the R101, a gas bag and wiring shown above the passenger
construction, passenger accommodation and part of new main
public lounge of the R101, the largest on any airship.
dining room could seat 50 people per sitting.
in the shed showing the scale of the ship.
on her maiden voyage 1929
- photo copyright Roger Davis taken by his father in Enfield,
on the mast at Cardington with shed 2.
on the ground showing the scale compared to the handling
crews holding the ship
majestic on the mast
Comparison with R101 against various other modern ships
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
were to be constructed. It was decided that to promote innovation,
one ship would be contracted out to a private company and the
other would 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 the largest of its kind ever undertaken in the world
at that time. The previous largest ship was the Graf Zeppelin,
and that was based on the original design of the "LZ126"
Los Angles, a much smaller ship than was being constructed in
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 it was to be a commercial success. The bracing wires holding
the gas cells were let out so that 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 to give R101 more lift.
This brought her volume up to a huge five and a half million cubic
feet (see the R101c column in the statistics table).
a visit to Cardington in the Graf Zeppelin, Hugo Eckener was given
a tour of the new ship and agreed that the R101 heralded 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.
HMA R101 Schedule to Karachi:
(approx. due to local conditions)
Sunset 28th September
Sunset 29th September
Sunrise 1st October
(approx. due to local conditions)
Sunset 5th October
Sunset 8th October
Sunrise 9th October
Sunset 11th October
15 days round trip Outward: 5 days
Stop Over: 4 days
Return: 6 Days
comparison, the existing Imperial Airways service took 8 days
ONE WAY and had 21 stops en route. By Liner, the quickest sea
route took 4 weeks.
Flight Route :
The first leg of the final flight route as planned by Atherstone
was confirmed as follows :-
- London - Kent - leave cost over Hastings - North Paris - West
to Rhone Valley - Toulouse - over the sea at Narbonne - across
Mediterranean - Malta - Ismalia (Egypt)
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 said to be flying too low compared
to the earlier Zeppelins, which had reached some 20,000 feet
altitude during the war, it was advised that all commercial
(non military airships) had to fly long range and to do this
had to fly at a low level, hence the ships were designed for
this. The best economical results were if a ship could maintain
a height of 1,500feet. 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 and 4,000
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 ship which was running
a passenger service was the German Zeppelin ZL127 - Graf Zeppelin.
Even then the ship could only accommodate 20 passengers who
were situated in a stretched forward gondola beneath the hull
of the ship. The utilisation of interior space within the R100
and R101 was a first of its kind and 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 comparable to that of
the greatest ocean liners. For more information to see life
on board, view our interiors
Times and Dining:
meals for passengers and Officers were to be taken in the Dining
room which could seat up to 60 people. It was not known what
would have been eaten en route but a recent discovery of an
R101 Menu (unfortunalty undated) and a wine list from 6th November
1929. It is suspected that the menu was from the visit by 50
MP's on November 23rd 1929. It gives an idea of the menu available.
It is also interesting to noted that the "smoking room"
is referred to the "smoke room"
you ever want to host your own R101 dinner party below
are the authentic menu's of meals and wine enjoyed on
though weight was the biggest issue with airships, crew and
passengers could take up to 30lbs of kit/baggage as an allowance.
On the R101's final flight the baggage and kit of some 54 people
had an average weight of baggage per person of 22lbs.
of the items included:
Cask of Ale - 70lbs
Carpet Roll - 129lbs (flown over for the state dinners at Karachi
Two cases of Champagne - 52lbs.
were run along the lines of maritime service with ship watches
set on similar lines to their naval partners. The watches were
split in duration as 4 hours for a "day" watch and
reduced to 3 hours for a "night" watch:
08.00am - 12.00pm
20.00pm - 23.00pm
02.00am - 05.00am
05.00am - 08.00am
-1930 More Lift Need - further refit
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
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.
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".
Trial Flight: 1st October 1929
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
things were need 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
that "You mustn't allow my natural impatience or anxiety
to start to influence you in any way. You must use your considered
Flight - Saturday 4th October 1930.
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.
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.
wireless message from the ship was sent at 8.21pm:
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."
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
9.47pm the following message was sent:
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."
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
Channel crossing took two hours for at 11.36 pm the ship reported
French coast at Pointe de St Quentin. Wind 245 true. 35mph"
11.00pm to 02.00am the crew changed watches, R101 continued
on it's usual watchkeeping status.
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.
00.18 the R101 sent out the following wireless message :
Cardington from R101.
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."
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.
Route of the R101
the angle of dive over time
of final stages of the loss of the R101
of final impact of the nose
R101 crash site
wreckage of the tail section
passengers and crew, lying in state in St Stephens
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
the crew and passengers only 8 men were able to escape from
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
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.
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.
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.
last survivor was Rigger Church, who later died of his
injuries three days after the crash. He was interviewed and
gave the following statement.
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
emergency ballast was in the very nose of the ship. It could
not be released from the control car and had to be jettisoned
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.
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.
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.
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