C. P. Hal wrote in the winter 2020 NOON BALLOON:
On June 8, 1929 Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald was joined by Air Minister Christopher Birdwood Lord Thomson of Cardington and other Cabinet members on a train to Windsor Castle to receive their seals of office from King George V thus becoming the second Labour Party Government. Lord Thomson was the Air Minister both in 1924 and 1929. He Began the 1924 Airship Program in 1924 which remained under his auspices for six months; he then observed from the sidelines as Sir Samuel Hoare, the Conservative Party Air Minister, oversaw for five and a half years. Upon Lord Thomson’s return, the Program was three years late and 50% over budget.
On that same day R.101’s Chief Designer, Vincent Crane Richmond, posted a report for Lord Thomson. Richmond stated that R.101 is nearing completion and, though heavier than originally planned, should be able to carry 100 passengers and minimal freight from Cardington to Egypt.
Ten Days later, on June 19, 1929 Lord Thomson visited the Royal Airship Works (RAW) at Cardington. As related by Louis Reynolds, Lord Thomson’s secretary, to Sir Peter Masefield, Lord Thomson was briefed by several of the principals at RAW. Richmond had what one might think to be a surprising set of adjusted figures. In 10 days R.101 lost several tons of lift, empty weight had increased at a rate of about one ton per day. R.101 was now believed to be able to carry two dozen passengers from Cardington to Egypt. Reynolds does not say it but his description suggests that Thomson was oblivious to these changes in spite of the fact that Reynolds had reviewed the June 8 figures with him on the train from London.
Three months later, lift and trim trials revealed the harsh truth that someone would have to present to Lord Thomson. Even with neither passengers, nor freight on board, R.101 could not lift enough fuel to fly to Egypt.
Air-Commodore Sir John Higgins, Air Member for Supply and Research (AMSR) was senior and drew the ‘short straw’. RAW approached him with a plan: let out gas cell wiring to increase hydrogen capacity, remove superfluous equipment thus gaining 6 tons which might just be enough lift between the months of October and March but, due to weather, not enough lift from April thru September.
Higgins declined to present this to Lord Thomson and called for another option. RAW’s plan “B” called for the Plan “A” changes plus the addition of an entire new bay and gas cell increasing the R.101’s hydrogen capacity by 10%. Together this adds 15 tons of useful lift; enough for fuel and a dozen or two passengers departing England, enough fuel to return under favorable circumstances. This Higgins presented to Lord Thomson, likely in a military format familiar to them both. Thomson accepted the proposal to lengthen R.101. He abandoned the idea of a Christmas 1929 flight to India, specifying, instead, a firm commitment to a flight to India in September 1930.
In the spring of 1930, in anticipation of their overseas flights, both R.100 and R.101 were in hangar being refitted and repaired. Each ship was expected to complete a 24 hour trial flight to test systems prior to attempting its overseas flight. R.100 suffered a run of misfortune.
With adjustments complete, R.100 was brought forth for its trial. A gust of wind caught it while leaving the hangar and its starboard fin was bashed against the hangar door. It was moored to the mast, examined, and found to be in need of repairs inside the hangar. Once repaired a second attempt was undertaken. The R.100 flew beautifully for 24 hours, testing everything and making a high speed run. As it was returning to the mast a radio message informed the ship that its pointed tail had failed and was drooping downward. Once again, inspection revealed that the ship must be hangered and repaired. This coincided with a Canadian request for R.100 to delay coming to Canada until after an election. The request was granted. Repairs were not rushed as R.101 had a new problem and a new flight request.
In the midst of this, around say the first of June, someone from RAW put the bee in Lord Thomson’s bonnet that, if R.100 could not fly to Canada, R.101 could make the trip before being lengthened. At about the same time Squadron Leader Michael Rope, Richmond’s technical assistant, was taking a hard look at the outer cover of R.101. His report, dated June 6, 1930, revealed that the portion of the cover, pre-doped before it was installed, was deteriorating making the R.101 unsafe to fly (roughly the entire cover from forward of the forward engines to aft of the aft most engine) The R.101 could not safely fly to Canada until replacement cover fabric was installed …. but no one chose to update Lord Thomson!
The annual RAF public display, “The Hendon Air Pageant” was scheduled for the end of June. The RAW received a directive that R.101 should be available for this event. An attempt to beg off, or substitute R.100, was rejected by the Air Ministry.
On June 23, 1930 R.101 was brought out of its hangar and attached to the mast. In a brisk breeze the fabric on top of the ship began to visibly ripple and then tore for about 60 ft. Before repairs were completed another tear only slightly shorter occurred nearby. Both were repaired and reinforcing bands were glued on to the inside of the fabric. A brief test flight was successful. A pageant rehearsal flight and the Pageant flight were made at a cautious maximum speed of 40 knots and other problems were revealed. The ship returned to Hangar #1 on June 29, 1930.
The RAW staff began replacing pads protecting gas cells with new bandage-like pads and the outer cover fabric forward of frame #7. They wanted to begin the process of dividing R.101 in two and adding the new frame and gas cell, however, Lord Thomson had put a ‘hold’ on that while waiting to see if R.100 could not fly to Canada, believing that R.101 could do so. This might have been resolved quickly if anyone was willing to admit to Lord Thomson that R.101, with its remaining original cover, was unfit to fly the Atlantic. No one was willing to take that path so Higgins tried several other approaches without success before, pointing out on July 20 th that, if R.101 flies to Canada, it will not return in time to be ‘stretched’ and make the India flight for the Imperial Conference. Lord Thomson verbally agreed to allow the division of R.101 to proceed. Higgins confirmed this is a memo to Lord Thomson dated 21.7.30 beginning, “I understand from our conversation this morning . . “ R.101 should not be kept as standby, issue instructions to DAD to part the ship immediately. Lord Thomson replied this to be correct in an answer dated 22.7.30. It is interesting to note that though RAW had been anxious to begin since the end of June, the R.101 was not parted until the morning after R.100 departed for Canada, July 29, 1930.
Once begun, the division and enlargement of R.101 went in a well-planned efficient manner. The reversing Tornado engine was an exception as one promise after another was broken by Beardmore. Then in September the engine arrived a day earlier than the last promise and it was announced that a second was coming as well. The first reversible Tornado was installed in engine car #2 (forward, port side), the second was installed in engine car #1. (forward starboard side). This set completion back to September 25th but was felt to be worth it for their maneuvering value.
At about this time an inspector found another problem. There remained two fabric sections that were original but had originally been doped in place and were found to be sound back in June. Over the preceding year minor repairs, reinforcements, water proofing improvements were made all over the R.101’s outer cover. A rubber-based adhesive was often used to secure these because it was both flexible and water repellent. Now an inspector found that, when this rubber glue exceeded the area of the repair, and was uncovered and exposed, it rotted the fabric such that one could push a finger through the fabric. It was too late to replace entire fabric sections. While some patches were replaced and others were not, all were covered over with new fabric extending at least two inches beyond any exposed rubber adhesive. These were secured with non-rubber ‘red dope’.
The R.101 was ready to fly on September 25th but the weather refused to cooperate. R.101 could not be brought out of Hangar #1 until the weather abated the morning of October 1, 1930. Higgins had been replaced as AMSR by Hugh Dowding who had scrambled his schedule for days because he wished to make this trial flight. The high speed portion of the trial was a ‘must do’ as R.101 had never had forward power from five engines. It also had to be determined how ‘stretched’ R.101 responded to flight controls at various power settings and to insure that the fabric reinforcements held up at high speed.
The R.101 left the mast at 1645 hrs. Soon thereafter the oil cooler for engine #1 was found to be leaking. A replacement was in store on board, however, the best efforts of the engineers could not install it properly so the engine was disabled so no full power trial was undertaken.
The day before the flight Wing Commander Reginald Colman, Director of Airship Development (DAD) phoned Dowding to suggest that “24 hours” was a bit arbitrary observing that if Major G. H. Scott put R.101 through its paces and found all to be well, there should be no objection to the test flight ending early making more time for final preparation and rest for the crew. Now the trial flight was a ‘wash out’. The R.101 cruised around on 3 or 4 engines at low speed in ideal conditions finding no problems and Dowding was on board.
Lord Thomson (right, photo) called a meeting in his office in the early evening of October 2nd. Present, in order of rank were Thomson, Dowding, Colmore, and Thomson’s secretary Louis Reynolds. Colmore reported to Thomson that the trial was satisfactory, everything was in order and, after discussion, It was agreed to take one day to rest the crew, prepare the R.101, and to depart around 1800 hrs. on October 4 th which would result in R.101 arriving in Egypt about 48 hours later.
RAW senior staff member, Wing Commander T. R. Cave-Browne-Cave (C-B-C) confronted Colmore in his office, apparently after the test flight, He asked, was it wise to attempt the flight to India without having done a full power trial? C-B-C quoted Colmore’s reply,
If the ship did not succeed in getting the Secretary of State to India in time for him to arrive home for the Imperial Conference, no further money would be available for airship development and none would be asked for.”
The obvious place at which such a comment might have been made was the October 2 , 1930 meeting. Four men were present. Thomson and Colmore died on R.101. I have read Dowding’s Inquiry testimony as well as two biographies with no mention of this comment. Sir Peter Masefield interviewed Reynolds at length and cites him as a primary source. He dates this contact as seven years after C-B-C quotation was revealed at a Royal Aeronautical Society meeting. Apparently Reynolds neither confirms, nor denies to Masefield? Apparently it is not to be found in Reynold’s meeting notes?
The R.101 departed Cardington 36 minutes later than scheduled as engine car #1 (forward, starboard) was recalcitrant about starting. Finally started, it ran in reverse leaving the mast. Contrary to certain versions, ballast forward was released, prior to leaving the mast, based upon masthead scale readings. Engines #s 1 & 2 ran in reverse to depart; both were stopped and restarted without problem. R.101 appeared to be in trim at departure. All engines were soon brought up to fast cruising speed, 825 rpm and a turning trial was undertaken as the ship passed over Bedford. No problems were uncovered and the decision was made to proceed. The ship soon flew into a horizontal head wind on the 20-25 knot range with occasional gusts but generally horizontal. As it was likely a half ton light, there was some roughness but no 250 ft. deviations in altitude speculated elsewhere. As rain and ballast recovery made the ship heavy, the ride likely smoothed. Cruising altitude over the UK and Channel was 1000 ft. with one controlled rise to 1200 ft., near London, noted by Masefield.
Over the Channel the Navigator directed the Height Coxswain to descend to 800 ft. while he dropped flares into the water to determine drift. The XO who was on watch took the wheel from the Coxswain and brought the R.101 back up to 1000 ft. He directed that the ship should not be allowed to go below 1000 ft. again. This should not be interpreted as criticism of the Coxswain. Any watch officer was likely to take the wheel temporarily to gain his own ‘feel’ of the ship. When R.101 reached the French coast, cruising altitude became 1500 ft. without a problem. R.101 proceeded toward Paris.
At about 0200 hrs. GMT on the morning of October 5, 1930, R.101 approached the French community of Beauvais located about 30 miles north of Paris. Beauvais sits at the end of a ridge and overlooks the Therain River Valley. There is a second ridge 1-2 miles south and west which rises as much as 200 meters above sea level. The watch changed at 0200 hrs. Flight Lieutenant H. Carmichael Irwin, R.101’s Captain, was relieved by Flying Officer Maurice Steff, the ship’s least experienced officer. Irwin was no doubt exhausted, however, the ships was flying well and all engine were running at fast cruising speed. Were there any concerns about the ship, the weather, or the terrain, he might have remained however, apparently he did not.
At about 0207:30 hrs., there was a jolt then the R.101’s nose took up a steep downward angle. Surviving engineers felt physically impelled towards the forward end of their cars; the survivor in the smoking room found himself sliding down the settee he rested upon while a table with glass and siphon tipped and slid to the forward bulkhead. Up elevator was no doubt applied to correct. It seems likely that ‘full up elevator’ would take no less than 30 seconds to achieve was that the immediate response. The ship’s tail began to descend and level flight was restored at a much lower altitude.
At some point prior to leveling off the Watch Officer and the Chief Coxswain apparently determined that the ship was coming to earth or must be brought to earth. The Chief, likely in the upper level of the control car, ordered a rigger to go forward and release one of two ballast bags at the bow. The Chief then left the control room at frame #6, proceeded aft to frame #7 (45 feet), entered the port side door of the officers’ quarters, awakened anyone still asleep, and reported. He exited the starboard door where he was heard by the ship’s electrician announcing, “We’re down lads!”
The bells associated with engine telegraphs were heard to reduce power and the ship’s nose dropped again. The bow mooring fitting came to earth in a recently planted woodlot known as the Bois du Coutumes. Survivors declared that this impact to be less than the first shock when the nose initially dropped. Some were unsure that they had actually touched down suggesting a lack of forward velocity upon impact. The nose cone buried itself in the soil where it had been raining for two hours. The R.101’s tail, several hundred feet in the air, began to be pushed down by the wind. The nose framing bent almost backward, no doubt destroying the ballast bags at the bow, and the mooring cone pulled free. As the cone pulled free, the bow lifted upward, suggesting residual static lift, and slid forward about 60 feet until the frame settled to earth, touching at the two forward engine gondolas at frame #4. The port side engine was still running, the propeller blades snapped off on impact. The starboard engine was still running, the engine car rotated 180 degrees on its rotating prop and tore open the ship’s side forward of the main transverse frame. This was almost surely the source of the fire that followed.
Multiple explanations have been offered as to the particulars of what happened. The committee chaired by Air Commodore Holt examined the wreckage the following day. It is a primary source regarding the previous paragraph. The Holt report contains no information regarding fuel and ballast containers. R.101 departed Cardington with at least three empty fuel tanks. At least one of the feed tanks for each forward and amidships cars should have been empty. Storage tanks were as high as the upper level of the passenger accommodation in the main transverse frames. Rubberized canvas water ballast containers would surely leaked and burned but the release valves? open or closed? Ballast tanks, empty or full were metal and should have survived? Were any quick release fuel tanks actually found cut open? Squadron Leader Ralph Booth, a Holt Commission member and Captain of R.100, later testified at the inquiry that a fuel tank survived containing fuel at frame 5. A drawing in the PRO at Kew suggests that a tank survived in the passenger accommodation area. I have seen photos of surviving aluminum tanks in the Hindenburg wreckage, never such a photo in R.101’s wreckage?! The definitive explanation should be the computer simulation made at the suggestion of Sir Peter Masefield. It is based upon wind tunnel work from the 1930s and, at key points, declares that ballast or fuel must have been dropped to make the solution work. Regrettably there is no evidence to confirm those suppositions!
Of the 54 souls on board R.101, 8 got out alive and two of those died within hours without offering lucid, responsive testimony. No survivor could see relevant ship’s instrumentation, no survivor could see a true horizon. 90 years after the fact; the truth remains to be sorted out.
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