- The Final Trials and Loss of the Ship
Over the summer
of 1930, the R101 lay in the Number 1 shed at Cardington undergoing
extensive modifications, which were needed following on from her
1929 and early 1930 trial flights. It was already known that both
the R100 and R101 were lacking in the disposable lift originally
planned at the outset of the Imperial Airship Scheme in 1925.
Those involved in the scheme had already learnt that the R100
and R101 would not be viable for full commercial operations to
Canada and India, and these intentions were later to be passed
on to the new ship, the R102 class. To achieve the additional
lift, R101 had a new central bay and gas bag installed.
It was expected
that the new gas bag would give her another nine tons of disposable
lift bringing her up to some 50 tons. The alterations were completed
by Friday the 26th September and the R101 was gassed up and floated
in the shed. The "new" ship, R101c, had disposable lift
calculated at 49.36 tons, an improvement of 14.5 tons over the
original configuration. Pressure was on for the ship to leave
for Karachi on 26th September to carry the Air Minister, Lord
Thompson of Cardington. Although the target date was on course
to be met, wind was to keep the modified R101 in the shed until
the morning of 1st October.
It was at
06.30 on the 1st October that the R101 emerged from the shed and
was secured to the mast. The new ship had a more elongated look
as she had been extended by 35 feet to insert the new bay. At
the same time, R100 was removed from Shed No 2, and walked in
to shed No.1 where she too was to be altered in the same way to
obtain more lift. It was the last time the outside world would
see the R100.
The R101 was moored serenely to her mast at Cardington and the
crew were busy making preparations for a full 24 hour trial flight.
A permit to fly had been issued and a full report on the new ship
would be submitted later, a draft having been prepared. The permit
to fly had been granted after a "good deal of general thinking".
It was said by Professor Bairstow, who issued the permit, that
"comparison on limited information has been required in reaching
The R101 slipped
her mast at 4.30pm on 1st October to fly a 24 hour endurance flight
to complete the engine and other trials. It was noted however,
and agreed by officers, Reginald Colemore, Director of Airship
Development (DAD) and the AMSR that if the ship behaved well and
Major Herbert Scott, one of the most experienced airshipmen in
the UK, was satisfied during his flight, then they could curtail
the tests to less than 24 hours.
The ship left Cardington and headed south to London then turned
east following the Thames and out across Essex. She spent the
night out over the North Sea. Those on board noted that the atmosphere
was quiet and serene. Due to the early failure of an engine cooler
in the forward starboard engine, it was impossible for the ship
to make a full speed trial. During the flight, it was noted that
conditions were "perfect" and all other items in the
ship behaved perfectly. Even though there was not time to make
formal reports, it was noted that the ship handled and she appeared
to be much better in the air than before. It was agreed to curtail
the flight and head for home at Cardington. The ship returned
to the mast at 09.20 on Thursday 2nd October; she had been in
the air for just over 17 hours in smooth flying conditions.
things were noted by the crew following this flight. Captain Irwin
had made special notice of all the concerns before the alterations.
He noted that there was practically no movement in the outer cover;
all sealing strips appeared to be secure; no leaks were observed
in the gas valves; the movement of the gas bags was so slight
that it was barely perceptible; and the padding was secure. All
other items were found to be in good order and he was satisfied
with the independent inspection which had been carried out on
The senior members of the crew and technical office, along with
the DAD held conference on the Thursday evening and discussed
whether to make the flight to India. It was noted that a longer
trial whereby full speed testing could be carried out in adverse
conditions was normally essential before such a long voyage. It
was also noted that a full speed trial was not recommended during
the India flight due to the possibility of failure. At this stage
it had not been calculated what the state of the engines would
be with the new design of the ship. Also, the risk of engine failure
would mean putting the whole voyage in jeopardy and hence it was
deemed that cruising speed would be the maximum recommended speed
for the journey.
Even though pressure had been put on all involved with the R101
by the Air Minister suggesting that he must go to India and back
in time for the Imperial Conference due on the 20th October 1930,
there was one note on the 2nd October by Lord Thompson advising
that "You mustn't allow my natural impatience or anxiety
to start to influence you in any way. You must use your considered
Flight - Saturday 4th October 1930.
With the decision
made that the India flight should take place, there were two further
days of final preparation. The ship remained on the mast and the
crews busied themselves in preparation for this momentous voyage.
Of course all staff were keeping an eye on the weather conditions
to ensure that the ship would be able to make the voyage in the
suggested time, not wanting to be inhibited by the problems all
airships suffer with the natural elements. Giblett, the meteorological
officer, had been providing the officers with updates on the weather
forecast over the last few days and the route was selected on
conference was held on the morning of the 4th October and it was
noted that the weather conditions over northern France were becoming
cloudy with moderate winds. It was agreed that the ship would
depart between 4pm and 8pm that evening. Two further forecasts
were issued to the ship during the day; these indicated that the
weather conditions over Cardington and Northern France would begin
to deteriorate during the evening, however it was noted that the
wind conditions would not increase significantly. These forecasts,
even thought not particularly good, were not bad enough to cancel
the voyage. The decision was made to hurry the passengers on board,
complete the loading of the ship, and begin the trip in order
to be passed the worst weather.
At 6.24pm R101 left the Cardington mast in misty fine rain and
darkness. The ship was illuminated by lights from the promenade
deck and searchlights from the mooring mast. As the ship was fully
loaded with fuel to make it to the first stop, Egypt, it was noted
that 4 tons of ballast had to be dropped before the ship gained
height. The R101 cruised passed the sheds and then headed west
towards Bedford to salute her home town. She passed around the
town and then headed south-east towards London. She was flying
at her cruising height of 1,500 feet just below the cloud base
and by 8pm R101 was flying over London.
message from the ship was sent at 8.21pm:
London. All well. Moderate rain. Base of low clouds 1,500ft. Wind
240 degrees [west south west] 25mph. Course now set for Paris.
Intend to proceed via Paris, Tours, Toulouse and Narbonne."
An hour later
R101 was requesting the Meteorological Office at Cardington to
wireless a forecast of the weather expected from Paris to Marseilles
"with special reference to wind and cloud".
the following message was sent:
21.35 GMT crossing coast in the vicinity of Hastings. It is raining
hard and there is a strong South Westerly wind. Cloud base is
at 1,500 feet . After a good getaway from the Mooring Tower at
18.30 hours ship circled Bedford before setting course. Course
was set for London at 18.54. Engines running well at cruising
speed giving 54.2 knots. Reached London at 2000 hours and then
set course for Paris. Gradually increasing height so as to avoid
high land. Ship is behaving well generally and we have already
begun to recover water ballast."
It was noted
that with the loss of ballast at the beginning of the flight,
the crew were more than confident that the water recovery system
would replenish the supplies. The R101 was fitted along the top
of the envelope with catchment arrangements by which, when rain
fell, water could be recovered to increase ballast and so compensate
for the loss of weight arising from the consumption of fuel. It
is noted that at this point the R101 crew did not consider the
ship to be heavy as original sources suggested.
crossing took two hours for at 11.36 pm the ship reported :
French coast at Pointe de St Quentin. Wind 245 true. 35mph"
to 02.00am the crew changed watches, R101 continued on it's usual
The 60 miles
crossing was well known by Squadron Leader Jonhson, who had flown
the route many times between London and Paris. We can see that
the wind speed was increasing at this time. It was estimated that
at the time of crossing the channel the R101 was at a height of
between 700 to 800 feet. It was later recorded that First Officer
Atherstone took over the elevator wheel and ordered the coxswain
not to go below 1,000ft.
At 00.18 the
R101 sent out the following wireless message :
Cardington from R101.
15 miles SW of Abbeville speed 33 knots. Wind 243 degrees [West
South West] 35 miles per hour. Altimeter height 1,500feet. Air
temperature 51degrees Fahrenheit . Weather - intermittent rain.
Cloud nimbus at 500 feet. After an excellent supper our distinguished
passengers smoked a final cigar and having sighted thisFrench
coast have now gone to bed to rest after the excitement of their
leave-taking. All essential services are functioning satisfactorily.
Crew have settled down to watch-keeping routine."
was the last message from the R101 giving speed and position.
The ship continued to send out directional wireless signals to
checking her position or to test the strength of the signals.
The last directional signal addressed to Cardington was at 1.28am.
A final signal was sent from Cardington to the Croydon Station
and relayed via ship at Le Bourget at 01.51am. An acknowledgement
at 01.52am was the last signal ever sent by the R101.
At 02.00pm the watch changed as with normal routine on the ship
and still nothing was reported wrong with the ship. It can be
assumed that had anything been noticed the Captain would have
had this signaled back to base. Also, if anything had been noticed,
the Captain would not have allowed the men on duty to stand down
and pass over to the new watch. Evidence of engineer Leech at
the inquiry confirmed that Leech was off duty and enjoying a smoke
in the smoking room between 01.00am and 02.00am, when Captain
Irwin came in to the room and spoke to him and the Chief Engineer.
Captain Irwin made no remarks about the ship except that the after
engine continued to run well. Chief Engineer Gent later turned
in and Leech went and inspected all the engine cars. He found
them all to be running well and returned to the smoking room.
At 02.00am the ship reached Beauvais and passed to the east of
the town. At this time witnesses suggested that the ship was beginning
to have difficulty with the gusting winds. Some suggested that
the promenade lights became obscured and early suggestions were
made that the ship was rolling in the winds, however no amount
of rolling would explain obscuring of the lighes and it seems
more probable that intervening cloud was the cause.
accounts, at 02.00am the ship made a long and rather steep dive,
sufficient to make the engineers lose balance and cause furniture
in the smoking room to slide. It is estimated that a rent occurred
in the rain soaked upper part of the nose, causing the forward
gas bags to become exposed to the elements and damaged by the
gusting wind. The loss of gas at this point could have led to
the loss of control of the ship. Also, the ship was traveling
towards the notorious Beauvais ridge which was well know by aviators
for its dangerous gusting wind. The loss of gas at the forward
part of the ship, combined with a sudden downward gust of wind
would have forced the nose down. Calculations by the University
of Bristol in 1995 provided evidence that the maximum downward
angle was 18 degrees in this first dive through a time span of
The crew in
the control car would have tried to correct the downward angle
by pulling the elevator up. In the next 30 seconds, the ship pulled
out of the forced dive and the crew were steadying the ship. Flying
at a nose-up angle of three degrees enabled the ship to regain
some aerodynamic stability. However it was realised that the elevator
was "hard up" and yet the crew knew that the nose was
only three degrees above the horizon. This meant that the nose
was now extremely heavy and hence a serious loss of gas from the
forward bags must have occurred.
The Captain then rang the order for all engines to reduce speed
from the original cruising speed, if not to stop them. The bells
were heard and acted upon by the crew as evidence from the survivors
confirmed. Chief Coxswain Hunt moved aft from the control car
to the crew's quarters. At this point he passed crew member Disley,
and warned "We're down lads". This famous comment by
one of the most experienced airship crew members showed that the
R101 was not going to be able to continue and that an executive
decision had been made make an emergency landing.
this point the ship moved into a second dive. Recent research
by Dr Brian Lawton, whose
research paper can be found here, updates the notion of a
second gust of wind causing the nose to drop, whereby his research
states that a control cable snapped, and depite the tail elevator
being hard wound in the up position, that the elevator itself
failed to respond. Dr Lawton's research is now being seen as the
most accurate concusion as to why the R101 was unable to recover
from the dive fully.
It is calculated
that R101 was now at a height of about 530 feet, which for a vessel
of 777 feet long was precarious. Rapid oscillation of the ship
had already occurred and any further oscillation would cause it
to fail. Rigger Church was ordered to release the emergency ballast
from the nose of the ship and was on his way to the mooring platform
when he felt the angle of the ship begin to dip once more from
an even keel. The ship began to drop again through a downward
angle and at this point the nose hit the ground. Evidence from
the official inquiry noted that the R101's ground speed had reduced
to almost that of a perfect landing. The impact of R101 with the
ground was very gentle, and it was noted that the forward speed
of the ship was only 13.8 mph. The ship bounced slightly moving
forward some 60 feet and then settled down to the ground. The
survivors recall that a "crunch" was heard and the ship
leveled. There was no violent jarring from the impact. Evidence
from the crash site confirmed this as the only impact mark in
the ground was a two foot deep by nine foot long groove which
was cut by the nose cone, in which soil was later found. Also,
the starboard forward engine had struck the ground whilst the
propeller was still revolving and grooves were made by this. The
engine car had been twisted completely around on its struts.
After the impact, fire broke out. The most probably cause of this
was that the starboard engine car was twisted around and the hot
engine had come into contact with the free gas from the rents
in the forward gas bags. The fire immediately consumed the ship,
causing each gasbag from the forward to after part of the ship
to explode. The force of the explosions was noted by the position
of the gas valves and the damage to the framework of the ship.
The outer cover was immediately consumed in the ensuing inferno.
Of the crew
and passengers only 8 men were able to escape from the wreck.
Engineer J H Leech -was sitting in the smoking room at the
time of the impact and was saved by the accommodation bulkhead
collapsing from above and being held by the top of the settee
in the smoking room. He was able to escape through the side of
the damaged wooden walls of the smoking room, out through the
framework and through the cloth outer cover of the ship to safety.
A V Bell, J H Binks, A J Cook V Savory were in their respective
engine cars which were positioned outside the main hull. When
the ship landed, they were able to escape through the windows
of the engine cars and run away from the ship.
W G Radcliffe were in their respective engine cars which were
positioned outside the main hull. When the ship landed, they were
able to escape through the windows of the engine cars and run
away from the ship.
Operator A Disley who was asleep in the crew's quarters, was
awakened when his bunk, which was aligned in the same forward
direction as the ship, assumed the curious angle of the first
dive. He felt the ship come out of that dive to an even keel and
then to a nose up angle. At the same moment Hunt passed through
the crew's quarters and advised them of the situation. At this
point Disley heard the telegraphs ring out in the ship. The electrical
switchboard was close at hand and he started to get out of his
bunk to cut off the electric current to the ship as he knew that
in any aircraft crash there may be the chance of fire. There were
two field switches and he recalls tripping on one of them. During
this action the ship went into its second dive and he was just
about to cut the second switch when the impact was heard and the
lights went out all over the ship. Disley recalls that the impact
was so gentle that it was not enough to unbalance him from his
feet. Seconds later, like Leech, he was fighting his way through
the wreckage to the outside of the ship.
The last survivor
was Rigger Church, who later died of his injuries three
days after the crash. He was interviewed and gave the following
who died of
his injuries three days after the crash. He was interviewed and
gave the following statement:
"I would consider the flight rather bumpy, but not exceptionally
so. The second watch had just come on and I was walking back when
the ship took up a steep diving attitude. At this moment I received
an order to release the emergency forward water ballast [1/2 ton
in the nose] but before I could get there the crash came."
of the tail section
and crew, lying in state in St Stephens Hall.
ballast was in the very nose of the ship. It could not be released
from the control car and had to be jettisoned locally.
The R101 came to rest with the forward part of her nose in a wood
of small trees and the rest of her hull in a meadow. When getting
away from the ship, both Disley and Cook made some valuable observations.
Disley noted that even though the outer cover was burning, there
was almost no cover left on the top of the ship aft of frames
10 and 11; the ship appeared to be a skeleton. Cook noticed that
the underside of the elevator still had its outer cover and was
positioned in a full up position, suggesting that the coxswain
was still trying to keep the nose up on landing. The inquiry noted
that the number of turns on the auxiliary winch drum confirmed
were treated in the local hospital and the inquiry began the following
morning with the French authorities surveying the site and condition
of the wreck whilst the British investigators were flown in. Messages
were wired to England in the early hours of the morning, reporting
the crash to a stunned British public.
died in hospital of his injuries and joined the other victims
of the crash. Full state honours were given to the victims and
special trains were laid on to transport them from the crash site
to the channel. They were carried by H.M.S. Tempest from Boulogne
to Dover, where a special train took the bodies to Victoria Station.
From there they were carried in state to Westminster Hall at the
Palace of Westminster and were laid in state. The mourning public
waited many hours to pay their respects by filing past the coffins.
A memorial service was held at St Pauls Cathedral on Saturday
11th October, after which the coffins were taken by train to Bedford.
They were walked the two miles to Cardington Village, where a
space had been prepared in the churchyard. All 48 dead were finally
laid to rest in a special grave. A final small service was undertaken,
with distinguished guests including Hugo Eckener and Hans Von
Schiller, followed by a flypast by the RAF flight. In 1931 a memorial
tomb was completed and inscribed with the names of the victims.
This memorial still dominates the tiny churchyard to this day.
of the R101 lay where it had fallen until well into 1931, becoming
a haunt for air accident investigators and day trippers who wanted
to see the near perfect skeleton of the largest airship in the
world. Scrap contractors from Sheffield who were specialists in
stainless steel were employed to salvage what they could. It was
noted in the records of the Zeppelin company that they purchased
5,000kgs of duraluminium from the wreckage for their own use.
Whether this was for testing and analysis or to re-cast and use
in the "Hindenburg", is open to further research and
Foreman Engineer Henry James Leech was one of the survivors of
the R101 crash and was awarded The Albert Medal for his bravery
in rescuing Arthur Disley (wireless operator) from the burning
wreckage of the airship despite suffering serious burns himself.
He was presented with this medal by King George in 1931. He was
already the holder of an Air Force Medal for gallantry gained
in WWI. Harry lived in Shortstown from 1925-1930. He was also
an engineer together with Leo Villa for Sir Malcolm Campbell and
his son Donald during their World Speed Records. Harry himself
was partially blinded when returning from Coniston in a car driven
by Lady Campbell which crashed.
He was a brilliant
engineer and worked at the University of Southampton, and later
at the South Hants Hospital where he also helped develop and build
a 'Caesium Unit for the treatment of malignant disease in the
died aged 77 in November 1967
There is very
little known of what happened to Victor Savory, but thanks to
his relative John Millman, we know that his real name was Alfred
Victor Alexander Savory and John remembers him as a "lovely
man - 6ft 4ins tall and of heavy build." He began his career
as an Engineer in the Royal Air Force and was badly burned in
the R101 crash. In WW2 Victor worked as an AID (Air Inspectorate
Division) Inspector at the A V Roe Company (AVRO) in Lincoln.
In Johns words
again - "Occasionally he would visit us for a couple of days
and mother (Gertrude Savory n. Millman) would always put herself
out for him, he was her favourite brother" We don't have
details after that of his career or when or where he died.
JOHN HENRY 'JOE' BINKS
Henry Binks (more commonly known as Joe) was born on 29.12.1891.
John Henry served in the Navy for 12 years and joined the crew
in 1929 and by 1930 was a resident of Shortstown. In 1933 it was
reported in the local press that he had fainted at the first R101
memorial service held at Allone in France. He continued to work
on the camp for many years after and was part of the small team
who worked on Lord Ventry's airship The Bournemouth in the early
1950's. Binks Court in Shortstown is named after him in a tribute
to his long association with the area . We don't have details
of when or where he died.
Survivor Engineer Arthur Victor Bell first arrived in Shortstown
in 1927 and his son Bill was born here in 1929. He had joined
the Airship Service back in 1919 and was also on the R33 when
it broke away. Arthur remained In Shortstown for many years and
played a very active role in village life. However we don't have
his death date or location.
Wireless Operator Arthur Disley was one of a few men who served
on both the R100 and R101 airships and indeed was part of the
crew on the R100 flight to Canada. According to the R100 pre flight
press release he joined the RNAS on 04.03.1920. He was stationed
in Shortstown from 1930-1931. When the R101 fell to the ground
Arthur Disley was able to escape however his hands were badly
burned but he showed great fortitude and insisted on relaying
the news back home before allowing himself to be medically treated.
For this act of selflessness he was awarded an Order of The British
Empire medal. We don't have any details of his further career
or details of his death.
we have obtained from his daugher on his further carrer. During
WW2 he was ranked a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm
reserves. After the war he continued working for the Air Ministry
in aircraft maintenance, at RAF Wroughton, Wiltshire. He moved
up to Wellington in Shropshire again for a RAF station. In 1951
he moved to Gloucestershire when he was posted to RAF Aston Downs
and when that closed RAF Kemble where the Red Arrows were first
1958 he was awarded the MBE by Queen Elizabeth for his services
to the Air Ministry. He retired as a Senior Technical Superintendent
Royal Air force in the late 60s and bought a guest
house in Sidmouth before retiring to Alicante in Spain. He returned
to the UK in the 80s again to Gloucestershire and died aged
91 on the 7th November 1998