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Length 72ft
Diameter 28ft
Speed 80 mph
Engines 2 x 60lb
Volume 33,000 cft


The "Santos Dumont", named after the iconic airship pioneer, built and constructed at Cardington with a first flight from Cardington in 1974. Later the Certificate of Airworthiness granted in later 1975. With a total flight time 31 hours the Pilots Anthony Smith, Jasper Tomlinson, the following pages are from a recollection of Anthony Smith’s pressure airship project by Jasper Tomlinson with additional notes by our Editor of "Dirigible" Magazine, Dr Giles Camplin- who was there!. Originally published in the AHT in house magzine "Dirigible" Edition 68..

I had seen Anthony from time to time during my days at Oxford, 1947-50. He was a returned war hero - probably mainly Royal Air Force clerical duties - at Balliol and we overlapped. A grandson of A.L. Smith, an eminent Master of Balliol, Anthony seemed to be related to practically every seriously brilliantOxford scientist, (Dorothy Hodgkin OM FRS, founder of X-raycrystallography, his aunt, etc.) Anthony linked in another way to my family circle in that his first marriage was to Barbara Newman, who had been a close friend at Oxford of my sister Jennifer.

Inflation begins in the shed
Inside the envelope
Tail formation

Subsequently Anthony and I got to know each other well in connection with lighter-than-air adventures. His writing career included a spell in the early 1960s as the Daily Telegraph science correspondent at a time when the centenary of the publication of Jules Vernes’ Five Weeks in a Balloon, or, Journeys and Discoveries in Africa by Three Englishmenloomed. One of the Englishmen was the (fictional) science correspondent of the Daily Telegraph.

If something was needed, Anthony was up for it. He searched and researched balloon know-how. Early in the search, in 1961, he went to the lighter-than-air Royal Air Force facility in the No 1 Airship Shed at Cardington. In spite of many remnants of balloon flight, some of which were generously donated to his project, including load rings, nets, abandoned baskets and the like, all current knowhow of balloons or ballooning was blankly denied.

Requirements for obtaining a balloon pilot’s licence,however, were rigidly in place. Somewhat frustrated, Anthony turned his attention to the Continent where he was able to buy a gas balloon in Belgium and get flying instruction in Holland.

Equipped, he shipped the lot to the Island of Zanzibar, christened the balloon Jambo, [The Swahili word for “hello.” –Ed.] and arranged, with the help of one of Zanzibar’s principal English residents, my fellow hydrologist Basil Bell, a departure for the heart of Africa, which the prevailing breeze decided would be Kenya. I think the total of hours aloft during the whole adventure didn’t reach a dozen, but Anthony came out of it with a very readable book, Throw out Two Hands, material provided by Alan Root for a television film, and a positive bank balance.

The reason for Cardingtons feigned ignorance of current ballooning activities was believed to be related to a largely unsuccessful wheeze – launch dissident eastern Europeans in gas balloons on a westerly breeze in order to insert anti-Soviet agents across the iron curtain. This project was said to have been orchestrated by the other then current British balloonist, Wing Commander Gerry Turnbull.[Gerry later confided to me that far from being “unsuccessful,” during the “Cold War,” he had trained and sent several agents across the “Iron Curtain” by means of “black” balloons. These were launched on moonless nights with a westerly wind. The project was, and may still be for all I know, highly secret, but a publically available account of the practicality of the scheme was published as a book in 1981.* This true story was the basis for the 1982 Disney film “Night Crossing.” However, unlike the East to West flight’s happy ending, according to Gerry, his secret West to East reallife drama ended tragically when all his agents were unmasked and betrayed by “that bastard Kim Philby” who defected to the Soviet side in 1963. – Ed

A first balloon ascent is magic. Do persistent lighterthan- air travelers get a tad bored? Certainly something of that sort got to me when I was learning to fly hot air balloons in order to obtain a Permit to Fly Anthony’s airship project, for which I obtained a Gas Balloon Pilot’s Licence. The Santos Dumont was dreamt up out of a wish to do more with balloons than just enter another competition.

Anthony, had worked in 1967 with Malcolm Brighton in connection with the Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang film to create a beautiful replica of a Lebaudy airship – which was a horror to fly. He had previously been disappointed by a not properly thought out attempt - jointly with Malcolm Brighton - to make a warm-air dirigible named WASP [Warm Air-Ship Project].

After that project was scrapped, Malcolm, who had enlisted as pilot, was swept up in an Atlantic crossing attempt with a Roziere style balloon [A combination of a gas and a hotair balloon.]. This was at the insistence of Pamela Brown, the sister of the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and her husband Rodney Anderson.

This ill-fated attempt - described by Anthony in his book The Free Life: The Spirit of Courage (1995) [See also:] - after a launch on 20 September 1970 from East Hampton, New York State, USA, had to ditch in the Atlantic about 600 miles southeast of Newfoundland. There were no survivors.

Anthony - still eager for more but acknowledging reality - decided in 1971 to construct a conventional blimp or pressure airship. It was to be small enough to be moved about on a sturdy station wagon, large enough for two passengers and camera gear, and maneuverable at up to 30 miles per hour. The outcome was G-BAWL, the Santos Dumont, seventy feet of aluminium-painted cotton fabric, suitable for hydrogen or helium lifting gas, powered by two 20 hp Wankel rotary engines fitted with ducted fans attached to a lightweight plywood gondola. It had internal ballonets of about one fifth of the volume of the whole envelope.

Pressure airships of course, unlike earlier generations of rigid airships, are kept in shape by maintaining the lifting gas at a suitable pressure, a few inches of water pressure being about right. Too much pressure and they rupture, too little and they lose shape and are impossible to handle in the air. The ballonets, which are internal air-inflated pockets, can have air pushed in or allowed to escape by means of a plenum box with some ingenious internal shutters. The plenum box gets fed with air from a scoop in the slipstream of one of the propellers.

With one ballonet in the nose and one in the tail section, air can be moved fore or aft to adjust the horizontal trim of the ship. By continually allowing the total amount of air in the ballonets to correspond to changes in altitude, the unchanging quantity of lifting gas is maintained at just the needed pressure. The higher the flight path, the less the air retained in the ballonets. By providing one fifth of the total volume as ballonets The Santos Dumont had an absolute ceiling altitude of about 6000 feet, that is, one fifth of the extent of the atmosphere.

For a couple of years, 1973 and 1974, The Santos Dumont project took much of Giles’ and my time. Version 1 was conceived as a semi-rigid. The framework, mainly of 50 mm diameter 16g aluminium tube, was put together in a converted indoor Victorian Riding School in Regent’s Park thanks to the unfailing good humour and generosity of Peter Webb, an up-and-coming photographer. This configuration was tried out at Cardington, not without adventure.

It was found wanting before the end of that year. Version II then was a conventional “blimp” configuration.

Back in Regent’s Park, I constructed from very thin plywood a gondola. I attached the Wankel engines complete with ducted fans - which had been neatly acquired by Anthony from a failed mini-hovercraft project. Giles and I conceived and designed control surfaces – rudders and elevators – and together with Giles’ handiwork and other help from Michael Price, we had something ready for the following year’s flying programme.

Readily available material was put to use. Of some of it I have quite a clear memory, other items are only a cloudy recollection. The engine silencer was improvised from a good quality five gallon can that had been used for bulk supply of lavender oil by a neighbour in Fitzrovia who supplied lavender scented artificial flowers to the trade. The three plastic seats were quite standard moulded products, widely available as stacking chairs [We simply took the metal legs off. – Ed.]. The seat belts were, I seem to recall, adapted from car seat belts. A sporty hand wheel for the elevator control, donated by Charles Meisl, had been surplus to some specialised motorcar.

Instrumentation included a military surplus altimeter; the very essential pressure indicators for the ballonet air supply pressures and for envelope gas pressure were adapted fromstandard NHS blood transfusion kits; the landing gear comprised a wooden sledge cushioned with motor car tyre inner tubes.

Rudder and elevator, throttle and choke, and air plenum box controls all had to be conveniently placed close to the pilot’s seat in the gondola. The fabric design was by Mr L.A. Speed, a retired chief designer of lighter-than-air “barrage” balloons etc., from Cardington. [The gas bag was made of twoply, neoprene-coated cotton and built by Airborne Industries of Southend-on-Sea, who made most of the kite balloons then based at Cardington. – Ed.]


As regards division of responsibilities, additional fabric work and management of all aspects of the envelope were done by Giles, I was project engineer and test pilot, Anthony was project director and chief pilot. Giles was crew-master for launch and landing. Anthony also was the one who had to find the money. My labour was a gift, but Anthony provided board and lodging. Giles got something as well, but not much, by way of regular pay. The whole project I was told needed about £10,000 of Anthony’s money to get to completion – just about enough in the early 1970s to buy a family house.

Anthony, who had several similar projects behind him since the African balloon adventure, was quite confident that, if technically successful, funding would follow. He had not allowed for the extraordinary UK conditions that prevailed exactly at the time that we were able to show success - even satisfying a test pilot from the Civil Aviation Authority with a two-hour flight demonstrating its handling qualities.

One event the CAA did not see was this take-off accident that resulted in a total loss of gas after a gentle collision with a fence post. Nothing was hurt (apart from our pride) and with a patch, some glue and another fill of hydrogen from the gas main that ran beneath the floor of Shed 1 Santos Dumont was flying again a few days later. – Ed.

It was Ted Heath’s 3-day week, resulting from a miner’s strike. It was clearly unpatriotic to think of funding something as frivolous as a blimp at a time when it was seen as an absolute obligation on us all to suffer. Most of what was achieved as outside income for the project was the small BBC fee for their film, Mr Smith’s Airship, which they made as two half-hour episodes followed eventually by a stand-alone 55 minute feature film.

To begin with we learnt the hard way. To take-off, the ship accelerated along the ground with the crew galloping beside, holding “slack” in their ropes, until the pilot signaled “Let go!” Then Bill Williams (author of Airship Pilot No.28) turned up to watch. “Why don’t you just throw her up and then start the engines?” he said, “That is what we did in the RNAS.” After that, “Up Ship!”became the norm and the crew’s life was less energetic.

The BBC film, Mr Smith’s Airship, gives several minutes of views from the gondola during flight. The two particular flights that I recollect quite sharply are the demonstration flight for the CAA and an attempt, captured by the BBC camera man, of Anthony and then myself hoping to put it through its paces for the benefit of a Shuttleworth Collection – where time flies by – Old Warden flying displayairfield event.

On the day before the event, Anthony had flown the Santos Dumont to Old Warden with the intention of mooring it overnight to the Bedford RL ex-army lorry we had fitted with a short mooring mast that was part of our kit. His landing was a barely controlled accident in a nearby field of Brussels sprouts following a close encounter with a tree. The Santos Dumont was obliged to return to Cardington in the calm air very early next morning for minor but essential repair to bent parts of the elevators.

We reckoned it was still just possible to attend at Old Warden by a midday deadline. I was nominated for this flight, with the BBC camera man as passenger. It was a fine day, not too breezy. Noticeable thermals had developed by the middle of the day. It was a challenge to keep flying on a steady course. Indeed at one point, crossing a minor escarpment, the Santos Dumont flicked right around to face back towards Cardington.

Old Warden was about five bumpy miles from Cardington, allowing, we reckoned, Giles and our ground crew sufficient time from the launch at Cardington to get in place for the landing at Old Warden. They were travelling in the dedicated Ford Cortina, which also had a short mooring mast sticking up from its roof.

We had completely neglected, in the flurry of unexpected activity, to obtain a gate pass for the ground crew. When they arrived at the gate the immovable Police Constable persuaded them into a parking area, waved through everyone in the waiting queue, and then grudgingly allowed them to enter. [To be fair, with our long hair, beards and flared jeans we did ook more like a bunch of hippies than a groundcrew! – Ed.]

Meanwhile, with about a minute to spare to meet the Old Warden deadline, I had gone into approach and landing configuration – transferring air from the back ballonet to the front one for a nose-down trim – and was cruising slowly upwind towards a landing point. I saw the Cortina pass through the entrance gate just before I made contact with the ground.

The wind shifted. It was clear that the Santos Dumont [with a ground speed of some 20 mph and no brakes] was headed towards three light aircraft, parked in a line, side-byside, beside some trees at the airfield boundary. We comprised a ‘weightless’ ton of fabric, aluminium tube, engines, ballast, a BBC TV camera and two persons, about to have a very nasty encounter with the wing tips of some hugely expensive and rather solid obstacles.

In hindsight, I made quite the wrong decision: I put on full asymmetric power to swerve away. The outcome was a full-on collision with an ash tree. The camera kept turning and the immediate sequence shows my glance backwards to ensure that the camera man had not fallen out. For my friends, the expression on my face is the best joke in an otherwise rather earnest documentary.

For those of you who have a chance to fly a dirigible I will direct your attention to what would have been the correct decision: chuck out one or two sandbags, throttle down and float upwards. That is, convert, on the instant, to balloon flight.

The early morning two hour flight with the CAA test pilot was, by contrast, trouble free. I had scripted out a flight plan:
- pre-flight checks,
- positioning for take-off,
- weighing off and trim adjustment,
- the up ship command to be pushed up off the ground,
- the climb to a specified height,
- straight and level,
- rated turns,
- an intermediate landing,
- a short cross country excursion,
- a smooth landing, culminating in
- a well-earned and convivial breakfast.

It all went exceedingly well. Unfortunately the piece of paper with the flight plan seems to have disappeared. I like to think that the test pilot was so well impressed that he decidedto retain it, perhaps for his memoirs.

Some of the text above was written earlier this year on a visit to Nigeria when, confined to the back of a deserted office in Kaduna by riots, strikes and curfews, I decided the moment had
arrived to write my own memoirs Good in Parts (available from

On writing some of the preceding paragraphs, I was provoked to make a Skype call to Anthony. I had recalled my undertaking to assist - if absolutely necessary - with his then current adventure. He had completed, with some backing from the Sunday Telegraph, two thirds of a geriatric Atlantic crossing on a raft made of plastic water pipes, together with three other mature
folk … He had, I was pleased to hear, found alternative crew to complete the venture.

My private pilot’s licence expired in Kenya in the 1980s when I decided not to renew it … Piloting a Cessna on an evening return flight to Kisumu, the control tower at Wilson airport requested me to simply go away. They had decided it was the moment to clear the zone for a Police Air Wing flight bringing President Moi back from his Rift Valley farm. Along with three other late returning aircraft we all, of course, declined. We were then instructed to hold our positions over a visual marker. That is, all four of us were told to go to a particular place in the sky - above a painted pillar that was already invisible – and at the same spot and the same height, to wait, circling in pitch darkness. By the time we were called in, it was a “night landing,” not too difficult if you have ever done them before because, a bit like riding a bike, it is a knack you don’t forget … The time had come to give up private flying.

The Santos Dumont Flight Manual, which is too long to accompany this article (and will be put on the AHT website for those interested), indicates the amount of detailed work done by Giles and by myself for Anthony’s airship project. This document, apart from being useful for routine flying, was handed to the Civil Aviation Authority. They typed it out again and sent it back to Anthony saying it was his cherished ‘Certificate of Airworthiness’. Nowhere did the CAA document specifically mention ‘certificate’ but Anthony was given a (verbal) assurance that that is what it was. A few years later the CAA said they had never issued a C of A for the Santos Dumont. The key perpetrator of this cruel deception was, so it appeared, the ‘expert’ sent on many costly visits to Cardington to be taught mainly by myself and Giles everything he managed to learn about airships. He was, I believe, subsequently given some sort of award for his matchless services to the lighter-than-air community. So it goes

The last C of A for an airship in Britain had been signed within a few weeks of the appointment in September 1930 of Hugh Dowding to the Air Council as Air Member for Supply and Research [AMSR]. He was immediately put under severe pressure to sign off, on the basis of dodgy optimistic technical reports, the airworthiness certificate for the new R101 airship. The R101 crashed on 5 October 1930, killing forty-eight of those on board including Lord Thomson, Secretary of State for Air …

When on a water resources engineering assignment in Aceh Province, Sumatra, an accountancy clerk sidled up to my desk and handed me a slip of paper: “Last night I saw you on TV program Mr Anthony Smith Airship. I am very interesting for your experiment … to add my knowledge would you like to write me about how; what; when; why; what kind of goals; this airship
experiment is being done … Your faithfully, Wisuda.”

It was my fifteen minutes of fame. The question raised is quite challenging. Why do this sort of thing? When younger it might have been to please my parents. Later in life I find I respond to calls for assistance. Underlying these efforts, alas, is an inextinguishable need to show how clever I am – a basic human urge that produces all sorts of wickedness, such as Edward Teller’s hydrogen bomb, or, say, LSD and a whole suite of mind-bending chemical substances.

Now retired, Jasper Tomlinson, MA(Oxon) CEnv MCIWEM AMIMechE, was, in his professional life, principally a tropical surface water hydrologist and water resources engineer. He gained an RAF flying badge and white card instrument rating during National Service, 1950 -1952, and held both a UK and a Kenya private pilot's licence. He gained a hot air balloon pilot's licence and converted it to a gas balloon pilot's licence [after] two flights under instruction with Anthony Smith [below] and one solo flight as a qualified pilot. The gas balloon licence was a CAA requirement for a permit to fly the Santos Dumont.


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