R101 Airship Disaster Memorial - Cardington, Bedfordshire, UK
Posted by: Dragontree
N 52° 07.176 W 000° 24.980
30U E 676882 N 5777489
Quick Description: This memorial commemorates the lives lost on the fatal flight of the famous R101 Airship.
Location: Eastern England, United Kingdom
Date Posted: 11/4/2009 11:24:30 AM
Waymark Code: WM7KCP
During the First World War there were about 211 airships in the Royal Navy fleet. This type of airship consists of a strong metal framework covered in linen to contain the gasbags and the R101 was part of an experimental construction built in the 1920s. The new, innovative designs boasted huge promises of travel far and wide. They could fly from the UK to Australia in only 10 days, a considerable advantage. The passenger airships provided comfort, speed and safety and were much better than travelling by steamship.
The famous Zeppelins from Germany were available from 1919 and the British had a certain amount of competition to produce better airships. So, the government, Labour at the time, commissioned a three year programme costing £1,350,000 to build the R100 and R101 to test the passenger and cargo carrying ships of the sky once and for all.
The R100 was built in Howden, Yorkshire whilst the R101 was built in the vast aircraft hangars of Cardington, Bedfordshire. Competition was at a premium and experimental construction a major factor. The whole project was rushed and to build the largest vessel in the world of its day was a huge risk. The R101 was to be taller than Nelson's Column with an outer cover of over 4 acres and all built in the largest building in the UK. Critics thought it was too big and fragile and they were to be proved correct.
The R100 was a huge success and added immensely to the competition at Cardington. Statistics stated that the R101 was simply too heavy but it was a very complicated design and had ambitious craftmanship. In 1930 the R100 was moored at Cardington but never flew again and was eventually sold as scrap for £427!
The outer covering of the R101 was made from bullocks intestines which had to be thoroughly cleaned by the female workers. The skins were 'Goldbeater's Skins' and had to be soaked in glycerine and stretched, varnished and made into bags which would lose 10,000 cubic feet of hydrogen per minute through a hole one foot in diameter, in the case of a disaster.
Now for some statistics: The R101 used 400 feet round ferris wheel structures which wove together like cobwebs, 14.6 tons of Duralumin sheet and 36.2 tons of stainless steel. The outer cover was 8.1 tons with 27,000 square yards of fabric. The airship was 732 feet long, 140 feet high with a diameter of 132 feet. It weighed 133.5 tons but the gross lift was 146.3 tons. The problem of weight was never solved.
During the test in Hangar 1 of Cardington there was 1 million cubic feet of hydrogen used and it still wouldn't balance. The engines which were 650hp Beardmore Tornado diesel engines meant that extra weight was carried. Four were needed to propel forwards and two backwards. Petrol was considered unsafe with the hydrogen! The combined weight of the airship with engines was 17 tons compared to the 9 tons of the R100 and 7 tons of the Graf Zeppelin. Adding to the pressure every penny of expense had to be accounted for, under government pressure.
In 1929 the R101 was 2 years behind schedule and costing 2 million in tax payers' money. The passenger lounge was to be filled with fake palm trees, wicker chairs and tables and to be heated. The lounge was 160 feet by 30 feet with space for 52 in 2 berth cabins. The walls were canvas and balsawood and doors were curtains.
On 30th September 1929 it was finally ready; it was 23.5 tons heavier than its target of 90 tons and some of the weight had to come off. Girders were removed, glass replaced with celluloid and the gasbags expanded to the full causing chafing against the girders and leaking hydrogen. This created an extra 9 tons of lift. New valves were fitted as the old ones were releasing too much hydrogen, it was an impossible task to design.
On 8th October 1929 the flying crew were given control but more weight reduction took place until June 1930. An original project as a prototype was now a hyped up disaster waiting to happen. The maiden voyage on 14th October 1929 took the airship over Northampton, Birmingham, Nottingham and back to Cardington and people queued for miles watching the skies in awe. It survived hurricane force winds on 11th November and could only be housed in 4 hangars in the world due to its immense size: Montreal, Ismilia, Karachi and Cardington.
Lord Thomson wished to fly to India before October 1930 and this put extreme pressure on all involved. On one test flight 1 engine stopped and couldn't be restarted. Thomson wanted an extra bay so the wires holding the gasbags were loosened allowing more hydrogen to be pumped in gaining 6 tons of extra lift. The new length would now be 777 feet with 5.5 million cubic feet of hydrogen. In order to add the new section the airship was cut in two and the section added next to the passenger quarters and 9 tons of extra lift gained.
The 6th June 1930 saw a replacement cover but 202 feet of the original cover was still left in place. This was deteriorated fabric so reinforcing strips were applied; there was no time to replace the whole cover. Despite some of the cover rubbing on the girders as they were bursting with hydrogen and reports that it could be torn like paper, time was of the essence, not safety. The German Graf Zeppelin landed and took off perfectly at Cardington on 26th April 1930 and the race was on.
The Air Pageant at Hendon on 28th June 1930 saw the R101 erratic, veering from 1200 feet to 500 feet with long, slow climbs. The water ballast had to be dropped to lose ten tons to keep the airship off the ground. Substantial damage was found once it had limped back to Cardington, the crowds oblivious. New engines was fitted capable of reverse and on 1st October 1930 a test flight proved 1 failed engine in a 16 hour flight. The speed test with passengers took place resulting with a burst oil cooler and a failure to complete the only test after all the modifications before its fateful journey.
The R101 set off for India on 4th October 1930 after a political decision had been made compromising any technical problems. 3000 people watched as after 6 years of work the R101 rose into the skies. Thomson had requested a pale blue Axminster carpet adding unnecessary, extra weight, but he had the political power. He took a carpet with him for his hosts and his own baggage weighed 254lb compared to the passengers' total allowance of 394lb! Food, silver, glassware were stacked on board. Cigarette lighters were chained to the tables. The crew were only allowed 15lb luggage each.
Weather conditions were of a typical autumn day with brisk westerly winds and showers but conditions deteriorated catastrophically later, the flight would never have been allowed in those conditions if known. It was a 5000 mile flight to India and nearly half of the water ballast had to be dropped almost immediately as the airship tilted. Heavy rain reduced the speed to one third and it remained at a low altitude. France was the first stop.
No5 engine had problems quickly and was shut down, wind speed picked up to 50mph and the airship slowed to 25mph. The R101 had never experienced bad weather with the extra bay as it just hadn't been tested. No5 engine was repaired and the airship reached full speed putting stress on the cover. When crossing France at Pointe de St. Quentin the cover had abosorbed 4 tons of water and 1.25 tons of water ballast had been collected. The storm persisted and the R101 slowed to 27mph plunging to 1000 feet. Above Allonne, near Beauvais it dived downwards, resumed even keel for one minute then dived again. The hydrogen reacted appropriately and in one flash everything was burned in an all consuming fire mid-air. There was a white-hot core to the fire and it took 85 seconds from its first dive to striking the ground.
8 survivors remained, 2 died in 24 hours time. There were 54 on board. 2 survived beacuse the radiator tank split open and covered them in water but the hydrogen burned out quickly. It was all the wooden furnishing in the passenger quarters which stripped the airship completely.
The memorial stands in the Cardington Cemetery and is obvious as soon as you enter. All the dead from the disaster were buried in one grave here and the pictures show all the names and inscriptions. The R101 was left at its crash site until 1931 as a perfect skeleton. Scrap contractors from Sheffield who were specialists in stainless steel were employed to salvage what they could. It was noted in the records of the Zeppelin company that they purchased 5,000kgs of duraluminium from the wreckage for their own use. Whether this was for testing and analysis or to re-cast and use in the "Hindenburg", is open to further research and speculation.
It is with thanks to the leaflet 'We're Down Lads!' by Ronnie Barclay available for £1.00 in Cardington church that this information was compiled. There is a plaque in the church together with a display cabinet with the original newspaper prints from 1930 showing the disaster.