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R33
- G F A A G -

1921-1928 : "The Breakaway"



View the actual footage of the ship - the breakaway and launching planes

R33 career
Conception and Construction
1916 - 1921 - early life
1921 - 1928 - breakaway
Ship plan
Breakaway Crew list

It wasn't until the economy turned, the Imperial Airship Scheme was decided and it was agreed that the R33 would form part of that programme. On 2nd April 1925 the Cardington shed doors opened and the new reconditioned R33 emerged. For more than four years she had laid in the berth which had been previously occupied by the ill-fated R38. The changes to her livery were that the RAF roundels, the red white and blue tail stripes had also been removed, and only her civil registration G-FAAG was painted on her hull. During her reconditioning, new modified gas cells had been incorporated within her and her motors had been modified. She was put on the newly erected Cardington Mast to have a shakedown of her new equipment. The ship left Cardington under the command of Flight Lieutenant Carmichael Irwin, with a crew of 34 and flew to Pulham. The journey took 4 hours and 45 minutes, and was deemed a success for the newly conditioned ship. The R33 was then put back on to her old regime of testing for the National Physics Laboratory. Laminal flow tests were carried out and results were sent to the technicians who were in the process of designing the R100 and R101.

Two weeks after her arrival, on the night of 16th/17th April, the wind had increased to gale force, and towards dawn the wind was gusting up to some 50mph. The R33 was moored to the high mast, and weathervaned in the wind. Only an "anchor watch" was onboard, and in one particularly strong gust, the R33 was torn from the mast. The ship drifted away from the mast and water streamed from her bow from the ballast tanks that had been damaged. The ship, flying backwards, narrowly missed the doors of airship shed.

The number 1 gasbag had of course been punctured and there was a danger of the fractured light alloy girders deflating the no.2 bag. The force of the ship tearing away from the mast caused the nose to buckle inwards, causing a hollow in which the wind and rain battered, pushing the bow down still further. The ship began to gain height as the crew slowly started up the Maori engines on watch. In order to keep the forward damaged girders from puncturing more of the gasbags, Flight Lieutenant Booth and Coxswain; G "Sky" Hunt has to assess the damage. They crawled up the ladder to the upper gun position, and then crawled forward as far as they could along the top of the hull. It was found possible to prevent further damage by rigging the deflated gas cell, and the flapping envelope, as a shield.

As much equipment as possible was jettisoned from the forward section to bring the ship on to an even keel. As soon as the plight of the R33 was noticed, attempts were made to calculate the ship's drift and urgent wireless messages were sent to the appropriate authorities. HMS Godetia was ordered to make ready for sea in great haste and was dispatched from Lowestoft to render assistance in case the R33 floundered in the North Sea. The local lifeboat was also called out, but nearly swamped in trying to keep in view of the ship. The weather worsened and the lifeboat had to turn back as the airship was last seen heading in to a rainsquall. With her engines running, the R33 was able to keep her head in the wind but not able to make headway against the gale. Radio messages were transmitted every 15 minutes to report on the ship's condition and her position.

How the St Nicolas Magazine portrayed the breakaway.



After 5 hours since the ship broke away from her mast, the crew were able to arrest the ships drift, but the wind was still forcing her nearer the Continent. At 3.45pm she was 45 miles north east of the Dutch port of Ymuiden. At one stage the ship came perilously close to the sea and flight Lieutenant Booth gave orders that everything possible including all surplus was to be thrown overboard, which included the hammocks, fire extinguishers and parachutes. Finally the rain stopped and the descent of the R33 was checked. A window in the weather allowed the R33 to begin to make a slow passage home.

The ship was very close to the Dutch coast, and orders were being given that the ship should land at Cologne where a German crew was ready to assist. However later in the evening the ship came to a hover over the Dutch coast, and she stayed there until 5.00am the next morning. After thanking the various authorities for their help, the ship began the slow journey west, back home. Eight hours later the damaged ship made her way over the Suffolk Coast, to crowds of well-wishers who had lined the shore awaiting her return.

At 1.50pm, the R33 appeared over Pulham and, as expected, there was no shortage of volunteers to man the trail ropes. The ship was eased down to the ground and then slowly walked into the shed where she was berthed next to the R36. King George V later presented the crew with watches and the coxswain, Sergeant "Sky" Hunt, was awarded the Air Force Medal, which he insisted be awarded on behalf of the crew as a whole.

A new nose section was designed by the drawing office staff at the Royal Airship Works at Cardington and was constructed at Pulham and spliced into the hull in place of the original during October 1925. The new nose was specially strengthened for mooring experimental work.

R 33 in the shed showing damage
R33 with the envelope removed showing the damage

The R33 came out of her shed following the repairs on 5th October 1925 where she had been since April. She was to carry out pressure experiments in connection with the design of the new R101. These experiments involved taking readings of the pressures exerted on the girders and envelope during flight. Ten days later the ship took part in a series of experiments involving the launching of an aeroplane from the ship. The reasoning had been to provide protection of the ship from fighter aircraft.

Original experiments had taken place on the R29. The R33 was fitted out with a large trapeze in the middle of the hull, to which a small two? winged monoplane was hooked. The tiny D H 53 Hummingbird had been modified with a gantry above the forward part of the plane. The first trial was carried out on the 15th October 1925. The R 33 rose to 3,000 ft. At that altitude, a signal was given and the pilot pulled the release lever. The mechanism worked perfectly and the Humming Bird dropped away from under the ship and started it's motor whilst in a gentle dive. The pilot then flew around the R33 and then brought the plane back up to the trapeze matching the speed of the airship. At the critical moment while linking back with the ship, there was a small hitch and later there was some doubt as to whether the signal to "re-engage" had been given.

As the plane came in to engage it knocked into one of the trapeze stay wires and the propeller was smashed. The pilot then disengaged the suspension gear and dropped down to glide to the airfield below. This experiment had noted that the approach of the pilot was incorrect and that the trapeze should have only been lowered when the plane was approaching from the stern. Then there would have been a perfect approach whereby the nose gear would have easily slotted in to place.

A second attempt was made on 28th October 1925, and again the monoplane snagged on the trapeze, however the pilot was able to land on the airfield below. On 4th December the attempt was made again, and this time the plane disengaged and re-engaged successfully to the ship. This was the last flight of the R33 for some months as she returned to the shed for deflation and an overhaul. In the spring of 1926 the Government announced that the experimental programme using the R33 had come to an end and the ship was to be shedded at Pulham.

Both the ship and the station were set to a care and maintenance programme. However it was not long before the station was open for business again and the R33 was re-launched to take part in further experiments involving the launching of fighter aircraft and for trials at the newly erected mast at Cardington. Instead of the little "Humming Bird", the R33 was equipped with two of the RAF's most powerful fighters, Gloucester Grebes. The idea being that the craft would not only be used for defence but also to provide ship- to- shore communications in the same way that a warship uses its boats.

The Gloucester Grebe had a loaded weight of just over one ton. One of the craft was placed amidships and the other one aft of it, both on retractable trapezes. The ship took off from Pulham on 21st October 1926 under the overall command of Major Scott, and Squadron Leader Booth acting as Captain. When the ship reached 2,000 ft the rear mounted Grebe released and cleared the ship, the second Grebe followed suit and both planes flew around the "mother ship" and returned to base.

The R33 terminated her flight at Cardington. Two more Grebes were flown from the ship when the R33 flew from Cardington to Pulham on the 23rd November.

One of the last tasks for the R33 was to try out several design structures in connection with the layout of the new ships.

The R33 was put in to the Pulham shed in November 1926 for long term storage. She languished there and after metal fatigue was detected in the framework; she was forced to be dismantled during 1928.

During her 10 years life the R33 survived being struck by lightning, as well as being set adrift over the North Sea but provided essential data for the larger ships, the R100 and R101, and also proved that the aeroplane and airship could work together. This of course, was later both used by the German and American rigid airships.

The forward part of the control car of the R33 can be seen at the RAF Museum in Hendon in the upper gallery.

 

Related ships: R32, R34

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