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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Against Prevailing Winds

The short-lived rise and disastrous fall of Britain’s first socialist airship.

It’s early October 1930. Rain thunders down on open umbrellas. Strong winds and ever-increasing gusts send autumn leaves tearing through the air as waves crash on rocky shores. Through the deafening rain, a gentle hum arises, getting louder and louder until it becomes a steady drone, and finally the roar of huge engines passing overhead. Travelers stop and look up, and through the rain and dimly lit sky they see a silver behemoth, gliding slowly through the storm as if the wind and rain are, if anything, a mere inconvenience. The flying giant pushes against the headwind, not without effort, but within minutes it’s passed, the roar reduced to a faint murmur as it fades into the darkness over the English Channel. 

Should you, by some strange fortune, find yourself catapulted back to such a dismal evening to see this strange sight, you would be one of the final witnesses to Britain’s last airship, the R.101. The grace and strength that the airship seemed to possess that night would prove to be an illusion. In reality, the ship’s crew struggled the whole time to keep it level and flying through the gale. The R.101 carried on until shortly after 2:00 a.m. on the morning of October 5th, 1930, when it crashed on a French hillside, exploding and killing all but six people onboard. From that fateful night began a decade of airship disasters that would culminate in the Hindenburg

The question that naturally arises is simple: why did the airship crash? What brought the R.101 down on her maiden voyage from Britain to India? A court of inquiry held afterward      suggested that the combination of high winds and a fault in the airship’s outer canvas cover created a long tear in the ship, which forced the R.101 into a sudden dive from which it could not recover. The subsequent sudden contact with the ground broke a water ballast pipe in the control car, spraying water onto phosphorus navigation flares which ignited, and with them the hydrogen lifting gas.

This is, in a very literal sense, what brought down the R.101, but it’s not what actually caused the airship to crash. The disaster was not solely due to some technical fault, or the predictable result of a large, hydrogen-filled, lighter-than-air vessel losing control in the middle of an autumn storm. It was, in fact, the culmination of over ten years of political compromise, ignorance of facts, and the weaponization of the entire project—both literally and figuratively—by Britain’s Conservative and Labour parties. It was the result of acquiescence to the pressure to do something quick and dangerous in the hopes of a modicum of success. And, as the government-designed R.101 came to be nicknamed “the Socialist airship” (and its privately-designed rival R.100 “the Capitalist airship”) the R.101 came to serve in the 1920s as a referendum on the perceived viability of British socialism itself. It was felt that if the airship could rise to the occasion, so to speak, then it was proof that socialist principles could succeed; and if it crashed, then socialism would invariably do the same.

The Imperial Airship Scheme, of which the R.101 would be the ultimate product, began as an attempt to physically link the spreading, bloated British Empire. In an era where steamships couldn’t reach the farthest corners of the empire fast enough, and airplanes couldn’t yet reliably cover any significant distance, the airship concept filled a specific niche allowing for relatively rapid transit from the London metropole to Egypt, India, Australia, and every other conceivable colony, protectorate, or commonwealth. With the benefit of hindsight, it may seem clear that having a large quantity of flammable hydrogen floating perilously above passengers’ heads as a means of transporting them a mile above the earth was maybe not the smartest idea in the world, but it’s important to remember that this was ground-breaking technology for the time and place. The ability to fly commercially to North America was unprecedented, and the Imperial Airship Scheme’s ultimate goal of flights to Australia was revolutionary. In spite of our current sentiments on the merits of lighter-than-air travel, in the 1920s the airship appeared to be an untapped source of industry, profit, job creation, and a means toward increased globalization. 

It was within this framework that Britain’s first Labour government under Ramsay MacDonald began experimenting with military airships shortly after the First World War. The emphasis on “military” cannot be stressed enough: these airships were not meant to carry passengers. They were built to reach the extremes of humanity’s flying capabilities in speed, altitude, and bomb-carrying capacity—and yet, they resulted in a series of light, fragile, delicate objects. During a training exercise, the R.38 cracked in half and exploded mid-air because the captain tried turning the ship a little too rapidly and a little too sharply.

Photo via Getty Images.

After this devastating 1921 event, the founding principles of the Imperial Airship Scheme became focused on building something vastly more solid and capable. Yet between 1921 and 1924, testing continued on outdated and rotting airships. Before work on new development and construction could really proceed, Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government gave way to Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative Party. 

This transition caused enormous setbacks. The original testing fleet of five (already dilapidated) airships had dwindled to two largely experimental ones; the R.36 (a failed and forgotten first attempt at a British passenger airship), and the R.80 (a small and unique design whose characteristics would be emulated in World War II bombers). The facilities required to construct, house, and maintain newer models had not been built. Even the new experimental airship designs themselves were still in the most preliminary stages of planning, with no significant work done on any of their component pieces. From this chaos, these new iterations of airship development were eventually granted names: the R.100 and the R.101. 

These ships were intended to be the most advanced flying objects ever built, each reflective of different aspects of aeronautical engineering. The R.100 was designed with traditional, proven, conservative elements, while the R.101 was, from the outset, a testbed for all possible forms of innovation in flight control and passenger comfort. Reflecting these varying approaches to development, the design processes for both ships were assigned to two different groups respectively: a private engineering firm for the R.100, and a specially created government airship organization for the R.101. This was, again, the source of their popular nicknames: the Capitalist and Socialist airships respectively. Since the creation of a fleet of airships to encircle the globe had initially been the project of the Labour Secretary of State for Air, Christopher Thomson (and he was the only member of Parliament for whom it was ever a top priority), it was always considered a Labour Party project, and any failures were naturally set upon by the Conservatives. Likewise, the successes—few though they were—and (more importantly) the promise of successes were often thrown in the faces of Conservative critics. 

The stakes were high. Sir Phillip Sassoon, the Conservative Under-Secretary of State for Air under Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, in discussing the Government’s commitment to the two-fold scheme of private versus state enterprise, said ironically on the floor of the House of Commons: “In fact, I think if the Government had wanted to demonstrate to the country the superior advantages of Socialism over private enterprise (that is to say, whereby the greatest sum of money is spent with the least possible result), I think they could ​not possibly hit upon a more convincing instance.” 

Construction of what was to become known as R.101 was slated to begin in 1925, with trial flights to India in 1927. But neither the R.101 nor the R.100 would begin construction in 1925, let alone to fly to India in 1927 due to delays in funding, a lack of attention by the Conservative Secretary of State for Air Sir Samuel Hoare, and a generally apathetic approach to the airship concept. In fact, neither would fly until 1929, just in time for the second MacDonald ministry and the return of Christopher Thomson as Labour Secretary of State for Air. 

Facing a program that was approaching its third year over schedule, several million pounds over budget, and potentially symbolic of the success or failure of the entire socialist project, Thomson was pressured to produce results, which is when his fatal errors and devastating compromises began in earnest. Elements of this appear in the parliamentary record. There are questions directed at Lord Thomson seeking information on what the new airships would be used for, whether they were really necessary, or, as one member asked of the R.101 specifically, if  “she would ever fly at all?” Thomson, generally considered unflappable and charismatic, batted away most of these questions, but he had a tendency to do so by making rather impossible rhetorical concessions. The R.101 itself was really intended as an experimental testbed, a functioning proof of concept rather than a commercially viable product. Yet throughout many debates in parliament, the airship’s capabilities evolved from into an actual commercially-operating air liner, a sometimes freighter, an as-needed troop transport, and an occasional aircraft carrier, a commitment that Lord Thomson never detracted from. [1] 

In addition to quelling naysayers on the floor of Parliament, Thomson also sought to use the new airship as a means of swaying skeptical members who felt that the program was a waste of time and resources. But this involved some risky stunts. To appeal to the skeptics, Thomson proposed a scenic airship flight for 100 members of Parliament. Yet the R.101 was so enormously overweight that the first officer found it necessary to remove all unneeded crew, all the ship’s ballast, and all of the parachutes before the ship could even host a sedate dinner for 100 people. Even then, and perhaps rather ironically, the airship was only able to host the dinner event because the high winds of a stormy day kept the ship upright and unable to leave its mooring mast. 

Thomson further endangered the airship when, at his insistence, it took part in an airshow: the RAF Display at the Hendon Airfield north of London. This, in theory, sounds innocent enough. However, feeling the need to create spectacle and prove its capabilities, the order was given for the R.101 to fly as if bowing to the Royal Box at the airfield, and only after emerging dramatically from a cloudbank [2]. It is unclear if this was Thomson’s doing, but the airship’s presence at Hendon rather than being employed in training exercises is certainly his responsibility. Perhaps, you may be thinking, this is still not terribly bad. It should be noted at this point, however, that the dinner with 100 members of Parliament (and the days spent preparing for it), and the airshow (and the days spent practicing for it), all came at the expense of actual, verifiable training flights and proving trials. The R.101’s first officer observed that “all these window dressing stunts and joy rides during the ship’s trials… are quite wrong, but there is no-one in the [Royal Airship Works] executive who has the guts to put their foot down and insist on trials being free of joyriders.” 

After a year of similar stunts, it was finally accepted that R.101, as it was then constituted, could not possibly make it to India. It was far too overweight, in part due to Thomson’s insistence on using the newest technology, such as heavy servo motors, diesel engines, and automatic gas valves [3], whether they were necessary or not. When it was clear that these heavy technologies would make it impossible for the R.101 to make it to India, the ship was dramatically reconstructed to such an extent that, in terms of its flying characteristics, it was an entirely new ship. This ship-of-Theseus R.101 was lengthened, additional hydrogen gas cells were added, the faux-opulent cabins and public spaces were gutted to the most basic necessities, and the ship’s fragile outer cover was worked and reworked into something the builders considered passable. In this new form, the R.101 emerged from its shed on October 1, 1930, and that evening embarked on an intended 24-hour endurance flight which, by some stroke of mathematical genius, lasted less than 17 hours total. As Nevil Shute Norway of the R.100 design team commented of the R.101’s flight, “flying conditions were dead calm and so perfect that it was hardly a trial at all, and in these circumstances nothing in the ship gave trouble but [a burst] oil cooler.” 

The record suggests that the endurance flight may have been cut short to begin prepping the ship for its maiden voyage to India. Lord Thomson exerted a great deal of pressure on the project prior to the ship’s test flight, writing: “So long as R.101 is ready to go to India by the last week in September, this further delay in getting her altered may pass. I must insist on the programme for the Indian flight being adhered to, as I have made my plans accordingly.” In spite of the dangerous, politically-motivated rush, and in spite of the fact that an essentially new ship was pulled from the sheds at Cardington for the trip to India, a Certificate of Airworthiness (which proclaimed that the ship was tested, tried, and ready for any and all flying circumstances) was issued the next day. Three days after emerging from its shed, and two days after its half-attempted endurance flight, the R.101 slipped from its mast in Cardington and set course for India, with Lord Thomson aboard. The rest of the story is well known to us now. 

Photo via Getty Images.

The blame for the failure of the R.101 rests almost entirely with Lord Thomson, who was one of the forty-eight killed in the crash. He was from the beginning wholly unsuited for the job, having no understanding of the basic fundamentals of airship operations, and he was pushy with his status and position. As pilot and historian Robin Higham wrote of Lord Thomson in his work The British Rigid Airship, 1908-1931, “[He] was one of those disastrous political choices, a professional soldier turned radical politician. He added dangerously to his lack of knowledge of aeronautical matters an unbounded enthusiasm for the new technology. His complete failure to comprehend the nature of experimental work led directly to his death in the flaming wreckage of his greatest ambition, R.101’s journey to India.” Thomson, rushing the program along for political ends, failed to respect the expertise of his crew. He failed to accept the limitations of the technology as it existed and wait for more favorable innovations; he failed to put trials and training above popular acceptance; and he failed to ask some questions about the wisdom or appropriateness of Britain having imperial possessions at all, not to mention realms that were so far away it was difficult to reach them safely.     

Whether Lord Thomson personally viewed the success of the R.101 as an analogy for the success of British socialism, or was invested in the project as a means of protecting and furthering his own career, is not known. What we do know is that he loved airships themselves; and airships, however fantastic and unrealistic they may seem to us now, were at the time an elegant and beautiful symbol of the impossible made into reality. Thomson’s efforts gave the R.101 life from a void, but by cutting corners, curtailing trials and testing, and cajoling the crew into a dangerous course of action, Thomson gambled the dream of the Imperial Airship Scheme for the hopes of a half victory, of the ability to say “we did it” when the dream was still physically out of reach. 

Would airship technology have worked if the R.101 had not crashed? Probably not: lighter-than-air travel had always been a dangerous and potentially impossible business. In the years between the initial conception of the airship in 1900 and the fiery death of the R.101, dozens or even hundreds of military airships crashed with significant fatalities, and a dozen or so German passenger airships had crashed with minimal injuries. Germany would end up building the most successful airships, including the Graf Zeppelin, which was the first manmade object to circumnavigate the globe by air. But the Graf Zeppelin seemed to be the only passenger airship to fly without issue, and her passenger trips were curtailed in May of 1937 when the Hindenburg went down in flames over Lakehurst, New Jersey. The Graf Zeppelin and her intended replacement, dubbed the Graf Zeppelin II, served out the remainder of the 1930s as Nazi propaganda machines, with one attempt at airborne espionage very early in the war, before both were hung up, deflated, and scrapped to make airplanes. 

A few other countries tried to use airships. In the United States, airship development was confined to purely military purposes. Two of the three American airships flying in the 1930s crashed in violent storms, and the third—the very small USS Los Angeles—did not exist for long before the American program was scrapped, and the Los Angeles with it. The French and the Italians each operated one airship, both of them former German liners that had been handed over after World War II, and neither of which crashed. 

In Britain, the entire Imperial Airship Scheme was scrapped within a year of the failure of the R.101. This included the “capitalist’ R.100. The loss of the R.101 and the death of the greatest advocate of British airships, Lord Thomson, left no one willing or able to continue the airship program, no matter their political leanings. The “capitalist” R.100 was deflated and scrapped, having only made one flight of any significance, and it has remained in the shadow of its better-remembered counterpart. 

Art by C.M. Duffy.

It would be easy, and even tempting, to regard the R.101 and airships more generally as an embarrassing symbol for the socialist project. The crash of the R.101 is not just the story of a disaster, but the story of an unfortunate end to a concept that could, in theory, have changed the world, but would, in practice, likely never have worked at all. However it’s important to understand why the R.101 failed: not because it was state-made and state-funded, but because it was a project of personal vanity and drive by a single-minded aristocrat who didn’t listen to his crewmen and engineers, and who cared more about innovation as a thing in itself than in everyone’s safety. The ship, along with its passengers and crew, were victims of political ineptness and of the pressure to produce material success at the expense of principle. And furthermore, the whole Imperial Airship Scheme was a tool of empire for the maintenance of empire, as were the short-lived German and American airships. Despite its branding, the R.101 was never a “socialist” airship in any sense we would recognize: just a top-down, failed, rushed, undemocratic imperial government project.

Regardless, after the crash of the R.101, the use of the airship as a rhetorical point of comparison for socialism versus capitalism continued. Yet there were still some, including conservatives, who called for a renewal of government efforts toward building viable airships. One of these was a Mr. Wellwood Johnston, a Conservative MP and member of the Scottish Unionist Party. In a speech in the House of Commons, he said:

 “I proceed on the footing that airships are not a proved failure. After a failure in an enterprise which is not a proved impossibility the natural instinct, the human instinct, and particularly the British instinct, is not to give up, as we seem rather to have done in connection with airship construction… Mankind has not been deterred from further effort… towards the conquest of the air, by the fate of Icarus who flew too near the sun so that it melt[ed] the wax by which his wings were attached to himself.”

Johnston himself had been elected in 1931, part of an absolutely crushing Conservative victory over the Labour Party. The Conservatives had previously held 260 seats to Labour’s 287, but when the 1931 election was over their share increased to 470 seats compared to Labour’s miserable 32. Nonetheless, Johnston said in the same speech, grudgingly but respectfully, of his opponents:

“Honorable Members of the Opposition [Labor] and their political associates in the country do not appear to have been diverted by what was for them the disaster of the last General Election from a continued advocacy of Socialism in our time, and while I cannot predict their ultimate success, I can at least admire their pertinacity.”

This is, perhaps, the more workable R.101-based metaphor for socialism: sometimes we fail, either from difficult conditions, individual intransigence, moral compromises, or all of them combined. Sometimes we fly too close to the sun. Sometimes the socialist airship plummets to the ground. But one single, or even multiple failures, does not prove that socialism is impossible: it proves that we need to, and we will, keep trying to fly.

[1] It should be noted that, as ridiculous as that last point sounds, the use of an airship as an aircraft carrier actually was a possibility, one that the United States Navy briefly utilized in the early 1930s in the airships USS Los Angeles, Macon, and Akron. It was not, however, a physical possibility for R.101.
[2] During the course of practicing this particular stunt, it was intended that the airship would enter a shallow, gentle dive, but the elevator controlman lost control when the airship suddenly, unexplainably entered a steep dive from which it was brought back under control only with great difficulty. 
[3] As an airship rises, the gas within its lifting cells expands, and requires that some lifting gas be vented into the atmosphere to prevent the lifting cells from bursting. Traditionally, manually actuated valves would be mounted on top of the ship to allow the crew to vent gas as necessary. However, on the R.101, Thomson insisted that new gas valves which could automatically vent gas in response to a given pressure should be mounted on the sides of the ship. This not only added unnecessary complication and weight to the airship, but the valves also showed a propensity to open before their set point, venting much-needed lifting gas from an increasingly overweight ship. 

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