government” airship. But even though it had been lengthened, R 100 had no useful future ahead of it. Despite a few zealots who still hoped imperial airships might traverse foreign skies, Britain’s rigid airship program swiftly died: The future belonged to the airplane.
The failure was not so much R 101’s as airships’ in general. They were necessarily large and lightly structured, so weather always handled them badly. As Simon noted: “An upward current of air at one end may combine with a downward current at the other and suddenly disturb its horizontal course, threatening to tilt it to earth….The aeroplane…does not as a rule suffer from what is the besetting danger of an airship, namely the sudden tearing of its cover, creating a baffle which reduces its flying speed without warning.”
The R 101 disaster dashed hopes that Britain could dominate interwar intercontinental air transport. Like rigid airship programs in Germany, France and America, Britain’s imperial airship venture consumed enormous amounts of money, manpower, material, energy and time, as well as many lives. It was particularly detrimental to British aviation, for at a time of increasingly scarce resources, it absorbed effort and funds that the Air Ministry and industry could have applied to other, more critical, air transport needs.
The long-range dirigible did for interwar British civil aeronautics what long-range rockets subsequently did for Nazi Germany. Both constituted unrealistic responses to real-world challenges, both distracted decision-makers from more practical alternatives and both piggishly sopped up what was thrown their way, giving back little other than hollow promises and dramatic visual images of what constituted illusory, not actual, power.
Former U.S. Air Force historian Richard P. Hallion was the 2007-2008 Verville Fellow of the National Air and Space Museum. Further reading: Empire of the Air, by Sir Samuel Hoare; To Ride the Storm, by Sir Peter Masefield; and British Airships 1905-30, by Ian Castle.
Originally published in the July 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.