On October 5, 1930, the British airship R.101 crashed on a hill in Beauvais, France. The impact was gentle and survivable but the ship was inflated with hydrogen, and the resulting fire incinerated 46 of the passengers and crew. Two additional crew members died of their injuries soon after.
An Avoidable, Political Catastrophe
The crash of R.101 was predictable and — more tragically — probably avoidable; the ship was doomed by mechanical problems that could have been repaired and operational mistakes that could have been avoided.
R.101 was paid for by Parliament, built by a government agency, and controlled by the Air Ministry, and in an attempt to compete with the privately-built R.100 (which had just successfully crossed the Atlantic) and the German Graf Zeppelin (which had just successfully flown around the world), and to fulfill personal ambitions of the Air Minister, Lord Thomson, the government dispatched R.101 on a flight to India for which the ship was not prepared.
R.101 was conceived and built as an experimental platform — a chance to try new and innovative techniques — but political forces insisted the ship be operated as fully-capable commercial vessel. Problems — inherent in any experimental design — were never fixed; flight trials were sacrificed in favor of VIP sightseeing; and the ship’s officers were pressed to make a flight to India for which the airship was not ready, without regard to weather, and with a load of fuel and unnecessary cargo that exceeded the ship’s abilities.
Fixable Problems and Final Disaster
R.101 emerged from construction much heavier than expected, and with engines that were half as powerful and twice as heavy as planned.
In an effort to increase lift the ship’s ingenious gas bag wiring system — which was specifically designed to keep the bags from chafing against the ship’s frame — was let out; the gas bags rubbed against the framework as predicted, creating thousands of holes and a massive leakage of lifting gas. Even after the ship was cut in half to insert an extra gas bag for additional lift, this problem was never fixed.
The ship’s fabric covering was deteriorating and needed to be replaced, but in the rush to fly to India the most important section of rotted fabric was left in place.
And despite marginal disposable lift, the ship was overloaded with fuel for the full flight to India, despite a planned refueling stop in Egypt, and with the personal baggage of the Air Minister, Lord Thomson, who brought crates of silverware, china, champagne, a carpet, and his 20-year old valet. To compensate for this unexpected weight R.101 had to drop most of its emergency ballast at the mast just to depart.
The ship had never been flown at full speed, or on all engines, or in bad weather. But on October 4, 1930, the ship was dispatched to fly on all engines into a known storm, at a time of year known for bad weather, despite the recommendation of airship officers and meteorology experts.
After struggling to maintain altitude over England and the Channel the ship crossed into France, where rain and wind damaged the unrepaired fabric at the nose of the ship and broke open gas bags in the bow, releasing the ship’s lifting gas. The overloaded and under-ballasted ship settled into a hillside in northern France and moments later the ship’s hydrogen erupted into flame. Calcium flares in the control car may have ignited, activated by exposure to water, but whatever the source of ignition, the fire destroyed the ship in minutes and killed most of those onboard, including Lord Thomson.
A Good Ship, Poorly Used
R.101 was a good experimental ship that, with necessary repairs and proper operational procedures, could have been a safe platform from which important lessons could have been learned. She was intended as a prototype from which the British could learn how to build future commercial vessels, but the Air Ministry foolishly treated the ship as a finished product ready for intercontinental passenger service.
In the wake of the R.101 disaster the privately-built R.100 was dismantled and Britain never again operated a rigid airship.
The future of the passenger airship would belong to Germany, at least for the next seven years.