The Largely Forgotten Airship Disaster That Helped Kill These Cruise Ships of the Sky
The age of the giant rigid airship or Zeppelin was tragically brief, lasting barely forty years from the first Zeppelin flights in 1900 to the scrapping of the last surviving such airship, the Graf Zeppelin II, in 1940. When we think of the end of giant airships, we tend to picture the Hindenburg, which met its end in fiery end outside Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6, 1937. But while the Hindenburg was one of the final nails in the coffin for the dream of commercial lighter-than-air flight, the death of the giant airship had begun long before, with a long string of increasingly deadly crashes stretching all the way back to the turn of the century And among the worst was a now largely forgotten 1930 disaster that killed more people than the Hindenburg and ended the dream of airship travel in the British Empire. This is the story of the tragic loss of His Majesty’s Airship R-101.
The early leader in rigid airship technology was Germany, with Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, a former Army officer, making his first experimental flights in 1900. Zeppelin’s designs were the first to combine innovations such as a rigid aluminium frame, multiple hydrogen-filled gas cells, air filled ballonets for pressure control, and a water ballast system for altitude control into a single, workable package, and his sleek cigar-shaped creations soon became a common sight in the skies over southern Germany. Despite some early mishaps, within a decade Zeppelin had perfected the rigid airship into a dependable form of transport, and in 1910 he formed the world’s first airline, DELAG. The appeal of the Zeppelin as a form of commercial transport was obvious: compared to the small and primitive aircraft of the time, airships could carry a larger number of passengers longer distances in opulence and comfort approaching that of an ocean liner, with relatively little turbulence or risk of motion sickness. But there was a hitch: being lighter than air, Zeppelins were extremely vulnerable to the vagaries of wind and weather. Thus, unlike a modern airline DELAG never kept a regular schedule, its Zeppelins only flying when the weather permitted. Despite this the airline proved extremely popular with Germany’s elite, who gladly paid exorbitant fares for two-hour aerial excursions over the countryside.
To Zeppelin, however, DELAG was little more than a sideshow, for as a former Army officer he saw the airship primarily as a weapon of war. With the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, the German military, who had for years rejected Zeppelin’s proposals, finally expressed interest in airships and commandeered DELAG’s Zeppelins for military use. Particularly enthusiastic was the Imperial Navy, who on May 31, 1915 used Zeppelins to carry out the first aerial bombing raid on London. Such raids would continue throughout the war, and while they were a massive propaganda coup for the Germans and brought the horrors of war home to ordinary Britons, they caused relatively minor damage. And improved defences like antiaircraft guns and fighter aircraft firing incendiary bullets soon made Zeppelin raids increasingly costly, and resulted in most of Imperial Germany’s airships – and their crews – going down in flames.
After the war, with Germany’s economy in tatters and Zeppelin production banned by the Treaty of Versailles, the lead in airship development passed to the British. In July 1919, the British airship R.34 made history by making the first east-west crossing of the Atlantic from East Fortune, Scotland to Long Island, New York, a journey in 108 hours. Four days later it completed the return journey, making the first two-way aerial crossing of the Atlantic. While this feat demonstrated the viability of long-distance airship travel, the struggling British economy could not support further development and the airship program was shut down in 1921. The initiative passed once again to the German Zeppelin Company, who after Versailles Treaty restrictions were relaxed in 1923 produced a number of increasingly massive airships for foreign customers, including the USS Shenandoah for the U.S. Navy. Then, in 1928, the company produced what would become the only truly successful passenger airship: the LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin. The Graf Zeppelin was unlike anything the world had ever seen, measuring a whopping 236 metres long and 30 metres tall and featuring accommodations for 24 passengers which rivalled most ocean liners for comfort and opulence. In 1929, in an event bankrolled by American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, the Graf Zeppelin became the first airship to circumnavigate the globe, flying from Lakehurst, New Jersey to Friedrichshafen in Germany, then across the steppes of Siberia to Tokyo, then across the Pacific Ocean to Los Angeles, and finally cross-country back to Lakehurst, a total journey of 33,234 kilometres that took 21 days, 5 hours, and 31 minutes.
Meanwhile in Britain, the accomplishments of the Zeppelin company had reignited interest in airship travel. In 1924, after two years of lobbying, inventor and parliamentarian Sir Charles Burney introduced the Imperial Airship Scheme, an ambitious plan to connect Britain’s far-flung empire with a fleet of long-range airships. Unfortunately, Burney’s campaign coincided with the election of the Labour government of Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, who slashed Burney’s proposed fleet of 6 airships to only two and organized a bizarre contest. One airship, the R.100, would be built by private enterprise, while the other, the R.101, would be built by a Government concern. This competition, the Government hoped, would demonstrate the superiority of public enterprise, and lead to the R.100 being dubbed the “capitalist ship” and the R.101 the “socialist ship.” Of the scheme, R.100 assistant engineer Nevil Shute – later to become famous as the author of novels like On the Beach and A Town Called Alice – wrote:
“The controversy of capitalism versus state enterprise has been argued, tested and fought out in many ways in many countries, but surely the airship venture in England stands as the most curious determination of this venture.”
Air Ministry specifications called for airships of not less than 140,000 cubic metres in volume, with a useful lifting capacity of 60 tons, accommodations for 100 passengers, fuel tankage for 57 hours’ flight, and a maximum speed of 110 km/hr. In case of war, the ships would also be expected to carry up to 100 fully-equipped troops or five fighter aircraft carried in onboard hangars.
R.100 was designed and built by the private engineering firm Vickers-Armstrong under the direction of engineer Barnes Wallis, later famous for designing the “bouncing bomb” used in the “Dambusters” raid during WWII. While ambitious in scale at 216 metres long – the second-largest airship at the time after Graf Zeppelin – in design the R.100 was relatively conservative, using proven technologies and construction techniques. This resulted in a vehicle that was not only sturdy, structurally efficient, and pleasant to fly, but which even exceeded its maximum design speed by nearly 20 km/hr. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. The R.100’s construction hangar in Howden was infested with vermin and was so cold and humid that workers often arrived in the morning to find the airship’s aluminium frame covered in ice. A labour shortage even forced Vickers Armstrong to throw together a workforce composed mainly of hastily-trained local farmers. But after four years of endless delays, R.100 finally took to the skies for the first time on December 16, 1929, flying to the Royal Airship Works hangar in Cardington for preliminary testing. After a lengthy shakedown period in which numerous adjustments were made to the airship’s engines and fabric covering, the R.100 was declared fit for its first international flight. The initial plan had been to fly to India, but as the R.100 was fuelled with gasoline – considered too volatile for use in hotter climates – the destination was changed to Canada. On July 29, 1930, the R.100 left Cardington with 44 passengers and crews aboard and headed out over the Atlantic, reaching St. Hubert outside Montreal after 79 hours. The R.100 was a smash hit, staying in Canada for nearly two weeks and drawing massive crowds wherever it went. Finally, on August 13, the giant airship departed Montreal and returned to Cardington, completing the return journey in only 57 hours. The trip was a triumph for Vickers-Armstrong, who now had a winning entry for Sir Charles Burney’s Imperial Airship Scheme.
The Government-built R.101, however, was a different matter entirely. From the beginning the Air Ministry was determined to push the limits of airship design and produce the safest, most technologically advanced airship ever built. This, however, lead to a number of questionable design decisions. For instance, while most airships were built of lightweight aluminium alloy, R.101’s designers opted instead for stainless steel and a structural design that significantly reduced the volume of the lifting gas cells. Heavier diesel engines were also chosen over gasoline for greater safety in warm climates, and electric servomotors over simpler cable-actuated controls. This resulted in an airship so overweight that its useful lifting capacity was a mere 35 tons. In warmer climates like India this would drop to 24 tons due to reduced air density. And the problems didn’t end there. In an attempt to increase lift, the R.101’s designers loosened the nets holding the gas cells in place, causing them to chafe against the airship’s structure and leak gas. The cells also had a tendency to surge backwards and forwards, making the airship extremely unstable, while the new gas valves were so sensitive that they constantly vented precious hydrogen. Finally, instead of covering the entire structure with fabric and shrinking it tight with fabric dope as was common practice, the R.101’s designers decided to use smaller pre-doped panels laced into place, most of which rotted and tore before the airship ever left its hangar. In flight tests R.101 was sluggish and difficult to control, with a tendency to suddenly dive and climb. Indeed, about the only redeeming features of the airship were its palatial passenger quarters, which featured two decks of cabins, a gold-trimmed dining salon complete with potted palms, a promenade deck with picture windows, and even an asbestos-lined smoking room.
By the summer of 1930 it was clear that the R.101 was nowhere near ready to make its planned inaugural flight to Karachi in British India. But the successful Canadian flight of the R.100 forced the Government’s hand, for to delay the flight any further would be to admit defeat. Particularly insistent that the flight proceed on schedule was Lord Thomson of Cardington, the Secretary of State for Air. Thomson, who had designs on becoming Viceroy of India, believed that arriving triumphantly in the subcontinent aboard R.101 would greatly increase his chances of promotion, and scheduled the flight for September 1930 to coincide with the Imperial Conference in London.
But it was clear to even the most impatient Government official that the R.101 would never make it to India without extensive modifications. So on June 29, 1930, R.101 re-entered its shed at Cardington to be cut in half, lengthened, and fitted with an additional gas cell. It emerged on October 1 with an improved lifting capacity of 49 tons and total length of 236 metres – a metre longer than the Graf Zeppelin. In total, the British Government’s flagship Zeppelin had absorbed some 717,000 pounds of public funds, compared to only 500,000 for the R.100.
While some in Government like Sir Sefton Brancker, Director of Civil Aviation, objected to Lord Thomson’s haste, the die was already cast. The R.101 was given a temporary certificate of airworthiness on the condition that certain tests be conducted en route to India, and the next three days were spent feverishly preparing the giant airship for its maiden voyage. Apparently ignorant of the R.101’s weight problems, the Government proceeded to load the ship up with cases of champagne, beer, and silverware for state dining and unroll a heavy blue carpet down the main corridor and passenger lounge. And while each crew member’s baggage allowance was capped at 10 pounds, Lord Thomson’s weighed in at nearly a ton. Yet despite this and the R.101’s long history of handling problems, Thomson remained supremely confident, declaring that the mighty airship was “as safe as a house.” Nonetheless, he prudently chose to purchase extra insurance for himself and his valet.
Finally, on the evening of October 4, 1930, R.101 prepared to depart Cardington with 54 people aboard – 42 crew and 12 passengers including Lord Thomson, Sir Sefton Brancker, and Reginald Colmore, the Director of Airship Development. The weather was blustery, with winds gusting up to 60 km/hr, and clouds prematurely darkened the horizon. Under any other circumstances the flight would have been postponed, but Lord Thomson was determined the flight should depart on schedule. At 6:36 PM the R.101 detached from its mooring mast, but instead of rising the giant airship began to rapidly sink to the ground. Nearly two tons of water ballast had to be jettisoned before the ship could be levelled. It was a foreboding taste of things to come.
From Cardington the R.101 set a course for the southeast coast and the English Channel, struggling against a 40 km/hr headwind. The crew found the ship sluggish and difficult to control, often dipping as close as 150 metres to the ground. A resident of the town of Hitchin north of London heard the drone of the approaching airship and ran outside to witness an alarming sight:
“We rushed out – and there was the R101 aiming straight for the house. She was so low it didn’t seem as if she could miss it. We could see the people dining, and the electric bulbs in the ceiling. She seemed to be going very slowly. As the green and red tail lights move away up the drive, horror descended on us all.”
At 8:21 the R.101 reached the coast and the radio operator signalled back to base:
“Over London. All well. Course now set for Paris.”
Despite encountering headwinds of up to 80 km/hr, the R.101 still did not turn back. And while airships typically cruised at a height three times their length, the R.101’s altitude over the channel averaged barely 300 metres. Furthermore, heavy turbulence caused the gas valves to continuously pop open, venting hydrogen and forcing the crew to dump ever more ballast to keep the ship airborne.
At 11:36 the R.101 crossed the French coast at Pointe de St. Quentin near the mouth of the Somme River. Shortly thereafter, the radio operator sent another message back home:
“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.”
The ship was quiet now as she traversed the final 100km to Paris. At 2AM the watch changed as per usual, with Second Officer Maurice Steff relieving the ship’s Captain, Flight Lieutenant Carmichael Irwin, as Officer of the Watch. Four minutes later, however, the R.101 suddenly pitched forward and entered a steep dive. In the smoking lounge, foreman engineer Harry Leech, who was smoking a cigar before retiring to bed, was thrown against the wall along with all the lounge’s lightweight balsa wood furniture. The R.101 fell nearly 300 metres before Chief Coxswain George Hunt managed to level her. Realizing that a crash was inevitable, Flight Lieutenant Irwin ordered slow on the engine telegraph, ordered Rigger Samuel Church forward to manually release the water ballast, and sent Coxswain Hunt to wake the Captain. At 2:09 AM, as Hunt ran down the corridor yelling “we’re down lads!”, the R.101 struck the ground at a speed of 8 km/hr near the edge of a forest called the Bois de Coutumes, 50km northwest of Paris. The first person to see the airship go down was a rabbit trapper named Alfred Rabouille, who later described what happened next:
“There was at once a tremendous explosion that knocked me down. Soon flames rose into the sky to a great height. Everything was enveloped by them. I saw human figures running about like madmen in the wreck. Then I lost my head and an away into the woods.”
In the starboard aft engine car, engineer Joe Binks had just relieved engineer Arthur Bell when the R.101 struck the ground. The pair looked on in horror as the envelope burst into flames, the skeletal steel frame glowing white-hot in the heat. A moment later, a ballast tank burst above them, soaking them in water, and the pair took the opportunity to escape the wreckage. Scrambling with their backs to the flames, they gasped for air as the flames consumed all the oxygen around them. They soon came across another survivor: engineer Harry Leech, who had clawed his way out of the smoking lounge and fallen into a tree. Once safely on the ground Leech returned to the wreck to try and rescue more passengers, but it was already too late. Of the R.101’s 54 passengers and crew, only five others escaped the flames: engineers Victor Savory and Arthur Cook, Riggers Samuel Church and Walker Radcliffe, and wireless operator Arthur Disley. Church and Radcliffe later died of their injuries, bringing the total dead to 48 – 8 more than in the more famous Hindenburg disaster, where by the way in the Hindenburg’s case, over half the passengers survived.
By morning little remained of the R.101 but a charred skeleton at the edge of the wood. The bodies of the crew and passengers, most burned beyond recognition, were laid out under bedsheets, while the survivors were placed in the care of nuns at a nearby hospital. The disaster shocked the world, and a day of mourning was observed throughout France and her colonies. When the bodies were carried to the railway station for transport to Britain, 100,000 people and battalions of French infantry and cavalry escorted the coffins. In London, half a million people watched the funeral procession, which stretched for two miles and took an entire hour to pass. The bodies were buried in a common grave at Cardington and a marble memorial erected on the site.
A board of inquiry was convened, and to nobody’s surprise much of the blame for the disaster was placed on the Government’s excessive haste and corner-cutting, the board concluding:
“It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the R101 would not have started for India on the evening of October 4th if it had not been that reasons of public policy were considered as making it highly desirable for her to do so if she could.”
No charges were ever laid, as all those responsible – including Lord Thomson – had perished in the disaster. The actual cause of the crash itself, however, has never been determined, the leading theory positing that a gust of wind tore away a large section of the R.101’s fabric covering, causing its forward gas cell to suddenly lose a large volume of hydrogen. Nor is it known what caused the R.101 to catch fire, for many airships had crashed under similar circumstances without exploding. Here again theories abound, including that a severed electrical cable created sparks, that a gas cell rubbing against the structure generated static electricity, or that ballast water spilled onto calcium signal flares stored in the control car. But whatever the cause, the disaster soured British opinion towards giant airships, with newspaper headlines calling for the Government to “Ban the Gas Bags!” The Committee on National Expenditure recommended that the Imperial Airship Scheme be scrapped, and in November 1931 the R.100, despite its excellent flight record, was broken up and sold as scrap for barely 600 pounds.
But while crash of the R.101 was the worst aviation disaster in British history up until that point, it was neither the first nor the worst airship disaster. On December 21, 1923, the French military airship Dixmunde, a former German Zeppelin confiscated as war reparations, exploded in a thunderstorm off the coast of Sicily, killing 52 of its crew. A year earlier on February 21, 1922, the Italian-built U.S. Navy airship Roma crashed into power lines near Norfolk, Virginia and exploded, killing 34. This disaster convinced the Navy to fill all its subsequent airships with safer Helium, on whose production the U.S. Government held a virtual monopoly. But even this could not save the airships from their traditional enemy: the weather. On September 3, 1925, the USS Shenandoah was on a goodwill tour of the Midwest when it ran into a squall line near Caldwell, Ohio and was torn apart, killing 14 of its 43 crew.
In 1929, believing it could outdo the venerable Zeppelin company, the U.S. Navy began construction on two Akron-class airships, the largest Helium-filled dirigibles ever built. Measuring 239 metres long, the Akron class ships were designed to perform forward aerial reconnaissance for the fleet and serve as flying aircraft carriers, carrying a complement of Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk fighters which could be launched and recovered using a retractable trapeze. On April 4, 1933, the U.S.S. Akron, the lead ship in her class, was conducting an exercise off the coast of New Jersey when she encountered a storm and was thrown into the sea. The airframe quickly broke up and sank in the stormy waters, carrying 73 of her 76 crew to their deaths. It was the single worst airship disaster in history. Two years later on February 12, 1935, her sister ship, the U.S.S. Macon, ran into a storm off Point Sur, California and crashed. While lessons learned from the Akron crash led to all but 2 of her crew being rescued, the Macon was also swallowed up by the waves, bringing the era of American airships to an end.
The decommissioning of the U.S. Navy’s last remaining airship, the U.S.S. Los Angeles, left only one giant airship operating in the world: the German Hindenburg…and, well, we all know how that ended. No longer able to be used for passenger flights, the Hindenburg’s sister ship, Graf Zeppelin II, was acquired by the German Air Ministry and used to probe British radar defences before finally being broken up in April 1940 so its aluminium could be used to build other aircraft. The age of the rigid airship was over.
During their brief heyday, airships seemed to many like the way of the future, promising a more elegant form of air travel with all the grace and comfort of a luxury ocean liner. But the stately giants of the air never lived up to that promise, proving more troublesome and deadly to operate than their champions dared admit. After barely 40 years they were gone from the skies, for by then it clear that the future of aviation belonged not to the airship, but to the aeroplane.
If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:
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Botting, Douglas, The Giant Airships, The Epic of Flight, Time Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia, 1981
The Imperial Airship Scheme, Airship Heritage Trust, https://www.airshipsonline.com/airships/r101/index.html
R.101 Crew and Passenger List, Airship Heritage Trust, https://www.airshipsonline.com/airships/r101/R101%20Passenger%20%20Crew%20List.htm
Crash of the British Airship R-101, https://welweb.org/ThenandNow/R-101-2.html
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