News Item

80 years since R101 disaster

At just after 0200 on 5 October 1930, dreams of commercial airship flights to India and Australia came to a tragic end in France.

Eighty years ago, the dreams of such flights came to a sudden end in a ball of fire on a hillside just outside Beauvais. The R101 had taken off from Cardington, Bedfordshire, some 7 hours earlier, after some inauspicious flight trials - and without an Inspector's full Certificate of Airworthiness.

Of the 54 crew and passengers, 48 were killed. Their memorial is in the village of Cardington, where a memorial service was held on 4 October for those who lost their lives. Among those who perished were Rt Hon Lord Thompson of Cardington, the Air Minister, and AVM Sir Sefton Brackner, who was the driving force behind plans for Imperial Airways' flights to India and Australia.

Although the cause of the crash was never fully acknowledged as being design and construction failures, the story of the R101 was one of an accident waiting to happen. In 1924, the then Labour government decided to build 2 modern rigid airships as the beginning of an air route between London and Australia.

Unfortunately, the government decided that the programme could provide competition between the 'socialist' airship R101, to be built at the nationalised airship works at Cardington, and the 'captitalist' R100, to be built by a private company.

New ideas to be embodied in the R101 were widely publicised and unfortunately, when some were not entirely successful, the designers pressed ahead while trying to modify them. By October 1929, the R101 was able to fly, but only just - not only was the airship some 23 tons heavier than the calculations predicted, but there was 1.5 tons less lift too.

There was no suggestion of scrapping this increasingly white elephant - the Government had staked too much on its success and half a million pounds of public funds had already been spent on her. Lord Thompson, the Labour Air Minister, was pressing for an early departure to India - he must be back in London by mid-October to chair the Imperial Conference. Less charitable voices suggested that he was determined to be the next Viceroy of India and that a triumphant flight to India and back might be part of his ambitious plans.

Lord Thompson's sense of urgency may well have been increased by the fact that the 'capitalist' sister ship, the R100, had in July successfully flown to Canada and back. The R100 was designed by Barnes Wallis, who incorporated many of his ground-breaking design features designs that proved so successful in the Wellington and other aircraft.

Drastic steps were taken to improve the R101 - it was lengthened and last-minute repairs were carried out on its outer covering. On 1 October, the modified ship made an unsuccessful flight trial, when an engine failed and high speed checks could not be carried out. Under pressure from Lord Thompson, who insisted that the flight must be start within a day or two, an Air Worthiness certificate was issued - without an inspector's signature with a proviso that speed checks were to be carried out during the flight.

Early on the evening of 4 October, the airship took-off, having had to discharge nearly half-a-ton of ballast to be light enough to lift off from her mooring mast. She immediately flew into weather the like of which she had not previously encountered, and heavy rain increased her weight. High winds of 50-plus mph added to her woes, and the ship had difficulty in maintaining height and wallowed badly.

At just after 0200, the ship entered a dive that was worse than previously experienced, and she hit a hillside in a slightly nose-down attitude. Thanks to the elevator controller, who died holding the wheel in the climb position, the ship touched the ground lightly at no more than walking pace - so slowly in fact that one survivor jumped out and ran.

The airship bounced to about 60ft and crashed down, her back broken at the point where she had been lengthened. Of the 54 persons on board, 48 were killed - and with their deaths came the death of the ambitious plans for commercial airship flight in Great Britain.

The successful R100 was put into her hangar after her successful flight to Canada, and never flew again. The politicians ordered that she be broken up and sold for scrap.

Submitted by Terry Hayward FRIN.

  • 05 October 2010
  • CMAG

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