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R 33 Construction Gallery

The British airship with the longest career, and the workhorse of the British rigid airship service. The R33 had a reputation for being the luckiest ship in the British rigid fleet


Length 643ft
Diameter 79ft
Speed 62mph
Engines 5 x 240 hp Sunbeam Maori 4 V12
Volume 1, 960, 000cft
Range at cruising speed 4,600 miles
Static ceiling 13,000ft
Crew 22

Brief Construction History

The manufacture of the components for the R33 and her sister ship R34 had begun in the summer of 1917, but the actual construction of the ship in the shed did not commence until the summer of 1918. The ship had a marked resemblance of the L33 at Little Wigborough, Essex in September 1916, although the similarity in numbering was purely coincidental; the R33 has been designated in early 1916 before the crash. The order for the R 33 had been allocated to the Arstrong-Whitworth company, and would be built in the Barlow shed based outside of the village of Barlow in North Yorkshire. Some of the component features such as the construction of the control car and engine cars were allowcated to the Elswick workshops at Newcastle-upon-Tyne..

The ship design was semi-streamlined fore and aft, with a parallel mid-ships section. Information had been recently gained from the landing almost complete of the L33 which gave the Admiralty the chance to see Zeppelin designs and innovations at close hand.The main control car was positioned well forward on the ship, and on closer inspection was separated from the engine in the rear of the car by a small gap. This was designed to stop vibrations from the engine car being transmitted down to the forward control car, with its two radio detection finding and wireless instruments. One wireless transmission set was for a 500 mile range and under, and a second set capable of sending up to 1,000 miles. Hence, the forward control car and engine car looks as if it is one combined piece, but serviced by two ladders into the hull above. The R 33 was fitted with complete electrical generating equipment and emergency power was provided by batteries in each car.

Two more power cars were suspended in the wing positions further aft along the hull and a single engine aft car was positioned amidships at the rear of the craft. All five engines were 275 hp, Sunbeam Maori water-cooled petrol units. The power cars were another technical advancement in airship technology, which included two gearboxes for each engine, enabling the engines to be started up and running without the propellers rotating. The ship carried enough fuel for 48 hours engine running, but to increase range it was possible to fly the ship on only 3 engines, giving the ship a speed of some 40 knots with petrol consumption of one mile a gallon. The petrol was held inside the hull and fuel flowed from them by gravity to header tanks in the engine gondolas. The reasoning behind this change of arrangement was to feed a smoother and more precise fuel supply than the older arrangements in earlier ships of direct gravity feed.

The radiators in the forward engine gondolas had the flow of air regulated by the use of movable shutters, however the rear gondolas had the old type of traditional "elevated" radiator. Twenty main frames and thirteen longitudinals made the main structure of the ship. There were 19 gasbags within the hull giving a capacity of 1,950,000 cubic feet of hydrogen giving a disposable lift of almost 26 tons. The total construction of the R33 came to 350,000 (9,536,000 today).

Armstong Witworth had 205 employees at the Barlow site and could provided presses and construction materials for the the ship order, however they did not have the fabric shop capabilities and so had to rely on the Vickers Company to provide the gasbags for the ship.

Girder construction followed the latest Zeppelin practice, as found in L 33, and were cut and formed from duralumin sheeting. This new type of girder was made up of formed channel pieces, held together by stamped diagonal bracing pieces to form a latticework structure. The bracing pieces were riveted to the scantlings of the channel pieces in the form of crosses, riveted firmly in the centre where they crossed. The girders were triangular in cross-section in the main and intermediate transverse frames, in the longitudinals, and in other parts where convenient. There were 19 gasbags made of high quality single-ply cotton fabric, rubber proofed on the inner surface and lined with one layer of goldbeater's skin. The whole inner surface was then varnished. Each bag was contoured to fit in the bays between the transverse frames and over the top of the bottom keel corridor. Through the centre of each bag was threaded the axial cable which passed through a sleeve with special glands at each end to prevent leakage of gas. Situated near the bottom of each bag was an automatic gas valve that discharged into an exhaust shaft
between each pair of bags, except for bag No 1 which had a shaft of its own. Eight of these shafts led to the top of the hull but the two foremost ones discharged lower down on either side of the hull so that gas did not escape near the forward top gun platform

After almost 9 months in construction, the R 33 was launched on 6th March 1919. Getting the R 33 out of the shed Armstrong Whitworth Barlow shed illustrates one of the difficulties of airship operations. The Barlow shed doors were 100ft high and 75ft wide, weighing some 175 tons each. It took 40 men thrity minutes to winch open the four sections of doors. Another 400 men were temporarily employed to walk the R 33 out of the shed.

As soon as her test flights were over she was delivered to Pulham Airship Station. The ship had been designated as a long-range rigid scout ship to have operations over the North Sea. During the period from 18th June 1919, to 14th October 1920, the R33 carried out 23 flights totalling a flying time of over 237 hours. One of her tasks during 1919 was to fly over London and the main cities to publicise the sale of Victory Bonds One flight from Pulham to south Wales and back was recorded in having taken 25 hours.

Construction of the R 33

11.12.1917 Frame base supports.

January 1918 Frame base plus first few frames complete.

Jan 1918 Six frames on supports.


12.02.1918 Frame base supports and more completed frames.


18.02.1918 Uniform load test on 5" intermediate long girder, fail at 70lbs per ft run



18.02.1918 uniform load test, 95lbs per ft run 15" long girder


19.02.1918 Uniform load test, 15lbs per ft run 10" long girder.



19.02.1918 Uniform load test, 130lbs per ft run 5" long girder.


19.02.1918 Uniform load test on 10" long girder, fail at 35lbs per ft run





March 1918 Freestanding rings.


March 1918 Frame base supports and more completed frames.

16.04.1918 Interior cross girders.


09.07.1918 Selby



July 1918 Girls working on upper virticle fin.




August 1918 Port fin, vertical fin and stern tip.


16.08.1918 Selby

13.09.1918 Unclad structure.

September 1918 Forward car, Barlow.

September 1918 Port hatchway.

September 1918 Forward car

05.10.1918 Wing cars, Elswick Works.

05.10.1918 Wing car, Elswich works.

05.10.1918 Front and rear car section.



05.10.1918 From and rear car section.

05.10.1918 Engine car.

October 1918 Engine car beside ship.


05.10.1918 Engine Car.

14.10.1918 Cover straps hanging.


15.10.1918 Looking aft


19.10.1918 Fixing cover strips.

19.10.1918 Forward and central cover strips in place

19.10.1918 Interior


23.10.1918 Covers three-quarters fitted.

October 1918 Girls working on upper vertical fin.

26.10.1918 Aft frames.

Rudders nearing completion.

02.11.1918 Covers half fitted.

15.11.1918 Covers three quarters fitted.

November 1918 Aft gun pit.

22.11.1918 Interior

27.11.1918 Interior with gas bags inflating.

December 1918 Tail cladding.

Dec 1919: Just tail covers hanging.

December.1918 Tail fins completed.

21.12.1918 Barlow shed.

21.12.1918 Barlow Shed.


The forward part of the control car of the R33 can be seen at the RAF Museum in Hendon in the upper gallery.

Related ships: R33, R36, Vickers Transoceanic

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