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R101 - the final trials and loss of the ship


Graphics & video :
Last Route of R101:

- Cardington - London

- London to Channel

- Channel to Allonne

- Full Route

The Crash

-Illustration of dive

-Angle of dive

-Impact of R101

Footage of the Crash

- The Wreckage

- The Funeral

Over the summer of 1930, the R101 lay 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 the disposable lift originally planned at the outset of the Imperial Airship Scheme in 1925. Those involved in the scheme had already learnt that the R100 and R101 would not be viable for full commercial operations to Canada and India, and these intentions were later to be passed on to the new ship, the R102 class. To achieve the additional lift, R101 had a new central bay and gas bag installed.

It was expected that the new gas bag would give her another nine tons of disposable lift bringing her up to some 50 tons. The alterations were completed by Friday the 26th September and the R101 was gassed up and floated in the shed. The "new" ship, R101c, had disposable lift calculated at 49.36 tons, an improvement of 14.5 tons over the original configuration. Pressure was on for the ship to leave for Karachi on 26th September to carry the Air Minister, Lord Thompson of Cardington. Although the target date was on course to be met, wind was to keep the modified R101 in the shed until the morning of 1st October.

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 had a more elongated look as she had been extended by 35 feet to insert the new bay. At the same time, R100 was removed from Shed No 2, and walked in to shed No.1 where she too was to be altered in the same way to obtain more lift. It was the last time the outside world would see the R100.
The R101 was moored serenely to her mast at Cardington and the crew were busy making preparations for a full 24 hour trial flight. A permit to fly had been issued and a full report on 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". It was said by Professor Bairstow, who issued the permit, that "comparison on limited information has been required in reaching our conclusion".

Final Trial Flight

The R101 slipped her mast at 4.30pm on 1st October 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 his flight, then they could curtail the tests 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 out over the North Sea. Those on board 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 the flight, it was noted that conditions were "perfect" and 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 she appeared to be much better in the air than before. It was agreed to curtail the flight and head for home at Cardington. The ship returned to the mast at 09.20 on Thursday 2nd October; she had been in the air for just over 17 hours in smooth flying conditions.

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 and technical office, along with the DAD held conference on the Thursday evening and discussed whether to make the flight to India. It was noted that a longer trial whereby full speed testing could be carried out in adverse conditions was normally essential before such a long voyage. It was also noted that a full speed trial was not recommended during the India flight due to the possibility of failure. At this stage it had not been calculated what the state of the engines would be with the new design 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 on all involved with the R101 by the Air Minister 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 should take place, there were two further days of final preparation. The ship remained on the mast and the crews busied themselves in preparation for 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, not wanting to be inhibited by the problems all airships suffer with the natural elements. Giblett, the meteorological officer, had been providing the officers with updates on the weather forecast over the last few days and the route was selected on his information.

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 passed the worst weather.
At 6.24pm R101 left the Cardington mast in misty fine rain and darkness. The ship was illuminated by lights from the promenade deck and searchlights from the mooring mast. 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 height. The R101 cruised passed the sheds and then headed west towards Bedford to salute her home town. She passed around the town and then headed south-east towards London. She was flying at her cruising height of 1,500 feet just below the cloud base and by 8pm 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 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 catchment 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"

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

The 60 miles crossing was well known by Squadron Leader Jonhson, who had flown the route many times between London and Paris. We can see that the wind speed was increasing 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 recorded that First Officer Atherstone took over the elevator wheel and ordered the coxswain not to go below 1,000ft.

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 thisFrench 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 speed and position. The ship continued to send out directional wireless signals to checking her position or to test the strength of the signals. The last directional signal addressed to Cardington was at 1.28am. A final signal was sent from Cardington to the Croydon Station and relayed via ship at Le Bourget at 01.51am. An acknowledgement at 01.52am was the last signal ever sent by the R101.


At 02.00pm the watch changed as with normal routine on the ship and still nothing was reported wrong with the ship. It can be assumed that had anything been noticed the Captain would have had this signaled back to base. Also, if anything had been noticed, 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 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. Captain Irwin made no remarks about the ship except that the after engine continued to run well. Chief Engineer Gent later turned in and Leech went and inspected 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 obscuring of the lighes and it seems more probable that intervening cloud was the cause.

From survivor accounts, at 02.00am the ship made a long and rather steep dive, sufficient to make the engineers lose balance and 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 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 traveling towards the notorious Beauvais ridge which was well know by aviators for its dangerous gusting wind. 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 by the University of Bristol in 1995 provided evidence that the maximum downward angle was 18 degrees in this first dive through a time span of 90 seconds.

The crew in the control car would have tried to correct the downward angle by pulling the elevator up. In the next 30 seconds, the ship pulled out of the forced dive and the crew were steadying the ship. Flying at a nose-up angle of three degrees enabled the ship to regain some aerodynamic stability. However it was realised that the elevator was "hard up" and yet the crew knew that the nose was only three degrees above the horizon. This meant that the nose was now extremely heavy and hence a serious loss of gas from the forward bags must 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 upon by the crew as evidence from the survivors confirmed. Chief Coxswain Hunt moved aft from the control car to the crew's quarters. At this point he passed crew member Disley, and warned "We're down lads". This famous comment by one of the most experienced airship crew members showed that the R101 was not going to be able to continue and that an executive decision had been made make an emergency landing.

Just after this point the ship moved into a second dive. It is calculated that R101 was now at a height of about 530 feet, which for a vessel of 777 feet long was precarious. Rapid oscillation of the ship had already occurred and any further oscillation would cause it to fail. Rigger Church was ordered to release the emergency ballast from the nose of the ship and was on his 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 hit 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 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 60 feet and then settled down to the ground. The survivors recall that a "crunch" was heard and the ship leveled. There was no violent jarring from the impact. Evidence from the crash site confirmed this as the only impact mark in the ground was a two foot deep by nine foot long groove which was cut by the nose cone, in which soil was later found. Also, the starboard forward engine had struck the ground whilst the propeller was still revolving and grooves were made by this. The engine car had been twisted completely around on its struts.

After the impact, fire broke out. The most probably cause of this was that the starboard engine car was twisted around and the hot engine had come into 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 -was sitting in the smoking room at the time of the impact and was saved by the accommodation bulkhead 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, out through the framework 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. When the ship landed, they were able to escape through the windows of the engine cars and run away from the ship.

Rigger W G Radcliffe were in their respective engine cars which were positioned outside the main hull. When the ship landed, they were able to escape through the windows of the engine cars and run away from the ship.

Wireless Operator A Disley who was asleep in the crew's quarters, was awakened when his bunk, which was aligned in the same forward direction as the ship, assumed the curious angle of the first dive. He felt the ship come out of that dive to an even keel and then to a nose up angle. At the same moment Hunt passed through the crew's quarters and advised them of the situation. 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 to cut off the electric current to the ship as he knew that in any aircraft crash there may be the chance of fire. There were two field switches and he recalls tripping on one of them. During this action the ship went into its second dive and he was just about to cut the second switch when the impact was heard and the lights went out all over the ship. Disley recalls that the impact was so gentle that it was not enough to unbalance him from his feet. Seconds later, like Leech, he was fighting his 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.

who 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. It could not be released from the control car and had to be jettisoned locally.

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 made some valuable observations. 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 its outer cover and was positioned in a full up position, suggesting that the coxswain was still trying to keep the nose up on landing. The 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 of 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.

Rigger Church died in hospital of his injuries and joined the other victims of the crash. Full state honours were given to the victims and special trains were laid on to transport them from the crash site to the channel. They were carried by H.M.S. Tempest from Boulogne to Dover, where a special train took the bodies to Victoria Station. From there they were carried in state to Westminster Hall at the Palace of Westminster and were laid in state. The mourning public waited many hours to pay their respects by filing past the coffins. A memorial service was held at St Pauls Cathedral on Saturday 11th October, after which the coffins were taken by train to Bedford. They were walked the two miles to Cardington Village, where a space had been prepared in the 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 Hans Von Schiller, followed by a flypast by the RAF flight. In 1931 a memorial tomb was completed and inscribed with the names of the victims. This memorial still dominates the tiny churchyard to this day.

The Wreckage.

The wreck of the R101 lay where it had fallen until well into 1931, becoming a haunt for air accident investigators and day trippers who wanted to see the near perfect skeleton of the 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 Zeppelin company that they purchased 5,000kgs of duraluminium from the wreckage for their own use. Whether this was for testing and analysis or to re-cast and use in the "Hindenburg", is open to further research and speculation.

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