Socialist Airship R-101: History’s Deadliest Civilian Airship Accident, That You Haven’t Heard About

Socialist Airship R-101: History’s Deadliest Civilian Airship Accident, That You Haven’t Heard About. By Pierce Evans.

Post WW1, airships were the future. Planes then were small, short-ranged, and nasty, while airships carried passengers in ocean-liner-luxury. The British government planned to build six monstrous airships to run routes across the globe-spanning Empire.

The military had made some rigid airships before, which were generally unsatisfactory, so many thought that private industry was needed. Labour’s first prime minister, Ramsay McDonald, insisted that it needed government control, and made a competition between government builders and a private firm. Both were to build one airship, the “Capitalist Airship” R-100 and the “Socialist Airship” R-101, with the best team being hired to build more.

Socialist Airship R-101:

The Socialist Airship began late, with flight trials being delayed by the Air Minister showing her off to VIP sightseers. She also came in overweight; the planned engines (2200lbs and 700bhp) had to be switched for weaker engines that were twice as heavy (4800lbs, only 585bhp). The engineers also tried a new frame design with a reinforced external frame rather than internal cables. It couldn’t hold the gasbags securely, letting them chafe on the framework, making many tiny holes, and grew the weight again.

The planned route to Karachi would take her over the desert, where lighter air reduces airships’ lift. With her extra heft, she could fly over Britain, but would be too heavy for the desert. Due to political pressure from the air ministry, they rushed to extend the airship another 14 meters to insert another gas bag, rather than cancel/reroute the flight.

Despite the extra weight, the Air Minister brought crates of silverware, champagne, china and his valet, to the ship’s first flight in 1930. Most of the emergency ballast had to be dropped just to leave the dock. The fabric had rotted, and crucial parts were unreplaced before departure.

Despite the unfinished flight testing — that had not flown the ship on full power, nor full speed, nor in a storm — the air ministry had ordered her to do all three at once, into a predicted storm, through the night.

During that storm, the rotten fabric on the bow ripped off and ruptured the gas-bags; the airship lost lift, descended, struck the French landscape and blew up. 48 of 54 on board died, including the Air Minister and every passenger. For comparison, the Hindenburg killed only 35 of 97 on board, plus one unlucky worker on the ground.

Perhaps we hear of the Hindenburg because of those evil horrible Nazis, yet academics and journalists are reluctant to remind us of the time the Socialist Airship, competing with the Capitalist Airship, crashed so badly that Britain never built another airship.

For the aficionados:

For the British public, the R.101 disaster was a huge shock, comparable only to the sinking of the Titanic. It led to the cancellation of the British airship program, and Britain never built another airship. The capitalist ship R100, despite its successful flight across the Atlantic, was soon cut in pieces and sold for scrap — some of which was used in the Hindenburg.