Friday, October 05, 2007

October 5

The British airship R101 -- the largest dirigible in the world when it was completed -- crashed on its maiden voyage, 77 years ago today. After lifting off from Cardington, England, on the evening of October 4, 1930, the massive craft ambled its way toward Paris en route to Egypt and its final destination of Karachi, which was at the time part of colonial India. Although the ship had encountered numerous problems during its test flights -- including leaky gas bags and near-catastrophic instability -- the Air Ministry was determined that the R101 take to the air. It was especially concerned that the R101 be airworthy in time for its most notable passenger, Brigadier General Lord Christopher Thompson, to make the Imperial Conference scheduled to open in Karachi on October 20.

When the R101 departed England, the Air Ministry and the ship’s pilots understood that they would likely encounter storm conditions over the English Channel as well as in France. At a altitude of 1500 feet, the 777-foot dirigible enjoyed little room for accident or error. After encountering heavy wind gusts in northern France, the airship dove toward the ground; presumably, the wind had torn off part of the outer covering and damaged of the hydrogen bladders that held it aloft. Although the craft struck the ground at a mere 13 miles per hour, the combination of hydrogen and 25 tons of diesel fuel quickly set the craft alight. Only eight of the 54 passengers and crew managed to escape the wreckage before it was completely overwhelmed in flame. Two of the eight later died of injuries sustained in the accident; one of these described the flight as “rather bumpy, but not exceptionally so.”

The skeleton of the R101 lingered for months as a tourist attraction until scrap workers salvaged several thousand kilograms of material. Much of the recycled steel wound up in the hands of the German company Zeppelin.

Five years later, the R101 was surpassed in size by a German Zeppelin called the Hindenburg; at 804 feet in length, the Hindenburg outdistanced its incinerated British cousin by 27 feet. In May 1937, the Hindenburg -- never to be outdone -- also surpassed another record set by the R101, exceeding its death toll by exactly two dozen lives.

It is not known whether the Hindenburg was constructed in part from remnants of the R101.