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R33 - G F A A G

1916- 1921 : Early Life




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




After almost 9 months in construction, the R 33 was launched on 6th March 1919, just eight days before her sister ship the R 33 was put in to operation, almost immediately. As soon as her test flights were over she was delivered to Pulham Airship Station. The ship had been designated as a long-range rigid scout ship to have operations over the North Sea. During the period from 18th June 1919, to 14th October 1920, the R33 carried out 23 flights totalling a flying time of over 237 hours. One of her tasks during 1919 was to fly over London and the main cities to publicise the sale of Victory Bonds One flight from Pulham to south Wales and back was recorded in having taken 25 hours.

On the 2nd July 1919, when the R34 began her transatlantic flight, the R33 also left the sheds that day with the SR1 to fly over the peace procession in London, again the ship towing a very large banner advertising Victory Bonds. On this flight the ship carried a band on the top gun platform, however the band members would have been out of sight from the crowds below the ship and it is doubtful that the music would have reached the crowds as well. Again in July 1919, the R33 was tasked with carrying out an endurance flight which took her over the main cities of the Midlands and the North of England, flying over Sheffield, Bradford, Manchester, Liverpool, North Wales, the Isle of Man, and the Irish coast. Again on this trip a band was carried and played whilst over the cities from the upper gun platform. The duration of this flight was 31 hours.

In September 1919, along with the R32 that had just been completed by Shorts Brothers at their new construction facility at Cardington, the ships took off for a demonstration flight over the Netherlands. As part of the "Britain's Power in the Air" campaign, the R32 and R33 were dispatched to Amsterdam, where the 1919 Aircraft Exhibition was being held. They left on 11th September and crossed the North Sea then dropped a message by parachute to the officer in charge of the Exhibition, then circled Amsterdam for some time. For this flight the ship had been "civilian-ised" as a number of beds had been installed in the two craft and a chef carried to provide a five course dinner, in order to demonstrate that the airship had possibilities for civil aviation. From Amsterdam, the ships then turned south along the coasts of Holland and Belgium, then turned to over-fly Brussels and Antwerp, and then a detour to take in the battlefields of Flanders. They both returned to Pulham after a round trip of some 22 hours, in which a in-flight newspaper was published and copies distributed to the on board pressmen who had enjoyed the flight.

In 1920, following the change in responsibility at the Admiralty to the newly formed Air Council, the RAF airships were registered as "civilian aircraft" to carry out limited programmes in the commercial field. The first to be civilianised was the R33, which for this transitional period was fitted out with sleeping accommodation within the hull and cooking facilities were also provided. The R33 carried the civil identification registration G-FAAG on the hull sides and the large international "G" for Great Britain was emblazoned on her tail fins. In this new livery she arrived at Pulham and began experimental work mainly on mooring techniques. The National Physics Laboratory was still conducting mooring trials on large rigid airships and R33 was asked to participate. A new technique was being developed and that was to moor airships to a mast. A mast had been erected at Pulham and had a revolving docking cone at the top to enable the ship to weathervane around in the wind.

Over several months the R33 made some 50 moorings by Captain Williams, and involved some 171 flying hours. The results of these tests were surprising as it was found that not only could a ship be moored into winds of up to 35 mph, but that the craft could be brought up to the mast in very bad weather conditions and moored. One report stated that the ship could be moored in winds gusting at 80mph. Many local residents in the area remembered the ship on her mast and recall the impressive site of the ship riding the mast at night with floodlights shinning on her silvery hull, the lights on board gave her the impression of an ocean liner lying in dock. On her mast the R33 proved that she could handle all weather conditions, but dry snow caused a problem. Captain Thomas devised a snow clearing gear which consisted of an endless wire atop the ship between frames 7 and 34 which dragged lengths of two and a half inch hemp rope fore and aft along the ship's cover.

Below - the band on the hull of the ship

In May 1920, the R33 flew north from Pulham to Howden Air Station to carry out an unusual experiment involving the release of a fighter aircraft from beneath the airship. The fighter was a Sopwith Camel and the pilotless plane was launched from the ship with its engine running, over a deserted area of the North York Moors. After making it's powered descent it crashed, but due to a new type of fuel tank, which was being tested, did not catch fire. On 20th September 1920, due to the worsening post war economy the Air Ministry ordered all work on Airships to cease, but the run down of airship operations took a further 12 months to be implemented. It is noted that this order did not apply to the construction for the R38, which was under construction at Cardington at the time. At this time the R33 badly needed an overhaul, but the two newly surrendered Zeppelins, the L-64 and L-71 were occupying the berths at Pulham. It was then decided that the R33 should be flown to Howden which had space for her, and there she stayed until 2nd February 1921.


An incident occurred during the spring of 1921, which could have ended in tragedy, but went part of the way to earn the R33 a reputation for being a "lucky" ship. A rigger was engaged on a task high up in the envelope of the ship, but managed to lose his footing and slipped and fell. In his decent he ripped open one of the gasbags in the stern, the bottom girders of the hull arresting his fall. The rigger was not hurt and only slightly affected by the escaping hydrogen. The sudden loss of gas meant that the stern began to drop, and a ton of water was dropped to bring the ship to an even keel, and the ship returned slowly to the Pulham base.

On 17th March 1921, a few days after the rigger accident, and repairs had been made to the ship when a rudder jammed whilst the ship was carrying out tests over Essex. The ship was forced to circle for over an hour above the Thames Estuary, whilst riggers struggled to free the rudder. At this time, the economy was falling deeper into depression, and on the 28th June, the Government declared that all airship operations were to be run down and ceased. The R33, R36, R37, and R80 along with the remaining German Zeppelin, L71 were to be given for sale to any operator who could fulfil the Governments requirements. The offers were open until 1st August 1921 and if no offer was made then the craft were not to be scrapped but to be placed in store. During this time, further tasks were still being allocated to the ship, for example after dark flights over South London and Surrey to view from the air the new airport lighting system at Croydon Airport. The ship was also involved in helping with traffic control by assisting with the police during the Epsom and Ascot race weeks. To avoid the ship having to return to Pulham, the ship was moored to a wooden mast at Croydon Airport on the nights of 14th and 15th July 1921.

Having worked almost full time, on the 21st July, the R33 made a dramatic entrance at the Hendon Air Show, Royal Air Force Pageant. The ship lurked out of view behind a phosphorus cloud laid by a Hadley Page Bomber, where upon at the appropriate time, the ship burst through the cloud to the admiration of the crowds below. On the 30th July some full speed trials were carried out, and a speed attained of 52 knots. After this she flew to Cardington on 18th August and was shedded there. The R33 was then deflated and lowered on to her cradle and stored. This would be the resting home of the R33 for the next three years.

Related ships: R32, R34

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