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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.

R101 at the mooring mast at Cardington

In 1911 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.

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