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Construction and Destruction of the R101

The R101 at its mooring mast [Z426/1/18]
The R101 at its mooring mast [Z426/1/18]

Sir Maurice J. Dean, who was involved in the trials of R101 wrote an article for the May 1966 edition The Air Force Department Society Journal. A copy of this article is available in the Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service Searchroom [CRT160/215]. Sir Maurice noted that in her final form R101 was 770 feet long and 130 feet in diameter, made up from eighteen main frames joined together by longitudinal girders. The main frames divided the craft into seventeen compartments, each of which contained a huge bag filled with hydrogen. This element was used because it is lighter than air and, therefore, made the airship float; unfortunately it catches fire very easily near a heat source. The whole of the balloon section of the airship was covered with doped linen.

The R101 was powered by five diesel engines, two attached to Frame 4, two attached to Frame 9 and one at Frame 11. The engines were carried in pods large enough for mechanics to move about inside. Being diesel there was less risk of igniting the hydrogen gas than with petrol engines.

The airship carried eight tons of water ballast and thirty tons of fuel for the engines. Beneath the balloon hung the gondola. It had two decks and had fifty passenger cabins with beds for one, two or four people and a dining room for sixty. There were two promenade decks with windows down each side and an asbestos lined smoking room! The asbestos was very necessary to keep any tiny spark away from wood, dope or hydrogen but would have been, itself, a health hazard, though this was not understood at the time. This smoking room was on the lower deck along with crew quarters, kitchens and washing facilities.

Sir Maurice stated that the weight of R101 turned out to be much greater than had been specified. She was designed to lift sixty tons but, because of her own weight, could only lift thirty five. Some changes to wiring and other things increased this lifting capacity by six tons, however, the rewiring caused hydrogen gas to be lost due to chafing of wiring on girders. This sounds like a potential cause of the disaster but Sir Maurice, in his article, considered that it did not play any significant part in the tragedy.

Assembling the R101 [Z50/24/112]
Assembling the R101 [Z50/24/112]

Following this modification R101 made three test flights, all in good weather. Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service is lucky to have four books of press cuttings relating to the R101, forming part of the Mike Allen archive [Z434]. One of these books [Z434/2] has cuttings describing R101’s first test flight on 14th October 1929. There were thirty eight crew and fourteen passengers, including the ship’s designer, Vincent Crane Richmond, who were treated to a luncheon of soup, roast mutton and vegetables, fruit salad, cheese and biscuits and coffee. The commander was the first man to cross the Atlantic in an airship, Major George Herbert Scott, who lived at Manor Farmhouse, Cotton End. The R101 left its mooring at 11.19 a. m. The first radio message at 11.31 stated: “Everything going well. Ship behaving splendidly”. Around midday the airship circled Bedford, she passed over Hitchin [Hertfordshire] at 12.15, Luton, flying low, at 12.25, Leighton Buzzard at 12.40 and Saint Albans [Hertfordshire] at 1.15. She then headed to Oxford and thence to London. The journey was about three hundred miles and the airship’s height did not exceed two thousand feet (about three times the airship’s length).

Immediately after the first flight Major Scott, who would be killed when R101 crashed said: “R101 has proved herself today to be a splendid ship of the air. She has responded in every test made to the uttermost of our expectations” [Z434/2]. A second trial over East Anglia took place on 31st October. The airship passed over Sandringham and was seen by King George V and Queen Mary.

As a result of these trials another bay was added to the airship. This involved cutting the craft in two adding another frame and another compartment with an additional gas bag to increase lift by another nine tons. A fourth and final trial flight was then undertaken on 2nd October, just two days before her maiden flight, and lasting some seventeen hours, bringing total trial flight time to one hundred and twenty hours, mostly in fair weather. One of the trips, a night flight on 1st/2nd November 1929 had been of thirty hours duration, taking in Lincoln, York, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast, Blackpool, Dublin, and Chester before returning to Cardington. Whilst mooring at the end of the flight she tore the envelope over the gas bags.

An article had appeared in The Engineer in September 1929 [Z434/2]. The article pointed out that R100 and R101 would, together, cost over £2,000,000 and were then two years behind schedule. The article claimed that R101 was underpowered, over weight, deficient in speed (not being able to reach the specified 70 miles per hour), not provided with a satisfactory reversing system and unable to carry the one hundred passengers for which accommodation was provided. The writer, prophetically, stated: “these two airships are … practically obsolete before they leave their sheds”.

R101 slipped her mast about 6.30 on the evening of Saturday 4th October, heading for India. She circled Bedford and passed over London at 8.20, crossing the coast at Hastings at 9.35. Sir Maurice noted that he received R101’s final message reporting position and state, which came just after midnight on 5th October. It read:

“To Cardington from R101. 2400 G. M. T. 15 miles S. W. of Abbeville. Average speed 33 knots. Wind W. S. W. 35 m. p. h. Altimeter height 1500 feet. 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 excitements of their leave-taking. All essential services functioning normally. The crew have settled down to watch-keeping routine”.

The final call from the airship checking position came at 1.28 a. m. and a bearing sent from the French air station at Le Bourget at 1.51, receipt being acknowledged one minute later. Surviving passengers later recalled that the watch changed punctually at 2 a. m. by which time R101 was over the city of Beauvais. The ship then entered a long and steep dive, causing furniture to slide forward. The pilot seems to have corrected this dive and brought the airship back on an even keel and orders were given to reduce engine speed, which was done. However, shortly afterwards the craft dived again and hit a hillside near the village of Allonne, just south of Beauvais, bursting into flames. As engine speed had been reduced the airship probably hit the ground quite slowly. An official of Royal Airship Works, four engineers and a wireless operator were the only survivors. Forty eight people died.

The Daily Mail of 6th October 1930 reported the prophecy of E. F. Spanner, a naval architect and member of the Royal Corps of Naval Constructors. He criticised the design of R100 and R101 in 1927 and said: “forty men or more will probably lose their lives on or soon after the trial trip” [Z434/4].

The wreck of R101 near Allonne [Z434/4]
The wreck of the R101 near Allonne [Z434/4]