Today (October 14) in London History – the largest airship in the world

October 14, 1929 was a showstopper of a day. What was a few hundred feet above them electrified London and its citizens. They’d never seen the like. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Progress report. Today is October 14th. Seventy-three more Today in London History podcasts and we’ve got a full complement. One for every day of the year. February 29th excepted. When that comes round, that’ll be fun to do. So effectively, 80 per cent of the way there. Twenty per cent to go. Put it into track – as in foot race – terms, with this podcast today we enter the final bend. Once we’ve made it round that bend we’re onto the home stretch. Another way of putting it, in marathon terms, we’ve done about 21 miles. Just five miles to go.

Pretty heady stuff for this marathoner. 

And heady stuff for millions of Londoners on this day, October 14th, 1929. They saw something they’d never seen before. Something that defied belief. Something they’d only see once more. 

They saw it by looking up, looking skywards, looking up into the heavens. Gazing upwards with wonder and admiration and disbelief.

And when I say millions of Londoners, I’m not exaggerating. Practically the whole population of the greatest city on earth ran into the streets, or flocked to windows and roofs in order to secure a good view.

What they saw – what they wondered at, what defied belief, what electrified London, what they were so proud of – was the R 101, the one million pound British airship. The largest airship in the world.

How big was the R 101? The aeroplanes that escorted her seemed like buzzing insects by comparison.

Or you want another measure, imagine looking up and seeing one of the world’s largest sea-going ships, the Atlantic liner the Mauretania floating majestically a few hundred feet above St Paul’s Cathedral. 

The Mauretania comparison is well-nigh perfect. Put those two vessels – one that floats in the ocean of air and the other that floats in the ocean, the Atlantic – put those two vessels side by side on the ground, the R 101 between you and the Mauretania – virtually all of the famous Atlantic liner would be concealed from view. 

The Mauretania was 790 feet long. The R 101 was 732 feet long. The height of the Mauretania – from its keel to the top of its funnels – was 155 feet. The airship, the R 101, was 140 feet high. The diameter of the airship was 132 feet – that’s about five times as long as a London bus.

Or how about if we compare the R 101 with a modern giant airliner, the Boeing 747 for example. The R 101 was nearly three times the length of a 747. It was more than twice its height. The R 101’s diameter was seven times the cabin width of a 747. That 747 cabin width allowed for ten seats per row, a 3-4-3 plus aisle width configuration. Translate that to the R 101 you’ve got seventy people seated in a single row. 

You want to talk weight. A Boeing 747 weighs 183,500 kilograms. The R 101 only about two-thirds that, 117,000 kilograms. But, hey, the R 101 was lighter than air. 

Basically, you’ve got two flying machines here. One is heavier than air. One is lighter than air. One proves to be a dead end. The other isn’t. And you know how that came out. There were three reasons the lighter-than-air airship was a dead end.

One was passenger and crew capacity.

The R 101 could carry 50 passengers and 42 crew.

The Boeing 747 can carry 524 passengers and usually carries about 12 staff and the three cockpit crew. 

The second reason: speed. The maximum speed of the R 101 airship was about 71 miles per hour. Like a car cruising along on a motorway. 

The top speed for a Boeing 747 is about 570 miles per hour. 

It’s 3,919 miles from London to Karachi. 

Non-stop in a 747 that’s a just under seven-hour flight. In an R 101 it’s going to take two days and seven hours.

Those two sets of reasons are both winning hands. 

But the third one is the clincher.

It’s arguable that a two-day and seven-hour flight to Karachi would be an experience. Like taking the train from Bangkok to Chiangmai. It takes much longer than flying, but on the plus side, you see Thailand. You get a feel for the place that you don’t get if you make that quick Bangers to Changers flight.

So it could be a leisurely, luxury thing. Take a couple of days. See the world. A lot of people – well-heeled people who aren’t in a hurry might well plump for the R 101 trip to Karachi. Sort of like crossing the Atlantic on a cruise ship rather than going by jetliner.

They might plump for it if it weren’t going to kill them. If the airship weren’t going to crash and explode in a fireball.

And that of course is what happened to the R 101. It was the European equivalent of the much better-known, the famous Hindenburg disaster that happened in New Jersey eight years later. And that effectively put paid to air ships.

Well, the R 101 crashing in France on its maiden overseas voyage on October 5th, 1930 ended British airship development. 

That crash killed 48 of the 54 people on board. Among the passengers killed were Lord Thomson, the Air Minister who had initiated the programme, senior government officials, and almost all the dirigible’s designers from the Royal Airship Works.

The loss of life was greater than the 36 killed in the Hindenburg disaster. 

So what happened? And indeed why did the British government go down the airship path in the first place?

The answer to the second question is the size of the British empire. The airship development programme was mounted because the distances – to remote parts of the British Empire – were too great for heavier-than-air aircraft. There was a need to get people and mail to India, Australia and Canada. Airships, they thought, were the answer.

In the event, those huge gasbags – and what they held – hydrogen – well, that was a disaster waiting to happen. 

The R 101 was built at Cardington in Bedfordshire. It was first airborne on October 12th, 1929. Two days later came the five hour and 40 minutes test flight to London and back. On that trip the R 101 flew by way of Bedford, Hitchin, Luton, Leighton Buzzard and St Albans. The approach to London was made over Hampstead and Golders Green.  The airship circled above the West End and the City for twenty minutes and then, passing over Mill Hill, made its way back to Cardington. That London flight carried a crew of 38 plus 14 passengers. And what a sight it was for the millions down below – they looked like ants – and indeed for the passengers and the crew.

None of them had any idea of what was up ahead – just a year in the future – October 5th 1930.

Eight hours after leaving Cardington on, as I said, its maiden overseas voyage the R 101 flew into a hillside in Northern France. She was immediately wrecked by explosion and fire. Only eight persons of the 54 aboard escaped with their lives. No officer was saved. Lord Thomason, the Secretary of State for Air, was one of the passengers who persished. As did the Director of Civil Aviation, Sir Sefton Brancker. And Major G. H. Scott, the Assistant Director of Airship Development and officer in command of the flight. And the captain of the ship, Flight Lieutenant H. C. Irwin. And the designer, Lt. Col. V. C. Richmond.

The R 101 was the property of the state. It was not insured.

What happened?

The impact in fact was gentle and survivable. But the ship was inflated with hydrogen. The resulting fire incinerated almost everybody on board. In the words of Dan Grossman, “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. Problems — inherent in any experimental design — were never fixed; flight trials were sacrificed in favour 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. And finally, there was the say-so of the top man, Lord Thomson, the Secretary of State for Air. To fulfil his personal ambitions the government dispatched R.101 on a flight to India for which the ship was not prepared.”

We’ve just had the most important funeral, so far, of the 21st century. 

The Queen’s lying in state in Westminster Hall from September 14th to September 19th during which time a quarter of a million people queued to pay their respects was a very memorable part of the obsequies.

You’ve all got a mental picture of that lone coffin, with its honour guard, in the middle of Westminster Hall. What I want you to imagine now is dozens of coffins lined up there. And, yes, mourners, thousands of them, queuing to pass by and pay their respects. So the 46 victims of the R 101 disaster were honoured. 

A last haunting image. On its final, fatal flight the R 101 passed over London once again. It had set out from Cardington at 7.36 pm on Saturday, October 5th, 1930. It passed over London two hours later. It was dimly discernible from below as a phantom cigar passing beneath an overcast sky.

And a Today in London recommendation. Well, this has been about flight. So I think Salisbury Hall and the de Haviland Museum, Britain’s first aviation museum. It’s near St Albans and that’s close enough to London to fall in our ambit. I’m sitting here in West Hampstead in NW6. From here it’s a 15-minute train ride to St Albans. That’s near enough. That counts.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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