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R34 - The Record Breaker

Length 643ft
Diameter 79ft
Speed 62mph
Engines 5 x 270hp
Volume 1, 950, 000cft
R34 career
Conception and Construction
Altantic Flight
Final Llife

Atlantic Crossing Route Map
(Large file to download)

Atlantic Flight Crew list

To the members of her crew, His Majesty's Airship R34 was known as 'Tiny' - inevitably. The ship was enormous: as big as a contemporary 'Dreadnought' battleship. Her overall length from bow to stern was 643 feet, twice as long as a football field; her maximum diameter was 79 feet and her overall height just short of 92 feet. Her cost was around £350,000 and her total gas capacity was 1,950,000 cubic ft, giving a gross lift of about 59 tons and a disposable lift, when the weight of the structure and permanent fittings was discounted, of 26 tons. Like her sister ship, five engines were fitted, each of 250h.p.

At the time, German technical development had been kept under close observation and R34, in particular, had departed from the engine plan of L.33 to follow instead that of the later and more advanced L.49, which had been forced to land in France in October 1917. The former ship had boasted six engines: one to each of the three forward propellers, one to the rear propeller and two driving small 'wing' propellers by shaft. On the latter vessel, the designers had done away with this cumbersome arrangement, eliminating one engine and the two wing propellers entirely, harnessing the power of two rear engines to a single enlarged propeller.

Construction began at the Beardmore Inchinnan airship factory in 1918. The whole framework was varnished to prevent atmospheric corrosion and heavily braced by wiring. Lengths of linen fabric were stretched between each pair of frames, where they were attached by laces. Narrow strips were then glued over the lacing and the covering of the hull was painted with dope containing aluminium powder, to reflect sunlight and so reduce superheating. In the chambers formed by the main circumferential frames and the longitudinal girders were the gasbags, nineteen in all and made of one thickness of rubber-proofed cotton cloth, varnished and lined with goldbeaters' skins. Each gasbag was contoured to fill all the available space and was surrounded by cord mesh to prevent chafing against the girders. Following the same design as the R33, beneath the main body of the airship, suspended by long, wooden struts and braced rigging wires, were four small gondolas.

R34 Control Car and front engine car
Wing Engine Car
Rear Engine Car

As designed in the R33, the forward gondola, appeared to be a single unit some fifty feet long, but was actually made up of two parts separated by a narrow gap, intended to prevent vibration from the engine affecting the W .T. equipment. Incorporated in the forward section were a control room and a small wireless cabin, below which, during flight, trailed a long aerial. The control cabin was fronted with 'Triplex' safety glass and had handling rails mounted on each side. Here were the steering and elevator wheels, the gas-valve controls, the engine telegraph, the various navigational and WT instruments and the toggles controlling the emergency forward water ballast. Connecting the control-cabin with the keel was a ladder, protected from the elements by a streamlined canvas cover. Another cover similarly enclosed the numerous control-wire connections that led up into the hull. In the rear section of the forward gondola was the first of the engines, driving a single pusher propeller 17 feet in diameter. In the middle of the lower hull amidships were the two smaller 'wing' gondolas housing an engine together with reversing gear -a refinement that enabled the airship to be operated if those in the main control-cabin failed. The rear car was ringed with a rail to assist handlers and, as with the forward gondola, two 'bumping bags' of compressed air were positioned underneath to help cushion landing shocks.

Each of the five engines was a Sunbeam 'Maori': a new type designed for the Wolverhampton firm by a Frenchman, Louis Coatalen, and intended specifically for airship use but clearly inferior to the Rolls Royce engines used by earlier British rigids. Unfortunately, no Rolls Royce engines could be made available as all those produced were now reserved for aeroplane use. The Sunbeams had been accepted reluctantly. Each engine had twelve water- cooled cylinders, which were intended to produce full power at a theoretical 2,100 rpm, although in practice it was rare for 1,600 r pm to be exceeded. In the forward and wing cars, the radiators were mounted externally and controlled by folding shutters. The after gondola of R34 contained two engines geared to one propeller.

The engines were each fitted with a hand starter, while the drive to the propellers was through a sliding Hele Shaw dog-clutch and a reduction gearbox with a ratio of 1:3.86. The clutch enabled the engine to be started and warmed up before flight without endangering the handling-party and made it easier to carry out repairs in the air. If the engine should be stopped during flight, the disconnected propeller could rotate freely in the airstream to reduce head resistance, although if it was required to remain stationary for landing or any other reason, a special brake was provided for this purpose. Assuming that the airship was still moving forwards, the engine might then be started by releasing the brake, engaging the clutch again, and allowing the airstream to turn the engine.

In addition to the gondolas, a considerable amount of space was available also inside the hull and invisible to the outside observer. Running almost the entire length of the ship was a long keel corridor, consisting of a succession of A-shaped frames standing on the two lowest girders, and with three auxiliary longitudinal girders of their own to fence off the surrounding gasbags. At its widest part, this corridor was about 10 ft across, narrowing somewhat towards the extremities. Leading to the wing and after cars were narrow ladders, fully exposed to the force of the elements. It had been discovered following tests on R33 that the turning co-efficient of the two airships was 6.4, giving a minimum turning circle some 4,100 feet in diameter. However, so strong was the effect of the slipstream of the after propeller acting on the rudder, that with the forward engine still and the wing propellers both running in reverse, it was possible for R33 and R34 to pivot virtually on the spot.

Designed slimmer than the theoretical ideal, the aerodynamic shape of R34 was a distinct improvement on most earlier designs - her total air resistance being only seven per cent of a hypothetical flat disc of the same diameter. In later airships, this was reduced even further, but in her own day the streamlining of R34 was excellent and twice as effective as that of her British predecessors. Even though the R34 was designed during a time of war, the R34 was never fitted with a full armament. In addition to bomb racks, the original plan had been to include a ventral 'gun house' behind the rear car, which would carry a one-pounder Pom-Pom and two Lewis machine guns. Another Lewis gun was to be mounted on the rear platform behind the tail, while six more were to be shared equally among the two wing-cars, the forward gondola and the top gun platform. A further arsenal of weapons was tp include two-pounder quick-firing guns which were to be placed on each side of the hull and two more were to join the Lewis guns on top. This heavy armament was presumably intended for defence against German Zeppelins, but in the event the gun house was never fitted and the number of guns was considerably reduced. The original specification showed that her bomb-load was quite considerable: twenty at 100 lb and four at 550 lb.

The firm of William Beardmore and Company Ltd. of Inchinnan near Glasgow began work on R34 on 9 December 1917 and she was completed just over a year later. Preparations to H.M.A.R34 were completed in December 1918 and her lift and trim trials were carried out successfully on the 20th of that month. By the time R34 was ready for her test flights, the war was over and she was too late to see active service. On 30th December 1918, while bad weather delayed the trial flight, the Admiralty agreed to lend their airships to the Air Ministry for long-distance trials. R34 was specifically mentioned but because of the persistently bad weather it was not until the following March that she left her hangar at lnchinnan, near Glasgow, where the Beardmore Company had their works.

Related ships: R33, R36, Vickers Transoceanic

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