10 August 1930
When we think of airships what typically comes to mind are German Zeppelins, and the tragic crash of the Hindenburg. That disaster, which occurred in Lakeport, New Jersey in May 1937 and claimed the lives of 36 people, was seared into our collective consciousness by the dramatic newsreel footage of the crash, as well as the heart-rending radio broadcast of Herbert Morrison who reported on the accident as it happened. The tragedy put an end to the pre-war dream of a lighter-than-air, transatlantic, passenger service that could rival the fastest ocean liners.
Much less well-known is the British airship scheme. It was the brainchild of Sir Dennis (Dennistoun) Burney who dreamed of building an imperial airship service that would link the far-flung British Empire. Winning the support of the Labour Government of Ramsay MacDonald, Burney’s plan was put into action in 1924. The government decided to fund two competing teams, one from the private sector and the other from the public sector. Each would build an airship to the same specifications. The R-100, referred to as the “capitalist” ship, was designed and constructed under a fixed contract by the Airship Guarantee Company, a subsidiary of Vickers Ltd, a large British armaments firm. Burney became the managing director of the airship subsidiary. The R-100’s chief designer was Barnes Wallis. The R-101, the “socialist” ship, was built by the Royal Airship Works owned by the Air Ministry. The two teams were extremely hostile to each other. There was virtually no communication between the two groups while the two airships were under development.
It took five years to design and built the airships. Without electronic calculators or computers, all the calculations to determine the forces and stresses on each airship part had to be done by hand, or by slide rule, a process that took months to complete, check and double check. The novelist Nevil Shute, who was the Chief Calculator on the R-100 design team, and later the Deputy Chief Engineer, said that he filled “perhaps fifty foolscap sheets of closely pencilled figures.”
At 706 feet in length with a diameter of 130 feet, and a volume of more than 5 million cubic feet, the R-100 was as big as an ocean liner. But when its fourteen gas bags were filled, it was as light as a feather. The slightest breeze could move it. The easily-torn, fabric gas bags were made of linen lined with “gold-beater’s skin,” a thin, transparent membrane with a high tensile strength. Hydrogen was used for lift since it was far cheaper to manufacture than helium. People were aware of the fire danger of using hydrogen, but it was expected that any escaping gas, being lighter than air, would simply float upward out of harm’s way. The “tare” weight of the airship was roughly 102 tons. With a “gross” weight of 156 tons, it had a lifting capacity of about 54 tons. Powered by six Condor, petrol airplane engines, the R-100 had a top speed of 81 miles per hour, and cruised at 70 miles per hour.
The contract for the R-100 called for a demonstration flight to India. However, with the decision to use petrol engines, the destination was changed to Canada on the erroneous belief that the use of petrol engines in the tropics would be unsafe. Instead, the Air Ministry decided to send the R-101, which was powered by diesel engines, to Karachi, then part of British India, on its demonstration flight.
After seven short testing flights during early 1930, the R-100 left RAF Cardington airfield in Bedfordshire north of London at 3.50am on 29 July 1930 bound for Montreal. There was a lot riding on a successful trip. The Great Depression was underway. It was evident to all that the government would be unable to indefinitely fund two separate airship teams. A choice would have to be made that would send the losing team to the dole line.
According to Nevil Shute, the R-100’s flight across the Atlantic was very comfortable though there were a number of minor problems. Some large tears in the gas bags had to be repaired en route. While the riggers were equipped with safety belts, “which they could sometimes hitch  to a wire,” they had to tight-walk their way out to the holes with nothing beneath them but the St Lawrence River, 1,000 feet below. The R-100 arrived at its mooring at the St Hubert airfield east of Montreal on 1 August after a flight of 78 hours, having journeyed 3,300 miles at an average ground speed of 42 miles per hour.
The airship received a rapturous welcome. During its stay in Montreal, hundreds of thousands of people visited the airfield to get a close-up look at the great air vessel. Posters of its picture were plastered across the city. Even a song was written about it. On 10 August, the R-100 took a 24-hour local flight over Ottawa, Toronto, and Niagara Falls, before returning to Montreal. On board were a number of prominent Canadian military figures. It was hoped that if the Canadian government was impressed, it would contribute funds that would help make Burney’s dream of a trans-Empire airship service a reality.
The R-100 was scheduled to arrive over Ottawa from St Hubert at about 8pm on Sunday, 10 August. But the airship was delayed by roughly two hours due to a late departure owing to rain squalls. Bulletins giving its position and estimated time of arrival were released by the long-range wireless station of the Royal Canadian Signals Corps that maintained communications with the airship. If anything, the delay magnified the excitement of the crowds that occupied every open field, roof top, and driveway. It was estimated that 35,000 waited on Parliament Hill and Nepean Point for the arrival of the airship.
The R-100’s two vertical nose lights were first spotted coming from the southeast at about 9.35pm. Several minutes later, searchlights began to pick out the huge dark bulk in the night sky that blotted out the stars. Finally, with its engines roaring, it flew at an altitude of about 1,500 feet northward above O’Connor Street to hover over Parliament Hill. Illuminated by the city’s lights, one could easily read its name “R-100” on its side, and its smaller registration markings “G-FAAV.” The Ottawa Evening Journal found the experience both moving and disturbing, saying that sight of the airship “combined the creepy thrills of war-time air raids by stealthy Zeppelins with the delicious illusion of dreamland phantasy.” With the airship over Parliament Hill, the parliamentary carillon played “Rule Britannia” and other patriotic songs. The R-100 then dipped its nose up and down towards the Peace Tower in salute of the soldiers who died in the Great War while the carillon played “God Save The King.”
The silver airship made three great circles over the Ottawa-Hull area before heading towards Carleton Place and onward to Kingston, Toronto, and Niagara Falls. During its time above the national capital, two-way telephone communication was established connecting Commander Booth of the R-100 with Prime Minister R.B. Bennett and Ottawa Mayor Frank Plant. The telephone conversations were carried live over Ottawa’s CBC radio station CNRO. The prime minister and the mayor welcomed the R-100 to Ottawa and congratulated its officers, crew and the airship’s design team. Mayor Plant, described the R-100 as a “worthy successor to the stout ships of British oak which ruled the waves.”
After its tour over southern Ontario, the R-100 returned to the St Hubert airfield to ready itself for its return trip to Britain. It left Montreal on 13 August, 1930, arriving back at RAF Cardington 57 1/2 hours later. On board were eleven Canadians, mostly journalists. It was the last flight of His Majesty’s Airship R-100.
Six weeks later, on 4 October 1930, its sister ship, the R-101, left for India on its long-distance demonstration flight. On board was Lord Thomson of Cardington, the Secretary of State for Air who had overall responsibility within government for the airship programme. Roughly seven hours after its launch, the airship crashed in bad weather near Beauvais, France, north of Paris. Of the 54 persons on board, only 6 survived. Lord Thomson was among the fatalities.
According to Nevil Shute, the successful return flight of the R-100 between Britain and Canada was in part responsible for the crash as it put undue pressure on the R-101 team to match the R-100’s success even though the R-101 was unready. He pointed the finger at a number of serious known problems, which included weaknesses in the outer cover, chafing gas bags, and leaking gas valves, all of which he claimed were minimized in order to get the ship aloft. Bad weather, including high winds over France, were also ignored despite the fact that one of the airship’s engines wasn’t working. The source of the pressure was apparently Lord Thomson who was eager to demonstrate the capabilities of the R-101 before the 1930 Imperial Conference convened in London on 20 October. At the conference, the Imperial Airship programme was scheduled to be discussed. The responsible engineers, faced with the choice of scrubbing the flight and earning Lord Thomson’s wrath, or taking a chance, decided to go ahead. They lost the gamble, and their lives.
With the crash of the R-101, the British airship scheme also died. Despite its successful trans-Atlantic flight, the R-100 was deflated by the Air Ministry, and was sold for scrap in 1931 for £600.
Today, more than eighty years after the R-101 disaster, there is renewed interest in lighter-than-air vessels. At the Cardington airfield, the same airfield from which the R-100 and the R-101 set off on their fateful long-distance trips, work is progressing on a twenty-first century version of the airship—the Airlander 10. Much smaller than the old R-100 and R-101, it has a high-tech. polymer outer covering, and is filled with non-flammable helium. Investors in the Airlander, which include the British government, hope that there is a market for a greener alternative to trucks or airplanes, especially for deliveries of goods and people to places that are off the beaten track.
Ars Technica, 2015. “Airlander 10: World’s largest aircraft slowly drifts toward commercial use,” 8 April, http://arstechnica.com/cars/2015/04/airlander-10-worlds-largest-aircraft-slowly-drifts-towards-commercial-use/.
Shute, Nevil. 2009. Slide Rule, Vintage Books: London.
The Evening Citizen. 1930. “Ottawa Thrilled As Great Air Liner Appears,” 11 August.
The Ottawa Evening Journal, 1930. “R-100 Expected Over Ottawa After 8pm Sunday,” 9 August.
———————————–, 1930, “R-100 Thrills May Thousand Over Ontario, 11 August.
———————————–, 1930. “Thousands See R-100 In Flight Over The Capital, 11 August.
———————————–, 1930. “Bennett and Plant Talk Over Radio to R-100 Officers,” 11 August.
Image: R.100, 9 August 1930, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R100.