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Type Airship
Manufacturer Royal Airship Works
Designed by V.C. Richmond
Maiden flight 4 October 1930

R101 was a British airship that crashed on October 5, 1930, in France, during its maiden overseas voyage, killing 48 people. Amongst airship accidents of the 1930s, the loss of life surpassed the Hindenburg disaster of 1937, and was second only to that of the USS Akron crash of 1933. The demise of R101 effectively ended British employment of rigid airships.



R101 was the result of a British government initiative to develop airships. In 1924, the Imperial Airship Scheme was proposed as a way to carry 200 troops or five fighter aircraft. This was expected to require an airship of 8 million cubic feet (230,000 m³) – well beyond current designs. As a result, the two prototype airships of 5 million cubic feet (140,000 m³) were authorized; two to exploit competition and develop new ideas. Two teams were used: one, under direction of the Government Air Ministry, would build R101 (hence the nickname "the Socialist Airship"), the other by a private company, Vickers, building R100 (the "Capitalist Airship") under contract for a fixed price. Among Vickers' engineers were the designer Barnes Wallis, later famous for the bouncing bomb and, as Chief Calculator (ie, Stress Engineer), Nevil Shute Norway, better known as a novelist.

The story of the designs of R100 and R101, and the competition between them, is told in Shute's Slide Rule: Autobiography of an Engineer, which was first published in 1954 and in Airship Saga, published 1980 by Lord Venty.


The building of R101 began in 1926 at the Royal Airship Works at Cardington in Bedfordshire. The frames themselves were built by Boulton and Paul in Norwich and transported to Bedfordshire for assembly.

Due to a failed attempt to create hydrogen-powered engines and several other new design concepts, the project's completion was delayed from 1927 to 1929. The R101 was meant to have a useful lift of 60 tons but ended up only able to carry 35 tons.

The stability of R101 was doubtful, due to the insufficient span of its fins into the airstream. During its flight at the Hendon air show in 1930, it almost plunged to the ground, as well as repeatedly going into a dive during the return flight. Its gas bags also developed numerous leaks. The gas bag valves were of a novel design and placement. They showed a tendency to open slightly as the ship rolled thus causing a continual leaking of lifting gas and leading to constant decrease of lift in flight. Despite this, it was given a Certificate of Airworthiness. Engineers lengthened the frame, added another gas bag, reversed propellers, and replaced the outer cover. After that, the ship was 777 feet (237 m) long with a total volume of 5.5 million cubic feet (160,000 m³) and a useful lift of just under 50 tons.

At completion, she was the largest flying craft ever built, surpassing LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin, which was of similar length but carried only 3.7 million cubic feet (100,000 m³) of lifting gas. Hindenburg exceeded this five years later, at a length of 804 feet (245 m) and volume 7 million cubic feet (200,000 m³).


The passenger accommodation was spread over two decks within the envelope and included 50 passenger cabins for one, two, or four people, a dining room for 60 people, two promenade decks with windows down the sides of the ship, and even an asbestos-lined smoking room for 24 people. Most of the passenger space was on the upper deck with space for the crew, kitchens and washrooms, and the smoking cabin on the lower.


R101 was fitted with five heavy diesel engines made by Beardmore. The engines were designed by combining two four cylinder railway transport units into the 8 cylinder Beardmore MkI Tornado engine. These were intended to give an output of Template:Auto bhp at 1,000 rpm but in practice had a continuous output rating of only Template:Auto bhp and, at 17 tons for the five, were 6 tons above design weight. The big end bearings were also found to be prone to early failure, and it was reported gold plating had to be used to lengthen their life. In additions, there were two critical vibration frequencies which coincided with idling and cruising speeds, to unfortunate effect. The engines were intended to have reversing propellers, but they failed. At one point during development, one engine was to be aimed astern and used only at the start and finish of flights, a decision that astonished Shute and the other engineers on the R100 team. This was later changed when two engines were made reversible.

Final Flight

File:R101 wreckage.jpg
The wreckage of R101.

The Air Ministry pressured the engineers to finish the project. The final trial flight of R101 was originally scheduled for September 26, 1930 but an unfavourable wind delayed it until October 1. She returned to Cardington after a flight of 17 hours.

R101 departed on October 4 at 6:24 p.m. for its intended destination to Karachi (then part of British India) via a refueling stop at Ismaïlia in Egypt under the command of Flight Lieutenant Carmichael Irwin. Passengers included Lord Thomson, Secretary of State for Air, Sir Sefton Brancker, Director of Civil Aviation, and Squadron Leader William Palstra, RAAF air liaison officer (ALO) to the British Air Ministry. The airship had to drop 5 tons of water ballast to lift off.

Over France, R101 encountered gusting winds that tore back the outer covering, exposing and rupturing the first gas bag.R101 crashed into a hillside near Beauvais, north of Paris, at only 13 mph (20 km/h). The crash ignited the leaking hydrogen and fire quickly engulfed the entire airship.

Forty-six of the fifty-four passengers and crew were killed immediately. Two men who survived the crash later died at the hospital bringing the total to forty-eight dead.

The Court of Inquiry concluded that there was evidence there had been a failure of the outer cover of the upper nose. This, it was postulated, led to the destruction of a gas bag, loss of the flammable hydrogen lifting gas, and caused the nose to drop. R101 had exhibited severe longitudinal instability in previous flights, and due to a unique design feature –- lack of any wire bulkheads to prevent gas cell surging –- they had been seen to move back and forth during flight. The exact source of ignition was never determined.

Scrap contractors salvaged what they could of the R101 wreckage, continuing through 1931. The Zeppelin Company purchased 5 tons of duralumin from the wreck.

R101 was the end of British attempts to create lighter-than-air aircraft. Its competitor, R100, despite a more successful development programme, and a safe transatlantic trial flight, was mothballed immediately after R101 crashed and sold for scrap in 1931.

Popular culture

File:R101 illustration.jpg
Illustration of the R101 Maiden Voyage
  • The Doctor Who audio play Storm Warning is set aboard R101 during her voyage.
  • R101 also figured prominently in the book The Airmen Who Would Not Die by John G. Fuller.
  • R101 is the subject of the rock opera ("song story") "Curly's Airships" by Judge Smith
  • R101 is prominently featured in the Shinigami/Punchline Inc. survival horror game Rule of Rose, not only as a playable level but an important figure of the main character's past.



See also


External links

de:R101 fr:R101 it:R101 (dirigibile) nl:HMA R101 ru:R101 (дирижабль)

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.
It uses material from the Wikipedia article "R101".