The Majesty and Tragedy of the R100 and R101, Britain’s Great Airships

In 1924 the British government established the Imperial Airship Scheme to develop Britain’s long-distance passenger and mail services to the further reaches of the Empire. Under the scheme the government sought designs for airships that could carry 150 passengers, 40 crew members and cargo to such destinations as Canada, Australia and India.

On 14 March 1924 the Cardington and Pulham air stations were recommissioned and shortly afterwards the Air Ministry awarded contracts for the construction of two new rival airships, the R100 and the R101.

The R100 was built by the Airship Guarantee Company at Howden. The R101 was designed by the Royal Airship Works and was built at Cardington.

On 14 October 1929 the R101 was walked out of its Cardington shed and preparations for its maiden flight began and the following month on 23 November 1929 seventy-five Members of Parliament were taken up in the R101 for a short test flight.

The R100 had been undertaken by the Airship Guarantee Company, an offshoot of Vickers Limited under the controlling interest of Sir Dennistoun Burney RN. The chief designer was Dr Barnes N Wallis and the chief mathematical calculator was Nevil Shute Norway.

The R100 was completed in November 1929. On 16 December 1929 the R100 rose into morning sky the first time and headed for its new home at Cardington.

The R100 was the first to make its maiden voyage when it slipped from its mooring mast at Cardington at 3.48 a.m. on 29 July 1930 as it set course for Montreal, Canada, across southern Scotland and Northern Ireland. On 1 August 1929 the R100 arrived at St Hubert’s Aerodrome, Montreal. The journey had covered 3,364 miles in little over 79 hours. On 16 August the R100 returned to England in just 47 hours and 5 minutes.

In 1930 the R101 flew at the Hendon Air Display and almost plunged into the ground.

Its unpredictable handling and poor lift led to it being taken back into the shed at Cardington and lengthened by 35 feet, with additional gas bags fitted to the new longer airframe. The modifications were completed by 26 September 1930.

On 4 October 1930 at 6.24 p.m. the airship was released from the mast. All but one of the five engines sprang into life, the fifth started shortly after. After leaving Bedford the R101 headed out towards Hitchin and flew south to London.

At 9.30 p.m. the airship had reached Hastings and started to cross the English Channel in very bad weather. At the mid-point the engine that had been dead was restarted, which increased power to the airship whose height had dropped to 70 feet. At the Pointe de St Quentin at 11.26 p.m. and the speed of this great ship had become a mere crawl.

R101 WreckageAt 2.05 a.m. the airship was observed in a steep dive and with the release of water ballast the airship was brought back to an even keel. Three minutes later the airship again went into a dive and gently hit the hill just outside the town. In seconds 5½ million cubic feet of hydrogen had burst into flames.

A total of forty-seven of the fifty-five people on-board died at the scene. Their bodies were returned to the UK and were allowed to lie in state at Westminster Hall, within the Palace of Westminster. Following a memorial service on 11 October 1930 at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, they were taken by a special train to Cardington and interred in a single grave in the cemetery of St Mary’s church.

The skeleton of the R101 was almost intact following the disaster, but was left where it had fallen in to 1931. It was subsequently broken up by Thomas W Ward Limited of Sheffield and the steel girders were scrapped. The German Zeppelin company bought five tonnes of duralumin from the wreck and some have speculated that it may have been used in the construction of the Hindenburg.

For more information on British airships and other British aviation heroes and landmarks take a look at Heroes and Landmarks of British Aviation by Richard and Peter Edwards.

The book is published by Pen and Sword Books (Aviation) and is currently available in hardback, priced at £19.99. The ISBN reference number is 9781848846456. Click here to order your copy.

For more information on military conflict in the Pacific in the first half of the twentieth century take a look at The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Imperial Naval Sir Service by Peter Edwards.

The book is published by Pen and Sword Books (Aviation) and is currently available in hardback, priced at £25.00. The ISBN reference number is 9781848843073. Click here to order your copy.