The ill-fated R101

It was a major blow to British aviation when the airship R101 crashed and burned in France on October 5th, 1930, on its maiden overseas voyage. It was headed to Karachi, then part of the British Empire as part of a project to serve long-distance imperial routes. Two rigid airships were authorized in this programme, both publicly funded, and effectively in competition with each other.

The R01 was designed and built by an air ministry-appointed team under Lord Thomson, the Labour Secretary of State for Air in Ramsay MacDonald’s government, whereas the R100 was designed and built by private industry, by a team headed by Barnes Wallis, later to design the dambuster bouncing bomb and the swing wing aircraft design.

The R101’s trials had not met expectations. Its lift was nearly 3.5 tons lighter than anticipated, and its weight was over 8.5 tons heavier. Moreover, because of much heavier than expected tail surfaces, the ship was nose heavy. The ship was modified as a result, lengthened by 45 ft to add another gasbag, making it the world’s largest aircraft at 731 ft in length. The modifications caused new problems. The hydrogen-filled gasbags could rub against the frame, with risk of tearing, and there were problems with the covering skin.

The ministerial team had made bad decisions in introducing new and untried technology. The diesel engines and the frame were too heavy, and the servo motors that steered the rudder were excessively complicated. The R100 designers used a simple hand-operated steering wheel and cables instead. There were too many untested features, and to meet political pressures, the ship was making VIP joyrides before it had been properly tested, and before it had gained an airworthiness certificate.

The privately-built R100 relied for the most part on proven technology and was a success. It made a return test flight to Canada in 1930, a trip taking 78 hours, and passed with flying colours. The R101’s tragic crash in France killed 48 of the 54 people it carried, including many VIPs. Lord Thomson, the Air Minister, died along with senior government officials and most of the Air Ministry’s design team.

The subsequent Enquiry concluded that one or more of the forward gasbags had probably torn, leaking hydrogen and making the ship too nose-heavy for its elevators to correct. On impact the escaping hydrogen had ignited, possibly from a spark, or perhaps from a fire in one of the engine cars that carried petrol for the starter engines. The death toll exceeded that of the later Hindenburg disaster of 1937, and was among the highest of the decade.

It effectively ended Britain’s airship programme. The R100 was grounded and retired, and work was stopped on the planned R102. The Air Ministry concluded, somewhat belatedly, that hydrogen was just too dangerous a material for airships, and stopped all subsequent development, just as the Germans later did after the Hindenburg disaster.

The R101 provided a classic, and in this case, tragic example of how public projects can become bloated, with new additions being included until they become overburdened, and respond to political pressures rather than design needs. The R100 team, by contrast, kept it simple, with a clear goal in sight and incorporating established working technology rather than loading it with untried and problematic innovations.

It was an unhappy episode, costly in lives, but it ultimately led to safer and less weather-vulnerable passenger aircraft. Airships may make a comeback, probably as heavy lifters for such things as transformers within city construction. They may carry passengers across oceans for luxury flights with bedrooms, restaurants and glittering ballrooms, as zeppelins once did, and just as the Orient Express takes passengers on nostalgic train journeys across Europe. If this happens, it is to be hoped that they will be designed and constructed by private firms rather than by government committees.