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The Loss of the R101


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On the 12th of October, 1929, a perfect day dawned over Cardington, Bedfordshire, and Britain's giant airship, the R101, was taken from her shed for the first time. Seven hundred and twenty-four feet long, and almost twice the size of anything attempted before, nothing had been spared to make her the most comfortable and practical liner that human ingenuity could devise. Projecting from her sides were the gondolas of her five great engines, housing beneath their streamlines a total of 2,400 horse-power which would drive her through the skies at a speed of eighty miles an hour. Everything, from her electric kitchen to her blue-and-gold-panelled smoking-room, had been planned with one thought in mind: she was to be the last word in airships.

Moored to the tall mast, the sun glistening on her huge silvery envelope, she was beautiful beyond description. Men stood beneath her, lost in the smudge of her vast shadow, and were silent with awe. Nothing in all the pages and columns that had been written about her had pictured such a triumph. Even those who had seen her in her shed - watched her grow, from paper plan to a maze of alloy girders, clambered aloft among her structure - even they were amazed. She was what they had planned her to be: the Queen of the Air.

Majestically, tearing the heavens with the rumble of her engines, she left her mast on her first trial flight. Toy cars on the road below her pulled up while their pigmy drivers stared. The sternest of schoolmasters ran with their children as she slipped by overhead. Even the pens of cynics were loosened as they wrote of her... and the future of air travel. She was not only beautiful - she was a success. There were minor troubles, of course - there were modifications and alterations to be made - but as days grew into weeks, and weeks into months, the people of Great Britain came to realise that their airship was real, that she was part of their future.

"That's the R101. Hear her?" And the game of bridge would cease as the players craned through the window, or strolled into the garden to see her pass.

Glistening in the sky, like a giant cigar by day, speeding through the clouds, promenade windows aglow at night, R101 flew uneventfully through her trials.

"There goes the R101. She's making a trip to India soon. But she'll be bigger still then."

Bigger still! Once more the giant ship went back into her shed. They cut her in half and added yet another bay of girders to her span. When she emerged the next time she had grown by fifty-three feet. She measured seven hundred and seventy-seven feet from the tip of her tail to the point of her nose, riding at the mast. Her gas capacity had increased by half a million cubic feet to five and a half million, and her gross lift was one hundred and sixty-five tons. A giant before, she was now a giant among giants.

In India, where the news of her coming had long been discussed, excitement increased beyond all bounds. In England, because of that excitement, there was an undercurrent of urgency behind the scenes. An Imperial Conference, for the purpose of discussing transport, was to be held in London on October 20, and Lord Thomson, the Air Minister, wanted to be back in time. This allowed about a fortnight for the round trip - not much, but quite enough; and, provided that the trip was made to schedule, a dramatic feather in the airship's cap.

On September 27, 1930, R101 was again ready to leave her shed. In order to be back in time for the Conference she must leave, at the very latest, by October 4th; and this left just seven days for her trials, and the issuing of the necessary Certificate of Airworthiness. As it happened, however, the weather was unfavourable for ground manoeuvring, and it was not until October 1, that the ground crew were able to take her from the shed. Another day of bad weather would probably have meant the cancellation of the India flight, for then there would have been no time at all for trials; but the morning of October turned out to be perfect, and shortly after dawn R101 was safely moored to her mast. Her trial flight, made the same day, is briefly and concisely told in the diary of one of her officers....

"Wednesday, 1st October. This morning at 0630 hours R101 was at last taken out of the shed in a very light North-Easterly wind and put on to the tower.... During the morning orders were given to have everything ready for a flight by 4.0 p.m.... The passengers came aboard and the ship slipped from the tower shortly after 4 p.m. The ship flew over London and then down the Thames and over Southend. The night was spent off the East Coast and in the morning we came in just north of Yarmouth and straight back to Cardington.... The ship appeared to be much better in the air than before and the cover was really good."

At last! That was the thought in the minds of every one. Those who were to make the flight had been waiting four years for that day. All India was waiting, England was waiting - and theworld was watching. Anxiety was over, and it seemed as though, having given in at last, even the weather would combine with other circumstances to make for a satisfactory trip. Hopes ran high at Cardington, home of the airship's creators. Though the attention of the world was focused on the apex of its steel tower, the men who dwelt beneath it were not impressed. They were proud, of course, and justifiably proud, but to them that silver giant meant more than mere news value. It meant the future.

From the time she was moored, in the morning of October 2, until the eve of her departure, the roads to Cardington poured in their streams of traffic. Hour by hour the people of Britian collected in their crowds to see the latest wonder of the skies. They too were proud of her in a way they could not have defined, and few among them did not envy the lucky passengers and crew their historic journey.

Throughout that day, and the day following, lorries arrived, and baggage and cases were transferred to the lift in the tower. Finally, on October 4, R101 was ready to leave, and by midday the important passengers began to arrive. Lord Thomson, Secretary for Air - Air Vice-Marshall Sir W. Sefton Brancker - Wing-Commander R. B. B. Colmore - Lt.-Col. V. C. Richmond - Major C. H. Scott, Assistant Director of Passenger Airship Development.

Fifty-four in all, passengers and crew, and surely there was never so notable a gathering for such an event. Veterans of airship travel, pioneers of rigid-airship design, men who had worked together for years for the development and perfection of lighter-than-air craft. All were to share the honour of the first official flight in the mighty craft which represented the culmination of all their ideas. In fact, it can be truthfully said that when the last man walked aboard, from the balcony of the tower through the hatchway into the nose of the ship, the heart, soul, and brains of British airship science were collected in that silver envelope.

The eve of the great adventure was at hand. Pressmen in their telephone booths were sending last paragraphs across the world. Tiny figures could be seen behind the glass windows of the promenade decks, waving to their friends and relations on the ground below.

As the light of Autumn evening began to fail, and the shadow of the giant ship merged with the gloom of the ground, the hum of machinery was heard from above. White - red - green - white, the navigation lights sprang out from the twilight, marking the extremities of the great envelope, and the lamps in the passengers' quarters glowed comfortably along the hull. A sigh seemed to rise from the crowd below, and then a hush fell as zero hour approached.

Gradually, one by one, the five engines burst into life. Stabs of flame from the exhausts increased the spectacle of awe. The rumble and roar of 2,400 horse-power shook the air. A cheer went up. The flight had begun.

Slowly at first, and then more swiftly as she turned into her course and gathered speed, R101 decreased in size. Came a final tinkle of the control tower telegraph bell, and all that was left was the beat and drone of engines. The red, green, and white lights merged with the stars - and might well have been stars but for their movement. Suddenly quiet after their cheering, the crowd stood still to watch, until there was nothing left to watch. Nothing, that is, save two oblong patches of light behind which, impossible though it seemed, men were walking, talking, and laughing. Then even the lights disappeared into the distance. R101 had gone.

Looking down from where they stood at the windows, the passengers watched as the fields swung round below them. Ahead and astern the mighty engines beat their rhythmic note. The stars were out, and the world seemed very far away. Car lights pointed out the roads, illuminating hedges, trees, and telegraph poles as they sped about their business; but soon, as the distance increased, all earthly things lost shape, and but for occasional dabs of light there might well have been no earth at all. The great ship droned on into the night, and one by one the passengers turned from the windows, finding more interest in the novel and luxurious surroundings than the vault of darkness outside.

Rain began to fall as they passed over London, but its noise was slight, and barely heard above the drumming of the engines. A few spots appeared on the windows, and soon they were running with water, blown with the wind, but if anything this only served to increase the atmosphere of comfort in the gaily lighted passenger quarters. The select company sat and chatted from the depths of softly upholstered chairs and settees. The door of the smoking-room opened and closed as stewards came and went. Ice tinkled against glass, and aromatic clouds of blue smoke coiled lazily upwards from the tips of glowing cigars. The scene might well have been set in any of London's West-end clubs for all a stranger would have known. Only occasional scraps of conversation - guesses as to height and speed - inquiries about weather conditions - marked the difference between that half-hour before dinner, and the half-hour before dinner in any one of the houses several hundred feet below.

The weather report received on board before leaving Cardington was more than fair. At the most R101 would encounter winds of 20 to 30 miles per hour. There was no other feeling than that of extreme confidence amongst passengers, crew, and officers. The ship was behaving spendidly, and for all the emotion shown by those in charge, or at work on their various jobs, they might have done nothing more adventurous in their lives. London was reached at about 8 p.m., and eight minutes later the second weather report came through by radio from Cardington.

"Over London. All well," R101 radioed Cardington at 8.21 p.m., giving details of winds and clouds. "Course now set for Paris. Intend to proceed via Paris, Tours, Toulouse, and Narbonne."

Puzzled, no doubt, by the weather report which indicated a turbulent area over southern France, the airship's commander had chosen a course which he estimated would carry them round the disturbance. He was certainly not to know the true facts of the position - that R101 was already trapped in the middle of a wide circle of winds, and that sooner or later she would have to battle through them, no matter what course she took. Those conditions had not existed when the ship slipped her mast about two and a half hours earlier. However, as her radio message shows, all was well on board, and there was not the least anxiety felt about the weather ahead. Conversation sparkled as the rain beat down unheeded outside, and R101 throbbed her majestic way through the night, past London, on towards Sussex and the coast.

"Crossing coast in vicinity of Hastings," crackled the airship's radio shortly after half-past nine. "It is raining hard and there is a strong South-westerly wind.... Engines running well at cruising speed giving 54.2 knots.... Gradually increasing height so as to avoid high land. Ship is behaving well generally and we have begun to recover water ballast."

Forward from the passengers' quarters, in the control room, one of the officers was busily engaged checking the airship's drift, making fullest use of their last sight of the English coast. The commander, having despatched the radio message was standing by. Beside him the height coxwain, eyes on the altimeter, hands on the elevator wheel. The coastline passed astern and R101 droned out over the Channel.

Seeing the altimeter needle drop to 900 feet, the commander took the wheel from the height coxwain, and pulled the ship up to 1,000 feet.

"Do not let her go below 1,000 feet," he said; and he handed the wheel back to the coxwain. Every man of the 9 officers and 30 crew not only knew his job but was ready and willing to turn his hands to anything for the care and welfare of the ship. Even the commander, veteran in airship experience, would not have been found wanting for the most menial task. Competent, cool, confident, all were as much at home riding the clouds as they would have been with the simplest task on land.

"Crossing the French coast at Pointe de St. Quentin," announced R101's radio at 11.36. "Wind 245 true, 35 miles per hour."

And as the great ship of the skies left the dark waves behind her, heading through the night for Paris, the cheerful company of passengers drifted away from their tables to glance through the windows, or to stroll about the smoking-room for a leisurely half-hour before turning in. Stewards cleared away the table-cloths, and the first day of airship routine drew to its close. The atmosphere of comfort and goodwill on board was perfect, and, more than satisfied with R101's behaviour, the commander despatched a further radio message at midnight:

"2400 G.M.T. 15 miles S.W. of Abbeville. Average speed 33 knots. Wind 243 degrees (West South West), 35 miles per hour. Altimeter height 1,500 feet. Air temperature 51 Fahrenheit. Weather - intermittent rain. Cloud nimbus at 500 feet. After an excellent supper our distinguished passengers smoked a final cigar, and having sighted the French coast have now gone to bed to rest after the excitement of their leave-taking. All essential services are functioning satisfactorily. The crew have settled down to watch-keeping routine."

But the altimeter, perfect and accurate as it may be, takes no account of what goes on beneath it. Over the Channel, when the commander took over the wheel and pulled the ship up to 1,000 feet, there was exactly that distance between her and the choppy waves below. But the sea had given way to land, and rising up through the darkness, claiming the lion's share of the height shown on the dial, were hills, rising ground, and trees. The commander could see none of these when he despatched his midnight message. Only his maps could tell him - and they were lying, because the wind had already blown R101 off her course.

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