R101 was built as part of a British government initiative to develop airships to provide passenger and mail transport from Britain to the most distant parts of the British Empire, including India, Australia and Canada, since these distances were too great for heavier-than-air aircraft of the period. Two experimental airships were built: one, R101, to be designed and constructed under direction of the Air Ministry, and the other, R100, to be built by a Vickers subsidiary, the Airship Guarantee Company,.
Specifications for the airships required them to be of not less than five million cubic feet (140,000 m³) capacity and a fixed structural weight not to exceed 90 tons, giving a “disposable lift” of nearly 62 tons. If you’re wondering how big they were, consider this comparison:
Construction of R101 commenced in early 1927, and her maiden flight was on 14th October 1929, involving a return trip to London from her hangar in Cardington, Bedfordshire (just across the fields from the home of my aunt and cousins, coincidentally – I remember playing in those fields as a kid and being overwhelmed by the size of the hangar).
This short film features the maiden flight to London.
The R101 made around ten trial flights until the end of September 1930, with her final trial flight being on 1st October. Bedford Borough Council Local Heritage & History.
The R101 slipped her mast at 4.30pm on 1st October to fly a 24 hour endurance flight to complete the engine and other trials. It was noted however, and agreed by officers, Reginald Colemore, Director of Airship Development (DAD) and the AMSR that if the ship behaved well and Major Herbert Scott, one of the most experienced airship men in the UK, was satisfied during his flight, then they could curtail the tests to less than 24 hours. The ship left Cardington and headed south to London then turned east following the Thames and out across Essex. She spent the night out over the North Sea.
It was during this flight that the R101 flew over the Isle of Dogs, much to the delight of Islanders. This Doris McCartney photo (now in the Island History Trust Collection) was taken outside Inkpen’s shop on the corner of Ship Street (foreground) and Stebondale Street. The R101 must have been flying over the Mudchute or the docks.
Another photo, also in the Island History Trust Collection, was taken from another section of Stebondale Street.
A couple of days later, on Saturday 4th October 1930, weather conditions were considered favourable for a flight to India, and preparations were made for an early-evening departure. After leaving at 18.30, the R101 crossed the channel coast in the vicinity of Hastings and arrived on the French side at Pointe de St. Quentin at around 23.30.
At 00.18 the R101 sent out the following wireless message :
“To Cardington from R101. 2400GMT 15 miles SW of Abbeville speed 33 knots. Wind 243 degrees [West South West] 35 miles per hour. Altimeter height 1,500feet. Air temperature 51 degrees Fahrenheit . Weather – intermittent rain. Cloud nimbus at 500 feet. After an excellent supper our distinguished passengers smoked a final cigar and having sighted thisFrench coast have now gone to bed to rest after the excitement of their leave-taking. All essential services are functioning satisfactorily. Crew have settled down to watch-keeping routine.”
This was the last message from the R101 giving speed and position. At 2.00, east of Beuvais, gusty winds caused the airship to make a long and steep dive. Although the dive was partially corrected, the airship moved into a second dive from which it would not recover. The impact on the ground was relatively gentle (the forward speed was later estimated to be no more than 14 mph at the time), but it caused one of the hot engines to twist around and come into contact with gas escaping from a tear in the forward gas bags. The R101 was immediately consumed in fire and the rear exploded. 46 crew members and passengers were killed in the crash, with 2 more dying later in hospital.Only 8 men were able to escape from the wreck.
The R101 tragedy was the end of British pre-war attempts to create lighter-than-air aircraft.