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Airships: Potential PoDs 3 - The R101 and the Imperial Air Service [Part 2]

By Andy Cooke

In the last article, I covered the Imperial Airship Scheme, the requirements for the R100 and R101, the division of teams to explore two approaches to innovation, the construction of the airships, the issues around the initial design of the airships (the R101 especially) and the test flights.

Now all that remained was to complete the demonstration flight to India

The flight to India

Following R100's successful (if somewhat fraught) round-trip flight to Canada in July/August 1930, the pressure was on for the R101 to carry out its flight to India that autumn. Lord Thomson was eager to carry out the round trip to India during the Imperial Conference, then being held in London, triumphantly proving the project a success. He did, though, warn the staff that safety was to be the watchword: "You mustn't allow my natural impatience or anxiety to start to influence you in any way. You must use your considered judgment."

A full review of the eleventh test flight led the staff to endorse the attempt. Despite Lord Thomson's words, it's obvious that they felt under pressure to allow the flight (even believing that the entire project would be scrapped if they failed to do the trip), eventually slipping the mast late at night in bad weather for a first leg across France in stormy, rainy weather. While heavily loaded.

The crew and passenger complement not only included Lord Thomson, but also Sir Sefton-Brancker (the Director of Civil Aviation), Wg Cdr Colmore (Director of Airship Development), Lt Col Richmond (R101 Lead Designer)[1], and Sqn Ldr Rope (Assistant to the Director of Airship Development). The majority of UK airship-designer-expert eggs were now in the R101 basket.

Major Scott, the man who captained the first transatlantic airship crossing, was the "Officer in charge of the flight" (although not the Captain, it was emphasised in all documentation) might have had his judgement to leave in this weather compromised (being notorious for being drunk and incapable by lunchtime in his later years), but either Colmore (as Director) and Irwin (as Captain) could have insisted on a delay.

Both, however, had a great deal of respect and personal loyalty for Thomson, who they saw as always fighting for them, and were reluctant to disappoint him[2]. Accordingly, they had even not dissuaded Thomson from bringing on board his valet, a heavy carpet (140 lbs) and even some woman's shoes - both latter items as "good luck" from his long-term distant love for a Romanian Princess[3].

At 1836 on the 4th of October 1936, R101 slipped the mast at Cardington. It would never return. Heavily laden, it dropped 4 tons of forward water ballast just to get going.

It made a circuit of Bedford to pick up confidence and headed out at 1919 hours. The conditions were turbulent and getting worse. Despite this, they pressed on. They crossed the channel between Sussex and Pointe St Quentin, crossing the French coast at 2336 hrs, perfectly on course.

In the cloudy, rainy weather, they held altitude at 1000 feet, just below the clouds. In worse weather than a British airship had ever flown over land, at 0200, the watch was changed, the least experienced officer, Maurice Steff, taking charge. Although the rain had been incessant and the weather terrible, the forecast was for conditions to improve over the Mediterranean, with good conditions all the way from there to Egypt. A few more hours and it would be far safer.

At 0204 hours, approaching the Beauvais Ridge (which often gave trouble to early aircraft), a large split occurred in the forward upper outer cover - an area not replaced during the refit. Water got in through the nose ventilation holes and the nose of the ship started to drop.

Some hydrogen gas had very probably escaped from small holes in the gasbag. Although not released in large quantities, it had mixed with air inside the envelope and now the pitching airship meant that it migrated backwards and upwards, exacerbating the pitch excursion.

Steff and his crew noticed and dropped ballast to lighten the ship and applied the elevator to bring the nose up. This manouevre meant that the tail of the airship was to drop first and leverage would push the nose up; the airship was therefore descending. It levelled off, a bit lower than before, elevators set to maximum upwards pitch.

Then a strong downgust of wind hit the front of the airship, pushing the nose down again. As the gust entered the torn outer cover, further damage was caused to the front gasbags, expelling more hydrogen. This mixed with the air and, again, migrated aft, further increasing the pitch excursion with the elevators already at maximum.

The R101 was now descending at over 1400 feet per minute. Considering that it had started out a mere 1000 feet above the ground before levelling off earlier, this was a problem. The last remaining ballast available to automatic release was jettisoned, a rigger dispatched to run forwards and release the final manual ballast.

Realising a crash was inevitable, Steff ordered the jettisoning of the remaining fuel from amidships to soften the landing. The Chief Coxswain left the control car to alert the crew, calling, "We're down, lads!" There was no panic.

With no further up-elevator possible, the R101 grounded with a forward speed of just 12 mph, bumping forwards slightly and settling softly enough that a young sapling remained standing in the wreck. One engine car was forced into the hull.

No-one was hurt - initially.

Two seconds later, there was the first explosion, probably from the petrol starters of the engine (or possibly sparking carbon deposits) in the hydrogen-air mixture in the envelope[4]. Another explosion followed and the R101 was engulfed in flames almost instantly.

Eight men escaped the wreck, two of whom later died in hospital. Thomson, Colmore, Richmond, Sefton-Brancker, and Rope all perished in the fire.


The inquiry afterwards did not seek to apportion blame (unlike the famous book by Neville Shute[5]), but the already-approved R102, first of a new class, 36% bigger and incorporating the technological knowledge gained from the R101 and R100, was cancelled. After a short while, and bearing in mind the financial situation in the post-Depression world, the R100 was broken for scrap, it being deemed too expensive to maintain it in care-and-maintenance. The British airship dream was over; the far-flung British Empire would not be using dirigibles for transport and communications..

Why that was a bad thing for airships

I don't think much analysis needs be done here. There were two Powers pushing airships at the time: the UK and Germany. Of other potential Powers that could have used them, the United States were not really going for airships at the time (and had less need than the UK to extend communications far beyond its borders), and France had pulled away beforehand.

The British Empire had the greatest apparent need for airships, coupled with the will to bring this about and the resources to achieve it. With them leaving the field, only Germany was left pursuing airships. For the next seven years, anyway.

What could have happened

The R101 crash was the crux of numerous bad decisions and sheer bad luck. Even just choosing not to leave in a storm would have averted the crash. It's true that with the design issues and casual attitude to risks, an accident was probably inevitable with one or other of the R100 and R101, but had such an accident occurred after the R102-class had been begun and brought into operation, it would not have ended the Imperial Airship Scheme. Neither would it have devastated the airship design community by wiping out so many key personnel at once.

However, a number of different decisions before that moment could have prevented catastrophe; many of these decisions also serving to see off any similar disasters. Two simple ones were:

- Acceptance of two staging posts en route, for example, would have permitted shorter range for the initial experimental airships.

- An understanding that experimental prototypes should not be used for mass-transport of passengers would have led to the removal of the heavy (and latterly useless) passenger accommodation for 100 passengers - allowing for the original R101 configuration to fly with acceptable range. The extension plus letting-out of gasbags made the chaffing and holes in the gasbag inevitable rather than impossible.

Any reader could identify a number of other potential PoDs (which is why I went into the events in more depth than usual above).

Had the R101 flown safely to India and back, the R102 funds were already committed and the team was ready. The R102 would have incorporated the advances made in both experimental airships, and it (plus its sister ships) would have provided a weekly air service to Egypt, and monthly services to Canada and India - later extending to Australia. Fifty passengers would have been carried in comfort (a more reasonable number - less than the original specification, but the effects of the adoption of the stronger structural safety standards were now known and an allowance made for operations in bad weather).

A later airship design, the R103 would increase this to 100 passengers again.

Airships of this size might even have permitted operation with helium (albeit with shorter range), should the Hindenburg disaster have driven public opinion away from hydrogen airships - Britain would have been far more likely than Nazi Germany to receive export permission from the USA, the only exporter of helium at the time.

Had several airships been in regular service throughout the Empire by the mid-late Thirties, the rigid airship would have been far more entrenched by the time longer-range higher-payload aircraft became adopted. More economic in fuel and providing greater comfort, it is very plausible that they would have maintained a transport niche to the present day.

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Andy Cooke has written the sci-fi Endeavour trilogy (The End and Afterwards, Diamond in the Dark, Beyond the Sunset) and the political alternate history Lectern books (The Fourth Lectern, The Fifth Lectern), published by SLP