the members of her crew, His Majesty's Airship R34 was known as
'Tiny' - inevitably. The ship was enormous: as big as a contemporary
'Dreadnought' battleship. Her overall length from bow to stern
was 643 feet, twice as long as a football field; her maximum diameter
was 79 feet and her overall height just short of 92 feet. Her
cost was around £350,000 and her total gas capacity was
1,950,000 cubic ft, giving a gross lift of about 59 tons and a
disposable lift, when the weight of the structure and permanent
fittings was discounted, of 26 tons. Like her sister ship, five
engines were fitted, each of 250h.p
At the time, German technical development had been kept under
close observation and R34, in particular, had departed from the
engine plan of L.33 to follow instead that of the later and more
advanced L.49, which had been forced to land in France in October
1917. The former ship had boasted six engines: one to each of
the three forward propellers, one to the rear propeller and two
driving small 'wing' propellers by shaft. On the latter vessel,
the designers had done away with this cumbersome arrangement,
eliminating one engine and the two wing propellers entirely, harnessing
the power of two rear engines to a single enlarged propeller.
began at the Beardmore Inchinnan airship factory in 1918. The
whole framework was varnished to prevent atmospheric corrosion
and heavily braced by wiring. Lengths of linen fabric were stretched
between each pair of frames, where they were attached by laces.
Narrow strips were then glued over the lacing and the covering
of the hull was painted with dope containing aluminium powder,
to reflect sunlight and so reduce superheating. In the chambers
formed by the main circumferential frames and the longitudinal
girders were the gasbags, nineteen in all and made of one thickness
of rubber-proofed cotton cloth, varnished and lined with goldbeaters'
skins. Each gasbag was contoured to fill all the available space
and was surrounded by cord mesh to prevent chafing against the
girders. Following the same design as the R33, beneath the main
body of the airship, suspended by long, wooden struts and braced
rigging wires, were four small gondolas.
Control Car and front engine car
designed in the R33, the forward gondola, appeared to be a single
unit some fifty feet long, but was actually made up of two parts
separated by a narrow gap, intended to prevent vibration from
the engine affecting the W .T. equipment. Incorporated in the
forward section were a control room and a small wireless cabin,
below which, during flight, trailed a long aerial. The control
cabin was fronted with 'Triplex' safety glass and had handling
rails mounted on each side. Here were the steering and elevator
wheels, the gas-valve controls, the engine telegraph, the various
navigational and WT instruments and the toggles controlling the
emergency forward water ballast. Connecting the control-cabin
with the keel was a ladder, protected from the elements by a streamlined
canvas cover. Another cover similarly enclosed the numerous control-wire
connections that led up into the hull. In the rear section of
the forward gondola was the first of the engines, driving a single
pusher propeller 17 feet in diameter. In the middle of the lower
hull amidships were the two smaller 'wing' gondolas housing an
engine together with reversing gear -a refinement that enabled
the airship to be operated if those in the main control-cabin
failed. The rear car was ringed with a rail to assist handlers
and, as with the forward gondola, two 'bumping bags' of compressed
air were positioned underneath to help cushion landing shocks.
Each of the five engines was a Sunbeam 'Maori': a new type designed
for the Wolverhampton firm by a Frenchman, Louis Coatalen, and
intended specifically for airship use but clearly inferior to
the Rolls Royce engines used by earlier British rigids. Unfortunately,
no Rolls Royce engines could be made available as all those produced
were now reserved for aeroplane use. The Sunbeams had been accepted
reluctantly. Each engine had twelve water- cooled cylinders, which
were intended to produce full power at a theoretical 2,100 rpm,
although in practice it was rare for 1,600 r pm to be exceeded.
In the forward and wing cars, the radiators were mounted externally
and controlled by folding shutters. The after gondola of R34 contained
two engines geared to one propeller.
The engines were each fitted with a hand starter, while the drive
to the propellers was through a sliding Hele Shaw dog-clutch and
a reduction gearbox with a ratio of 1:3.86. The clutch enabled
the engine to be started and warmed up before flight without endangering
the handling-party and made it easier to carry out repairs in
the air. If the engine should be stopped during flight, the disconnected
propeller could rotate freely in the airstream to reduce head
resistance, although if it was required to remain stationary for
landing or any other reason, a special brake was provided for
this purpose. Assuming that the airship was still moving forwards,
the engine might then be started by releasing the brake, engaging
the clutch again, and allowing the airstream to turn the engine.
In addition to the gondolas, a considerable amount of space was
available also inside the hull and invisible to the outside observer.
Running almost the entire length of the ship was a long keel corridor,
consisting of a succession of A-shaped frames standing on the
two lowest girders, and with three auxiliary longitudinal girders
of their own to fence off the surrounding gasbags. At its widest
part, this corridor was about 10 ft across, narrowing somewhat
towards the extremities. Leading to the wing and after cars were
narrow ladders, fully exposed to the force of the elements. It
had been discovered following tests on R33 that the turning co-efficient
of the two airships was 6.4, giving a minimum turning circle some
4,100 feet in diameter. However, so strong was the effect of the
slipstream of the after propeller acting on the rudder, that with
the forward engine still and the wing propellers both running
in reverse, it was possible for R33 and R34 to pivot virtually
on the spot.
Designed slimmer than the theoretical ideal, the aerodynamic shape
of R34 was a distinct improvement on most earlier designs - her
total air resistance being only seven per cent of a hypothetical
flat disc of the same diameter. In later airships, this was reduced
even further, but in her own day the streamlining of R34 was excellent
and twice as effective as that of her British predecessors. Even
though the R34 was designed during a time of war, the R34 was
never fitted with a full armament. In addition to bomb racks,
the original plan had been to include a ventral 'gun house' behind
the rear car, which would carry a one-pounder Pom-Pom and two
Lewis machine guns. Another Lewis gun was to be mounted on the
rear platform behind the tail, while six more were to be shared
equally among the two wing-cars, the forward gondola and the top
gun platform. A further arsenal of weapons was tp include two-pounder
quick-firing guns which were to be placed on each side of the
hull and two more were to join the Lewis guns on top. This heavy
armament was presumably intended for defence against German Zeppelins,
but in the event the gun house was never fitted and the number
of guns was considerably reduced. The original specification showed
that her bomb-load was quite considerable: twenty at 100 lb and
four at 550 lb.
The firm of William Beardmore and Company Ltd. of Inchinnan near
Glasgow began work on R34 on 9 December 1917 and she was completed
just over a year later. Preparations to H.M.A.R34 were completed
in December 1918 and her lift and trim trials were carried out
successfully on the 20th of that month. By the time R34 was ready
for her test flights, the war was over and she was too late to
see active service. On 30th December 1918, while bad weather delayed
the trial flight, the Admiralty agreed to lend their airships
to the Air Ministry for long-distance trials. R34 was specifically
mentioned but because of the persistently bad weather it was not
until the following March that she left her hangar at lnchinnan,
near Glasgow, where the Beardmore Company had their works.
14 March, R.34 was brought out from her hangar and her crew began
the task of accustoming themselves on the ship. The maiden flight
lasting nearly five hours, was uneventful and the ship was returned
safely to her shed. On 24th March, despite cold, windy conditions
with intermittent fog, snow and hail, R.34 left lnchinnan in the
late afternoon for a more extended trial. She flew down the Clyde,
and then turned to fly over the North of England, towards Newcastle,
then turned and returned via Liverpool, over the Irish Sea to
Dublin, and returned via the Isle of Man. During this trial it
was discovered that her elevator had jammed down, lifting the
nose up, after bringing the ship to an even keel, the ship was
nursed home to Scotland. No real damage had been done, but on
return on the base, the ship was badly handled by the ground crew,
which caused damage to her propellers and some of the main girders.
The damage caused the ship to be laid up to be repaired, it was
this incident which caused the delay in the trip to the USA, and
hence loosing the title of the "first to cross the Atlantic" to
Alcock and Brown. The
R34 was ready for service again at 6.00pm on 28th May and the
ship left Inchinnan for her new home of East Fortune, the main
airship base on the Firth of Forth. The R34 was enveloped in fog
and so headed out to sea to wait an improvement in the landing
conditions . The ship had to wait longer than expected and finally
landed at 3.30pm the next afternoon, the crew hungry after 21
hours as no food had been carried on board this flight. The plans
for the transatlantic voyage were hurried forward . Two weeks
after arriving at East Fortune, the R34 flew with the R29 over
Edinburgh and Berwick. This short 6-hour flight was to confirm
the stability of the ship. On the evening of the 17th June 1919
the R34 was sent on an endurance voyage to give her a proper test
before her major flight. The idea was that the ship would be scouting
the German Baltic Shores. The ship carried out its duties and
also flew up to Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The ship landed after
this endurance trial on the morning of the 20th June after a trip
of 54 hours.
The Air Ministry had now finally decided to take the R34 to the
USA, and a northerly coastal route was decided in case the ship
ran out of fuel, then she would never be too far from landfall.
Two warships, the Renown and Tiger were offered as supply vessels
in case the ship would come in to difficulty and also to offer
meteorological reports. It was agreed that if the ship did get
in to difficulty, then the R34 would be taken in tow. The plans
which were being arranged in New York were the supply of hydrogen
for the ship, and a party of 8 experienced airmen were dispatched
to America to arrange and train the main part of the American
ground crew. The American s had at that time, no experience of
a rigid airship.
the Admiralty, a room was set a side for wireless messages. A
map was also provided for the ship's progress. At East Fortune,
further alterations were being made to the ship itself for the
voyage. Food lockers replaced bomb racks, which had been installed
at her construction, and a compass was placed on the upper gun
platform in order that the magnetic field would not be interfered
with by any of the electrical equipment. Additional tables and
new wash basins were added in the crew space, and furnished with
lightweight curtains to stop the drafts from the interior of the
hull. Along the keel an additional 24 petrol tanks were fitted
bringing the total fuel capacity to some 6,000 gallons.
The crew were divided in to two watches for the trip. In addition
to the RNAS uniforms, the crew was issued with heavy duty flying
suits, which were redesigned to include parachute harnesses and
integral life saving collars.
On 1st July 1919 the ship was gassed to its limit and loaded to
its full capacity, and by the end of the evening the ship was
ready to go. The ships official departure time was set at 2.00am
(GMT) on 2nd July in order to obtain the maximum lift from her
gasbags. The ship was eased out of her shed slowly by 700 members
of the handling party. The weather forecast was favourable and
Major Scott decided not to wait any longer, and at 1.42 am (GMT)
the signal to release was given and the R34 lifted slowly in to
the misty night sky.
The engines were signalled to commence and the propellers roared
into life. The ship was on the way to America, but was so loaded
for the journey, that even with the forward momentum of the engines,
she very slowly gained height. The R34 travelled along the Firth
of Forth, then at a height of 1,300ft she cleared Rosyth, Glasgow,
and down the Clyde by daybreak.
R34 Crew - notice the crew pets - two dogs, and a cat called
Whoopsie. Whoopsie accompanied the stowaway William Ballantyne
Captain Scott on the successful return
on board began to settle in to routine of the agreed scheduled
watches, meals and rest times. Strains of jazz could be heard
through the ship from the gramophone , which was carried on board
for the entertainment of the crew. Crossing the ocean, the morning
fog lifted and the crew saw that they were stuck between two cloud
layers, the upper obscuring the sun. The wireless operators were
finding that these weather conditions were causing electrostatic
shocks from the equipment. The clouds soon parted and the sun
broke through. Major Scott was wary of the effect of superheating
on the gasbags, and wanted to avoid at all costs the valving of
hydrogen at this early stage of the flight, and so he bought the
ship down low into the layer of fog, which protected the ship
from the sunshine and soon cooled the gas. The ship carried on
with her voyage at a steady pace, and standard routines.
The main upset occurred at 2.00pm on the first day. It was discovered
that a stowaway had managed to creep on board the ship, and hide
up in-between the girders and the gasbags inside the hull of the
ship. Before starting on the voyage, it was decided that some
of the members of the crew, including W.W. Ballantyne , must be
left behind, the numbers being limited of necessity to thirty
on the voyage. Two hours before the flight, William Ballantyne
managed to climb back on board the ship, and hid himself in the
darkness of the ship. He had also carried with him, the crews'
mascot, a small tabby kitten called "Whoopsie". Both of these
stowaways had hidden themselves. But the cramped conditions and
the fact that the smell of the gas had made Ballantyne nauseous,
made him give up and come out of hiding.
The dishevelled stowaway was brought in front of Major Scott and
Maitland, and it was decided that there was actually nothing they
could do about it. It was agreed that had they been over land
then Ballantyne would have been put overboard by parachute, but
as the next landfall was in fact America, he was to stay on board.
The only problem that could occur was the strain on the very limited
and controlled resources. Having been quite ill for some time,
he was rested on one of the hammocks, and attended to by Lieutenant
Luck. When he recovered, Ballantyne was, as with traditional stowaways,
made to work his passage as cook and often having to hand pump
the petrol into the tanks. As to the second stowaway, Whoopsie,
it was deemed that the oldest airman on board, 42 year old George
Graham accepted responsibility for the cat, and Whoopsie worked
her passage throughout the rest of the voyage, providing entertainment
and comfort to the other crew members.
The weather slowly worsened, and all the ships engines were engaged
to full power as the wind speed increased and a storm began to
approach. The next morning the R34 was halfway across the Atlantic
but the weather was continuing to deteriorate. However throughout
the day there were some breaks in the weather causing the ship
to be able to view the transatlantic shipping traffic below, for
some 50 miles in each direction. By the evening the weather became
increasing stormy and the wind turned head on to the ship. Coming
up from the southeast, the winds were blowing at about 50mph causing
the ship to fight her way forwards and sideways.
Throughout the night, Major Scott tried to move the ship up higher
to avoid the wind, but if was found to be the same at each level.
By morning the cloudbank had moved away and clear skies brought
a sight of a 150ft iceberg below the ship, further behind it smaller
bergs and pack ice was visible. The clouds soon returned as Newfoundland
was not far off the ship, and fog enveloped the ship once more.
Concern was beginning to show by Major Scott as there were no
gauges on the petrol tanks and use of the dipstick showed that
there were only some 2,200 gallons of petrol left. With further
strong headwinds expected down the coast, the thought of getting
to New York without stopping was looking more unlikely every hour
that drew on.
The ship flew over Labrador and at 12.50 the land was sighted
for the first time. Now the ship had to follow the coast down
and head for it's landing place at New York. With only 500 gallons
of fuel left, the ship was bought down to 800ft to try and escape
the worst of the headwinds. From this height, the crew had superb
views of the North American forests and could see, smell and hear
every detail. The ship had been in the air for 4 days and the
crew was beginning to tire. Emergency preparations were tentatively
being made in Boston for emergency landing there, but the ship
continued on her voyage. Each fuel tank was inspected and whatever
was left in the bottom of the tanks was collected and poured in
to the main tanks to keep the engines running. Major Scott made
the decision to continue onto the agreed landing area at Mineola,
Long Island, New York. In the last hour of the flight, the crew
busied themselves in making themselves presentable.
By 9.00am Mineola came in to view. All the carparks were full
and a huge grandstand had been erected for local and national
dignitaries. Major Pritchard donned a parachute and whilst the
ship circled overhead, dropped to the ground and became the first
man to arrive in America by air. He hastily arranged the ground
crews, and helped ease the ship to the ground. The R34 landed
at 9.54am after 108 hours 12 minutes flying time. This became
the world endurance record breaking that set previously by the
British NS 11. There were 140 gallons of fuel left on board, which
was sufficient only for another 2 hours flying at reduced power.
ship was only in America for 3 days. During this time the crew
were allowed to rest and have hot showers, they attended a constant
series of events where they were saluted for their historic crossing.
The people of New York lavished their generosity on the crew and
they were bombarded with offers of invitations to formal functions
during their stay. The engineering crew stayed with the ship ready
to give the engines a long-awaited overhaul and a full check over
in preparation for their return voyage home. It was found that
that no repairs were necessary and the engines had performed well.
The propellers had accumulated a thick coating of engine oil and
this was proudly removed by a local firm, free of charge and just
happy to offer assistance to the crew and to the ship.
The R34 was in very good shape, and moored to a three-wire system
at the bows, whose own lift kept the wires taut. The crew returned
to the ship and provisions were loaded back onto the ship for
her return voyage. The final preparation was to gas the ship,
and this was carried out using thousands of cylinders of hydrogen
gas. As with the flight to America, the R34 would be gassed to
capacity again, and await the coolest part of the day to depart,
and so the ship was finally launched at 6 minutes to midnight
on Wednesday July 10th. The great crowd which had always been
around the R34 her entire time in America gave a huge cheer, and
the ship was launched.
The wind had picked up before the launch and was gusting at 30mph,
which caused concern, but the ship cleared the landing field,
and made her way eastwards. As a gesture of gratitude to the city,
which had generously hosted her crews, the R34 flew towards the
illuminated metropolis. The ship made her way up to a height of
2,000ft as Major Scott was unsure of the height of the skyscrapers.
Searchlights illuminated the ship as she flew over the city and,
despite it being 1.00am in the morning; thousands of well wishers
took to the city streets and rooftops to wave. The ship then turned
out to the sea and headed on towards home.
Very good progress was made during the night as the ship had the
advantage of a strong tail wind, and her speed increased to 90mph
as she flew in the prevailing air current. The forward engine
was rested and still the ship was managing to race along at 90
mph. The crew was unprepared for the swiftness of their eastward
crossing of the Atlantic. It was considered that, as the R 34
was gaining time on her voyage and not expending much of her fuel
compared to her outward journey, the ship change her flight route
and fly over London before returning to East Fortune. The return
home was uneventful, and the standard ship routine continued.
The only problem occurred when an engineer fell against the clutch
of an engine causing the engine to be freed and race until destruction
because the connecting rods fractured.
The repairs could not be made in flight and so the engine was
stopped, but this in no way impeded the speed of the ship. Due
to this event and not having any spare power in case of emergencies,
it was decided to cancel the voyage over London and head straight
home. It was not until the final evening at midnight when a message
was received from the Air Ministry to divert the ship from landing
at East Fortune, but go directly to Pulham. It was initially due
to bad weather at East Fortune, but a few hours later a message
from East Fortune confirmed the weather conditions had improved.
A request was put in to the Air Ministry to have the ship return
to East Fortune but this was turned down and the ship was ordered
to Pulham. No reason was ever given for this change in plan and
no explanation can be found for it. The ship carried across the
English countryside and came, rather quietly to Pulham Air Station
at 6.57 GMT to be welcomed by the RAF personnel, which was rather
quieter than that which greeted the ship at New York, and than
expected at East Fortune.
The return journey had taken three days three hours and three
minutes. The ship had travelled some 7,420 miles on this voyage
at an average speed of 43 mph.
ship did return to East Fortune and spent 6 months being refitted.
In February 1920 the R 34 then made a seven and a half-hour flight
back to Pulham. The ship remained at Pulham for six weeks where
no flights were undertaken. It was later decided that the ship
be assigned to Howden Airship Station, and she was flown upto
Yorkshire at the end of March 1921.
At Howden the R34 was to undertake further changes, like her sister
ship the R33, to enable her to be moored at a mooring mast. Her
bows were to be altered to allow access to the ship and a mooring
cone was added. The new cone was ordered and placed on the R33
but the R34's mooring gear had not arrived to be fitted to the
ship. On 27th January 1921 the R34 left Howden on her first voyage
for several months. It was deemed that she was to carry out duties
as with the R32, as an instructional ship for American crew.
R34's final destruction
carried an instructional crew as part of a training flight but
also to check on the recent repairs to the ship had been successful.
The ship moved out over Spurn Head and during this time due to
confusion with radio messages, contact was lost with the ship.
Commander Maitland decided to recall the ship and the message
was ordered to be repeated until understood. The ship finally
heard the signal and began to return home. Confusion occurred
on the R34 as the navigating officer had lost his way, and thought
that the ship was safe to journey home, however during the voyage
the weather had deteriorated and a heavy fog enveloped the area.
The signals were confused as to the ships exact location, however
the crew continued in the direction of Howden.
By midnight, the crew was settling into their bunks and the watches
were changing when a loud grinding sound was heard and a shudder
went through the ship. The control gondola lights went out and
the crew was thrown to the floor. Upon recovery it was discovered
that at 12.10 am a sudden downdraft had pushed the ship into an
unseen slope of the moors. Luckily the ship "bounced" and lurched
upwards, and the captain rang for the engines to be stopped
The R34 was floating helplessly in the wind whilst the damage
could be assessed. It was discovered that clumps of heather were
stuck to the forward gondola, some of the windows were smashed
and the bumping bags had been carried away. One girder in the
keel had been twisted, tow engine car struts were damaged, the
wireless aerial shortened and the fore and aft propellers were
reduced to stubs. This last assessment of damage meant that the
ship was now deprived of 50% of her power. The remaining engines
were started and able to check the drift of the ship against the
wind. The R34 had floated out over the North Sea, and like her
sister ship, limped home against the wind, damaged and underpowered.
By midday the R34 neared Hull, which was only 20 miles from Howden,
it then took three hours the get the ship back to her home landing
field. At 3.00pm the sky had grown dark and the landing crew assembled
to haul the ship home.
The ship was almost to the doors of the hanger when a gust took
the ship back out on to the landing field. The wind was gusting
very strongly now, and the handling crew were at times being carried
aloft as the ship bucked in the gale. More damage was done to
the fore and after cars, the rudder had jammed and the controls
were therefore inoperable. Commander Maitland then had to give
the order to abandon ship, and the crew scrambled safely to the
ground. The R34 was then taken back to the mooring block with
the idea to have the ship ride out the storm on the tree wire
system which she had used at Mineola.
Further damage occurred in trying to get the ship moored, a girder
punctured some of the gasbags when it buckled. The ship was finally
moored and it was thought that the ship would be able to survive
the night, however the gales increased in strength and the ships
loss of gas caused her to settle to the ground. Her bows were
smashed and the hull of the ship damaged beyond repair by the
first light of the morning, it was obvious that R34 would never
Within 3 days of the accident, the R34 had been striped of her
equipment and outer cover, anything salvageable from the ship
had been reclaimed and the rest of the hull structure was destroyed.
The sad remains of the R34 were sold for scrap.