Empire of the Air

The British were early pioneers in LTA, then developed anti-sub non-rigids extensively during WWI. Most advanced of these was the North Sea type (seen here),NS-early - Copy carrying depth bombs and wireless. Its envelope housed the engines’ gasoline tanks safely in the airless hydrogen, as well as a ladder-equipped tunnel which allowed manning the topside machine gun. Built as a stopgap awaiting rigids, it was a most capable airship on its own right. Actual film of these pioneers is quite rare, but we have included all footage we could find  in our the 1st chapter of our DVD series, “The Early Days.”

Uneven development of British rigid types meant few saw service against German submarines before the Armistice, but their postwar LTA achievements were the envy of the rigids-wannabees in the United States.   The successful Atlantic criss-crossing by the British R.34 crew in 1919 (click on video) included two Americans. Zackary Lansdowne of the US Navy, and William Helmsley of the US Army, flew over and back, respectively.

After the R34, the future seemed bright with continued British innovation, including airplane-carrying experiments (photo, bottom).

C.P. Hall wrote in The Noon Balloon issue #127:
“In 1919 the Royal Navy’s in-house design team had completed two copies of 1915 vintage Schutte – Lanz model airships (R.31, photo, & R.32)

and two copies of a 1916 vintage Zeppelin (R.33 & R.34) brought down almost intact while raiding London.

All of these were, by 1919 German standards, obsolete. On their drawing board was a catch-up-in-one-magnificent-leap design (R.38) based upon their knowledge / experience of submarine design and copying Zeppelin wreckage. The Royal Navy (RN) arranged the nationalization of the Short Bros. construction works, which was renamed the Royal Airship Works (RAW), in which to build the R.38. It was at that moment that the wartime river of money began to shrink into a trickle.

In 1919, after R.33 & R.34, both of the remaining private airship contractors, building on a cost-plus basis, had their contracts cancelled, and were paid off for work completed. The RAW was allowed to proceed with R.37. The R.38 was also allowed to proceed at RAW after the U. S. Navy agreed to buy it. In 1919, the RAF took over RAW and the Naval design team.
In 1920, only R.32 and R.33 were operated on various projects.

Vickers R. 80 had been ordered at a fixed price during the war. R.80 was completed, test flown, and damaged. It returned to its builder’s hangar for repair and modification.

In the fourth calendar quarter of 1920, Sir Frederick Sykes, Controller-General of Civil Aviation offered to take the remaining rigid airships into his department rather than see them scrapped. The apparent plan was:
1) Demonstrate the practical, cost-saving utility of operating a commercial airship from a mooring mast.
2) Complete R.36 as a demonstration commercial airship.
3) Sell these proven successful airships to a private operator for whatever they would fetch creating a private rudimentary airship service.

The Pulham Air Station became “Civil Aviation Airship Station, Pulham,” the base of operations. Regrettably, the largest Pulham hangar was occupied by two surrendered German naval zeppelins, L64 & L71, ill-suited for any commercial purpose. The other shed could not house two airships 24 meters in maximum diameter.

Over the winter of 1920, the wartime Vickers experimental mooring mast was fitted with a mooring masthead designed by G. H. Scott. R.33 was fitted with a mooring attachment of his design as well. (photo)

Wm. Beardmore & Co. received plans from the RAW for a passenger’s compartment and a contract to finish R.36 as a commercial airship.

In his autobiography Sir Frederick Sykes says nothing about this attempt at LTA civil aviation, however, under the sub-heading XIII: A LOST OPPORTUNITY, in the middle of a three quarter page long paragraph, he blurts out,
“At the end of 1920, owing to the inelastic nature of Treasury rules, perhaps necessary in ordinary times, but terribly crippling to the development of new enterprises in emergency, I had to return a considerable sum of money budgeted for civil aviation on the excuse that it had been earmarked for ground aviation.”

Apparently then the Sykes commercial experimental program began 1921 with less funds available than when it was conceived. R.33 was first to fly. It was brought out and either moored to the Pulham mast, or flying, for more than a month. On April 1, 1921 R.36 made it first flight from Beardmores.

R.33 was hangered at Pulham and R.36 took its place at the Pulham mast. Soon after R.36 suffered a fin failure in flight and returned to Pulham.  R.36 was repaired, undertook further flights, then suffered serious damage while attempting to moor to the mast. R.36 was held on the ground in worsening weather while L64 was dis-assembled and removed from the hangar to make room. R.36 was further damaged entering the hangar and there were no funds for repairs. No private interests came forward. The program was closed down and the ships declared surplus.

Shortly thereafter the R.38 (photo) tore itself in two while maneuvering, crashed and burned with heavy loss of life, before it was accepted by the USN. This seemed to be a “double tap” to British airship development in the third calendar quarter of 1921.

G. H. Scott and V. C. Richmond were retained as airship experts in the Civil Aviation Department of the Air Ministry. Each man would present a paper to the Royal Aeronautical Society (R. Aero S.) before the end of 1921. Richmond’s topic was a “Colonial Airship Service” organization. As for airships specifically, he was favorable toward the Zeppelin type; however, he felt the duralumin-framed SL.23 type was worth looking into. “The Present State of Airship Development” was Scott’s description of the progress made, and problems solved regarding airship structures, and those remaining to be solved. His specific recommendation was to build a Zeppelin-type ship of 2,500,000 cubic feet capacity which would prove the type and could fly experimentally to Egypt and return. Both men stated that R.38 was a ship specifically designed for extreme performance. A commercial craft would be more robust. Richmond went so far as to say any commercial airship would be more vigorously tested than that which broke R.38 before being allowed to carry passengers. Both papers were applauded; no action was taken.

Early in 1922 Charles Dennistoun Burney, Commander RN (ret.), offered the first draft of his airship service proposal (aka The Burney Scheme) to the Air Ministry. His first fleshed-out airship proposal seems to have been a 5.0 million cubic foot zeppelin-style structure roughed out for him by former Vickers Chief Airship Designer H. B. Pratt. An early Burney Scheme criteria was that the first ship must be an airliner, not a test vessel or prototype.

Following the RN & RAF pro forma inquiries into the R.38 disaster, the Air Ministry formed an Accidents Investigation Sub-Committee in January, 1922. The “Report on the Accident to H. M. Airship R.38 R & M 775 (A.2)” was dated March, 1922. One conclusion was that no meaningful calculation of aerodynamic stress was made for the design of R.38. It was directed that a new panel of ‘experts’ study the problems and methods of calculating the effects of such stresses in rigid airship structures.

The Panel consisted of two academics without airship experience, Major G. H. Scott, and a token American from the USN Construction Corps who was recalled to the USA – and not replaced – before he could contribute. The Panel concluded that the empirically developed zeppelin-type structure, with its alternating ‘main’ and ‘intermediate’ frames, both transverse and longitudinal, with a keel of ambiguous strength and purposes, was too complex. Their individual components were judged too weak for strength to be calculated in the face of multiple aerodynamic situations. A simplified, keel-less, symmetrical-in-cross-section was ‘suggested,’ all of which is found in “Report of the Airship Stressing Panel R & M 800” dated August, 1922. This publication coincided with the Coalition Government concluding that it would further study the Burney Scheme while giving is a ‘soft thumbs down’ as to any further action.

At year’s end a national election brought a Conservative Party government to power; Dennis Burney was elected to Parliament, and the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty, decided that the moment had come to attempt to reclaim Naval Aviation from the RAF. The Burney Scheme would receive a more welcome political hearing, however; Burney’s naval background, and the perceived naval value of airships would make for a bone of contention between the services. These related issues were similarly dealt with and thrashed out in the first six months of 1923.
In June, 1923 an International Air Congress was held in London. The morning of June 29, G. H. Scott presented a paper, “The Commercial Aspects of Airship Transport.” His primary focus was corporate and physical plant organization, including estimated cost. His comments regarding actual airships were brief; however, he seemed to be advocating Zeppelin-type craft in spite of being a Stressing Panel principal?!
That afternoon V. C. Richmond presented a paper, “The Hulls of Rigid Airships.” This paper advocated and embellished the findings and recommendations put forth in the “Report of the Airship Stressing Panel.” The recorded comments amended to the record of this presentation reveals that the airship advocacy establishment was out in force, including Burney and the two academics. All praised the advancements found in Richmond’s paper and the solutions to the problems now addressed. One of the academics offered a back-of-the-hand ‘compliment’ to Scott and his paper as well.

It is submitted that this is the first revelation of the ‘point of inflection’ for British airship development. The successful organization for airship development in Britain was Vickers. When the RN tried to displace Vickers, all that came of it were three contractors who could build to order and an RCNC ‘design’ team that could modify, copy, and extrapolate with, to be generous, minimal success. The next month would reveal that Vickers would be lead private contractor. Its designer would be handicapped with Air Ministry sponsored ‘academics’ nudging his left hand while a list of dos-and-don’ts weighing as much as a brick was tied to his right. That this list brick had ‘official,’ if uncodified, status in 1923 was made plain in August, when Richmond and Scott began grinding out joint-patent applications conforming to R & M 800 ‘suggestions’. This was six months before an election brought the first Labour government into office. It was also months before anyone ‘socialized’ the project, conceived the designations R.100 & R.101, and carved in stone the R & M 800 criteria in the “Report of the Airworthiness of Airships Panel R & M 970”, October 1924.”

C P Hall concludes, “As I see it, the problem was that changing administrations and organizations tended to start from wherever the airship program was, and add to it, rather than reviewing what had come before. I submit that the critical point was mid-year 1923, when the Air Ministry felt the need to be the home base if airships were to be developed. The way to make this happen was to sell the politicians on the idea that the study by their experts had found the errors in previous development, which would not be repeated. The issue thus resolved, and subsequent review was not encouraged, as new revelation might not support this basic premise. Thus was R.101 doomed to failure of some sort before it was even a glimmer of an idea in Lord Thomson’s eye. ”

We fast-forward through Parliament power flip-flops that allowed UK’s extensive WWI LTA bases and facilities to first atrophy, then to undertake construction of  the largest rigids yet built. Britain’s R-100 had successfully operated to, from and about Canada using a mooring tower erected in Montreal.  The “Empire of the Air” was slowly beginning to take shape before the worldwide Depression struck. Besides Canada, mooring mast towers similar to the one in Ismailia, Egypt (seen below courtesy Airship Heritage Trust) could have been erected in Hong Kong, Singapore, Darwin, Wellington and Sydney. The tower in Karachi was supplemented with a large hangar.
British airship newsreel footage is on average much more expensive than what might appear in TV documentaries, but we have assembled about all the known affordable, unedited footage on our silent DVD, “British Airships.”
Ismal mast

With a delayed departure or slightly better weather, the R-101 likely could have refueled in Ismailia and delivered Lord Thomson to Karachi in 1930, a step toward to his possibly becoming Viceroy of India.  Had she returned from her first trip, R-101 had many improvements awaiting her. These included hydrogen-consuming engines for her generators (to recover energy from otherwise vented lift) and to compensate for diesel fuel weight that was consumed.  R-101’s original construction had fallen short of its target lift, so another bay had been added (compare before and after, below).
 Eventually one more cell and bay could have been added for optimal lift. As the original railroad-locomotive diesel engines wore out, it is logical to assume more suitable flying-weight diesels would have been substituted in modernized engine cars. Her poor outer cover would have been changed, and the chafing, leaky cells could have been replaced with the superior gelatine-latex developed by G/Y-Zep. R-101’s more corrosion-resistant construction would make her more likely to have survived for more than ten years.

Captain J. A. Sinclair of the Royal Air Force spoke for the silent minority who still believed in the British rigids when he wrote “Airships – Their Cost and Vulnerability” for THE AEROPLANE, published days after USS Macon’s loss, in February 1935:
“Let it never be forgotten that for an average cost of 4s 10d. per mile, British airships gave security to surface vessels at a time when this country was almost beaten to her knees by the submarine. Today our 80,000 miles of trade routes lie unprotected, and yet the submarine has become a more powerful and destructive weapon than she was 17 years ago… I do not suggest for one moment that the airship cannot be destroyed. Such a craft does not exist. But, as I have already said, much of her vulnerability is mythical. She can be destroyed by gunfire, and she might be bombed. On the other hand, the very, very expensive, and doubtfully efficient aircraft carrier, so necessary to the heavier-than-air machine, can be sunk by gunfire, mined, torpedoed and bombed.”
Brits-Barrage - Copy

In 1939, with Cardington’s hydrogen facilities filling only barrage balloons (right) and paratrooper training balloons, more than a few Englishmen sorely missed the ASW airships that had saved the day in the previous war. The 2 NOV 39 issue of the British FLIGHT laments:
The same situation has arisen again. One, and probably two, of the German pocket battleships… are now at large. They have been raiding in the Atlantic and there are surmises that one of them may have rounded the Cape into the Indian Ocean, the scene of the Emden’s exploits. If the Navy now possessed rigid airships which could carry aeroplanes, the task of hunting for the raiders ought to be much simpler than it actually is… From those [mooring mast] bases it would be possible to patrol most of the trade routes in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans with the prospect of speedy success and at much less cost than is involved by the use of carriers. Of course the appropriate warships would have to be brought up to destroy the raiders when found, but the first and most difficult problem is to find them.”

Click on the play icon > for a one-minute video of what might have been  -had R-101 just left a half-hour later! (Sound on.)

In “ZRS,” the older British dirigibles have been converted into hospital ships, in the manner of some of their older luxury sea going ocean liners. Common enemies have encouraged re-establishment of that airshipmen’s bond from the Great War, the “Empire of the Air” having undoubtedly interfaced with the Americans. The Australians have a liaison officer sent to serve with the American flying carrier USS Long Island, operating from Darwin.

But again, we’re ahead of ourselves, we’re not explaining the background of the story. How did the Americans come to fly Zeppelins, let alone  build flying aircraft carriers?

Read on  to  American Zeppelins 
Purchase the silent DVD “British Airships”
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