The airship industry is probably the only industry to die in modern times because of disasters. Although it experienced only two, the R101 and the Hindenberg, with a combined death-toll of less than 100 souls, these two events were enough to facilitate the rapid demise of the airship industry.
It airship business was not a young industry, having evolved from the non-rigid blimp, which in turn came from the ordinary balloon. Manned balloons were used by the French more than 200 years before, having gained prominence for their obvious reconnaissance functions during war time. But as they were largely at the mercy of the wind it became obvious that an elongated envelope propelled by an engine was essential if such dirigibles were to prove more tactically useful.
The first truly successful airship, designed by Frenchman H. Giffard, was steam-powered and could offer a speed of 5 mph in still air. A more practical electrically-powered machine named La France took to the air in 1884. From then on designs improved until, in the period from 1910 to World War I, the German Zeppelin company pioneered air travel by safely carrying some tens of thousands of passengers over a distance of several million miles.
World War I demonstrated the success of the Zeppelin airships in air raids, but also its weaknesses (in particular the use of hydrogen as a lifting gas as the U.S.A. would not export non-inflammable helium), but it was from a forced-down Zeppelin in 1916 that Britain, copying the basic design, started serious work on its own rigid airships (although their the first rigid machine, The Mayflower, crashed on her maiden flight). Meanwhile the much smaller blimp had become fashionable as an observation post, especially for submarine detection. By the end of the war the airship industry had a rather healthy look about it.
By 1919 Britain had built two rigid airships – the R33 and the R34. Meanwhile defeated Germany was prevented from making any more Zeppelins until 1926, but had nevertheless been studying some of the more sophisticated problems involved.
Then came the two disasters - seven years apart – that virtually put a stop to airship manufacture in every country in the .world. In 1930 came the destruction of Britain's R101 (47 dead) followed, in 1937, by the more dramatically publicized Hindenberg disaster (36 dead). Germany kept its Graf Zeppelin in passenger service for another year, but World War II was imminent and it was already obvious that the battlefield of the air would in future be dominated by the much faster and more manoeuvrable heavier-than-air machines, and that bombers, as they were made bigger and adapted for troop transport, would form the nucleus of civil aviation to come.
The British Built R101
In 1924 the British Government decided to stop toying with airships and moved seriously into the industry with the construction of the R100 and the R101. The R100 would be built by the Airship Guarantee Company, a subsidiary of Vickers at Howden in Yorkshire, while the R101 was to be manufactured by the Air Ministry itself, at Cardington in Bedfordshire. The R100’s builders were short of cash but long on expertise, being able to call on Dr Barnes Wallis of subsequent 'Dam-buster' fame, and many other top-ranking scientists and engineers including Nevile Shute (No Highway) Norway, whose first two names became a household word.
The Ministry, however, suffered from a lack of designing talent, as many of its experienced men had been killed in World War I. It also suffered from over exposure in the press as, with taxpayers' money involved, every stage in the work at Cardington had to be publicized. Thus, errors which the Airship Guarantee Company was able to rectify in silence had to be retained – for example, the too-heavy British diesel engines which the A.G.C. quietly swopped for lighter, petrol-driven power units.
Troubles and arguments, both technical and political, ended with the R101 slower by 10 mph at 71 mph and, at 25 tons, with only half the disposable lift of her sister ship. The airship was flown to the Hendon Air Display in the summer of 1930 to let the public admire her, but only experts could have known she was losing gas and that she would only be able to return to Cardington by throwing out huge amounts of ballast. It was there that drastic and, in the event, foolish action was prescribed: instead of taking steps to reduce weight it was decided to increase it by cutting the airship in half, inserting a new metal bay (thus adding to her length) and putting in more bags of hydrogen for lift.
While all this was going on, the privately built R100 made a very successful flight to Canada. Air Minister Lord Thompson, perhaps somewhat put out, decreed brusquely that R101 would leave for India via Egypt on 4 October, with himself on board. By then the airship would be 'safe as a house, save for the millionth chance' - and anyway, he had to get back on time for a meeting. This was all very impressive, though it is not known to what extent Thomson's enthusiasm was generally shared.
The largely untested R101 left its Cardington mast on the ordained date with 54 people aboard, of whom only six were passengers. In these days of plastic synthetics it is difficult to realize that the dural frame contained 17 hydrogen-filled gasbags made from the membrane of bullocks' intestines, held in position by hundreds of wires. New valves were fitted to control the gas, but they tended to 'over-react' causing them to release gas during unexpected air turbulence, thus releasing gas prematurely. This was one of many control problems.
Despite efforts to save overall weight, no limit was placed on personal luggage; Lord Thompson's private effects weighed as much as 24 people. The airship's fittings included silver cutlery, potted palms and 600 feet of heavy Axminster carpeting. Supplies of food and drink were lavish, as there was to be an aerial state banquet over Ismailia, with Egyptian notables and other distinguished figures as guests. Because of the inconvenience of refuelling during a banquet (no smoking, etc.) the ship was carrying nine more tons of diesel oil than she needed to reach her destination.
Small wonder that the R101 shuddered painfully into the sky that evening. A resident of Hitchin later told the Daily Express that she had run out of her house to find everything lit by 'a ghastly red and green light ... there was the R101 heading straight for the house... she cleared the trees of our drive and the house by the smallest margin... as the green and red taillights moved away up the drive horror descended on us all.'
A few hours later Le Bourget airport in France confirmed that the airship was one kilometre north of Beauvais. After 2.07 a.m. the R101 stopped replying to wireless messages, and by 2.08 horrified villagers had been woken by the noise and then the inferno. Le Bourget's operator tapped out the words, “G-FAAW a pris feu”.
The R101 Lays at Rest Near Le Bourget
G-FAAW- R101 - had indeed caught fire, as a result of not clearing a low hill at Beauvais. It was all over in minutes. Unlike the more fortunate Hindenburg, there was no chance for passengers and most of the crew, for they were sleeping (although seven crew members did survive). No one knows for certain why the R101 hit the ground at Beauvais. Perhaps she broke up under aerodynamic stress, perhaps a gas bag punctured, perhaps she simply lacked sufficient lift. Whatever the cause, it ended Britain's contribution to the development of the airship. R100 was immediately grounded, then broken up for scrap.
That was almost the death of the airship industry as a whole, but not quite. The Germans continued, and by 1936 had completed the Hindenberg to join its sister ship Graf Zeppelin. With a length of more than 800 feet, she was the biggest airship ever built. Power came from four mighty Daimler diesel engines driving propellers in separate gondolas under the great gas lifted hull. As with all airships, the gas was contained in a quantity of separate bags, or cells. Today, those would be made completely gas-tight, but in 1937 a slow seepage was expected and allowed for.
This brought with it the danger of fire, but designers had perfected the interior passenger quarters, with their 25 two-berth cabins, spacious dining room, saloon and reading-room, so that there was almost no risk of hydrogen entering. Smoking was confined to one absolutely safe room, with double-doors and an ingenious method of keeping its air pressure higher than elsewhere, so that no gas could possibly enter. Passengers could smoke freely here, though the cigarette-lighters were chained to tables to prevent the absent-minded taking them to their bedrooms.
Elsewhere, in this ingenious, luxurious ship, was a baby grand piano, made of aluminium. On either side were promenade decks from which passengers could look out and down through big sloping windows.
The Hindenberg made a number of flights to the United States and to Brazil during 1936-37, and May 1937 brought yet another scheduled departure from Frankfurt to the American terminus at Lakehurst. Nothing could have been more routine; no German passenger airship or Zeppelin had yet crashed. From those first flights in 1910, many thousands of people had been carried safely to their destinations.
The Hindenburg Over New York
Slowly she rose into Frankfurt's sky on the evening of 3 May. Her passenger accommodation was half empty (though it was almost fully booked for the return trip) and the 36 on board, with a standard crew, totalled 97. Estimated time of arrival at Lakehurst was 8 a.m. on the 6th, but very soon Captain Max Pruss realized that strong headwinds were going to upset the schedule.
It was already 15.30 on the 6th when Hindenberg passed over New York's Empire State Building - a regular practice, to advertise Germany and her great airship to the people below, and give passengers an exciting, unfamiliar, look at the city. However, what interest there might have been in the arrival of another airship flight was diminished, rather than heightened, by its lateness. Apart from passengers' friends and relatives, few people were heading for Lakehurst. Hardly any of the press were turning out; one radio company had sent a commentator, Herb Morrison, with a portable recorder.
Bad weather made Pruss delay his arrival still further, and it was not until 7 00 p.m. that he began his approach to the Lakehurst mooring-mast. The first lines were dropped to the ground crew at 7.25 p.m. A slightly bored Herb Morrison began his commentary, unaware that it would become one of the most moving records of human anguish.
There was a flame, and Morrison's voice, abruptly kindling with it to hysteria, sobbed, “It's broken into flames, it's flashing, flashing, flashing terribly bursting into flames!”
The Hindenburg Bursts into Flames at Lakehurst
Those inside were the last to know, and to this day no one can be sure what caused that flame. Miraculously, with seven million cubic feet of incandescent hydrogen about them, only 36 died out of Hindenburg's airborne total of 97. Much credit for this must go to officers and men at Lakehurst, who risked death to lead shocked, hurt, passengers and crew out of the holocaust.
So ended the day of the passenger airship. The rest of the world, including Britain, which had been watching the Germans with interest, gave up hope that these monsters of the sky would ever be safe and practical. There were undoubtedly other unspoken considerations, for no industry could die with such a small casualty list. The Germans withdrew the perfectly safe Graf Zeppelin in 1938, and in retrospect the reason is obvious. Zeppelins were not war machines. Balloons and blimps continued, however, while the real hardware of fighters and bombers took over.
There remains the possible return of the airship for freight transportation. Independent of land or sea it can travel “as the crow flies”, which offers advantages. In the long term, the issue will be decided by sheer economics, for a freight airship must make a profit if it is to survive - or even become a reality.