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The R101 airship disaster

   
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The R101 disaster
edited from the Airship Heritage Trust

The plans for the R101 were laid down as far back as 1924 when the Imperial Airship Scheme was proposed. The requirements included that a ship was proposed to take some 200 troops for the military or 5 fighter craft as an aerial aircraft carrier. It was noted that a larger ship of some 8 million cubic feet would be required however for initial plans two prototype ships of 5 million cft be constructed. It was decided that to aid with the school of thought and new ideas, one ship was contracted out to a private company and the other to be built at the Royal Airship Works in Cardington. The first ship, the R100, was built by a subsidiary of Vickers, the Airship Guarantee Company, at the shed at Howden in Yorkshire.

The second prototype ship, the R101 again moved away from traditional lines of design. After some delays with the initial project, the scheme soon got underway when work on the ship began in 1926. The ship was to have many innovative design features and incorporating these within the ship was to cause some delay to the original completion date of 1927. However it must be remembered that this project was teh larges of it's kind ever undertaken in the world at that time. The largest ship which had been constructed at that time was the Graf Zeppelin, and that was based on the original design of the "LZ126" Los Angles, and a much smaller ship than was being constructed in Britain.

On completion in October 1929 the ship was the largest man made object ever to fly. Following her initial trials, it was discovered that the original disposable lift was not as high as had been anticipated, it was agreed that the ship would need more disposable lift if the ship was to be a commercial success. It was agreed to let out the bracing wires holding the gas cells and so the overall volume and lifting capacity could be increased.

After more trials, it was decided that more drastic action would be required to enhance the overall lift of the airship. During the winter of 1929 to 1930, the airship was brought in to the hangers and was then cut in half! This meant that an extra bay for another gas bag could be inserted and give more lift. This brought her volume up to a huge 5 and a half million cubic feet (see the R101c column in the statistics table).

On a visit to Cardington in the Graf Zeppelin, Hugo Eckener was given a tour of the new ship and agreed that the R101 was from a new breed of exceptional ship. There was confidence in this new prototype which would lead to bigger ships, as planned in the R102 and R103.

Statistics:

R101 (a) R101 (b) R101 (c)
Length 735ft 735ft 777ft
Diameter 131.3ft 131.3ft 131.3ft
Speed 61.5mph 61.5mph 71mph
Volume 4, 893, 740cft 4, 998, 501cft 5, 509, 753cft

In 1930 a passenger was so confident in the proposed service that he had sent the Royal Airship Works 20,000 for one airship passage to New York in 1931. It was thought that the two ships could earn useful revenue over 1931-1932 with commercial operations.

Even though the R101 was often quoted as seen as flying too low compared to the earlier Zeppelins which had reached some 20,000 during the war, is was advised that all commercial (non military airships) had to fly long range and to do this had to at a low level. Hence the ships were designed to do this. The best economical results were if a ship could maintain a height of 1,500ft. This was not only financially advantageous but would also "afford splendid views of the ground and sea". The Zeppelin Company had to adopt this policy with the LZ129 - Hindenburg, which would keep between 1,500 to 4,000 ft.


plan of ship - click to enlarge

Life on Board :

The R101 was seen as a lavish floating hotel. Even by today's standards, the open promenades and public spaces would be seen as unique in the skies. These large British ships were the first to adopt the style of using the interior of the ship for the passenger accommodation. The only contemporary passenger ship which was running a passenger service was the German Zeppelin ZL127 -Graf Zeppelin. Even then the ship could only accommodate 20 passengers which were situated in a stretched forward gondola beneath the hull of the ship. With the R100 and R101, the utilisation of interior space was a first of it's kind to be used to this degree. The R101 could boast 2 decks of space, a dinning room which could seat 60 people at a time, and a smoking room which could seat 20. The promenades showed off the view to the fullest advantage. Compared to the noisy smelly and tiring journey in an aeroplane, the Airships were seen as pure luxury, with service compared to that of the greatest ocean liners.click here for ships interior

the problems

Over the summer of 1930, the R101 laid in the Number 1 shed at Cardington undergoing extensive modifications which were needed following on from her 1929 and early 1930 trial flights. It was already known that both the R100 and R101 were lacking in disposable lift as had been originally planned at the outset of the Imperial Airship Scheme as laid out in 1925. Those involved in the scheme had already learnt that the R100 and R101 would not be capable of full commercial operations to Canada and India, and these were later to be passed on to the new ship, the R 102 class. It was agreed that both the R100 and R101 would undergo extensive modifications to ensure that more lift be given to the ships to make them commercially viable. The R101 had spent the Summer of 1930 in Number 1 shed having a central new bay and gas bag installed to give her more disposable lift.

It was expected that the new gas bag would give her another 9 tons of disposable lift bringing her up to some 50 tons. After the alterations had been completed by Friday the 26th September the R101 was gassed up and floated in the shed. The new ship's (R101c) disposable lift was calculated at 49.36 tons, an improvement of 14.5 tons over the original configuration. Even though pressure was on that the ship would be flown to Karachi to carry the Air Minister, Lord Thompson of Cardington, the target date of 26th September for the ship to leave the shed, was on course to be met. Unfortunately the wind was to keep the new R101 in the shed until the morning of 1st October.


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It was at 06.30 on the 1st October that the R101 emerged from the shed and was secured to the mast. The new ship having a more elongated look as she had been extended by some 35 feet with the new bay. At the same time, the R100 was removed from Shed No 2, and walked in to the next door shed, No.1 where she too was to be altered by having a new bay installed to obtain more lift. It was the last time the outside world would see the R100.

The R101 moored serenely to her Cardington, the crew were busy making preparations for a full 24 hour trial flight. A permit to fly had been issued and a full report in to the new ship would be submitted later, a draft having been prepared. The permit to fly had been granted after a "good deal of general thinking and comparison on limited information has been required in reaching our conclusion" noted Professor Bairstow, who issued the permit.

Final Trial Flight

The R101 slipped her mast at 4.30pm on 1st October with the plan to fly a 24 hour endurance flight to complete the engine and other trials. It was noted however, and agreed by officers, Reginald Colemore (Director of Airship Development - DAD) and the AMSR that if the ship behaved well and Major Herbert Scott, one of the most experienced airshipmen in the UK, was satisfied during this flight then they could curtail the flight to less than 24 hours.

The ship left Cardington and headed south to London then turned east following the Thames and out across Essex. She spent the night over out over the North Sea. From those on board it was noted that the atmosphere was quiet and serene. Due to the early failure of an engine cooler in the forward starboard engine it was impossible for the ship to make a full speed trial. During this flight the conditions were noted as "perfect" and that all other items in the ship behaved perfectly. Even though there was not time to make formal reports it was noted that the ship handled and the ship appeared to be much better in the air than before. It was with this that it was agreed to curtail the flight and head for home at Cardington. The ship returning to the mast at 09.20 on Thursday 2nd October. The ship had been in the air for just over 17 hours in smooth flying conditions.


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Important things were noted by the crew following this flight. Captain Irwin had made special notice of all the concerns before the alterations. He noted that there was practically no movement in the outer cover; all sealing strips appeared to be secure, no leaks were observed in the gas valves; the movement of the gas bags was so slight that it was barely perceptible; and the padding was secure. All other items were found to be in good order and he was satisfied with the independent inspection which had been carried out on the ship.

The senior members of the crew, technical office along with the DAD held conference on the Thursday evening and discussed the decision for a flight to India. It was noted that a longer trial whereby full speed testing could have been carried in adverse condition was normally essential before trying for such a long voyage. It was noted that a full speed trial was not recommended during the India flight due to the chance of failure. It had not been calculated at this stage state of the engines with the new redesign of the ship. Also the risk of engine failure would mean putting the whole voyage in jeopardy, and hence it was deemed that cruising speed would be the maximum recommended speed for the journey.

Even though pressure had been put upon the crew and all involved with the R101 by the Air Minister by suggesting that he must go to India and back in time for the Imperial Conference due on the 20th October 1930, there was one note on the 2nd October by Lord Thompson advising that "You mustn't allow my natural impatience or anxiety to start to influence you in any way. You must use your considered judgment."

Final Flight - Saturday 4th October 1930.

With the decision made that the India flight take place, there were two further days of final preparation. The ship remained on the mast and the crews busied themselves to make this momentous voyage. Of course all staff were keeping an eye on the weather conditions to ensure that the ship would be able to make the voyage in the suggested time allowed and didn't want to be inhibited by the problems all airships suffered with the natural elements. Giblett the meteorological officer had been providing the Officers with updates on the weather forecasts over the last few days, and the route was selected on his information.


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Another weather conference was held on the morning of the 4th October and it was noted that the weather conditions over northern France were becoming cloudy with moderate winds. It was agreed that the ship would depart between 4pm and 8pm that evening. Two further forecasts were issued to the ship during the day. These indicated that the weather conditions over Cardington and Northern France would begin to deteriorate during the evening, however it was noted that the wind conditions would not increase significantly. These forecasts, even thought not particularly good were not bad enough to cancel the voyage. The decision was made to hurry the passengers on board, complete the loading of the ship, and begin the trip in order to be pass the worst weather.

.At 6.24pm the R101 left the Cardington mast in misty fine rain and darkness. The lights from the promenade deck and searchlights from the mooring mast illuminating the ship. As the ship was fully loaded with fuel to make it to the first stop, Egypt, it was noted that 4 tons of ballast had to be dropped before the ship gained more height. The R101 cruised passed the sheds, and then headed west towards Bedford to salute her home town. The ship passed around the town and then headed south east towards London. The ship was flying in her cruising height of 1,500ft just below the cloud base and by 8pm the R101 was flying over London.

A wireless message from the ship was sent at 8.21pm:

"Over London. All well. Moderate rain. Base of low clouds 1,500ft. Wind 240 degrees [west south west] 25mph. Course now set for Paris. Intend to proceed via Paris, Tours, Toulouse and Narbonne."

An hour later the R101 was requesting the Meteorological Office at Cardington to wireless a forecast of the weather expected from Paris to Marseilles "with special reference to wind and cloud".

At 9.47pm the following message was sent :

"At 21.35 GMT crossing coast in the vicinity of Hastings. It is raining hard and there is a strong South Westerly wind. Cloud base is at 1,500 feet . After a good getaway from the Mooring Tower at 18.30 hours ship circled Bedford before setting course. Course was set for London at 18.54. Engines running well at cruising speed giving 54.2 knots. Reached London at 2000 hours and then set course for Paris. Gradually increasing height so as to avoid high land. Ship is behaving well generally and we have already begun to recover water ballast."

It was noted that with the loss of ballast at the beginning of the flight, the crew were more than confident that the water recovery system would replenish the supplies. The R101 was fitted along the top of the envelope with catchments arrangements by which, when rain fell, water could be recovered to increase ballast and so compensate for the loss of weight arising from the consumption of fuel. It is noted that at this point the R101 crew did not consider the ship to be heavy as original sources suggested.

The Channel crossing took two hours for at 11.36 pm the ship reported :

"Crossing French coast at Pointe de St Quentin. Wind 245 true. 35mph"

It is noted that the 60 miles crossing was well know by Squadron Leader Johnson who had flown the route many times between London and Paris. It is also of note that the wind speed was increasing in velocity at this time. It was estimated that at the time of crossing the channel the R101 was at a height of between 700 to 800 feet. It was later noted that the First Officer, Atherstone took over the elevator wheel and ordered the coxswain not to go below 1,000ft.

From 11.00pm to 02.00am the crew changed watches, R101 continued on it's usual watch-keeping status.

At 00.18 the R101 sent out the following wireless message :

"To Cardington from R101.

2400GMT 15 miles SW of Abbeville speed 33 knots. Wind 243 degrees [West South West] 35 miles per hour. Altimeter height 1,500feet. Air temperature 51degrees Fahrenheit. Weather - intermittent rain. Cloud nimbus at 500 feet. After an excellent supper our distinguished passengers smoked a final cigar and having sighted the French coast have now gone to bed to rest after the excitement of their leave-taking. All essential services are functioning satisfactorily. Crew have settled down to watch-keeping routine."

This was the last message from the R101 giving the speed and position of the ship. The ship continued to send out directional signals for the purpose of checking her position or testing the straight of the signals, by Directional Wireless. The last directional signal addressed to Cardington was at 1.28am. A final signal was sent to the Croydon Station and relayed via ship at Le Bourget 01.51am and acknowledged by the R101 at 01.52am. That was the last signal ever sent by the R101.

At 02.00pm the watch changed as with normal routine on the ship, still nothing was reported wrong with the ship at this time. It can be assumed that had this been noticed then the Captain would have had this signalled back to base. Also if anything had been noticed at this time then the Captain would not have allowed the men on duty to stand down and pass over to the new watch. Evidence of engineer Leech at the Inquiry confirmed the situation that Leech was off duty and enjoying a smoke in the smoking room between 01.00am and 02.00am, when Captain Irwin came in to the room and spoke to him and the Chief Engineer. The Captain made no remarks about the ship except that the after engine continued to run well.. Mr Gent, Chief Engineer, later turned in and Leech went and made inspection of all the engine cars. He found them all to be running well and returned to the smoking room.

At 02.00am the ship reached Beauvais and passed to the east of the town. At this time witnesses suggested that the ship was beginning to have difficulty with the gusting winds. Some suggested that the promenade lights became obscured and early suggestions were made that the ship was rolling in the winds however no amount of rolling would explain this and it seems probable that the lights were obscured by intervening cloud.

From survivor accounts at 02.00am the ship made a long and rather steep dive, sufficient enough to make the engineers loose balance and to cause furniture in the smoking room to slide. It is estimated that a rent occurred in the rain soaked upper part of the nose, causing the forward gas bags to become exposed to the elements and thus damaged by the gusting wind. The loss of gas at this point could have led to the loss of control of the ship. Also the ship was travelling towards the notorious Beauvais ridge which was well know by aviators for it's dangerous gusting wind conditions. The loss of gas at the forward part of the ship, combined with a sudden downward gust of wind would have forced the nose down. Calculations taken by the University of Bristol in 1995 provides evidence that the maximum downward angle was at 18 degrees in this first dive through a time span of 90 seconds.

The crew in the control car would have tried to correct this and pulled the elevator up to try to counter this downward angle. In the next 30 seconds the ship pulled out of the forced dive and the crew were managing to steady the ship. Flying at a nose up angle of 3 degrees enabling the ship to try and regain some of the aerodynamic forces. However it was realised that the elevator was hard "up" and yet the crew knew that the nose was only just some 3 degrees above the horizon, this meant that the nose was now extremely heavy and hence a serious loss of gas from the forward bags would have occurred.

The Captain then rang the order for all engines to reduce speed from the original cruising speed, if not to stop them. The bells were heard and acted on by the crew as evidence of the survivors confirmed. The Chief Coxswain, Hunt, moved aft from the control car and to the crews quarters. At this point he passed crew member Disley, and warned by saying "We're down lads". This famous comment by one of the most experienced airship crew members can be seen that the R101 at this point was not going to be able to continue with it's existing difficulties, and that an executive decision had been made to put the ship in to emergency landing stations.

Just after this point the ship moved in to a second dive. It is calculated that at this point the R101 was now only at about a height of some 530 feet which for a vessel of 777ft long was a precarious one, and so any rapid oscillation of the ship, which had already occurred, would have caused it to fail. Rigger Church was ordered to release the emergency ballast from the nose of the ship and was on the way to the mooring platform when he felt the angle of the ship begin to dip once more from an even keel. The ship began to drop again through a downward angle and at this point the nose impacted with the ground. Evidence from the official inquiry noted that the R101's ground speed had reduced to almost that of a perfect landing. The impact of the R101 with the ground was very gentle, and it was noted that the forward speed of the ship was only 13.8 mph. The ship bounced slightly moving forward some 60ft and then settled down to the ground. The survivors recall that a "crunch" was heard and the the ship levelled. There was no violent jarring from the impact. Evidence following the crash confirms this as the only impact markings in the ground were a 2ft deep by 9ft long groove which was cut by the nose cone. Soil was later found in the nose cone. Also the starboard forward engine had struck the ground with the propeller still revolving and grooves were made by this, and the engine car had been twisted completely around on it's struts.

After the impact, the fire broke out. The most probably cause of this is the starboard engine car was twisted around and thus hot engine which came in to contact with the free gas from the rents in the forward gas bags. The fire immediately consumed the ship causing each gasbag from the forward to after part of the ship to explode. The force of the explosions was noted by the position of the gas valves and the damage to the framework of the ship. The outer cover was immediately consumed in the ensuing inferno.

Of the crew and passengers only 8 men were able to escape from the wreck.

Foreman Engineer J H Leech - sitting in the smoking room at the time of the impact managed to be saved by the bulkhead of the accommodation collapsing from above and being held by the top of the settee in the smoking room. He was able to escape through the side of the damaged wooden walls of the smoking room and out through the framework to and through the cloth outer cover of the ship to safety.

Engineers A V Bell, J H Binks, A J Cook V Savory were in their respective engine cars which were positioned outside the main hull, and hence when the ship landed were able to escape through the windows of the engine cars and run out away from the ship.

Rigger W G Radcliffe survived the crash and worked his way out of the wreckage but later died in the hospital from his injuries.

Wireless Operator A Disley who was asleep in the crews' quarters was awakened as his bunk was positioned in the same forward direction as the ship, and thus awoke when he felt the curious angle of the first dive. He felt the ship come out of the first dive and to an even keel and the to a nose up angle. At the same moment Hunt passed through the crews quarters and advised them of the situations and carried on through. At this point Disley heard the telegraphs ring out in the ship. The electrical switchboard was close at hand and he started to get out of his bunk and to cut off the electric current to the ship. There were two field switches and he recalls tripping on one of them. He did this as he knew that in any aircraft crash there may be the chance of fire. During this action the ship went in to it's second dive and he was just about to switch the second one when the impact was heard and the lights went out over the ship. Disley recalls that the impact was not enough to unbalance him from his feet it was so gentle. Seconds later he, like Leech was fighting he way through the wreckage to the outside of the ship.

The last survivor was Rigger Church, who later died of his injuries three days after the crash. He was interviewed and gave the following statement.

"I would consider the flight rather bumpy, but not exceptionally so. The second watch had just come on and I was walking back when the ship took up a steep diving attitude. At this moment I received an order to release the emergency forward water ballast [1/2 ton in the nose] but before I could get there the crash came."

The emergency ballast was in the very nose of the ship and utilised most of the emergency ballast, it could not be released from the controls in the control car, and had to be jettisoned locally.


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The R101 came to rest with the forward part of her nose in a wood of small trees and the rest of her hull in a meadow. When getting away from the ship, both Disley and Cook did notice some interesting facts. Disley noted that even though the outer cover was burning, there was almost no cover left on the top of the ship aft of frames 10 and 11. The ship appeared to be a skeleton. Cook noticed that the underside of the elevator still had outer cover on it and was positioned in a full up position, suggesting that the coxswain was still trying to keep the nose up on landing. The later inquiry noted that the number of turns on the auxiliary winch drum confirmed this.

The survivors were treated in the local hospital and the inquiry began the following morning with the French authorities surveying the site and condition off the wreck whilst the British investigators were flown in. Messages were wired to England in the early hours of the morning reporting the crash to a stunned British public.


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Rigger Church was later to die in hospital of his injuries and joined the other victim's of the crash. Full state honours were given to the victims as special trains were laid on to transport them from the crash site to the channel. They were later loaded on to H.M.S. Tempest at Boulogne and then carried to Dover where a special train took the bodies to Victoria Station. From here they were carried in state to Westminster Hall at the Palace of Westminster where they were laid in state. From here the mourning public waited may hours to file past the coffins to show respect. A memorial service was held at St Pauls Cathedral on Saturday 11th October, after which the coffins were taken by train to Bedford, then were walked the two miles to Cardington Village, were a space had been prepared in the Village Churchyard. All 48 dead were finally laid to rest in a special grave, a final small service was undertaken with distinguished guests including Hugo Eckener and Has Von Schiller, followed by a flypast by the RAF flight. In 1931 a memorial tomb was completed and inscribed with the names of the victim's .This memorial still dominates the tiny churchyard to this day.

The Wreckage.


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The wreck of the R101 lay where it had fallen until well in-to 1931 becoming the haunt for air accident investigators and day trippers to see the spectacle of the near perfect skeleton of the once largest airship in the world. Scrap contractors from Sheffield who were specialists in stainless steel were employed to salvage what they could. It was noted in the records of the the Zeppelin company that they purchased 5,000kgs of duraluminium from the wreckage for their own use. Whether this was used for testing and analysis or to re-cast and turned in-to the one of the most well known airships ever, the "Hindenburg", is open to further research and speculation.