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The R 33
edited from the Airship Heritage Trust


R33 emerging from the shed at Selby

The ship with the longest career and the workhorse of the British rigid airships. The ship had a reputation for being the luckiest ship in the British rigid fleet

The plans were proceeding for the second wave of the airship scheme and orders were being placed for the "30" series ships. The R31 and R32 were of new design and were being completed by Shorts, whilst the new ships registered R33 and R34 were on the drawing boards.

Statistics:
Length 643ft
Diameter 79ft
Speed 62mph
Engines 5 x 250hp
Volume 1, 950, 000cft

In 1916 the new ship was in the process of being designed when a stroke of luck, caused the latest German airship technology to be handed to the British on a plate. On the night of 23rd/24th September 1916, the German Zeppelin L-33 was brought down at Great Wigborough, Essex. The L-33's commander had been participating in an air raid on London when it was damaged by antiaircraft fire, and then intercepted and brought down by a night fighter who's fire failed to ignite the hydrogen. However so much damage was done to the gasbags and fuel tanks that the ship was forced to descend. The German crew attempted to destroy the ship instead of it falling in to enemy hands but so little hydrogen was left that only the doped fabric lit when they fired signal flares in to the hull. The L-33 was virtually intact and her motors were undamaged. In one stroke the British had been handed a near perfect ship full of the latest German technology.

Immediately a crew of investigators recorded every feature of the ship in detail. This top-secret record took five months to complete. The designs for the R34 and R34 were put on hold whilst this was being undertaken. It was with this information that the British designers could adapt the plans to include what the Germans had done so successfully, and this enabled the design teams to produce near copy designs for the R 33 and R 34. The R33 was allocated to Armstrong and Whitworth at their Barlow works just some 3 miles south of Selby, Yorkshire.

The manufacture of the components for the R33 and her sister ship R34 had begun in the summer of 1917, but the actual construction of the ship in the shed did not commence until the summer of 1918. The ship had a marked resemblance of the L33 although the similarity in numbering was purely coincidental; the R33 has been designated in early 1916 before the crash. The ship design was semi-streamlined fore and aft, with a parallel mid-ships section. The main control car was positioned well forward on the ship, and on closer inspection was separated from the engine in the rear of the car by a small gap. This was designed to stop vibrations from the engine car being transmitted down to the forward control car, with its radio detection finding and wireless instruments. Hence, the forward control car and engine car looks as if it is one combined piece, but serviced by two ladders into the hull above.
 


The inside of the gondola

Two more power cars were suspended in the wing positions further aft along the hull and a single engine aft car was positioned amidships at the rear of the craft. All five engines were 275 hp, Sunbeam Maori water-cooled petrol units. The power cars were another technical advancement in airship technology, which included two gearboxes for each engine, enabling the engines to be started up and running without the propellers rotating. The ship carried enough fuel for 48 hours engine running, but to increase range it was possible to fly the ship on only 3 engines, giving the ship a speed of some 40 knots with petrol consumption of one mile a gallon. The petrol was held inside the hull and fuel flowed from them by gravity to header tanks in the engine gondolas. The reasoning behind this change of arrangement was to feed a smoother and more precise fuel supply than the older arrangements in earlier ships of direct gravity feed.

The radiators in the forward engine gondolas had the flow of air regulated by the use of movable shutters, however the rear gondolas had the old type of traditional "elevated" radiator. Twenty main frames and thirteen longitudinals made the main structure of the ship. There were 19 gasbags within the hull giving a capacity of 1,950,000 cubic feet of hydrogen giving a disposable lift of almost 26 tons. The total construction of the R33 came to 350,000 (9,536,000 today).