The R101 Crash

By Dr. Adnan Zuberi

The ‘Largest Airship’ Destined for Karachi Crashed in France
The Air Disaster which Shook the British Aviation
Karachi was Ready to Welcome the World’s Largest Airship
Mooring Mast for R101 was already build to Receive ( Docking) at Karachi Airport

Lord Thomson were among the unfortunate passengers who killed in crash
Today is the 90th Anniversary of crash of R101.


It was a major set back to British aviation when the airship R101 crashed and burned in France on October 5th, 1930, on its maiden overseas voyage. R101 was headed to Karachi, the Gateway to South Asia, then part of the British Empire as part of a project to serve long-distance imperial routes. Two rigid airships were authorized in this programme, both publicly funded, and effectively in competition with each other.
This airship ( R01 ) was designed and built by an air ministry-appointed team under Lord Thomson, the Labour Secretary of State for Air.
I am going to present some excerpts of an investigation report by ADAM SMITH INSTITUTE.

“”The R101’s trials had not met expectations. Its lift was nearly 3.5 tons lighter than anticipated, and its weight was over 8.5 tons heavier. Moreover, because of much heavier than expected tail surfaces, the ship was nose heavy. The ship was modified as a result, lengthened by 45 ft to add another gasbag, making it the world’s largest aircraft at 731 ft in length. The modifications caused new problems. The hydrogen-filled gasbags could rub against the frame, with risk of tearing, and there were problems with the covering skin.

The ministerial team had made bad decisions in introducing new and untried technology. The diesel engines and the frame were too heavy, and the servo motors that steered the rudder were excessively complicated.. There were too many untested features, and to meet political pressures, the ship was making VIP joyrides before it had been properly tested, and before it had gained an airworthiness certificate.
The R101’s tragic crash in France killed 48 of the 54 people it carried, including many VIPs. Lord Thomson, the Air Minister, died along with senior government officials and most of the Air Ministry’s design team.

The subsequent Enquiry concluded that one or more of the forward gasbags had probably torn, leaking hydrogen and making the ship too nose-heavy for its elevators to correct. On impact the escaping hydrogen had ignited, possibly from a spark, or perhaps from a fire in one of the engine cars that carried petrol for the starter engines. The death toll exceeded that of the later Hindenburg disaster of 1937, and was among the highest of the decade.

It effectively ended Britain’s airship programme. The R100 was grounded and retired, and work was stopped on the planned R102. The Air Ministry concluded, somewhat belatedly, that hydrogen was just too dangerous a material for airships, and stopped all subsequent development, just as the Germans later did after the Hindenburg disaster.It was an unhappy episode, costly in lives, but it ultimately led to safer and less weather-vulnerable passenger aircraft. Airships may make a comeback, probably as heavy lifters for such things as transformers within city construction. They may carry passengers across oceans for luxury flights with bedrooms, restaurants and glittering ballrooms, as zeppelins once did, and just as the Orient Express takes passengers on nostalgic train journeys across Europe. If this happens, it is to be hoped that they will be designed and constructed by private firms rather than by government committees.””
Photos: R101 Docked at Mooring Mast, Flying over Cardington, Bedfordshire , Hanger at Cardington Airfield and Wreckage.

About Amin H. Karim MD

Graduate of Dow Medical College Class of 1977.
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