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 Smiths
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.
begins in the shed
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 pilots 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 Zanzibars 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 didnt
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 flights 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.
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 Anthonys
airship project, for which I obtained a Gas Balloon Pilots
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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Free_Life] - 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
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
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 Regents
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
Back in Regents 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
years 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
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
Rudder and elevator, throttle
and choke, and air plenum box controls all had to be conveniently
placed close to the pilots 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 Anthonys
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.
It was Ted Heaths 3-day
week, resulting from a miners 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 Smiths 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
dont 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 crews life was
The BBC film, Mr Smiths
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
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 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
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 pilots 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 dont
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 Anthonys 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 Tellers 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.