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),
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 future seemed bright with continued British innovation, including airplane-carrying experiments (photo, bottom). The successful Atlantic criss-crossing by the British R.34 crew in 1919 (photo, top) included two Americans. Zackary Lansdowne of the US Navy and William Helmsley of the US Army flew over and back, respectively. (Click here for a short video summary of our second DVD chapter.)
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.”
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.”
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?