The Loss of the R101 page 2
Droning along through cloud and rain, all unknown to those on board, the airship headed nearer and nearer to the boundaries of the stormy circle in which she was flying; and below her the French peasants ran from their houses to see her pass - nearer and nearer to them as she crossed the hilly country.
"Less than half her own length from the ground," said one who saw her pass to the West of Poix aerodrome soon after midnight. And then:
"What is my true bearing?" asked the commander by radio at one minute to one.
The appeal, flashed out through the night, was picked up by radio stations at Le Bourget, Valenciennes, and Croydon. Bending over their direction-finding gear, tuning in to the airship's radio note, the operators took rapid bearings of her position and communicated with one another.
"One kilometre North of Beauvais," came the reply. And at approximately 2 a.m. R101 thundered over Beauvais, rousing the inhabitants with the roar of her engines. They came running from their beds to see her as she battled her way through the wind and rain. Windows rattled up and doors were flung open, and men came rushing into the streets and market square to watch her go. She passed the town and flew on over the fields, and the ground still rose beneath her. A shepherd heard her engines as he lay in his hut, and he saw her lights appear, as he said, "like the lights of a passing train."
But the excitement was only on the ground. Up in the airship the passengers slept, oblivious to the commotion below. The hands of the clock in the control car crept on to 2 a.m. The new watch came on duty. Seated on one of the luxurious settees, alone in the blue and gold smoking-room, Mr. Leech, a foreman engineer, was enjoying a brief period of relaxation after an inspection of the engines. On the table before him stood a syphon and some glasses, last traces of the cheerful and carefree evening spent by the company of distinguished guests. The flight so far had been bumpy, but everything was running according to plan. Second by second the minutes ticked away, and the giant ship droned on past Beauvais... 2.3... 2.4... 2.5... 2.6....
Suddenly there was a lurch. The ship was diving. The glasses and the syphon fell to the floor. The peaceful mood of that solitary occupant of the smoking-room was rudely disturbed as he was shot along the settee.
But there was no cause for alarm. In bad weather an airship will often go into a steep dive before she can be checked... 2.7.... Mr. Leech picked up the glasses and the syphon and replaced them on the table. He slid the table back to its proper position as the ship regained her normal angle... 2.8.... Another lurch, a violent lurch... a jangle of telegraph bells... the door of the smoking-room swung open.... Beyond the door there was a great
Shortly before two in the morning a Frenchman, Alfred Rabouille, a factory worker who lived quite near to Beauvais, was walking through the wood at Bongenoult. He had no legal business in the woods at that hour of the morning, but the sky was dark and he was poaching. Adjoining the woods was a field, and he was busily engaged with his rabbit snares, fixing them along this boundary, when he heard the drone of engines. After a while, as the noise grew louder, he looked up from his unlawful business to see what it was that caused such a disturbance. It must be something very large. And then he saw the lights; not the closely grouped lights of an aeroplane, but bright lights, far apart, and a glowing patch that looked more like a large lighted window, it was an airship, and it was coming from the direction of Beauvais, heading for Paris. Spellbound with the wonder of the spectacle he stood and watched.
On, on she came. The roar of her mighty engines thundered louder and louder in his ears. She was flying low - very low - and she was rushing towards him out of the darkness. In a few seconds it would pass right over him. But it did not pass. It could not pass. As it came nearer and nearer it also came lower and lower. It became gigantic, immense, filling nearly the whole of his vision. The din of the engines was terrific. Then, suddenly, the lights seemed to flicker. With a lurch the huge nose ploughed through the trees on the fringe of the wood. There was a thud and a roar, and the airship glowed red like some terrible lantern.
Flung from his feet by the force of the explosion, Alfred Rabouille lay dazed and panic-stricken with what he had seen. And even as he watched, picking himself up fearfully from the ground, the rumble of more explosions shook the tragic wreck as five and a half million cubic feet of hydrogen took fire. In an instant the greedy tongues of flame were licking and roaring round the entire envelope. The heat was terrific. Overpowering. And from the ghastly inferno came the crying of men in utter agony. Blinded and choked with fire and smoke, men were burning to death within a few yards of him, and there was nothing he could do. For another second he stood there, unable to tear himself away from the dreadful thing before him. Then, caught in another wave of unreasoning panic, he turned and fled into the darkness.
Sleeping peacefully, dreaming, if at all, of the morrow - of sunrise over verdant mountain slopes - the passengers of the giant R101 were jolted into terrible wakefulness as the ship crunched into the soft, wet earth. In that split second which preceded the tragedy the control telegraphs had tinkled their message. The engines were already slowing... stopping... a member of the crew was already on his way to release emergency ballast. But he never got there. It was all too late.
Only at the very last moment did those in the control-car realise that R lot's journey was ended, but even they had no idea of the awfulness of what was to follow. Orders were given but there was no time to carry them out. Church, a rigger who was on duty in the car, was already leaving after his watch when he received the command to release emergency water ballast. But the ship was diving. Church was thrown clear of the wreck but he died in hospital from his injuries. He was barely able to reiterate his last order. He did not recover sufficiently to remember more.
Mr. Disley, the electrician, was also asleep when the ship began her plunge to doom. The lurch awakened him, and he too felt her recover. Like Mr. Leech in the smoking-room close by, however, he did not attach any great significance to the dive.
"It did not seem long at the bottom," he said afterwards. "It just appeared that it was only a matter of the coxwain changing the elevator from one way to the other."
But then, as the ship regained her level keel, the chief coxwain passed the switchboard. He had, apparently, just left the control-car, and was on his way aft with his message.
"We are down, lads," he said.
He said it quite simply and without excitement - and he passed on down the ship towards where the crew were sleeping. He never reached them.
There was no panic. There was no reason for panic then. All that could be done in the brief instant before the ship grounded, was done. None guessed the horror that was to follow. In the port midship gondola, Alfred Cook, an engineer, had just come on watch. Blake the engineer, whom he had relieved, had reported everything O.K. and climbed back into the ship to sleep. Cook made a quick, preliminary inspection of the engine and instruments with his torch. Then, all at once the ship dived, and simultaneously the telegraph rang..."slow." Ringing back in the usual way to the control car, Cook slowed his engine. And as he did so the ship dived again. There was nothing unusual about the dive, but coupled with the order to slow his engine, Cook had a feeling that something serious was happening. They had been cruising uninterruptedly since leaving Cardington. He leaned across the car to peer out into the night, and at that instant R101 struck. He stopped the engine immediately, but as he did so the whole car fell away from the ship. A few minutes earlier, and it would have have been Blake, not he, who fell to safety.
From the starboard midship engine gondola another engineer had just walked back to sleep, relieved by engineer Savoury. Savoury had not even the warning of his control telegraph before it happened. Engines were being rung to slow from the control car, but there was not sufficient time for all the orders. Savoury was standing in the darkness by his engine when the dive came. He was hurled backwards against the starting engine. There was a flash of scorching flame which singed and half blinded him. That was all.
Aft, in the rear engine-car, one of those unaccountable freaks of fortune was taking place. Mr. Bell, like other engineers on watch, was due to be relieved at 2 a.m. But his relief, Mr. Binks, was late. He arrived in the car at about five minutes past two, and they talked. Second by second the precious minutes ticked away. They were still talking when the telegraph rang... "Slow." The ship was diving. They looked at each other. And then, within a second of obeying the order came the crash. The engine car sank... dragged along the ground... the bottom tore away... flames belched in through the opening.
There was no more warning than that. Those in the control tower were still passing out orders, and ringing their quick precise messages, when the ground loomed out of the darkness. The R101 was down - or would be down in a matter of seconds. The altimeter needle, moving slowly round the dial as the ship sank, told the tale only too plainly. It was disaster, of course, but more of a failure than disaster. None could foresee that wave of flame from which practically nothing was to escape. The engines were at slow, or slowing. The airship's speed was almost nil as she neared the ground. Had her gasbags been filled with Helium instead of hydrogen it is unlikely that even one of the fifty-four would have sustained any injury worth speaking of. But in those gasbags was five and a half million cubic feet of the most explosive of all substances.
Awakened by the lurch, and hearing the coxwain's words, Mr. Disley reached for the switches. Instantaneous and urgent thought impelled him to "kill" all live circuits. He had time to pull one switch only. He did all he could. Many men less quick could not have achieved that much. But it was in vain:
"I heard a crash and a series of explosions," he said. "There were blinding flashes all round, and the next thing I knew was that the ship was on fire. She flared up in an instant, from stem to stern, and I cannot tell how the fire started, but I think it began amidships rather than in the bows.
"The fire was awful - awful. It is impossible to describe it. It was just one mass of flame, roaring like a furnace. My one idea was to get out of the ship. I threw myself at the fabric covering and tried to break through but could not.
"Then I sat down, and I found myself sitting on wet grass. I was under the airship, you understand, and the fabric was already torn where I sat. So I crawled on the ground following the tear, until I found myself outside. I went along to see if I could get anybody out, but nothing could be done. It was all over in a minute."
Those who had run into the streets of Beauvais to see the giant liner's majestic passing, heard the sudden lull of her engine noise. They saw a red glow of fire spread over the trees and houses. They felt the air tremble from the thud of distant explosions. The shepherd, who had turned from watching the sky to look over his sheep, was horrified to see the dark night suddenly filled with flame. The flash of explosions lighted up the sky, and where the airship had been was nothing but a dancing, crimson blaze. At eight minutes past two the colossus, R101, pride of all Britain, and keynote of world news, was fighting her way stolidly and bravely through the elements and darkness. At nine minutes past two she lay, a roaring inferno, crumpled across the fringe of a wood in the heart of the French countryside.
"G.F.A.A.W.A. PRIS FEU!" came the terrible message from Le Bourget radio station. "R101 in flames!" But the startled world would not believe. Could not believe. Not until quite late on that unforgettable Sunday morning, October 5, 1930, could the world really accept what it was told. Not until the posters of a thousand newspapers flaunted the dreadful news in every language. But it was true. And even as the papers reeled off the press, R101 lay smouldering and smoking amongst the dewy grass at Beauvais.
Like the remains of some prehistoric monster her gaunt skeleton was stretched across the woody ridge. Buckled and twisted from the terrific heat of the flames, the giant girders towered up in crude contrast to the peaceful green of the surrounding grass. Stripped by the fire of their silver fabric the rudder and elevator fins stretched from the pointed tail like some enormous cross, high in the air, above the tiny figures who walked beneath; silent people who clambered in and out amongst the wreckage, searching for all they knew they could expect to find.
They were still searching twenty-four hours later. But everything but metal had perished beyond recognition. Only one thing survived. Tattered, burnt at one corner, the flag of the Royal Air Force still fluttered tragically in the morning breeze. It was claimed by an ex-officer of the R.F.C. and brought back to England - all that was left of her, a scorched piece of bunting and a mass of tangled alloy girders. Twelve hours previously she had floated proudy at the apex of her mooring mast.... A million pound marvel of the skies. Now she lay gutted and bare, a twisted clutter of metal. And with her died forty-six of the fifty-four who sailed with her.
Only eight escaped that terrible death, and two of them died later from the injuries they received. Forty-eight dead; and a shocked world could only whisper of the tragedy which had burst upon it so suddenly. So complete and merciless was the calamity that at first it was feared that all the victims must be buried unknown, but eventually twenty-six of the forty-eight were identified, and their relatives and friends consented to a common burial.
The coffins arrived in England, borne by destroyer and special trains, and crowds of sorrowing people met them in the early hours of an Autumn morning. Uncounted thousands lined the roads as the tragic cortege passed, and many times those thousands filed past the group of coffins where they rested, draped with Union Jacks, in the Westminster Hall. They lay in state, and the world was silent while they rested.
But as for the cause of the sudden and ghastly tragedy, no one will ever know the truth. A full court of inquiry, at which Sir John Simon presided, lasted many weeks, and every possible witness was examined. There was the evidence of the four surviving engineers, Cook, Savoury, Bell, and Binks, and that of Disley the electrician, and Leech the foreman engineer; but all they could tell was of the ship's sudden dives and disaster. There was nothing else to tell because everything happened so suddenly. The Chief Coxwain, Hunt, who had said so clearly and calmly, "We are down, lads," did not survive the flames. The officers on duty in the control-car, whence came the message which he bore, had perished to a man. There was nothing to go on. Barring the fixing of times - times between telegraph bells, dives, and crash, there was nothing that the witnesses could say. The whole story - or what was believed to be the story - had to be reconstructed from that grim metal skeleton. It was a long task, and its results were far from satisfactory.
<<< Previous page <<<
>>> Next page >>>
Pages: 1 <2> 3