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Airship Sheds Cardington


Country: United Kingdom   Location: Cardington, Bedfordshire
1 Mast
2 Masts
2 Sheds
3 Sheds
Constructional & Base Facilities
Extended Base Facilities

It may be seen as rather a simple fact, but before you build an airship, you need somewhere to build it in. This is the main factor which dictates the design and size considerations of an airship. The simple fact is that the size of the ship is dependent on the size of the shed it is built in.

Today, the two Cardington Sheds can be seen dominating the skyline for many many miles around and are seeing a new change with the buildings surrounding them.
Why Cardington?

How did a small village some 5 miles from the centre of Bedford come to be the centre of Airship operations and excellence?

The story starts not with the village but with the Shorts Brothers Engineering Company. Having won a contract for the construction of an airship in 1916, the original design team had set up offices in a private house in Hampstead, London. In September of 1916 they decided to move to Bedford, choosing this market town for its sufficiency of high grade light engineering works and its population of about 35,000. Outside the town, at Putnoe, was a stretch of farmland being used as an aerodrome for the Royal Flying Corps as part of the United Kingdom's defense network against the Zeppelins. Within sight of Putnoe was, and still is, the village of Cardington.


Cardington Photo Gallery

Cardington Shed Enlargement film clip

The man who headed up the enterprise for the Shorts Company was a young man by the name of Claude Lipscomb. At 29, Claude had already served his apprenticeship at Woolwich Arsenal but had joined Shorts at the outbreak of the war in 1914 attracted by the prospect of technological advancement in the new aviation world. Claude set up his first drawing office in a loft of the coach repair shop in Bedford. Having been attacked by Zeppelin Raiders that September and with the threat of the new Super Zeppelins, agreement was reached to develop our own ships. With its gentle prevailing wind, the site of farmland south west of Bedford and the site of Cardington was chosen.

The Project.

Cardington having been chosen, the airship project was begun and proposals were framed as to what was needed in the way of resources to actually build airships of this scale. When the proposal was reviewed, it was realised that it could take an act of Parliament to release the thousands of tons of steel to construct the hanger alone!

The shed was the biggest to be built in Britain at that time. It was to provide a minimum of space for two ships under one cantilever roof. The dimensions were such that it would be possible to build ships that at that time would in no way be inferior to the biggest Zeppelins. Additional steel was needed for the enormous windbreaks which were set up at both ends of the shed. These screens, as long as the shed itself, were designed to protect an airship during the time it was being maneuvered in to and out of the sheds from either end

Shed Internal Dimensions:

Length: 812 ft
Width: 180 ft
Height: 157 ft
Total weight of steel: 4,000 tons

The Airships and Imperial Airship Service

The first ship to come out of the Cardington airship facility was the R31. The ship was commissioned only 5 days before the Armistice on 11th November 1918, and exactly two years and two months from the time that Claude Lipscomb had set up in Bedford. The shed was an impressive construction and design project, admirable even in retrospect in a time of high powered computers and modern communication. Today it is easy to forget that it was hand designed and hand built.

Cardington became one of the World's best airship facilities. Due to the economic depression of the post war years, the Airship station was closed in 1921 after the construction of the R38 and the scrapping of the R37.

However the station was reopened in 1924 following the announcement of the Imperial Airship Service and the undertaking of the construction of, amongst others, the R101.

The original shed was too small for the designed R101, and so had to be lenghthened and also raised in height. Work was started in October 1924 on the lenghtening and raising of Shed 1, which was completed in May 1926. A second shed was also required, and so it was agreed that shed 2 from the Pulham operational base be used. This was dismantled in June 1927, and re-errected next to Shed 1. The second shed was completed in 1928. In that time the R101 was slowly being assembled in shed 1 next door. Shed 2 was going to house the R100 which was being built in the airship construction facility in Howden, Yorkshire.
The original siteplan circa 1916  

The huge airship mast was constructed for the civil programme in 1926, built by the Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Company under the direction of Major General Sir William Liddell, Director of Works and and Buildings at the Air Ministry. 202 feet high and 70 feet in diameter at the base, the tower was the first ever cantilever mooring mast to be built. It was demolished in 1943 to help the war effort. For more information on the Cardington Mast site, and an insight in to life after the airship service, please click here

For communications, a wireless station and Cardington control tower was constructed in 1928 behind the Administration block.

After the Giants 1930-1938

Discussions in Parliament following the crash of the R101 in October 1930 led to the Committee on National Expenditure's final decision to dismantle the R100 in shed no.2.

In 1931, the Station was nearly closed, with only a skeleton maintenance staff of some 44 people remaining. However this was only a temporary decision as work soon resumed quickly in 1932, when the Air Ministry decided to use shed 2 as aeroplane storeage. At the same time the R-100 had been stored in Shed 1, and hung, with the decision awaiting it's future during 1931. It was only in late 1931 that the descion for the ship to be scrapped was made, and this continued in to 1932. The site them became known as No.2 Aircraft Storage Depot. The task of leading the new depot was given to Sqdrn Leader S.Dixon, who at the time was Superintendent of the Royal Airship Works

To prepare for the incomming aircraft which were to be stored, work had to be undertaken to make the former airship landing field, prepared for landing aircraft on a grass strip in front of the shed. Due to the lack of suitable accommodation on the Cardington site, the workforce had to be brought in by bus from the nearby RAF base at Henlow. This problem was eventually resolved when the old naval huts on the site were made habitable. It was noted that some 300 aircraft of various types were stored in the Shed 2 and then later in Shed 1 when space became available. Storeage also spilled over in to the "Arcade" which was a large workshop behind the Administration building, on the site. During the pre-war years, it was noted in one year that there were over 3,000 take off's and landings recorded, without any accidents or incidents.

In 1934 a decision was taken that the unit should be run by civillias which then provided much needed employment for the local workforce, who had been involved with the Cardington site, since it's creation in 1916. During this time the Number 2 Aircraft Storeage Unit was moved to Brize Norton, in West Oxfordshire, just before the war in 1938.

The existing gas handling and storage facilities, along with Cardington's experience in airships gas handling was to return as low key balloon and kite balloon experiments were continued at the site.

In December 1936 RAF Cardington was established. On 1st January 1937 Number 1 Balloon Training unit was formed. It was no surprise that due to the balloon testing an research, which had already been established, that the station came under Balloon Command.

In 1937 recruits began arriving at Cardington. Each recruit would undertake a 12 week programme of training, prior to being posted out to various trade centres. Due to the war beginning in late 1939, to speed up the number of recruits to be processed through the Cardington training establishment, the training period was reduced from 12 weeks, to 8 weeks. The realisation that the barage balloon system would be a perfect defence system at home to try and deter aerial attack, the training of barrage balloon operators was stepped up along with the research and development of balloons.

1938 was an extremely busy year for RAF Cardington, as increasingly more young recruits arrived for initial selection and training. It is known that the local Bedford workforce was employed to build more huts for the new arrivals.

During the 1930's Empire Air days were held up and down the country at RAF Stations. Empire Air Days were designed to give the public a 'behind the scenes' insight to British aviation. They were organised by the Royal Air Force in conjunction with the Air League of the British Empire. The official reason for the air days was threefold

1) To arouse greater public interest in flying and a more enlightened public opinion about flying matters
2) to encourage flying itself and
3) to hasten the progress of Imperial air development.

The first Empire Air Day was held in 1934 and continued on an annual basis until the outbreak of World War Two in 1939. RAF Cardington continued this with hosting an Empire Air Day in 1938.

In 1939 activity was increasingly stepped up further with the preparations underway around the station in the event of any war. On 3rd September 1939, war was declared on Germany, and RAF Cardington was to expand further with thousands of recuits arriving at the gates of the base

The War Years

With the threat of war looming at the end of the 1930s Cardington was back in business with the development and creation off thousands of kite balloons for barage balloon aerial defences. The deportment of the balloon defence would create a deterrent in the form of an aerial wall which would deter attacks. A wire would be held between two balloons, with long steel wires hanging down. With this fighters and bombers could not fly between the wires. It was a very simple but effective form of defence. It sounded simple but every balloon had to be large enough to carry a couple of miles of steel cable and required a trained crew who could monitor the balloon 24 hours a day. Also required for each was a winch and motor transport. At its peak Cardington was producing some 26 balloons a week.

War was declared with Germany on 3rd September 1939, and this signalled a flurry of activity at the RAF base. It is noted from extracts from the 1939 Station records that there was a lot of pre-planning in the anticipation and event of war.

Sept 3: Provision of guard from 2 platoons of the 5/16th Foot. A A machine guns manned by Foot.
Sept 6: Tented accommodation provided for Foot. Air raid warnings.
Sept 19: Station blackout inspected from shed no.2 by station CO.
Sept 23: Completion of 90 shelters. Also 25 trench units. Both give shelter for 5,000 bodies. Total strength 7,000.
Sept 25: 10 other shelters sanctioned for 500 men. Hutted accommodation for Foot.
The sheds 1990, (prior to shed 2 being restored in 1994)  
On 4th November RAF Cardington saw the arrival of it's new Station Commander. Grp Cpt Arnold arrived and was to become the longest serving Commander of the station facility. During the next twelve months, more shelters were added, along with defence protection of six pill box armed defense shelters. A 25 yard machine gun range was also set up and machine gun posts were installed beside the roads around the RAF station. A pill box gun emplacement still survives today at the roadside at the Cotton End side of the RAF station land.
At this time, the two airship sheds were camouflaged, which would have taken up a lot of manpower and resources. Air raid warnings were sounded almost every hour. The Station itself was extremely lucky that throught the war period, there were only a few isolated incidents of bombs being dropped on site, and no major damage was sustained. Against the backdrop of constant air raid warnings, thousands of new recuits were enlisted and kitted out.
Despite the numbers of recruits being trained at RAF Cardington, it wasn’t a crowded site. A report taken from The Bedford Record and Circular during a “Home Day” in 1945, just at the end of the war where members of the public could visit the base, the base was described as a “picture of neatness”. Each hut was well attended, and tidy, with outside lawns and flower beds surrounding each hut. The RAF base had it’s own roads, all of which were named after healers of the air, such as Gibson Road (named after Wing Commander Guy Gibson V.C). For the off duty airmen, there were many places to spend their downtime. The RAF base boasted many reading rooms for peace and quiet, and recreation areas. A onsite cinema, and gymnasium was also available, which was also used for the RAF station dances.
Opening the doors was by hand and required a team of men to winch the 70 ton doors open, before they were later motorised  
A large NAAFI canteen was equipt with billiard and table tennis tables. A surgery, dentist and and well equipt medical centre was also available for all the people on the station. The spacious dining rooms were capable of accommodating 1,000 people at one time, and with well equipt kitchens to provide the food.
The same article provided some very interesting statistics on the numbers of people who had been processed by the RAF station:

Number of recuits for General Traders processed: 200,000
(of which 1,000 were Dutch)
Number of NCO for all Ground Trades: 40,000

Balloon Unit:

RAF Officers: 800
WAAF Officers: 300
Drivers of Motor Transport: 700
Balloon Winch Drivers: 15,000
RAF Balloon Trades: 25,000
WAAF Balloon Trades: 18,000

Grand Total: 299,800
The imposing doors of shed no 2. After the War
After the war was declared over in May 1945, RAF Cardington became home to the newly formed Number 102 Personnel Dispersal Centre. Many thousands of RAF personnel passed through the RAF station to be “demobbed” or demobilised and returned to civilian life, or known as a return to “city street”. For most trooped who arrived at Cardington after the war, the demobilisation process took than 24 hours. Each serviceman was entitled to a new “demob” suit, two shirts, shoes and socks, a tie, a hat and coat which would equipt then for life back at home. Each man who arrived at RAF Cardington was given a folder containing information about the facilities and those in Bedford.
Inside shed no 1. (large file to download) There was a great deal of entertainment available on the site, with the cinema opening every day, and dances held twice a week. The gymnasium remained open, along with a post office. For the men returning from the war in Europe, all the facilities for them were set up at the Cardington base.
The No 102 Personnel Dispersal Centre was closed in August 1946.

As with all RAF bases, and the same happened after the First World War, after the war had ended, activities on the Station slowed down considerably. On March 21st 1945 RAF Cardington was transferred from Balloon Command to Techincal Training. On 1st August 1946, the station came under the responsibility of Number 22 Group.


Cardington mast and winch houses under construction  
During the 1950s RAF Cardington undertook many experimental projects, with the experience which had been gathered since the 1920s and 30s with airships and balloon gas handling. Many of these projects were deemed top secret. Celebrations and recognition was in order at the end of the decade, on 16th July 1959, the then Station Commander Group Captain Lousada, the serving Commanding Officer, formerly received “The Freedom of entry in to the Borough of Bedford” on behalf of the Station.

Becuase of the experience of the staff at the Station during the post war demobilisation period and as a major recruiting centre during the war years, RAF Cardington progressed to be become a centre to screen young men called up for National Service. However by late 1960, National Service came to an end, and this was no longer needed at the Station.

The Balloon Unit still remained active and men were trained at RAF Cardington, and sent overseas with the balloons. Experiments continued within the sheds. It was on 31st October 1966, the Balloon Unit was transferred to Hullavington, Wiltshire. This was a major blow for RAF Cardington.

RAF Cardington became home to various Air Ministry departments in the 1970’s and the sheds were available to be leased as large open spaces for projects.

View of the mast from the nose of the R101.Steam from the winch houses can be clearly seen  
Return of the Airship
In the 1980s Shed 1 was leased to Airship Industries who were able to build and operate a fleet of airships, and run a schedule service from Cardington. The company re-kindled the use of lighter than air travel in the 1980s and established the foundations for the lighter than air airships seen today. Shed 2 became home to the Building Research Establishment who were instrumental in researching the fire safety of aeroplanes and buildings, as Shed 2 was a controlled environment to record the fire behaviours in large buildings. A 13 storey experimental office block was build within Shed 2 for this purpose.
The Administration block in 1917  


The original sheds were 80 years old at this point, and starting to deteriorate. Shed 2 was re-clad and painted in 1994.

In 1998 it was announced that the RAF Station we be closed on 31st March 2000. In this time the RAF base gated were closed for the final time and the RAF base disposed of. In 2000, the buildings which were the original workshop behind the Administration Block, were demolished, but the Administration Block, and Sheds remained.





The same Administration July 2000 block prior to sympathetic and extensive re-development by Belway Homes Limited Today

The main Administration building with the date of 1917 above the entrance in Roman numerals, is still here today. With the exception of the windbreaks and the addition of many more houses in Shortstown and the impressive second shed from Pulham, the site remains as nearly complete as it was constructed and planned back in 1916.

The original construction buildings and workshops which were situated behind the Administration Block (also known as the Shorts Building) were demolished as part of the disposal of the site in 1999 and 2000. The site was left as bare land but later developed in the latter part of 2007 with the expansion and re-development of the site.

A new village was created opposite the original Shortstown village which was created in 1917 on the site of the workshops. The new housing development was named New Cardington. Further development of the old site is being considered and proposed, however is being subject to acceptance and review by the Bedfordshire planning authorities. Also under review is the development of the north and eastern side of the flying field.

The Shorts Building today 2011, centerpiece of new development. and apartments.
Inside the Shed, it has also housed limited airship and lighter than air activities, of which a Goodyear Lightship was constructed, and launched from shed 1 in 2011
The visit of the first Zeppelin in 80 years was commemorated by the visit of the Zeppelin NT as part of it's 2008 tour.

In 2012 Shed 2 was leased by the film company Warner Brothers, and had been utilised as a sound stage for filming. The condition of Shed 1 had deteriorated and needed restroration.

Shed 1 was restored in 2013- 15 it was used by Hybrid Air Vehicles for their Airlander assembly. With the Airland trials completed by 2017 the shed was leased to Warner Brothers as another sound stage for filming. In December 2018 the shed was sold by Cardington Developments Limited to local property company, Gallagher Properties who currently own shed 1 and the surrounding airfield.

The original workshops by the Cardington Sheds  
AT10 and the"SkyKitten" Airships have also returned to Cardington in the form of Hybrid Air Vehicles who are developing the prototye Airlander 10. The Airlander 10 successfuly few two flights in August 2016, but a heavy landing on the third flight damaged the cockpit. The ship returned to Shed 1 to undertake repairs and a return to flight programme in early 2017 was put in place. A second mooring incident with the HAV Airlander had the ship return to shed 1 for assessment. Hybird Air Vehciles then decided to move operations from Cardington Shed 1, when the lease on the space had expired.Cardington is ever changing and shed 2 has been leased out to a film company and is enjoying a second life as a "sound stage".

Shed 1 came under the ownership of Fosbern Hangers, and the company undertook the restoration of the shed, which shots of the restoration work can be found here

More information on the activities in the sheds can be found here and on our links page

Planning permission has been granted to the area surrounding the north side of the shed, and around the original 1917 administration building

The Shorts Building

The original Shorts Building, constructed in 1917, which housed the design and administration block, and later the control tower during World War 2, has been restored and utilised. This is seen as the imposing building on the A600 road between Shortstown village and the village of Cotton End. Today the town of New Cardington is being developed and the Administration Block is still a prominent building in part of the new development, containing community services such as a crèche, doctors surgery, and apartments.

The AHT has been fundamental in ensuring that the communal areas open to visitors have pictures of the work which was carried out at the site, and of the R101 and construction, to ensure that the importance and history of the building is known to it's visitors and tenants.

More pictures can be found here

On 18th May 2019, a memorial stone was unveilled outside the Shorts Building, to RAF Cardington by Mr Micheal Lousada with a speech by Sqn Ldr Emrys Rogers from RAF Henlow, to commemorate the those units and personnel who served there.

The new Goodyear "Spirit of Safety" built at Cardington 2011  
Did You Know... Both the RMS Mauritania and the RMS Lusitania could comfortably fit in each shed with the doors closed and the RMS Titanic would have almost fitted with only 40ft of her bow sticking out of the open doors. Also, did you know that the size of an airship is dependent only on the size of the shed she is built in!
The Airlander 10 in August 2016

















United Kingdom - Cardington

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