Deciding to dispense with
normal construction techniques, the designers of the Royal Corps
of Naval Constructors along with a prominent designer Herr Muller
who had defected from the Schutte-Lanz airship factory, began
construction of the new 31 Class ships. The influence
of Muller and the Shutte-Lanz ships became apparent, as both of
the new ships were to be made of wood.
The R31 was the first to be
completed at the new factory at Cardington. The Government had
loaned Shorts the sum of £110,000 towards the construction
of a 700ft double bay airship shed. The Cardington project had
been singled out for special attention as
Shorts Brothers had been kept
clear of the 23 Class projects and had been designated the new
30s serial numbers.
under construction, nose being added
outer cover being sewn on to the girder work
of the framework showing gasbags and keel.
starboard engine car
emerging from the Cardington shed
on the flying field, with orignal engine congfiguration,
of 6 engines.
flying over the camoflaged Cardington shed, notice the R32
under construction in the shed.
The R31 made a break in the
design of the previous ships in that her, and the R32 were the
first rigid airships the British produced without swiveling propellers.
However moving away from traditions designs, the control cabin
had dispensed with the gondola being held underneath the body
of the ship, instead it was fitted well forward, flush under the
hull. This gave the crew much easier access to a walkway along
the keel inside the ship, to the tail.
The ship was composed of reinforced
spruce plywood girders, varnished and fireproofed. Each one was
10 inches equilateral triangles by 10ft long. Every girder was
braced with diagonal wiring and every ring with a diametrical
and cordial wires, all of them solid piano wires, te
nsioned upon assembly.The
21 gasbags constructed of rubberized cotton lined with goldbeaters'
skins. There was an internal corridor which at the bow, contained
the control car with it's navigating and W/T, and officers and
bunking compartments.. The amidships engines were fitted with
reversing gears. Each engine had an electric starting motor and
generator which supplied power for a complete lighting system
and for an internal telephone service. Cooling the engines was
in the form of shuttering on the engine cars. Unlike the German
ships, parachutes were provided for the crew, and another comfort
was provided in the form of hot food, as the rations could be
heated and cooked on exhaust-gas heated stoves.
For defense of the ship,
a metal ladder from the control car lead to machine gun positions
on the top of the hull, with more gun positions under her tail
cone, in gondolas, and along the walkway. The Chief of Naval Ordinance
agreed that the ship would carry a 12-pounder semi automatic cannon
for use against U-boats. This would be mounted in a special car
20 feet aft of the control car, along with the ship's other fitments
of anti-aeroplane machine guns. A bomb load was decided as two
520 pound bombs and four 230 pound bombs. Unfortunately the turn
of events with the war ensure that these would never be fitted
to the R31.
The R31 was half as large again in volume compared to the R23X
class ships, and a disposable lift of some 16.5 tons compared
again to the 23X class of 9 tons. This was seen as a large jump
in British design techniques and innovations. The only problem
which came out of the initial test flights was the lack of automatic
petrol pumps, and hence when the ship was in the air, the fuel
had to be manually pumped to keep the ship in trim. The service
and main tanks were designed to be "slipped" overboard
in case of emergency.
The R 31 made her first trial
flight in July 1918 around Bedford under the command of Squadron
Commander W.C.Hicks for 2 hours. The first trial saw that she
surpassed all expectations as she reached an impressive top speed
of 70mph. The design expectations were to be an improvement on
the 50-55mph on the 23X class but the design team were very surprised
at the actual speed attained.
She was faster than any other
airship flying. Powered by six 275 hp Rolls Royce Eagle engines,
she was a true greyhound. On
this flight it was also noted that a rare phenomenon occurred
in the behavior of the wooden structure, which flexed to an extent
sufficient for two men, posted at opposite ends of the keel, to
lose site of each other during turns.
During her initial trial it
was found that the R 31s fuel consumption was unexpectedly
high, and it was therefore decided to remove one of the six engines.
However, surprisingly this resulted in a reduction in speed of
only some 5mph, yet saved considerable weight.
On her second trial flight
on October 16th 1918, the R31 returned to Cardington with her
upper fin and rudder laid flat over to the starboard side along
the afterbody It appears that her wire-braced fins and rudders
were shorter and more effective that that of previous ships, and
were probably insufficiently stressed. An eyewitness account by
Stephen Payne, an Admiralty Observer recorded his account on the
flight as follows :-
had climbed up to the top of the Ship where we had a gun platform.
I remembered feeling the absence of wind and notice, when suddenly
a frightened face appeared on the top of the two foot diameter
tube with a rope ladder in it, and Hicks' First Lieutenant told
me that the top vertical fin had collapsed - this explained why
I felt t hat the nose of the ship was well up.
Hicks had realized that the top vertical fin was acting as a kingpost
supporting the two horizontal fins and it was the downward air
passage on the horizontal fins that proved too much for the girder
in the vertical fin. Hicks immediately dropped ballast to trim
the ship 15 degrees at he bow.
enabled the air pressure at 40 knots to hold the horizontal fins
in position, and so it allowed the horizontal rudders to function.
The accident happened near Cardington and many people saw crewmen
on top of the airship tearing away great areas of fabric fouling
the operation of the rudders and elevators. When the ship arrived
back at Cardington the engines were stopped, the horizontal fins
naturally collapsed, due to the absence of air pressure".
The ship was taken back in
to the shed and the simple repairs completed. It was agreed that
modifications would be made to the tail assembly, the dimensions
having been been too great and the controls too powerful. One
other modification was the amputation of the tail cone and the
sitting gun post with a wide arc of fire at that point, superior
to that of the German Zeppelins of the time.
The airship was finally commissioned
on 6th November 1918 having logged a total of 4 hours in her flying
trials. She left Cardington for her new home of East Fortune in
Scotland where she was to join the R29. On the journey up the
country she flew in to a torrential storm and it was noticed that
her some of her girders were beginning to show signs of failure,
possibly due to her earlier flying with oversensitive controls.
Squadron Leader Hincks as therefore decided to abort the deliver
and that the ship would dock in to Howden in Yorkshire for repairs.
The R31 landed safely at Howden and was put in the large double
shed which had recently suffered fire damage when the R27 had
burnt in the shed. The roof repairs had not been totally completed,
and temporary repairs were made the roof, and so the ship was
moved in to a shed in poor condition to hold her. The crew were
sent to Edinburgh to continue to East Fortune where they were
commissioned to and return to the ship at a late date, and fly
her back up to East Fortune.
Some 5 days later, on November 11th 1918 the end of the War was
signaled. The decisions on the whole wartime airship programme
would then have to be reevaluated. A decision was reached to leave
the R31 in the shed until further resources and decision could
be made for her future. Unfortunately the roof leaked and the
water permeated in to the ship and joints. This caused the the
gelatin glue which held the wooden girders together to deteriorate.
Early in the New Year of 1919 a Court of Inquiry was held to determine
who was responsible for her being out of condition. Unfortunately
nobody could be found, and Lord Ventry even commented that no
one knew why exactly she was still at Howden. The Admiralty later
discussed the status of the ships and it was deemed that the R31
was beyond the state of economical repair. In February 1919 she
was deleted and dismantling commenced.
Even though she was an innovative
design and concept for the new class, the first ship out of the
new Cardington Factory only had a life of 4 hours flying trials
and 4 hours 55 minutes commissioned. A total of life of some 8
hours 55 minutes. With hindsight and had the war continued enough
for the R31 to be reconditioned, it is agreed that the R31 would
have provided the Grand Fleet with a suitable scouting airship
capable of accompanying the Fleet during it's sweeps and fast
enough to have a reasonable chance if engaged against the Zeppelins.
smoke without fire
The R 31 was sold for scrap to a coal merchant for £
200. The merchant though he make a profit selling the remains
as firewood, but following complaints by his customers,
he discovered that the wood would not light as it had been
treated with a fireproofing chemical.