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Egos and Aeronautics: A tale of two Airships

John Swinfield describes the bizarre politics behind the British government’s attempt to launch a pair of airships in the 1920s and how a project that might have boosted national pride ended in tragedy and failure.

The R101 crashes at Beauvais, October 5th, 1930A hundred years ago this year the British Admiralty tried to take to the skies by asking the armaments supplier Vickers to build Britain’s first military airship: HMA NO 1 Mayfly. Sadly, it never did. ‘Won’t fly’, as it was swiftly dubbed, broke its back as it was being manhandled out of its shed at Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, for what would have been its maiden voyage. It was an inauspicious start to Britain’s faltering and sometimes calamitous immersion in matters lighter-than-air. More successful airships – used primarily as reconnaissance vessels and having a distinguished role in the Great War as submarine spotters and as convoy escorts – were later developed in Britain. Years after the Mayfly debacle the government sanctioned the building of two much more ambitious vessels.

The reason for creating these two leviathans has never been entirely clear. At the time some thought they were for long-range reconnaissance by the Admiralty or the embryo Royal Air Force. Others saw them as civil vessels on a new imperial airship service that would forge closer links with Britain’s disparate and increasingly troublesome Empire, especially India. An imperial airships service had certainly been mooted. But when Ramsay Macdonald’s government came to power in 1924 the plan was hijacked by Lord Christopher Birdwood Thomson, the suavely ambitious air minister and close friend of Britain’s first Labour prime minister, who sanctioned two new vessels – a state and a private ship. The R101, sponsored by the government, was named the Socialist by the newspapers. Her sister vessel, the R100, was called the Capitalist. A bitter rivalry existed between the two camps and their construction was mired in controversy.

Under Thomson and the air ministry a coterie of engineers and scientists was assembled at Cardington. They included Squadron Leader Michael Rope, who designed novel and controversial automatic valves for the gas bags. The R101 floated on five million cubic feet of hydrogen. Squadron Leader Rope’s so-called ‘parachute wiring’ was designed to stop the huge gas bags surging inside the ship’s immense canopy or envelope. Rope, deeply religious, moved his family from Cardington to escape the drinking culture which had grown up at the airship works during the five years it took to build the craft.

On October 4th, 1930 the R101 left the Royal Airship Works at Cardington, Bedford, on a 4,400-mile voyage to India. At nearly 800 feet this behemoth of the skies was over twice the length of a football pitch. Her cover spanned seven acres and she had a top speed of 71 mph. Her skipper was a tall, quietly spoken Irishman, Carmichael ‘Bird’ Irwin. There were 54 people on board. They included the crème de la crème of the British airship industry: Lord Thomson; Sir Sefton Brancker, the ebullient chief of civil aviation; and the legendary airshipman George Herbert ‘Scottie’ Scott.

They were a colourful crowd. Brancker’s party trick was to swallow his monocle. It brought the house down at RAF dinners. He carried spares should he be persuaded into doing it. His girlfriend was the Hollywood actress Auriol Lee. Thomson had pushed for an early departure date for the R101. He was keen to be the next Viceroy of India and wanted to make a regal arrival by airship. Thomson’s lover was an exotic Romanian countess, Princess Bibesco. Scottie was a sky-sailor of derring-do, the pioneer of the airship mooring mast and celebrated throughout the land as the most audacious of airshipmen who preferred to sail through storms rather than round them.

The R100, which had flown to Canada and back shortly before the R101 embarked for India, was built at Howden in Yorkshire by a company headed by an entrepreneurial former naval officer, Commander Sir Charles Dennistoun Burney. His company was backed by Vickers, the world’s largest and most influential armaments business.

Burney was the son of Admiral Sir Cecil Burney, second in command to Admiral Jellicoe at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Burney had made his name – and a fortune – as the inventor of the paravane, a torpedo-shaped contraption towed by naval vessels at a depth determined by its planes or vanes with wires that cut the lines of submerged mines; the paravane saved countless lives. Burney would later create a bizarre-looking car, the Burney Streamline, which looked not unlike a little airship on wheels. It was expensive, advanced and a commercial failure.

Burney’s R100 was designed by Barnes Wallis, later to enjoy a stellar career as an aeronautical designer whose many creations included the Wellington bomber and the bouncing bombs that destroyed the Mohne, Eder and Sorpe dams in the German Ruhr. Wallis’s chief calculator, a crucial engineering role in building an airship, was Nevil Norway Shute, who subsequently achieved global recognition as the novelist Nevil Shute. His semi-biographical book Slide Rule (1954) was deeply critical of the R101.

Airships had a calamitous record. An exception was the R34 which flew successfully to America and back in 1919 – with Scott at the helm. But in 1921 the R38, which Britain had sold to the United States, broke up over the Humber near Hull. Of the 49 aboard 44 perished, many of them young Americans. The inquiry found that basic calculations about load and aerodynamic stress had not been considered. Determined not to repeat the errors of the R38 Thomson insisted R101 would be the safest airship ever built. No expense was spared. State money was poured into it. Boffins and committees pored over every aspect.

The R101 was powered by diesel engines, judged without evidence to be safer in the tropics because diesel has a lower flash point than petrol. However, its five engines were catastrophically heavy and reduced the lift of the ship. The R101 was so overweight that shortly before the voyage it had to be chopped in half and a huge new bay inserted so it could carry more hydrogen to give it greater lift. Yet the valves and wiring created by Rope needed further testing. The wiring’s effectiveness depended on how tight the gas bags were fastened in place but the wires were loosened so bags could be expanded to take more hydrogen, a move which badly compromised Rope’s design.

Not only was the airship inherently heavy but it was further burdened with champagne, china and silverware, loaded aboard for an aerial banquet planned for dignitaries as the ship hovered over Ismalia in Egypt en route to India. The bulkiest item was a huge Axminster carpet carried at Thomson’s insistence. He regarded this as a good luck charm, as he did another item which he took everywhere with him: a red shoe left behind by his lover Princess Bibesco in a taxi he had once shared with her.

Thomson had staked his career on R101’s success. His credibility and that of Ramsay Macdonald’s government depended on it. The weight of ego which sailed that autumn night was immeasurable.

Before R101 departed Rope had sent a note expressing serious doubts about the strength of the airship’s cover. His warning went unheeded. An aviation inspector meanwhile refused to grant a full airworthiness certificate. He wanted to check for rust beneath thousands of pads installed as a stop-gap to prevent the rupture of gas bags from chafing on the steel skeleton. His request was ignored.

The ship was so leaden that, when she departed her mooring tower at Cardington in the early evening of October 4th, ‘Bird’ Irwin had to jettison thousands of gallons of water ballast to try to lift her nose into the sky. The weather soon closed in. Drizzle turned to teeming rain. She was buffeted by strong headwinds clawing at her vast cover. Lacking lift and performance she staggered through the night sky. Witnesses on the ground were alarmed at how low she was. It was the most ambitious voyage ever undertaken by an airship, let alone one which had never been properly tested in such foul weather.

As darkness enveloped the ship her passengers enjoyed a fine supper. The wine flowed. Scott told his sterling yarns, the time years before when he had scared his passenger, Barnes Wallis, clipping an airship shed in thick fog, after which Wallis said he would never fly in an airship again. Perhaps Brancker brought laughter by swallowing his monocle. After supper there were cigars and brandy in the asbestos-proofed smoking room. Inches above their heads enough explosive hydrogen swilled around to take out a town. The last message from the ship was that the passengers had retired to their cabins for a good night’s rest, exhausted but exhilarated after the excitement of the day.

Eight hours after embarkation R101 crashed slowly – her speed estimated at less than 13 miles an hour – into a hillside near Beauvais in northern France. She had covered barely 200 miles of her 4,400 mile voyage. Within seconds she was consumed by a hydrogen conflagration. Of 54 aboard 48 died. Of these 46 perished immediately including Scott, Brancker, Rope, Atherstone, Irwin and Thomson. There was nothing left at the crash site but a blackened skeleton, a vast tangle of steel, looking like the cremated remains of a prehistoric mammoth.

The inquiry into the disaster was chaired by Sir John Simon, a lawyer and politician. It was a whitewash with government guff left unchallenged. There had never been an aerial catastrophe on such a scale. With hindsight it is clear the lawyers and analysts were effectively making up procedures and assumptions as they went along. Most of the expert witnesses who might have been called to give evidence had been killed. No real reason was ever found for the calamity. The one accepted down the years is that the cover, having been found to be permeable and weak, should have been replaced in its entirety before the voyage. In fact it had only been patched at the nose, the area which would have taken the full force of a driving headwind. Elsewhere much of the cover was new, but for unfathomable reasons the original material had been repaired rather than replaced at its most vulnerable point.

With the cover ripped at the nose, rain would have poured in, making the forward gas bags sodden and permeable leading to their total collapse. The ship would have been uncontrollably heavy at the bow and forced down towards the earth. What caused the inferno remains a mystery. Many airships had made forced landings over the years. In the First World War it was a common occurrence. But contrary to popular opinion few burst into flames and most of the crew were able to scramble clear relatively unscathed. But any spark, clearly, would have been enough to trigger the conflagration.

The R101 should never have sailed. She was simply not ready. She bristled with novel technology, much of which was insufficiently tested. Thomson and ministry officials at Cardington must take their share of the blame. Stark warnings by professionals were ignored. Thomson was determined to stick to his timetable, to make a spectacular entrance into India and to return in time for an Imperial Conference in London. Functionaries and acolytes had been afraid to stand up to him.

The calamity finished British airship production. Barnes Wallis and Nevil Shute’s R100 was broken up in her shed by the government, doubtless piqued by the abject failure of its own ship. It could not tolerate the success of the ‘Capitalist’ R100 while the ‘Socialist’ R101 had ended in catastrophe. R100’s skeleton was sold for scrap for £400.

R101 supporters claim history has treated them shabbily and that the deification of Sir Barnes Wallis as the aeronautical designer of the age has amplified the opprobrium heaped on the airship since the disaster. Wallis’s daughter, Dr Mary Stopes-Roe, a retired academic, says this is ‘utter rubbish’. Like many others she says the R101 was over-engineered, too heavy, untested and designed by committee which, she recalls her father telling her, was a recipe for failure. She says Cardington R101 supporters once called her father ‘a murderer’, a charge based on the idea that if he had known the R101 was a flawed ship he should have said so.

‘It was a wicked, terribly hurtful, silly thing to say’, she says. ‘My father was never once asked to give his opinion of the R101 before or after the disaster. Had he done so it would have been dismissed as sour grapes or being wise after the event. They wouldn’t have listened anyway. The Cardington lot never, ever, listened to the other side.’

It is shameful that Wallis – the most experienced airship designer alive after the tragedy – was not asked to attend the inquiry. Candid comments he made decades later suggest he would have lambasted R101 and Thomson. At the time there were too many political and air ministry reputations at stake to allow that to happen.

America persisted with airships, building the giant and vastly ambitious Akron and Macon. Each, though, came to disastrous ends. Germany – the leader in airship technology – launched the highly successful Graf Zeppelin in 1928, which carried thousands of passengers over several million miles without incident. But its larger sister vessel the Hindenburg was consumed in 1937 in a billowing hydrogen fire at the US naval station in New Jersey after a flight from its base at Friedrichshaven in Germany. Thirty-six people perished. It was caught on newsreel shown around the world, accompanied by the affecting commentary of radio reporter Herb Morrison. Both the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg suffered from the interference of Hitler and the Nazis. The cause of the Hindenburg tragedy is unknown; many theories have been advanced, the most familiar that it was destroyed by an anti-Nazi saboteur who had placed a bomb on board.

John Swinfield is the author of Airship: Design, Development and Disaster newly published by Conway Maritime.

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