Airship Heritage Trust
Click here to return home 




R 38 / ZR-2
The first of the Admiralty A' Class



)

Documents
Details of US Navy Howden Detachment Enlisted Men
 
PHOTO GALLERY
R 38 Control Car under construction and later attached to the hull. 20.11.1920.
One of the six R 38 Sunbeam Cossack engines cars under construction 20.11.1920
Workers constructing the framework
The control car is fitted to the hull. Due to the size limitations of the Cardington shed, the Control Car was assembled separately and then fixed to the hull.
Petrol tanks positioned along the keel
Construction of the hull framework on the R 38, the completed tail covered in fabric of of the R 37 can be see in the upper right hand side of the photo.
An Inflated gas cell and securing wiring can be seen within the R 38's framework.
The nearly completed R 38 in ZR-2 livery next to the R 37 showing how tight the space was in the Cardington Shed.
The nose of the R 38 can be seen with the left door slightly open in the camouflaged Cardington shed.
Painting the new registration on the hull
Inside the Cardington Shed, with American livery painted on the hull. The R 37 framework can be clearly seen beside
17th July 1921 Leaving Cardington, with the new
ZR-2 livery. Modifications can be seen on the tail surfaces
ZR-2 launching from Cardington
Arrival at Howden and in the large Number 2 shed.
ZR-2 in the large Shed number 2 at Howden
 
ZR-2 emerging from the double shed at Howden
Map showing the track of the R 38 ZR-2 over the River Humber
The R 38 with ZR 2 livery in flight.
Rescuers climb aboard the tail section to search for survivors
Wreckage of the R 38 being brought aboard the floating crane known as The Bull
The R 38 memorial located in the Northern Cemetery, Chanterlands Avenue, Hull
The R 38 ZR-2 Memorial in the Royal Aeronautical Society, London.(Located on the second floor landing)
Close up detail of the R 38 ZR-2
Statistics
Length 699ft
Diameter 85.5ft
Height 93ft
Speed 72mph
Engines

6 x 350hp

Volume 2,724,500cft
Total Lift 82.5 tons
Disposable Lift 45.5 tons
Pressure height / Altitude 22,000 ft
Endurance 65 hours full speed

The Origins of the A' Class

The original plans for the R 38 were laid down as part of an order by the Government for a series of ships at the latter part of the First World War. In November 1916, the Cabinet authorised plans for two ships, based on the crashed L33 which, on the night of 24th September 1916 when the airship crashed outside the village of Little Wigborough in Essex but with the framework of the ship virtually intact thus allowing the British Military to study the German technology. These ships were to become the R33 and R34. In January of 1917, more spending was agreed and three more ships were ordered, designated the R35, R36 and R37.

In June of that year, another Zeppelin, the L48 was brought down in Suffolk and analysed in detail. With this new ship details being assessed and reviewed, it was agreed that plans for the three ships be altered to follow the latest German designs. The discovery that L48 was a new "height climber" which had a more lightweight design, and thus evade the interceptor planes, meant that the three new British airships would be altered as follows:

R 35 to have an extra cell installed and required to have a height ceiling of 16,500 ft
R 36 to have an extra cell, to be lightened and to have a height ceiling of 17,000 ft
R 37 to have the same modifications as the R36.

Following the downing of yet another Zeppelin during an air raid, on the night of 6th August 1918, this time the L 70 (LZ 112), which was shot down off the Norfolk Coast and discovered to be one of very the latest and last "super zeppelins" which was capable of even higher flight ceilings due to it's lightweight structure. In assessing parts which were recovered in the wreckage of the ship, which may have mislead some of the design considerations for the new ship class, along with the fact that the Zeppelin Fleet Commander of the Airship Department, Peter Strasser had been on board, but died in the crash. With this new information, the Admiralty decided to abandon the now nearly completed R 37, and commence on the construction of the next designated ship, the R 38.

Admiralty Requirements

In June of 1918 the Admiralty made requirements for a ship to be built which would "be required to patrol the North Sea for six days without support, as far as 300 miles from a home base." It was to have a combat ceiling of 22,000ft, to make it out of reach of most intercepting aircraft then in service, and was required to carry enough fuel for 65 hours at full speed of 70.6 mph. It was agreed that a further ship be ordered and the new ship, classed as "Admiralty A Class", and the first was designated as the R 38. The ship was also to be armed for the defense of ships on escort duty and for attacking other aggressors:

4x 520 lb of bombs
8x 230lb of bombs
1x 1pdr gun on gun platform on the top of the ship
12 pairs of machine guns spread along the top of the ship, the lower gun pit, and throughout the gondolas.

Design and Development

These requirements suggested an airship with a gas capacity of some 3,000,000 cubic feet and a length of some 750ft. The order was given in the September of 1918 to Shorts Brothers at Cardington, however with the single shed at the Short's Cardington facility, because of the shed limitations, a compromise of 2,724,500 was made and 699 feet arrived at, with a diameter of 85.5 ft dictated by the roof clearance of the Cardington Shed. A much larger facility at Flookborough in Lancashire was intended for Vickers, had been canceled a few months earlier that year, at the end of the war. In February 1919 work commenced at Cardington on the R 38 which, at the time, would become the largest airship in the world, and commenced to be assembled in the airship shed in Cardington, next to the nearly completed R 37.

.Even though the Armistice had been officially signed on 11th November 1918, with the ceasing of hostilities, it was the Treaty of Versailles signed on 28th June 1919, that ended the state of war between German and Allied powers. With this peace, it was was proposed that the R 38 order should also be canceled, as Cardington had been "nationalised" under the Defense of the Realm Act. Shorts Brothers were paid £40,000 in compensation for the cancellation and the loss of the Cardington premises, which later was to be renamed and became known as the Royal Airship Works, and the R 38 ship order. The future looked bleak for the British airships and the workers as it seemed likely that the ships would be given away to a commercial company so that the Air Ministry would no longer have to be responsible for them, and any new future orders would be canceled.

However, following the Armistice and the division of the remaining German Zeppelins amongst the European allies in the Treaty of Versailles, the United States still wanted a large rigid airship to gain experience in this field. The United States had hoped to obtain two Zeppelins as part of the war repatriations, however the German Crews were frustrated about the idea of this, and set about deliberately destroying the last latest "Super Zeppelins" which were the last survivors of the German Zeppelin Fleet. In the evening of 23rd June 1919, the German Zeppelin workers and crept in to the airship sheds and let the uninflated Zeppelin's down from their retraining slings, and thus destroying the frameworks. This was a similar action as the German Navy crews had undertaken with their warships and scuttled them in Scarpa Flow, rather than fall in to the Allied victors hands. Of the last Zeppelins left, the L41,L63, L65, L91 and L103 were all destroyed and thus denying the Americans an rigid airship.

Economic Downturn

With work commencing on the ship, the order was given for sister ships of R39, R40 and R41 to be constructed, and design/structural work was begun. With the end of the war in November 1918 and a sudden downturn in the economy, Treasury expenditure was revised and all projects would come under review. Under the strict Treasury restrictions it was decided that:

        • R29 and R23 would be uneconomical to operate and therefore broken up,
        • R34 would be retained for air service,
        • R33 would be turned over to a commercial company which would also take the R80.

Later it was decided that ships in their design stage or opening stages of construction, namely the R35, R39, R40 and R41 orders were canceled. These changes on policy hampered the construction and life of the R 38 and the the morale of the airship works at Cardington.

With the double crossing of the R34, in July of 1919, the the American Navy were impressed by the R34 capabilities, that they ordered a rigid airship from Britain. The United States Secretary of the Navy approved the purchase of a British Airship, and with this the British Government was pleased to be able to offered up the R 38 contract for the latest Admiralty A class ship to them in October 1919.

For the sum of $2,500,000 the British agreed to provide the Americans with a brand new and unique airship and also offer training for her officers and crews. The contract was agreed, and it was also agreed that each country would equally bear any possible loss. In this price was included the use of the R32 and R80 for training the crews. America also had to prepare for the delivery of the worlds largest airship, and advised that they could not expect to receive the ship for at least one year in order that they could make arrangements for housing it in the United States.


Construction

The design of the ship was a change to previous designs which the Shorts Brothers design team had previously worked upon. Taking the lessons they had learnt from previous ships, along with the rapid design changes which often presented itself from fallen Zeppelins, often made the previous design of airships seem a little unsystematic. With the new R 38 Class of ship, due to information that had been learnt from the latest German designs, this was to be a completely new class of height climbing and fast ships.

The design was taken from the experience learnt from the downed and perceived latest Zeppelin technology, moving away from the traditional 16 cells, the R 38 was to have a hull which contained 14 hydrogen-filled gasbags and thus a further weight saving. The larger bags also gave a better volume to surface area ratio. The mainframes of 13 sides and were 49 ft (15 m) apart. The mainframes were made up of diamond-shaped trusses connected by 13 main and 12 secondary longitudinal girders and a trapezoidal keel. There were two secondary ring frames between each pair of mainframes. With the mainframe gap being longer than had been in past designs, it meant that there were longer diagonal bracing wires and longer unsupported sections of the keel. Another move away from the traditional design was the shape of the keel, which instead of the traditional conventional triangle shape, but was a trapezoid in section and therefore less rigid.

The forward-mounted control car and engine cars, were assembled separately and then directly attached to the hull which followed on the earlier Shorts Brothers design of the R 31, and give the ship a more streamlined look. The cruciform tail surfaces were unbraced cantilevers and carried aerodynamically balanced elevators and rudders. The ship was to be powered by six Sunbeam Cossack engines, each driving a two-bladed pusher propeller. The engines were housed in individual cars arranged as three pairs: one pair aft of the control car, one pair amidships, and the third pair aft.

Due to the shape and size limitations within the Cardington shed, of the six engines, the two midship engines were placed higher on the hull to reduce the overall height of the ship.

The process of building was restarted at Cardington. When the contract was originally agreed with the United States, a delivery date of "late 1920" was agreed upon, but progress was slow. The designation ZR II was given to the R 38 as
the registration of ZR I was allocated to the design and construction of their own ship, the Fleet Airship Number One, or ZR 1. The ZR I or more commonly known as the USS Shenandoah, was designed to be built with the lifting gas of helium instead of the more flammable hydrogen. The US Navy needed a construction facility to assemble ships, and this was under construction at the Naval Air Station, Lakehurst, New Jersey. The new American airship shed was to be able to house 2 ZR-2 sized airships, but had not yet been completed and so the initial rush to complete the ZR-2 was slowed as there was no US home ready for the ship.

The staff at Cardington were concerned when work on R37, which was being built in the bay beside R 38 was halted. The workmen on R37 were then laid off when it was decided not to progress with the ship. Of course this worried the construction staff working on R 38 as there were no further work orders coming through the airship factory. As work progressed the US Navy began checking the documentation given them by the British. Following significant girder failures during testing when a test inflation of number 8 gasbag caused the failure of the girders atop of Frame 8, Commander Jerome Hunsacker and Charles Burgess raised questions over the strength of R.38. Burgess concluded that "This investigation indicates that the transverses of the R.38 are only just strong enough, and have no factor of safety. Another consideration and requirement was of new bow mooring requirements for the new American housing facility under construction, and an extra ton in mooring and bow strengthening fittings were added to the forward nose of the ship. To restore the balance, and extra ton of water ballast was provided at the stern of the ship, and therefore reducing the overall "useful" lift.

From initial construction in November 1918 to the final design, the R 38 was eventually completed on 7th June 1921, some 29 months later. The pressure to get the ship "flying" was noted as there was not time to change the registration of the ship from R 38 to the designated the ZR-2 for the Americans. As the ship was ordered in 1919, it was the second ship to be planned by the American Navy.

It was agreed that the ship would fly with US insignia markings on the outer cover but also with her "British" Registration R 38 on her first flight and have the conversion completed to the ZR-2 when she reached her Howden base. After the test programme, the R 38/ZR-2 would then be accepted by the United States Navy, and flown across the Atlantic to begin her new life.

The Howden Detachment

The first members of the US Naval Rigid Detachment arrived at the Howden airship station on 20th April 1920. It comprised of nine officers, and eighteen enlisted men and included a Medical Officer and a Supply Officer. The role of the Supply Officer would have been to deal with the paperwork which no military organisation cannot function without. The officer in charge was also the designated Captain of the ZR-2 was 36 year old Commander Louis Henry Maxfield, who was a qualified pilot of aeroplanes and airships, and a holder of the Navy Cross. In July a second draft of seven officers and eighteen men "reported aboard" and to be followed at intervals by another ten men, and Meterological Officer Lieutenant J.B. Anderson.

The first crew commenced their training on 21st April 1920 and had been allocated the R 32 for basic training and handling experience. As there was a shortage of coke for the hydrogen gas plant, and not enough to re-inflate the 21 cells in the ship, they went about stripping and refurbishing the ship until gas was available. As a stop gap, the large non rigid N.S. 7 was used for flying training. Due to the economic measures at the time it was agreed that the R 80, which had been built by Vickers at their Walney Island shed, be brought over to Howden, and used as a more effective training ship for the American crews. The American Government had already considered the purchase of the R 80, but instead decided on the R 38 or the Admiralty A Class of ship, a better options for their two ship plans. During their time in the UK, the US servicemen were taken down to Cardington to watch the progress of the ship, and learn more during completion. They were also taken over to the experimental airship station at Pulham, to see the war repatriation ships, the L.64 and L.71 and learn more about the Zeppelin designs. The US crew also undertook parachute training as part of their education at Howden as this was proven an effective way of exiting an airship as had been undertaken by Commander Maitland, when the R. 34 arrived in America in 1919. Over the course of the next few summers the crews became well known in the local area and became guests of the local people.

Completion and First Trial Flight

On Thursday 23rd June 1921 she was launched from Cardington for her first and local test flight in the calm evening air. Having been taken out of her shed at 21:00pm that evening, after the pre flight checks, the ship departed just after sunset in the cooler part of the day, at 21.52pm and flew out over the local area carrying out tests for the engines and steering controls in flight, returning to Cardington at 04.30am, at sunrise, on Friday 24th June. During the seven hour flight it was revealed that some problems were noted with an overbalance on the control surfaces. Minor girder damage had been caused in flight by various stresses and the suggestion was made that strength had been sacrificed to achieve lightness.

Second Test Flight - 27th June 1921

With repairs completed and the alteration to the balance area on the top of the rudder adjusted, the ship was brought in to the shed on the summer evening of 27th June in clam air. Pre flight preparations were made and and at 21:45pm the R 38 took to the skies again. The ship turned and made her way out eastwards to undertake a series of tests at differing altitudes and speeds, and voyaged out over North Sea. The control balance problem remained and on return to Cardington at dawn on 28th July. J. E. M. Pritchard, the officer in charge of flight testing, proposed to carry out 100 hours of flight testing, including flights in rough weather, followed by 50 more flown by an American crew before crossing the Atlantic. The commander of the Howden Detachment Commander Maxfield disagreed and urged that the test of R.38 be completed in one day. Air Commodore Edward Maitland as the man most responsible for testing the R.38 was appalled and disagreed. He protested the abbreviated test schedule. He was told to not provide advice unless asked. The Air Ministry ruled that 50 hours would be sufficient.

Third Flight - 17th July 1921

After further testing inside the Cardington shed, the R 38 emerged from the shed and on the evening of 17th July, a third flight was made. This time it was decided that as the press had no been able to take photos of the ship, due to her first two flights made at dusk, it was decided to bring the ship out earlier, weather and conditions permitting, and making a longer but earlier flight. Launching at 19:30 the ship left Cardington and was flown from Cardington to Howden, then a turn and out over the North Sea, where the speed was increased to 58 mph (93 km/h). This caused the ship to begin hunting over a range of around 500 ft (150 m). The highly experienced Pritchard took over the controls from the American coxswain and reduced the oscillation, but several girders in the vicinity of the midship engine cars had already failed. It was concluded that the control surfaces were still over balanced. More importantly girders of intermediate frame 7b as well as longitudinal Girder F had failed in one place, while frame 7a and longitudinal F' each had failed in two locations. The ship returned to her new base of Howden, on 18th July just after dawn at 5am. The ship was put in to the huge double shed for inspection, and girder repair.

Work on reinforcing the buckled girders was carried out and completed by 30 July. There were increasing doubts being expressed about the design, including some made by Air Commodore E. M. Maitland. Maitland urged that all future speed trials be conducted at higher altitude as was the practice of the Germans while testing the fragile Zeppelins upon which the R.38 design was based. The ship remained in the shed for over a month due to a series of summer storms caused by a number of unusual depressions over the Atlantic and continued blustery winds, and the ship was unable to be walked out of the shed due to high winds. It was also deemed that a voyage over the North Atlantic during these weather. Depressions was ill advised by the Meteorological teams. During this time the American Government were beginning to plan the details of the arrival of their new Naval Airship, and suggestions of a US tour for the ship were put forward.

Final Flight - 23rd August - 24th August 1921


At last on the 18th August, the weather stabilised and on the 23rd August 1921, the R 38/ZR-2 was now ready for her fourth trial flight. Now resplendent in her American livery, the ship was to fly from Howden to Pulham in Norfolk and carry out height and speed tests over the North Sea and also mast mooring trials at Pulham. The R 38/ZR-2 had been fitted with with nose mooring capabilities as with previous British ship design, however Howden didn't have a mooring mast. Following completion of the trials she was to fly over the coast to land at Pulham. The original plans were to have at least 150 hours of intensive flight trials for all crews on the new ship, but it was decided that once airworthiness was agreed then the ship would be handed over to the Americans with their agreement. This meant that the planned 150 hours were not required and the ship was to fly to Pulham, moor on the mast and be loaded up ready for her transatlantic delivery to Lakehurst, New Jersey.

The ZR-2 emerged from her Howden shed early in the morning of 23rd August, and positioned with her nose in to the light wind by the ground handling team. Her six engines were brought up to speed and the engine telegraphs were tested. Commanders Maitland and Maxwell both climbed up the short ladder in to the control car, after Maxwell had said farewell to his wife and daughter whom were on the airfield. After some last minute changes, the compliment of the ZR-2 was now 27 Royal Air Force, 17 United States Navy 3 National Physical Laboratory and 2 Royal Airship Works personnel, a total of 49 crew and civilian passengers.

At 07:10am the command to "let go" was called and with a unified push, the ZR-2 was sent gently upwards. The engines were opened up, and with a solitary US Navyman waving from the open cockpit in the extreme tail, the ship passed over the ground crews and undertook two circuits of the Howden Airship Station and airfield in salute to the crews and workers The ship set off eastwards for a day of tests, again over the North Sea.

With a full day of work behind them, Captain Wann headed turned the ship around and returned over the Norfolk Coast towards Pulham, only to be met by a bank of mist and very low cloud some fifteen miles from the airship base. From the dangerous height of some 700 ft, which was just the length of the ship, it was impossible to see the ground, and so it was decided to turn around and return out over the North Sea and spend the night over water. It was decided that the ZR-2 would wait off the coast until daybreak and use the time for more speed trials. For the tired crew, it was a miserable night as no sleeping bags had been issued, and so they just had to sleep in their simple bunks. Also their sleep was interrupted by attempts to restart a stubborn forward engine.

From 06:00am on Wednesday 24th August fuel consumption tests were resumed and the last of the flight rations were eaten for breakfast, somewhere in the vicinity of Howden. One of the crew members dropped a stamped address letter, weighted by a bolt, at the village of South Cave, it was retrieved and posted.

At noon, the ZR-2 reported her position as 28 miles off Felixtowe, and after another cautious probe towards the Pulham Airship Station again, the crew signaled that at 13:15 no landing would be attempted until the cloud height increased and visibility improved. The issue of 24 hour emergency rations at lunchtime was bad news for the already tired crew who had already endured 30 hours of intermittent watchkeeping.

With the routine work completed, the time had come for the long-awaited and crucial full speed run. Above the clouds the weather was perfect with clear blue sky over dazzling white clouds below. It would first be necessary to find the speed and direction of the wind at operational height in order to know their ground position for the trial. Descending to 1,000ft over the sea they were able to find the river Humber, which they followed to Howden, where Flight Lieutenant Little, requested by signaling with an Addis Lamp that a captive balloon should be flown to 3,000ft, above the cloud. By taking drift readings from this aerial marker on three courses, they could calculate the wind. He added that they had changed their plans, and decided to land back at Howden rather than return to the Pulham airship station. At 16:30pm a ratio signal reported that the long awaited full speed trials were in progress.

During all the speed and maneuvering trials, Harry Bateman of the National Physical Laboratory had been stationed in the open cockpit in the rear of the ship, aft of the fins. Armed with two cameras, a notebook and a portable airspeed indicator, his task was to record the pressures shown on a series of water manometers (a simple device but accurate pressure gauges) which were connected to tubes on the airships control surfaces. For the stressful full speed run, the crew were ordered to their stations to ensure any reports of damage back to the officers and control car crew in case it may occur. The other member of the National Physical Laboratory team, Duffield, was in the keel forward of the control car, reading the airspeed on an accurate instrument forward of all obstructions.

At 1,800 revs on all engines the airspeed passed 52 knots (59.8 mph) During this time it was reported that some of the US crew members had returned to the crew space between frames 7a and 7b, an unusual concentration of weight for the ship. An order was given to the crew to return to their landing stations but it was not known whether this was actioned. After fifteen minutes at 60 knots (69mph) during this trial nothing was noted unusual with the ship with the exception of the parting of two gasbag wires an two possible backfires from the engines, the speed was reduced to 50 knots. Inspections around the ship especially the tail, and it was commented at how steady the ship was under full speed.

At 17:00pm a signal was sent out to the Air Ministry and to the Pulham Airship Station that the ZR-2 would land at Howden at about 19:30pm, and the 200 soldiers sent from the Norwich garrison would not be required at Pulham that night. Onboard the airship some of the crew had taken back to their bunks, and also returned to the crew space, as they had been on watch for longer than anticipated.

A conference was in progress in the control car between Prichard, Campbell, Maitland and Maxfield. The weather was favorable and there were some hours of daylight left, and there remained the question of the ZR-2's ability to withstand rough weather. Would extreme control movements in the denser air of low altitude be equivalent to the rigors of an Atlantic storm? There was no positive answer but the surviving of such a test be encouraging. The pressure readings on the control surfaces would indicate the degree of stressing. The officers all knew of the rules of flying what was designed as a height climber in low altitude. But would it not be more prudent to risk damage in a controlled experiment near a convenient airship base by chance rather than a hostile ocean?

Despite arguing against reckless shortcuts in the test programme, Major Pritchard was committed to the Atlantic crossing and faced the danger in either way. Flying over the sparsely populated Holderness Plain, at about 54 knots, and at an altitude of between 1,500 to 2,500 ft the ZR-2 began to make a series of rudder movements of increasing magnitude. The time was 17.27pm.

Earlier in the long flight the rudder angle indicator in the control car had broken, so Captain Wann could only assume that the rudders were responding to the amount of helm applied. In the rear cockpit, Mr Bateman could estimate the degree of rudder displacement by observing markings on the control cables. His opinion supported Wann's later evidence that turns had been made with 10 degree of rudder and later with 15 degree in each direction in turn. The elevators were still being used to maintain a mean altitude.

Following the high speed test, there was an air of confidence on board the ZR-2. The US crew members who were in the crew space were happy that the grueling flight would finish inside the hour and the ship would be handed over and theirs. Some of the crew members wandered back along the hull to the rear tail to get good viewing positions to enjoy the scenery. One of the crew, Leading Aircraftman Ernest Wynne Davies, RAF was also looking for a vantage point and he headed for the lower machine gun pit which protruded as a shelf below the hull, aft of Frame 10. Finding it occupied by Aircraftmaen C.W. Penson and R. Withington, he looked over their shoulders for a few minutes and then turned to go forward again.

At 17.34pm the cloud was broken in places and the ZR-2 was approaching Hull from the North East, perhaps as a farewell to a city that had given the airshipmen hospitality and friendship over the last two years. By coincidence or design, the ship passed close to the village of Sutton where some of the American officers had been entertained by the Mr and Mrs Robinson from Sutton House, a few days before. Shortly after ZR-2 had passed, a small boy fielded a letter attached to a streamer and delivered it to a house at nearby Haworth. It was a letter from Flight Lieutenant Godfrey Thomas, to his fiancee.

On a course of 239 degrees magnetic, ZR-2 emerged from a cloud and was heading over Alexandra Dock, where the Hull docks were sided on the the river Humber. The helm movements which now followed did not appreciably alter the course of the airship as each reversal had time to cancel each other out before the airship had time to turn.

To the people who were on their way home from work, or taking in the sun on the fine Wednesday evening along the waterfront, the ship would have made a fine sight glinting in the early evening sun. The six Sunbeam Cossack engines rumbling in the air. A number of Hull citizens enjoying the evening sun on the promenade deck of the Victoria Pier had the best view as the huge vessel moved from left to right to pass a few hundred yards in front of them. At about 2,500ft the details were clear and some observers could see men in the floor to ceiling glass windows of the control car. It is not known if the decision to order the final 15 degree rudder movements were prompted by the sight of clear water and a safe testing area ahead or whether the confidence from the speed trial, or perhaps to show the people of Hull watching some real flying.

Eyewitness reports confirmed that the ship seemed to crumple along mid section and a "great wrinkle like a twisted and rolled newspaper" seemed to occur in the silver hull. Some of the observers on the waterfront said that a cloud of vapour seemingly turning the ship from silver to a dark grey. This was most certainly water ballast discharging and vapourising in the turbulence around the hull of the ship. The front section then broke away, and one witness noted the roar from the engines were silenced. The front section then dipped down toward the river Humber. The front part of the airship caught fire just before parting or immediately afterwards, but it then detonated as the hydrogen from the ruptured gas cells was stirring with the turbulent air.

Further objects fell from the hull, including petrol tanks which spread burning fuel over the water in to which crew and wreckage fell. A second massive blast followed within seconds and spread more fuel and oil over the surface to encircle the wreckage.

In the city, windows shattered over a wide area and many people reported being cut by flying glass or knocked to their feet by the blasts.

The tail section tilted and fell towards the Humber estuary carrying four members of the crew who were still alive. The tail then glided slowly down at an angle of 20 degrees. Harry Batemen in the tail cockpit had quickly put on his parachute and jumped but his parachute caught on the tail cockpit and he was left hanging. Two others, Walter Potter and Normal Walker made their way through the tail section and fins, to the aft cockpit to find Harry Bateman hanging by his parachute. Both men hauled him back in to edge of the tail cockpit. The tail section then leveled out as if under control for a touchdown.

The lower fin made a soft landing in to a sandbank. Norman Walker jumped off the tail cockpit before impact was surprised to find himself submerged only to the waist. The men were remarkably lucky as the tail section landed on the Middle Sand, a shoal just off Victoria Pier, and as the tide was in full ebb there was little depth and no current to sweep them out further to the sea. However the shallowness of the water made it difficult for the larger and faster vessels from reaching the three men, who had an agnoising wait of 10 minutes wondering if any of the blazing petrol would reach them first, or when a smaller boat could be launched to help them.Five members of the crew in the tail section were saved from the tail wreckage which had not caught fire. Of the 49 people on board the ZR-2, only 5 survived the crash.

The turning tide later soon started to submerge the wreckage, and later that evening markers had to be placed to avoid ships going near the submerged wreckage.

Early on the Friday morning a tug, the Stephen Gray was dispatched and took on tow a crane known locally as The Bull to position it near the wreckage to start to remove it quickly from the sandbank and riverbed. The wreckage was brought ashore at the Riverside Quay to be inspected.

The official report attributes structural weakness as the cause of the crash, but the board of inquiry did not offer any technical opinions on the disaster. The ship had been built far stronger than the comparable L-71, but the L-71 was not capable of being maneuvered as sharply, and was thus protected from the higher stresses exerted on the R 38/ZR-2.

Three quarters of the $2,000,000 of the contract price had been paid with the final $500,000 being due on acceptance of the ship. It was agreed by both Governments that the ship was lost before delivery and hence both were equally liable for the loss. The total monetary loss of the R 38/ZR-2 was calculated at $1,964,334.

There is some evidence of the United States' plans for the ZR-2 had she not been destroyed. It was hoped that by 1923 both the ZR-2 and the completed ZR-I would be in operation. The ZR-2 was to be based at Lakehurst and the ZR-I on the west coast of America. Although primarily to be used in its original role of scout and escort ships, there would be some cruises over continental United States in order that the cost of airship operation for commercial concerns could be evaluated, and of course to stimulate public interest. Potable mooring masts would be built and it was hoped that "municipalities" would erect masts at their own expense.

Court of Inquiry Findings.

System of Check Criticised

The initial inquest on 3rd October 1921 returned a verdict of accidental death due to the breaking of the airship owing to unknown causes. The Coroner had questioned all the survivors excluding the captain, who was still in hospital, as well as several members of the construction team. All concerned stated that up until the airship broke apart everything had seemed normal and they had been happy with the condition of the ship.

This was followed on 8 October, by a report of the Air Ministry investigation into the incident. This report in essence shifted any blame for the incident from the Air Ministry to the Admiralty, concluding that the ship had been designed to Admiralty specifications and that much of the work had been completed while the Admiralty was still in control of the Airship Service. It was further concluded that the design had never undergone the level of scrutiny, which a new design of this type required. The report also stated that the system of work at the airship factory was unsound as the same team responsible for construction was also responsible for inspecting the ship.

The initial Inquiry did set up a Aeronautical Research Committee of which the likes of Major Scott, Wing Commander Cave-Brown-Cave represented the practicing airshipmen, and complemented by academic scientists such as Professor Bairstow, CBE, FRS and Sutton Pippard with a team which was capable of doing all the sums in a highly mechanical investigation. During the next four months, in the course of eighteen meetings, and considerable homework, they did all the checking of calculations which should have preceded the actual building of the airship. They took time to read the twenty-nine research papers relating to aerodynamic forces on airships or models. Ten of these, including pioneering work by M. Eiffel, of the Paris Tower, had been published before the first two frames of the R 38 had been joined during construction. To their amazement, they discovered that no allowance had been made for the aerodynamic stresses in the design, which was based on static load/buoyancy conditions in level flight. The Committee concluded that during the final flight "no loads were imposed in excess of those which might have occurred during the normal navigating of the ship in weather which might reasonably be encountered", but that "owing to the instability of the airship, the movements of the controls necessary to keep her on a particular course were large and rapid".

The final findings of the Committee was that "That on the assumptions made, the structure was designed with great skill and the necessary calculations were carefully carried out by methods admitted as sufficiently accurate in other branches of engineering practice.

On the cause of the fire, the Air Accidents Subcommittee endorsed the opinion of the Court of Inquiry that simultaneous fractures of petrol pipes and electric circuits were to blame. Later assessment of this and further research gave a view that it was infact the vapourised petrol was ignited by sparks from a broken cable.

The report also noted that the final stages of construction had been rushed but concluded that this had no impact on the quality of the workmanship. The Admiralty responded by announcing that it would conducts its own inquiry into the initial stages of construction up until the transfer to the Air Ministry in October 1919. The Admiralty report, released in January 1922, found no issues with the Admiralty designs or procedures pointing out that at the time of construction the only people qualified to comment on the design where already engaged in working
on it.

The report of the Air Ministry court of inquiry into the disaster to the airship, was issued. It stated lack of vital information regarding the many new features were introduced in the design, and it appears evident that in some cases there was a lack of vital aero-dynamical information as to the effect of these modifications on the strength of the structure. Having regard to the great differences in the requirements between the R 38 and previous British airships, the design should have been examined and discussed by an official and competent committee before actual construction was begun. There is no evidence to show that this was done. The system by which the construction of the ship and the inspection of the work were centred in one head, as was the case at the Royal Airship Works, Cardington, Beds. where the R 38 was built, is unsound.


The final report by the Aeronautical Research Committee into the R.38 incident was covered by The Times on 22 February. The report concluded that the R.38 was lost due to poor design caused by the lack of calculations on the part of the design staff into the aerodynamic stresses on the Hull during high-speed manoeuvres. The report made recommendations for future airship design, including the use of theoretical and physical models. The quote from The Times seems apt in that it was commented that, “in the study of the science of flying too much haste not only means less speed but, as bitter experience has shown, brings disaster in its train".

Admiralty Statement

The Secretary of the Admiralty, in a statement issued simultaneously says:- "With reference to the report of the court of inquiry into the circumstances concerning the loss of H.M. Airship R 38 and the Air Council’s statement thereon, the Admiralty are conducting a full investigation into the history of the design of the airship and of the initial stages of it's construction up to October 1919, when responsibility for the design and construction of airships was transferred to the Air Ministry, and the result of this investigation will be published in due course"

 

Compensation and the R 36 to America

In March 1922 the Air Ministry, following Commander Scott's investigations, suggested that the R36 be given to the United States as part compensation for the loss. The United States would have to bear the $30,000 expense of repairs and inflation of the ship and upkeep of Pulham after 31st March, and the risks of the transoceanic flight. The Air Ministry would not approve the R36 being flown across the Atlantic by an American Crew and so Scott was to be the Commander. The US department of Aeronautics declined the offer. The final interest the US had in the R 38 was the settlement of the accounts.

The people of Hull still recall the loss of the R 38 and even now there are many eye witnesses coming forward with their own accounts of the loss.

List of Crew who's lives were lost in the accident (as noted on the R 38 Memorial)

MAITLAND, C.M.C., D.S.O., A.F.C. Edward Maitland Air Commodore, Airship Base (Howden), Royal Air Force. Died on Wednesday 24th August 1921. Age 41. Son of Arthur and Margaretta Maitland. C.M.C., D.S.O., A.F.C. Buried in HULL WESTERN CEMETERY, Yorkshire.

PANNELL J R National Physics Laboratory

THOMAS, D.F.C. G M Flight Lieutenant, H.M. Airship R 38, Royal Air Force. Died on Wednesday 24th August 1921. Son of Mr. T. Thomas, of Savanna-la-Man, Jamaica, British West Indies. D.F.C. Commemoarted in HULL WESTERN CEMETERY, Yorkshire. "R 38" Memorial

† MONTAGU, D.F.C. Rupert Samuel Flight Lieutenant, Airship Base (Howden), Royal Air Force (Navigating Officer, Lieut.)., Royal Navy. Died on Wednesday 24th August 1921. Age 26. Son of Alfred John and Hester Vaudrey Montagu, of "Braeside", Cleveland Rd., Hillingdon West, Middx. Native of Essex. His brother, Herbert Gerald Montagu, was killed in action on the Somme in 1916. D.F.C. Buried in HULL WESTERN CEMETERY, Yorkshire. Grave 305. 29524

. DUFFIELD C W National Physics Laboratory

† MATTHEWSON, A.F.C. Thomas Frederick [Listed as MATHEWSON on CWGC] Flying Officer 270912, Airship Base (Howden), Royal Air Force. Died on Wednesday 24th August 1921. Age 34. Son of Harriet Mathewson and the late Thomas Mathewson; husband of Violet Theresa Mathewson, of "Melrose," Alexandra Rd., South Farnborough, Hants. Born at Seaford, Sussex. A.F.C. Buried in HULL WESTERN CEMETERY, Yorkshire. Grave 305. 29524.

GREENER William Hunter Flight Sergeant 200501, Airship "R.38", Royal Air Force. Died on Wednesday 24th August 1921. Age 29. Born at Dunston-on-Tyne. Son of William and Margaret Ann Greener, of J, Newsham Rd., Blyth, Northumberland. Buried in NORTH SUNDERLAND CEMETERY, Northumberland. Grave N. 18.

SMITH Frank Flight Sergeant 314374, Royal Air Force. Died on Wednesday 24th August 1921. Age 28. Husband of Edith Ellen Smith, of 8, Lock St., Caddy Field, Halifax. Buried in STONEY ROYD CEMETERY, HALIFAX, Yorkshire. Grave F. B. 13.

MARTIN Alfred Thomas Flight Sergeant 200658, Royal Air Force. Died on Wednesday 24th August 1921. Age 39. Husband of Winifred Mary Martin and father of five from Dickleborough Scole, Norfolk. Alfred Martin had seen nearly 22 years’ service in the Army and the R.A.F. Buried in south-east part of PULHAM MARKET CEMETERY, Norfolk. Moved from the Army (which he joined in 1899) to the Navy to the Naval Air Service to the RFC to RAF. When his grave was first marked, it contained a stone with a carved airship relief, which subsequently got broken and was replaced by a War Commission gravestone.

BURTON Frederick Ernest Sergeant 314136, H.M. Airship R 38, Royal Air Force. Died on Wednesday 24th August 1921. Husband of Mrs. E. Burton, of 87, Guildford St., Poplar, London. Commemorated in HULL WESTERN CEMETERY, Yorkshire. "R 38" Memorial.

† OLIVER William Leading Aircraftman 92523, Airship Base (Howden), Royal Air Force. Died on Wednesday 24th August 1921. Age 29. Son of Frederick Eaton Oliver and Alice Rachael Oliver, of Sheffield; husband of Annie Louisa Oliver, of 169, Shirebrook Rd., Heeley, Sheffield. Buried in HULL WESTERN CEMETERY, Yorkshire. Grave 305. 29517.

PENSON Charles William Aircraftman 1st Class 301407, Airship Station (Howden), Royal Air Force. Died on Wednesday 24th August 1921. Age 21. Son of James Ambrose Penson and Eliza Ellen Penson, of 111, Westgate, Sleaford. Buried in SLEAFORD CEMETERY, Lincolnshire. Grave S. 345.

DONALD C W Air Mechanic 1st Class 246147, Airship "R.38,", Royal Air Force. Died on Wednesday 24th August 1921. Age 20. Son of Margaret Donald, of 13, Rosebank Terrace, Aberdeen, and the late William Donald. Buried in NELLFIELD CEMETERY, ABERDEEN, Aberdeenshire. Grave 2. 493.

PARKER Roy Aircraftman 2nd Class 251086, H.M. Airship R 38, Royal Air Force. Died on Wednesday 24th August 1921. Son of Mr H Parker of 3 Denton Terrace , Bexley , Kent.Commemorated in HULL WESTERN CEMETERY, Yorkshire. "R 38" Memorial

. † CAMPBELL, O.B.E. C I R Superintendent Royal Airship Works, O.B.E.

† WARREN F Assistant Constructor, Designer, Royal Air Force. Died on Wednesday 24th August 1921. Age 44. Buried in HULL WESTERN CEMETERY, Yorkshire. Grave 305. 2952

4. † LITTLE, A.F.C. I C Flight Lieutenant, Airship Base (Howden), Royal Air Force. Died on Wednesday 24th August 1921. A.F.C. Buried in HULL WESTERN CEMETERY, Yorkshire. Grave 305. 2951

8. PRITCHARD, O.B.E., A.F.C. J E M Flight Lieutenant, H.M. Airship R 38, Royal Air Force. Died on Wednesday 24th August 1921. O.B.E., A.F.C. Commemorated in HULL WESTERN CEMETERY, Yorkshire. "R 38" Memorial.

WICKS Victor Houghton Flying Officer, Airship Base (Howden), Royal Air Force. Died on Wednesday 24th August 1921. Age 29. Son of Mrs. Elizabeth Pettiford (formerly Wicks), and the. late John Wicks; husband of Beatrice Ellen Wicks, of 92, Brighton Rd., Reading. Born at Tilehurst, Berks. Buried in READING CEMETERY, Berkshire. Grave 76. 16342.

HEATH, A.F.M. S J Flight Sergeant 314892, Airship Base, Royal Air Force. Died on Wednesday 24th August 1921. A.F.M. Buried in KINGSTON CEMETERY, PORTSMOUTH, Hampshire. Sailor's Graves 5. 12.

THOMPSON Harold Flight Sergeant 11507, Royal Air Force. Died on Wednesday 24th August 1921. Age 25. Son of Joshua and Emily Thompson, of 70, Astbury St., Congleton, Cheshire. Buried in ST. MARY CHURCHYARD, ASTBURY, Cheshire. New section, grave B.11

†RYE John Flight Sergeant 314361, Airship Base (Howden), Royal Air Force. Died on Wednesday 24th August 1921. Age 34. Son of the late William and Ada Rye, of Liverpool. Buried in HULL WESTERN CEMETERY, Yorkshire. Grave 305. 29518.

MASON J W A Sergeant 313827, Royal Air Force. Died on Wednesday 24th August 1921. Buried in ST. MARY CHURCH CEMETERY, TENBY, Pembrokeshire. Grave D. 12.

ANGER G S Leading Air Mechanic 243858, Airship Base (Howden), Royal Air Force. Died on Wednesday 24th August 1921. Age 31. Son of John and Jessie Anger; husband of Christiana Anger, of 105, King's Rd., Caversham. Buried in CAVERSHAM CEMETERY, READING, Berkshire. Grave 2. C. of E. 2862

† WILSON John William Leading Aricraftman 314914, Royal Air Force. Died on Wednesday 24th August 1921. Age 27. Son of Fanny Wilson, of 13, Trafalgar Terrace, Brinkburn Rd., Darlington, and the late William Wilson. Buried in HULL WESTERN CEMETERY, Yorkshire. Grave 305. 29517.

DREW John Cecil Aircraftman 1st Class 239474, H.M. Airship R 38, Royal Air Force. Died on Wednesday 24th August 1921. Son of Mr T Drew of 22 Archibald Rd , Tufnell Park, London. Commemorated in HULL WESTERN CEMETERY, Yorkshire. "R 38" Memorial.

STEERE Eric Edward Aircraftman 1st Class 231041, H.M. Airship R 38, Royal Air Force. Died on Wednesday 24th August 1921. Son of Mr. J. Steere, of 37, Gloucester Place, Worthing, Sussex. Commemorated in HULL WESTERN CEMETERY, Yorkshire. "R 38" Memorial.

WITHINGTON R Aircraftman 2nd Class 313300, Royal Air Force. Died on Wednesday 24th August 1921. Son of George Withington, of 2, New Street, Wolstanton. Buried in ST. MARGARET CHURCHYARD, WOLSTANTON, Staffordshire. Grave RH. 17. 24.THOSE MARKED † ARE BURIED UNDER THE R 38/ ZR2 MEMORIAL IN HULL.

Sources of information and further reading:
Icarus over the Humber T.W. Jamison Lampda Press 1994 ISBN 1 873811 039
Court of Inqury
The Times

Smithonian Library

Related ships: R 32 R 80 R 37, R39

Copyright © 2021 Airship Heritage Trust. All Rights Reserved. Copying and/or redistributing of any files is illegal under international copyright law. AHT is not responsible for the content of external sites.