R101 was one of a pair of British
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 rigid airship
Rigid airship
A rigid airship is a type of airship in which the envelope retained its shape by the use of an internal structural framework rather than by being forced into shape by the pressure of the lifting gas within the envelope as used in blimps and semi-rigid airships.Rigid airships were produced and...

 completed in 1929 as part of a British government programme to develop civil airships capable of service on long-distance routes within the British Empire
British Empire
The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom. It originated with the overseas colonies and trading posts established by England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. At its height, it was the...

. It was designed and built by an Air Ministry
Air Ministry
The Air Ministry was a department of the British Government with the responsibility of managing the affairs of the Royal Air Force, that existed from 1918 to 1964...

-appointed team and was effectively in competition with the government-funded but privately-designed and built R100
HM Airship R100 was a privately designed and built rigid airship made as part of a two-ship competition to develop new techniques for a projected larger commercial airship for use on British empire routes...

. When built it was the world's largest flying craft, and it was not surpassed until the Hindenburg flew five years later.

After some trial flights, and subsequent modifications to increase lifting capacity which included lengthening the airship by 46 ft (14 m), it crashed on 5 October 1930 in France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 during its maiden overseas voyage, killing 48 of the 54 people on board. Among the passengers were Lord Thomson
Christopher Thomson, 1st Baron Thomson
Christopher Birdwood Thomson, 1st Baron Thomson PC was a British Army officer who went on to serve as a Labour minister and peer...

, the Air Minister who had initiated the programme, and other senior officials, including the airship's designers. The crash of R101 effectively ended British airship development. The loss of R101 was one of the worst airship accidents of the 1930s. The loss of life was greater than in the Hindenburg disaster
Hindenburg disaster
The Hindenburg disaster took place on Thursday, May 6, 1937, as the German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire and was destroyed during its attempt to dock with its mooring mast at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station, which is located adjacent to the borough of Lakehurst, New Jersey...

 of 1937 and was second only to that of the USS Akron crash in 1933.


R101 was the result of a British government initiative to develop airships to provide passenger and mail transport from Britain
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 to the most distant parts of the British Empire
British Empire
The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom. It originated with the overseas colonies and trading posts established by England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. At its height, it was the...

, including India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

, Australia
Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...

 and Canada
Canada is a North American country consisting of ten provinces and three territories. Located in the northern part of the continent, it extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west, and northward into the Arctic Ocean...

. These distances were too great for conventional aircraft of the period. The Burney Scheme of 1922 had proposed a civil airship development programme carried out by a specially established subsidiary of Vickers with the support of the British government, but when the General Election of 1923 brought Ramsay MacDonald
Ramsay MacDonald
James Ramsay MacDonald, PC, FRS was a British politician who was the first ever Labour Prime Minister, leading a minority government for two terms....

’s Labour administration to power the new Air Minister, Lord Thomson formulated the Imperial Airship Scheme in its place. This called for the building of two experimental airships: one, R101, to be designed and constructed under direction of the Air Ministry
Air Ministry
The Air Ministry was a department of the British Government with the responsibility of managing the affairs of the Royal Air Force, that existed from 1918 to 1964...

, and the other, R100
HM Airship R100 was a privately designed and built rigid airship made as part of a two-ship competition to develop new techniques for a projected larger commercial airship for use on British empire routes...

, to be built by Vickers's Airship Guarantee Company under a fixed price contract (hence the nicknames "the Socialist Airship" and the "Capitalist Airship").

In addition to the building of the two airships, the scheme involved the establishment of the necessary infrastructure for airship operations; for example, the mooring mast
Mooring mast
A mooring mast, or mooring tower, is a structure designed to allow for the docking of an airship outside of an airship hangar or similar structure...

s used at Cardington, Ismalia, Karachi and Montreal had to be designed and built and the meteorological forecasting network extended and improved.

Specifications for the airships were drawn up by an Air Ministry committee whose members included Squadron Leader Reginald Colmore and Lieutenant-Colonel Vincent Richmond
Vincent Crane Richmond
Lieutenant-Colonel Vincent Crane Richmond OBE B.Sc., A.R.C. F.R.A.S was an Englishengineer and airship designer. He served first with the Royal Naval Air Service then the Royal Air Force...

, both of whom had extensive experience with airships, principally nonrigid ones. These called for airships of not less than five million cubic feet (140,000 m³) capacity and a fixed structural weight not to exceed 90 tons, giving a "disposable lift" of nearly 62 tons. With the necessary allowance of about 20 tons for the service load consisting of a crew of approximately 40, stores, and water ballast this meant a possible fuel and passenger load of 42 tons. Accommodation for 100 passengers and tankage for 57 hours' flight was to be provided and a sustainable cruise speed of 63 mph (101.4 km/h) and maximum speed of 70 mph (112.7 km/h) was called for. In wartime, the airships would be expected to carry 200 troops, or alternatively five fighter aircraft.

Vickers's design team was led by Barnes Wallis
Barnes Wallis
Sir Barnes Neville Wallis, CBE FRS, RDI, FRAeS , was an English scientist, engineer and inventor. He is best known for inventing the bouncing bomb used by the RAF in Operation Chastise to attack the dams of the Ruhr Valley during World War II...

, who had extensive experience of rigid airship design and later became famous for the bouncing bomb
Bouncing bomb
A bouncing bomb is a bomb designed specifically to bounce to a target across water in a calculated manner, in order to avoid obstacles such as torpedo nets, and to allow both the bomb's speed on arrival at the target and the timing of its detonation to be pre-determined...

. As a principal assistant (the "Chief Calculator") Nevil Shute Norway
Nevil Shute
Nevil Shute Norway was a popular British-Australian novelist and a successful aeronautical engineer. He used his full name in his engineering career, and 'Nevil Shute' as his pen name, in order to protect his engineering career from any potential negative publicity in connection with his novels.-...

, later well known as a novelist. Shute gives his account of the design and construction of the two airships in his autobiography, Slide Rule: Autobiography of an Engineer
Slide Rule: Autobiography of an Engineer
Slide Rule: Autobiography of an Engineer is the partial autobiography of the British novelist Nevil Shute. It was first published in 1954. Slide Rule concentrates on Nevil Shute's work in aerospace, ending in 1938 when he left the industry....

, which was first published in 1954. Shute's book characterises R100 as a pragmatic and conservative design, and R101 as extravagant and over-ambitious. One purpose of having two design teams was to test different approaches, with R101 deliberately intended to extend the limits of existing technology. Shute later admitted that many of his criticisms of the R101 team were unjustified.

An extremely optimistic timetable was drawn up, with construction of the government-built airship to be begun in July 1925 and complete by the following July, with a trial flight to India being planned for January 1927. In actuality, the extensive experimentation that was carried out delayed the actual start of production of R101 until early 1927. R100 was also delayed, and neither flew until late 1929.

Design and development

The whole airship programme was under the direction of the Director of Airship Development (DAD), Group Captain Peregrine Fellowes, with Colmore acting as his deputy. Lieutenant-Colonel Richmond was appointed Director of Designlater he was credited as "Assistant Director of Airship Development (Technical)" (Flight 10 October 1930 p1126) with Squadron Leader Michael Rope as his assistant, and the Director for Flying and Training, responsible for all operational matters for both ships, was Major G.H. Scott
George Herbert Scott
Major George Herbert Scott, CBE, AFC, was a pioneering British airship pilot and engineer. After serving in the Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Air Force during World War I, Scott went on to command the airship R34 on its return Atlantic crossing in 1919, which marked the first transatlantic...

, who had developed the design of the mooring masts that were to be built. It was based at the Royal Airship Factory at Cardington, Bedfordshire
Cardington, Bedfordshire
Cardington is a village and civil parish in the Borough of Bedford in Bedfordshire, EnglandPart of the ancient hundred of Wixamtree, the settlement is best known in connection with the Cardington airship works founded by Short Brothers during World War I, which later became an RAF training station...

, which had been built by Short Brothers
Short Brothers
Short Brothers plc is a British aerospace company, usually referred to simply as Shorts, that is now based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Founded in 1908, Shorts was the first company in the world to make production aircraft and was a manufacturer of flying boats during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s...

 (Shorts) during the First World War
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

 and had been employed by the Admiralty to copy and improve on the latest German designs from captured rigid airships. It had been nationalised in 1919 but after the loss of the R38 (then in the process of being transferred to the US as ZR2) naval airship development was stopped and it had been placed on a care and maintenance basis.

R101 was to be built only after an extensive research and test programme was complete. This was carried out by the National Physical Laboratory
National Physical Laboratory, UK
The National Physical Laboratory is the national measurement standards laboratory for the United Kingdom, based at Bushy Park in Teddington, London, England. It is the largest applied physics organisation in the UK.-Description:...

 (NPL). As part of this programme, the Air Ministry funded the costs of refurbishing and flying R33 in order to gather data about structural loads and the airflow around a large airship. Some of this data was supplied to Vickers; both airships had the same elongated tear-drop shape, unlike previous airship designs. This shape had been found to produce the minimum amount of drag. Safety was a primary concern and this would have an important influence on the choice of engines.

An early decision had been made to construct the primary structure largely from stainless steel rather than lightweight alloys such as duralumin
Duralumin is the trade name of one of the earliest types of age-hardenable aluminium alloys. The main alloying constituents are copper, manganese, and magnesium. A commonly used modern equivalent of this alloy type is AA2024, which contains 4.4% copper, 1.5% magnesium, 0.6% manganese and 93.5%...

. The design of the primary structure was shared between Cardington and the aircraft manufacturer Boulton and Paul
Boulton & Paul Ltd
Boulton & Paul was a British general manufacturer from Norwich that became involved in aircraft manufacture.Jeld Wen Inc, bought Boulton & Paul Boulton & Paul was a British general manufacturer from Norwich that became involved in aircraft manufacture.Jeld Wen Inc, bought Boulton & Paul Boulton &...

, who had extensive experience in the use of steel and had developed innovative techniques for forming steel strip into structural sections. Working to an outline design prepared with the help of data supplied by the NPL, the stress calculations were performed by Cardington. This information was then supplied to J.D. North and his team at Boulton and Paul, who designed the actual metalwork. The individual girders were fabricated by Boulton and Paul in Norwich and transported to Cardington where they were bolted together. This scheme for a prefabricated structure entailed demanding manufacturing tolerances and was entirely successful, as the ease with which R101 was eventually extended bears witness. Before any contracts for the metalwork were signed, an entire bay consisting of a pair of the 15-sided transverse ring frames and the connecting longitudinal girders was assembled at Cardington. After the assembly had passed loading tests, the individual girders were then tested to destruction. The structure of the airframe was innovative: the ring-shaped transverse frames of previous airships had been braced by radial wires meeting at a central hub, but no such bracing was used in R101, the frames being stiff enough in themselves. However, this resulted in the structure extending further into the envelope, thereby limiting the size of the gasbags.

The specifications drawn up in 1924 by the Committee for the Safety of Airships in 1924 had based weight estimates on the then existing rules for airframe strengths. However, the Air Ministry Inspectorate introduced a new set of rules for airship safety standards in late 1924 and compliance with these as-yet unformulated rules had been explicitly mentioned in the individual specifications for each airship. These new rules called for all lifting loads to be transmitted directly to the transverse frames rather than being taken via the longitudinal girders. The intention behind this ruling was to enable the stressing of the framework to be fully calculated, rather than relying on empirically accumulated data, as was contemporary practise at the Zeppelin design office. Apart from the implications for the airframe weight, one effect of these regulations was to force both teams to contrive a new system of harnessing the gasbags. The patented "parachute" gasbag harnessing, designed by Michael Rope, proved less than satisfactory, permitting the gas bags to surge unduly, particularly in rough weather. This caused the gasbags to chafe against the structure, causing holes in the fabric. Another effect was that both R100 and R101 employed a relatively small number of longitudinal girders, in order to simplify the stressing calculations. In order to reduce the area of unsupported fabric in the covering R101 alternated the main longitudinals with non-structural "reefing booms", while R100 employed a system of wires to tension the covering, R101 used pre-doped linen panels for much of its covering, rather than lacing the panels into place and then applying dope
Aircraft dope
thumb|right|[[United Kingdom military aircraft serials|2699]] a [[World War I]] [[Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2]] finished in a clear dopeAircraft dope is a plasticised lacquer that is applied to fabric-covered aircraft...

 to shrink it. This proved unsatisfactory from the start, with panels splitting because of humidity changes before the airship had even left its shed.

There were other innovative design features. Previously ballast containers had been made in the form of a leather "trousers", and one or other leg could be opened at the bottom by a cable-release from the control car. In R101, the extreme forward and aft ballast bags were of this type, and were locally operated, but the main ballast was held in tanks connected by pipes so that ballast could be transferred from one to another to alter the airship's trim using compressed air. The cover was also divided into fore and aft sections, with a loose vent on the upper side amidships,a low pressure region, and vents at the nose and tail, both high pressure regions. This was an ingenious arrangement which created a continuous flow of fresh air through the inside of the envelope, preventing any accumulation of escaped hydrogen within it.


Heavy-oil (diesel) engines were specified by the Air Ministry because the airship was intended for use on the India route, where it was thought that high temperatures would make petrol excessively volatile and flammable. Petrol fires had been a cause of death in the R38
The R38 class of rigid airships was designed for Britain's Royal Navy during the final months of World War I, intended for long-range patrol duties over the North Sea...


Initial calculations were based on the use of seven Beardmore Typhoon six-cylinder, heavy-oil engines which were expected to weigh 2200 lbs and deliver 600 bhp each. When the development of this engine proved impractical, the use of the eight-cylinder Beardmore Tornado
Beardmore Tornado
-Further reading:* Gunston, Bill. World Encyclopedia of Aero Engines. Cambridge, England. Patrick Stephens Limited, 1989. ISBN 1-85260-163-9* Gunston, Bill. Development of Piston Aero Engines. Cambridge, England. Patrick Stephens Limited, 2006. ISBN 0-7509-4478-1* Lumsden, Alec. British Piston...

 was proposed instead. This was an engine being developed by Beardmore by combining two four-cylinder engines which had originally been developed for railway use. In March 1925 these were expected to weigh 3200 lbs and deliver 700 bhp each. Due to the increased weight of each engine, it was decided to use five, resulting in overall power being reduced from 4200 bhp to 3500 bhp.

Unexpectedly, crankshaft resonance was encountered above 950 rpm, limiting the engine to a maximum of 935 rpm, giving an output of only 650 bhp with a continuous power rating at 890 rpm of 585 bhp. Other problems were encountered: the big end bearings were found to be prone to early failure, and gold plating had to be used to lengthen their life. The engine was also considerably above estimated weight, at 4773 lbs each, over double the initial estimate. Some of this excess weight was due to the failure to manufacture a satisfactory lightweight aluminium crankcase.

Another problem with the power installation was that the original intention had been to fit two of the engines with specially developed variable-pitch propellers in order to provide reverse thrust for manoeuvring during docking. These experiments were unsuccessful, and as a short term measure, one of the engines was fitted with a fixed-pitch reverse propeller, consequently becoming dead weight under normal flight conditions. As finally flown, two of the engines were adapted to be capable of running in reverse by a simple modification of the timing gear.


The passenger accommodation was spread over two decks within the envelope and included 50 passenger cabins for one, two, or four people, a dining room for 60 people, two promenade deck
Promenade deck
The promenade deck is a deck found on several types of passenger ships and riverboats. It usually extends from bow to stern, on both ddd,çsides, and includes areas open to the outside, resulting in a continuous outside walkway suitable for promenading, thus the name.On older passenger ships, the...

s with windows down the sides of the ship, a spacious lounge of 5500 square feet (511 m²) and even an asbestos
Asbestos is a set of six naturally occurring silicate minerals used commercially for their desirable physical properties. They all have in common their eponymous, asbestiform habit: long, thin fibrous crystals...

-lined smoking room
Smoking room
A Smoking room is a room which is specifically provided and furnished for smoking, generally in buildings where smoking is otherwise prohibited....

 for 24 people. Most of the passenger space was on the upper deck, with the smoking room, kitchen and washrooms, crew accommodation, as well as the chart room and radio cabin on the lower deck. The control car was immediately under the forward section of the lower deck and was reached by a ladder from the chart room.

Walls were made of doped linen painted in white and gold. Weight saving measures included wicker
Wicker is hard woven fiber formed into a rigid material, usually used for baskets or furniture. Wicker is often made of material of plant origin, but plastic fibers are also used....

 furniture and aluminium cutlery. The promenade windows were lightweight "Cellon" instead of the intended glass and one set were removed as part of later weight-saving measures.


The lengthy process of inflating the R101's gasbags began on 11 July 1929 and was complete by 21 September. With the airship now airborne and loosely tethered within the shed, it was now possible to carry out lift and trim trials. These were disappointing. A design conference held on 17 June 1929 had estimated a gross lift of 151.8 tons and a total airframe weight, including the power installation, of 105 tons. The actual figures proved to be a gross lift of 148.46 tons and a weight of 113.6 tons. Moreover, the airship was tail-heavy with the tail surfaces considerably above estimated weight. In this form, flight to India was out of the question. Airship operations under tropical conditions were made more difficult by the loss of lift in high air temperatures. The loss of lift in Karachi was estimated to be as much as 10 tons for an airship the size of R101.

R101 was first walked out from her shed by a ground-handling party of 400 on 12 October 1929 and two days later, made a 5 hr 40 min journey to London and back. A second flight followed on 18 October. On 1 November, R101 flew over East Anglia
East Anglia
East Anglia is a traditional name for a region of eastern England, named after an ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom, the Kingdom of the East Angles. The Angles took their name from their homeland Angeln, in northern Germany. East Anglia initially consisted of Norfolk and Suffolk, but upon the marriage of...

 including Norwich and the Boulton and Paul works there. This was followed by a flight to the Isle of Wight
Isle of Wight
The Isle of Wight is a county and the largest island of England, located in the English Channel, on average about 2–4 miles off the south coast of the county of Hampshire, separated from the mainland by a strait called the Solent...

. By 18 November, seven flights had been made. The seventh had been an endurance trial of nearly 31 hours carried out over England, Scotland and Ireland.

While the initial flight trials were being carried out, the design team examined the lift problem. Studies identified possible weight savings of 3.16 tons. Letting the gasbags out would gain 3.18 tons extra lift, although Michael Rope considered this unwise. There were thousands of exposed fixings protruding from the girders; chafing of the gasbags would have to be prevented by wrapping these in strips of cloth. To further increase lift, an extra bay of 500000 cu ft (14,158.4 m³) capacity could be installed in R101. This would deliver an extra nine tons disposable lift. On 30 November R101 was taken from the mast and walked back into the shed to prepare for the modifications, and after much consultation, all these proposed measures were approved in December. Letting out the gasbags and the weight-saving measures were begun. Delivery of the extra bay by Boulton Paul was expected to take place in June. The outer cover was also giving cause for concern. Tests undertaken by Rope had shown that its strength had deteriorated alarmingly, leaving no margin of safety for flight in rough atmospheric conditions, and an inspection of the cover on 2 June found many small tears. An immediate decision was taken to replace the pre-doped cover with a new cover which would be doped after fitting. This would take place following the flights which had been planned for June with the purpose of displaying R101 to the public at the Hendon Air Show. For these the cover would be reinforced with fabric bands.

Confirmation of the poor state of the cover came on the morning of 23 June when R101 was walked out of the shed. It had been at the mast for less than an hour in a moderate wind when an alarming rippling movement was observed and shortly afterward, a 90 ft (27.4 m) tear appeared on the right-hand side of the airship. It was decided to repair this at the mast and to add more strengthening bands, this work taking three days. R101 made three flights in June, totalling 29 hours 34 minutes duration. During these flights it became apparent that there there was excessive loss of hydrogen. An immediate inspection of the gasbags was ordered, large numbers of holes being found.

Concern was also raised over the possibility of loss of gas through the valves, which were of innovative design and also designed by Michael Rope. Airship valves are intended primarily to automatically vent gas if pressure in the bag rises to the point that the bag might rupture; they were also used to adjust lift for handling. Some concern was expressed over the valves opening because of either the airship rolling heavily or localised low pressure caused by the outer cover flapping, but after an examination of their operation F.W. McWade, the Air Inspectorate Department inspector at Cardington, concluded that their operation was satisfactory and they were not likely to be the cause of any significant loss of gas.

As an experimental aircraft R101 had been operating under a temporary "Permit to Fly", the responsibility of McWade. On 3 July, he wrote a letter to the Director of Aeronautical Inspection, Lieutenant-Colonel H.W.S. Outram expressing his unwillingness to recommend either an extension to the permit or the granting of the full Certificate of Airworthiness which would be necessary before the airship could fly in the airspace of other countries. His concern was that the padding on the framework was inadequate to protect the gasbags from chafing, the harnessing having been let out so that they were "hard up against the longitudinal girders", and that any surging of the gasbags would tend to loosen the padding, rendering it ineffective. He also expressed doubts about the use of padding, considering that it both made inspection of the airframe more difficult and would tend to trap moisture, making problems with corrosion more likely. Outram's reaction to this was to consult Colmore, at that point, Director of Airship Research, from whom he received a reassuring reply. The matter was taken no further.

R101 entered her shed for the extension on 29 June. At the same time the gasbags were given a complete overhaul, two of the engines were replaced by the adapted engines capable of running in reverse and most of the cover was replaced. The original cover was left in place between frames 3 and 5 and in two of the bays at the tail. These parts of the cover had had been doped after fitting and were therefore thought to be satisfactory, even though an inspection by McWade had found some areas where reinforcements had been stuck on with a rubber solution were seriously weakened: these areas were further reinforced, using dope as an adhesive.

A schedule was drawn up by the Air Ministry for R101 to undertake the flight to India in early October, in order that the flight would be made during the Imperial Conference which was to be held in London. The entire programme was intended to improve communication with the Empire, and it was hoped that the flight would generate favourable publicity for the airship programme. The final trial flight of R101 was originally scheduled for 26 September 1930, but high winds delayed the move from the shed until 1 October. That evening, it slipped the mast for its only trial flight before setting off for India. This lasted 16 hours 51 minutes and was undertaken under near ideal weather conditions, and because of the failure of the oil cooler in one engine, it was not possible to carry out full speed trials. The flight was curtailed because of the need to prepare the airship for the flight to India.
Despite the lack of full endurance and speed trials and the fact that a proper investigation of the aerodynamic consequences of the extension had not been fully completed a Certificate of Airworthiness was issued on 2 October, the Inspectorate expressing their complete satisfaction with the condition of the R101 and the standards to which the remedial work had been carried out. The actual certificate was handed over to Captain Irwin
Herbert Carmichael Irwin
Flight Lieutenant Herbert Carmichael "Bird" Irwin, AFC was an Irish aviator and athlete. During World War I, Irwin joined the Royal Naval Air Service , where he commanded non-rigid airships...

 only on the day of her flight to India.

Final flight

R101 departed from Cardington
Cardington, Bedfordshire
Cardington is a village and civil parish in the Borough of Bedford in Bedfordshire, EnglandPart of the ancient hundred of Wixamtree, the settlement is best known in connection with the Cardington airship works founded by Short Brothers during World War I, which later became an RAF training station...

 on the evening of 4 October for its intended destination of Karachi
Karachi is the largest city, main seaport and the main financial centre of Pakistan, as well as the capital of the province of Sindh. The city has an estimated population of 13 to 15 million, while the total metropolitan area has a population of over 18 million...

 (then part of British India) via a refuelling stop at Ismaïlia
-Notable natives:*Osman Ahmed Osman, a famous and influential Egyptian engineer, contractor, entrepreneur, and politician, was born in this town on 6 April 1917....

 in Egypt
Egypt , officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, Arabic: , is a country mainly in North Africa, with the Sinai Peninsula forming a land bridge in Southwest Asia. Egypt is thus a transcontinental country, and a major power in Africa, the Mediterranean Basin, the Middle East and the Muslim world...

 under the command of Flight Lieutenant
Flight Lieutenant
Flight lieutenant is a junior commissioned rank in the Royal Air Force and the air forces of many Commonwealth countries. It ranks above flying officer and immediately below squadron leader. The name of the rank is the complete phrase; it is never shortened to "lieutenant"...

 Carmichael Irwin. Among the 12 passengers were Lord Thomson
Christopher Thomson, 1st Baron Thomson
Christopher Birdwood Thomson, 1st Baron Thomson PC was a British Army officer who went on to serve as a Labour minister and peer...

, Secretary of State for Air
Secretary of State for Air
The Secretary of State for Air was a cabinet level British position. The person holding this position was in charge of the Air Ministry. It was created on 10 January 1919 to manage the Royal Air Force...

, Sir Sefton Brancker
Sefton Brancker
Air Vice-Marshal Sir William Sefton Brancker KCB AFC , commonly known as Sir Sefton Brancker, was a pioneer in British civil and military aviation.-Early life:...

, Director of Civil Aviation, Squadron Leader William Palstra, RAAF
Royal Australian Air Force
The Royal Australian Air Force is the air force branch of the Australian Defence Force. The RAAF was formed in March 1921. It continues the traditions of the Australian Flying Corps , which was formed on 22 October 1912. The RAAF has taken part in many of the 20th century's major conflicts...

 air liaison officer (ALO) to the British Air Ministry and both Lt. Col. V. C. Richmond and Sqd Ldr. F. M. Rope.

The weather forecast on the morning of 4 October was generally favourable, predicting south to south-westerly winds of between 20 and 30 mph (32 and 48 kph) at 2000 ft (609.6 m) over northern France, with conditions improving over southern France and the Mediterranean Sea. Although the mid-day forecast indicated some deterioration in the situation, this was not considered to be alarming enough to cancel the planned voyage. A course was planned which would take R101 over London, Paris and Toulouse, crossing the French coast near Narbonne.

Fine rain was beginning to fall when at dusk, with all the crew and passengers aboard, the R101 readied for departure. Under the illuminating spotlights, the jettisoning of water ballast to bring the airship into trim was clearly visible. Squadron Leader Booth, the commander of R100, who was observing the departure from the tower's observation gallery, estimated that two tons had been discharged from the nose and a further ton from the midships tanks. R101 cast off from the mast at 18:36 GMT to a cheer from the crowd that had gathered to witness the event, gently backed from the tower and, as another ton of ballast was shed, the engines were opened up to about half power, and the airship slowly began to climb away.

At about 19:06 the duty engineer in the aft engine car reported an apparent oil pressure problem. At 19:16 he shut the engine down, and after a short discussion with the Chief engineer, a decision was taken to replace the oil gauge, there being nothing apparently wrong with the engine. This work was put in hand, and the engine eventually restarted at 22:56, by which time R101 was over the English Channel. With one engine stopped airspeed was reduced by around 4 mph to 58.7 mph.

At 19:19, having flown 29 ½ miles but now only eight miles from Cardington, a course was set for London. With one engine stopped, its ground speed was about 40 mph. At 20:01, R101, by now over Potters Bar, made its second report to Cardington, confirming the intention to proceed via London, Paris and Narbonne, but making no mention of the engine problem. By that point, the weather had deteriorated, and it was raining heavily. Flying around 800 ft (243.8 m) above the ground, it passed over Alexandra Palace before changing course slightly at the landmark clock tower of the Metropolitan Cattle Market north of Islington, and thence over Shoreditch to cross the Thames in the vicinity of the Isle of Dogs, passing over the Royal Naval College at Greenwich at 20:28. The airship’s progress, flying with her nose pointing some 30 degrees to the right of its track, was observed by many who braved the rain to watch it pass overhead.

An update of the meteorological situation was received at 20:40. The forecast had deteriorated severely, south-westerly winds of up to 50 mile per hour with low cloud and rain being predicted for northern France, and similar conditions over central France. That this caused concern on board is demonstrated by the request for more detailed information transmitted at 21:19, by which time R101 was near Hawkhurst in Kent. It is possible that an alternative course was being considered. At 21:35 R101 crossed the English coast near Hastings and at 21:40 transmitted a progress report back to Cardington, mentioning that recovery of rainwater into the ballast tanks was taking place but again not reporting the engine problem. At 22:56 the aft engine was restarted. By now the wind had risen to about 44 mile per hour with strong gusts, but a further meteorological report received shortly after the airship had crossed the coast had been encouraging about weather conditions south of Paris.

Over France, R101 passed close to Beauvais ridge at a height estimated at 800 ft (243.8 m) above the ground.
At about 02:07 R101 went into a dive from which she slowly recovered, probably losing around 450 ft (137.2 m). As it did so Rigger S. Church, who was returning to the crew quarters to come off duty, was sent forward to release the forward emergency ballast bags, which were locally controlled. This first dive was steep enough to cause A.H. Leech, Foreman Engineer from Cardington, to be thrown from his seat in the smoking room and to wake Chief Electrician Arthur Disley, who was dozing in the switch room next to the chart cabin. As the ship recovered Disley was roused by the Chief Coxswain, G. W. Hunt, who then went to the crew quarters, calling out "We're down, lads" in warning. As this happened the airship went into a second dive and orders to reduce speed to slow (450 rpm) were received in the engine cars: before Engineer A.J Cook, on duty in the left-hand midships engine car could respond the airship hit the ground. The reason for the order to reduce speed is a matter for conjecture because the reduction of thrust would have caused the airship to lose dynamic lift and adopt a nose-down attitude. The subsequent Inquiry estimated the impact speed at some 13 mph (19 km),with the airship between 15° and 25° nose down.

A total of 46 of the 54 passengers and crew were killed immediately. Both Church and Rigger W.G Radcliffe survived the crash but later died in hospital in Beauvais, bringing the total of dead to 48. The bodies were returned to England where they lay in state in Westminster Hall at the Palace of Westminster
Palace of Westminster
The Palace of Westminster, also known as the Houses of Parliament or Westminster Palace, is the meeting place of the two houses of the Parliament of the United Kingdom—the House of Lords and the House of Commons...

. After a memorial service at St Paul's Cathedral
St Paul's Cathedral
St Paul's Cathedral, London, is a Church of England cathedral and seat of the Bishop of London. Its dedication to Paul the Apostle dates back to the original church on this site, founded in AD 604. St Paul's sits at the top of Ludgate Hill, the highest point in the City of London, and is the mother...

 on 11 October, the bodies were taken to Cardington village for burial in the cemetery of St Mary's church. A monument was later erected, and the scorched RAF ensign which R101 had flown on its tail is on display, along with a memorial tablet, in the church's nave.

Inquiry and aftermath

The Court of Inquiry was led by the Liberal
Liberal Party (UK)
The Liberal Party was one of the two major political parties of the United Kingdom during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a third party of negligible importance throughout the latter half of the 20th Century, before merging with the Social Democratic Party in 1988 to form the present day...

 politician Sir John Simon
John Simon, 1st Viscount Simon
John Allsebrook Simon, 1st Viscount Simon GCSI GCVO OBE PC was a British politician who held senior Cabinet posts from the beginning of the First World War to the end of the Second. He is one of only three people to have served as Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer,...

, assisted by Lieutenant-Colonel John Moore-Brabazon and Professor C E Inglis
Charles Inglis (engineer)
Sir Charles Edward Inglis OBE was a British civil engineer. Inglis spent much of his life as a lecturer and academic at King's College Cambridge and made several important studies into the effects of vibration and defects on the strength of plate steel...

. The Inquiry, held in public, opened on 28 October and spent 10 days taking evidence from witnesses, including Professor Leonard Bairstow
Leonard Bairstow
Sir Leonard Bairstow, CBE, FRS, FRAeS was a son of Uriah Bairstow, a wealthy Halifax, West Yorkshire man and keen mathematician. Born in 1880 in Halifax, Bairstow is best remembered for his work in aviation and for Bairstow's method for arbitrarily finding the roots of polynomials.As a boy,...

 and Dr. Hugo Eckener
Hugo Eckener
Dr. Hugo Eckener was the manager of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin during the inter-war years, and was commander of the famous Graf Zeppelin for most of its record-setting flights, including the first airship flight around the world, making him the most successful airship commander in history...

 of the Zeppelin company, before adjourning in order to allow Bairstow and the NPL to perform more detailed calculations based on wind-tunnel tests on a specially made model of R101 in its final form. This evidence was presented over three days ending on 5 December 1930. The final report was presented on 27 March 1931.

The Inquiry examined most aspects of the design and construction of R101 in detail, with particular emphasis on the gasbags and the associated harnessing and valves, although very little examination of the problems that had been encountered with the cover were made. All the technical witnesses provided unhesitating endorsement of the airworthiness of the airship prior to its flight to India. An examination was also made of the various operational decisions that had been made before the airship undertook its final voyage.

The possibility of the crash having been the result of a prolonged loss of gas caused by leakage or loss through the valves was discounted since this explanation did not explain the airship's behaviour during its last moments: moreover the fact that the officers on duty had changed watch routinely implied that there had been no particular cause for alarm a few minutes before the crash. The recent change of watch was considered to be a possible contributory factor to the accident, since the new crew would not have had time to get the feel of the airship. It was also considered most unlikely that the accident had been solely caused by a sudden downdraught. A sudden and catastrophic failure was seen as the only explanation. The Inquiry discounted the possibility of structural failure of the airframe. The only major fracture found in the wreckage was at the rear of the new framework extension but it was considered that this had either occurred on impact or more probably been caused by the intense heat of the subsequent fire. The Inquiry came to the conclusion that a tear had probably developed in the forward cover, this in turn causing one or more of the forward gasbags to fail. Evidence presented by Professor Bairstow showed that this would cause the R101 to become too nose-heavy for the elevators to correct.

The cause of the fire was not established. Several hydrogen airships had crashed in similar circumstances without catching fire. The inquiry thought that it was most probable that a spark from the ship's electrics had ignited escaping hydrogen, causing an explosion. Other suggestions put forward included the ignition of the calcium
Calcium phosphide
Calcium phosphide is a chemical is used in incendiary bombs. It has the appearance of red-brown crystalline powder or grey lumps, with melting point of 1600 °C. Its trade name is Photophor for the incendiary use or Polythanol for the use as rodenticide.It may be formed by reaction of the elements...

Flare (pyrotechnic)
A flare, also sometimes called a fusee, is a type of pyrotechnic that produces a brilliant light or intense heat without an explosion. Flares are used for signalling, illumination, or defensive countermeasures in civilian and military applications...

 carried in the control car on contact with water, electrostatic discharge or a fire in one of the engine cars, which carried petrol for the starter engines. All that is certain is that she caught fire almost at once and burned fiercely. In the extreme heat, the fuel oil from the wreck soaked into the ground and caught fire; it was still burning when the first party of officials arrived by air the next day.

The Inquiry considered that it was "impossible to avoid the conclusion that the R101 would not have started for India on the evening of October 4th if it had not been that matters of public policy were considered as making it highly desirable that she should do so" but considered this to be the result of all concerned being eager to prove the worth of R101, rather than direct interference from above.

R101 was the end of British attempts to create lighter-than-air aircraft. Scrap contractors salvaged what they could of the wreckage, continuing through 1931. The Zeppelin Company
Luftschiffbau Zeppelin
Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH is a German company which, during the early 20th century, was a leader in the design and manufacture of rigid airships, specifically of the Zeppelin type. The company was founded by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin...

 purchased five tons of duralumin from the wreck. Its competitor, R100, despite a more successful development programme and a satisfactory, although not trouble-free, transatlantic trial flight, was grounded immediately after R101 crashed. In 1931 the Imperial Airship scheme was abandoned, and R100 sold for scrap.

At the time, and even today, scholarly opinion about R101 varies from the best airship ever designed to an appallingly bad piece of engineering. Any controversy is due to a number of factors. At the time the entire airship programme was controversial, since large sums of public money were involved. The extremely poor relationship between the R100 team and both Cardington and the Air Ministry created a climate of resentment and jealousy which may have rankled. Neville Shute's autobiography was serialised by the Sunday Graphic
Sunday Graphic
The Sunday Graphic was an English tabloid newspaper published in Fleet Street.The newspaper was founded in 1915 as the Sunday Herald and was later renamed the Illustrated Sunday Herald. In 1927 it changed its name to the Sunday Graphic, becoming the sister paper of the Daily Graphic. In 1931 it...

 on its publication in 1954, and misleadingly promoted as containing sensational revelations, and Barnes Wallis later expressed scathing criticism of the design although these may in part reflect personal animosities. Nevertheless, his listing of Richmond's "overweening vanity" as a major cause of the debacle, and the fact that he himself had not designed it as another, says little for his objectivity.

Although the design had some innovative features, and the workmanship was superb, the ship had basic flaws, only some of which were due to shortcomings in the design.

Popular culture

  • The Doctor Who
    Doctor Who
    Doctor Who is a British science fiction television programme produced by the BBC. The programme depicts the adventures of a time-travelling humanoid alien known as the Doctor who explores the universe in a sentient time machine called the TARDIS that flies through time and space, whose exterior...

    audio play Storm Warning is set aboard R101 during her voyage.
  • R101 also figured prominently in the book The Airmen Who Would Not Die by John G. Fuller
    John G. Fuller
    John Grant Fuller, Jr. was a New England-based American author of several non-fiction books and newspaper articles, mainly focusing on the theme of extra-terrestrials and the supernatural. For many years he wrote a regular column for the Saturday Review magazine, called "Trade Winds"...

    , which tells of a purported psychic vision of the disaster years before by medium Eileen J. Garrett
    Eileen J. Garrett
    Eileen J. Garrett was an Irish medium, founder of the Parapsychology Foundation in New York City, and a leading figure in the scientific study of paranormal phenomena during the mid-20th century.-Ireland:...

    , and a seance with the deceased officers after the disaster.
  • R101 is the subject of the rock opera ("songstory") Curly's Airships
    Curly's Airships
    Curly's Airships is a double CD by Judge Smith, released in October 2000. Smith regards the album as a new form of narrative rock music, which he calls "songstory". Curly's Airships tells about the R101 airship, crashing in France during its maiden overseas voyage in 1930...

    (2000) by Judge Smith
    Judge Smith
    Christopher John Judge Smith , is a songwriter, composer and performer, and a founder member of progressive rock band Van der Graaf Generator. Initially working under the name Chris Judge Smith, he has been known simply as Judge Smith since 1994.- Early years :In 1967, with Peter Hammill, Judge...

  • The "Historical Impersonations" sketch on the TV show Monty Python's Flying Circus
    Monty Python's Flying Circus
    Monty Python’s Flying Circus is a BBC TV sketch comedy series. The shows were composed of surreality, risqué or innuendo-laden humour, sight gags and observational sketches without punchlines...

     included a depiction of Napoleon impersonating the R101 disaster.
  • R101 has been featured in the TV series, Britain's Greatest Machines with Chris Barrie on National Geographic Channel.

Specifications (R101 after extension)

External links

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