Airship Heritage Trust
Click here to return home 

R 36
Registration G-FAAF

The unique R36 was the first ship to carry civil registration for an Airship - G-FAAF and was renowned for her destinctive passenger accommodation.


Engines: 3 Sunbeam Cossack III (Coatalen) of 350 hp each and 2 Wolseley-Maybach MbIVa of 260 hp. each.

Although the German manufactured Maybach MbIVa's were initially secured from the German L71 (surrendered to Britain as part of war reparations), they proved unreliable and were replaced with the Wolseley copies during overhaul after the third flight.
R.36 Frame and gondola
construction 1919
R 36 nearing completion with the outer cover in place and registration livery, in the Beardmore Shed, Inchinnan near Glasgow, Scotland.
Beardmore staff putting finishing touches to the outside of the control car. Note the ship crest positioned under the control car windows.
Women were employed in the assembly of car components, varnishing, as well as gas cell and outer cover fabrication. Here they inspect one of the three Sunbeam engine cars. Notice the cooling radiator emerging from the top of the car. This could be raised and lowered in to the airstream to assist cooling of the engine.
The unique passenger comaprtment of the R.36
The passengercompartment, laid out for lunch and tables for two beside the downward slanting windows.
Passenger compartment showing the night time layout with bunks in a Pullman sytle. Each bedroom could be cordon'ed off with the thick curtains.
Two crew members observing from
a window, showing the day
configuration of the passenger
R 36 Riding on the Pulham Mast
R 36 on the ground at Pulham
Close up from below of the control car, showing the guide rails and bump bag, and the passenger accommodation windows in an inverted "T" shape behind
R 36 directly above showing the shape and outline of the passenger accommodation.
A photo taken from the port forward engine car facing backwards, showing the control car and the port midship engine car. You can see the cooling radiator raised in to the airflow, out of the engine car.
R 36 on the Pulham mast. Notice the small open hatch on the nose of the ship, to allow access to crew and passengers.

With the cessation of hostilities and the sudden flurry of airship production in the late part of the war, it was obvious that major decisions regarding peacetime airship applications had to be made. R36 was among the last of the rigids to be completed in the early 1920s. Given the British government's policy to discontinue naval airship operations, several alterations were made during final assembly to convert her to a commercial vessel. Although conceived for naval purposes, she flew as the world's first commercially registered rigid airship (G-FAAF).

Design work on R36 had started in February 1917 when she was still a part of the R33 class, but these plans were altered in November of 1917 in light of intelligence gathered from the wreckage of L48 (shot down near Theberton, Suffolk on June 17th, 1917) (1). Although extensive destruction limited what the British could learn from L48, they were still able to glean some of the newer methods the Germans were employing to lighten their airships (2). The strategies actually had little to do with the lightening of girder member specifications. In fact, on R36 lightened scantlings were restricted to the bow forward of Frame 2, and even some of these girders were later reinforced to accommodate bow mooring.

The marked improvement in the lift of R36 over R33 was due to the collective use of many other strategies. Structural weight reduction was mostly attained through use of lighter engine cars, a lighter control car, and more efficient suspension. The wing car supports and their heavy interconnecting transverse corridor as had existed in the L33 were eliminated. Were it not for the much lighter wing cars and associated suspension traced in L48 and later inspected by the French in L49, the heavier layout from L33 would have been retained in R33 through R37(3). Although the British wished to adopt further weight reduction methods discerned from L49, the progress of design and construction of R33 through R37 had advanced to the point that it meant further employment of lighter scantlings had to be reserved for R38. Further amendment to R33 through R37 could only occur if such changes would not significantly delay their completion. This made more sense than scrapping everything to start anew(4).

Contrary to current popular belief, the evidence proves that girder member specifications for R36 were not lightened as compared to girder member specifications of R33. Girder compression testing was conducted on girder members from both airships and the results were comparable, revealing a generous safety factors of 2.25 for main frames. Gas cell inflation/deflation stress tests were also conducted upon the R36 and R37 and both provided satisfactory results deemed suitable for commercial standards, unlike the later R38 which was built to a very different design (5). The reduction of weight with the outer cover, the use of fewer gas cell wires and the insertion of an extra gas cell bay all helped secure much of the additional ten tons of lift over R33 with little consideration being given to the manufacture of lighter girder members.(6)

The Airship Design Department decided to lengthen the R36 by ten metres (33 feet), but this decision did not occur until Sept. 14th, 1918, when 87% of all girders and gas cells had already been prefabricated along with 45% of the main frames and 38% of intermediate frames. This change came fifteen months after L48 was shot down and ten months after L49 was forced down, indicative that the decision to lengthen R36 and install an additional bay had nothing to do with L48 or L49.(7)

The main post-war changes to facilitate commercial conversion involved placing the lighter control car further back near the new passenger car, which straddled the centre of gravity. The control car, unlike the passenger car, was not attached directly to the hull. It was suspended by 12 external suspension cables and one short, single spacer strut. The strut could not be observed from the exterior due to the enclosing and streamlining fabric fairing. This fairing only gave the impression that the control car was directly attached to the hull. The distance between the control car and the hull was minimal in comparison with R33, but still tangible and can be noted if one looks carefully at the widely published plans of the airship(8). The floor level of the control car was also a fair bit lower than that of the passenger car.

Although the passenger car was faired in with the control car, it was still separated from the radio room by a double bulkhead and a small gap. It was thus not possible to directly walk between the two. One had to go up a ladder into the hull from the control car and then down the staircase into the passenger area, to walk between the two.

R36 was able to carry 50 passengers in Pullman style accommodation. The only contemporary ships which had been designed with passenger accommodation were the LZ120 Bodensee and the LZ121 Nordstern, which when completed in 1919 carried 20 passengers each. The project to convert R36 was thus relatively ambitious.

Entry to the passenger accommodation was via the nose of the ship, as bow mooring gear had been added to the ship during construction. The passengers would ascend the mast, enter the airship through a bow hatch, walk down a covered gangway along the keel and then to the staircase which would lead them down to their cabins behind the control car. An alternative doorway entrance direct into the passenger car was situated opposite of the galley and could be utilized by passengers if loading was occurring inside the shed. This door opened into a small reception area between the forward and aft passenger saloons(9).

The car was 131 feet long, 7 feet 6 inches in height from floor to ceiling, and 8 feet 6 inches wide from port to starboard at the floor level. (10)The exterior fairings encompassing the entire perimeter of both the control and passenger cars were designed to reduce air resistance. This fairing, along with the entire envelope of the hull, were well-manufactured, taut, and found to be a considerable improvement over previous rigid airship envelopes in Britain.(11) The linear method of envelope attachment to the hull was a first for Britain, greatly reducing parasitic drag.

Passenger accommodations included 25 double cabins arranged along the sides. Each cabin measured 8 feet in length and about 3.8 feet in width. This small fit of about 30 square feet of floor space for two passengers was not so tiny as it might first sound. The car sloped outwards and upwards so that at the bunk level the cabin was about 8 feet wide. A very efficient folding system for the beds and table resulted in a cozy arrangement. Space could be augmented by drawing back the curtain walls on flights with less than a full passenger compliment or to socialize with neighbouring passengers. The cabins were set up in daytime with two wicker chairs and a dining/writing table that could be folded up revealing a mirror attached to the underside. At night, two bunks were released on hinges from the outer wall and let down to provide for sleeping, with curtains screening off the cabins. Each cabin had its own electric light and windows affording an excellent view. It was noted that the wicker chairs, carpet and general finishing of the cabin were made of lush blue damask, with fixtures and fittings of nickel. A galley situated at the mid point of the car allowed for preparation of hot meals. There were two sets of lavatories and wash rooms. The ladies' room was situated forward, behind the staircase, and the gentlemen's room was located mid-car, next to the kitchen. The storeroom for luggage was situated at the aft end of the car.

The crew nominally consisted of four officers and 24 men. The intended Captain of R36 was Flt. Lt. Victor Goddard, but he was seriously hurt in a car accident and would only be well enough to participate in a few flights by June. Although Flt. Lt. Archibald Wann was the Officer in Charge of Trials for R36, his Air Ministry commitments placed him in other important roles. As a result, Goddard's friend, Flt. Lt. Carmichael Irwin, was to be trained to become the captain. He was recently transferred from North Sea non-rigid airship duties but had never commanded a rigid airship before, having only had one previous flight on R29 as an observer, hence the training requirement. Others who were in command of R36 included Major G. H. Scott and Cpt E. L. Johnston. The Chief Steward was A. H. Savidge who later served in the same role upon R100 and R101. The crew accommodation was situated above the passenger car in the main keel.

R36 was equipped with five engines, three of which were Sunbeam Cossack III 12-cylinder Vee water-cooled of 350 hp each, and two smaller Maybach MbIVa 260 hp. air-cooled engines which were removed from the L71. These Maybach's ultimately proved unserviceable and were replaced during overhaul after the third flight by virtually identical but new Wolseley Maybach engines manufactured in Wolverhampton.(12) The engine layout was somewhat similar to that of the later R101, in this case with the two Maybach's situated in small cars forward, two Sunbeam's in larger cars outboard amidships, and one Sunbeam in a large car suspended centre line, aft.

R36 was launched at 3:00 pm on April 1st, 1921, the third birthday of the RAF, from the Beardmore works at Inchinnan near Glasgow. Flt. Lt. Wann flew R36 in a number of circuits over Glasgow, Renfrew, and Paisley before returning to the base about two hours later. She was secured back in the shed by 6:45 pm.

On April 2nd, Wann was in command for the delivery flight to Pulham, during which the ship and her engines were tested, with the exception of the port Maybach which refused to start. (13)The crew started to get the feel of the ship, which would take a few more flights as the controls were "worked in". She left Inchinnan at 7:40 pm on a cool evening in overcast conditions. The ship flew over the Forth Bridge, rounded St. Abbs Head, continued over Berwick, then turned south, flying over Howden before continuing towards Pulham. Arriving at 8:00 am the next morning, April 3rd, the testing continued until late morning, in part due to the airfield being shrouded in a stubborn and heavy fog. The flight lasted 12 hours 35 minutes covering about 412 miles.(14)

Two days later, on April 5th, R36 made a demonstration flight with representatives from the Air Ministry and National Physical Laboratory (NPL) staff on board. Contrary to some more recent accounts, there were no journalists invited or present on board this flight. She left Pulham at 07:25 am bound for the West Country and the south coast of Ireland with a return intended via Liverpool. The invited NPL staff had received very little notification of the flight, so were unable to outfit the ship for the testing that they would have otherwise performed. Still, they agreed to participate because there remained some tests and observations they could nevertheless make. Flt. Lt. Wann was in command with Major Scott on board; Captain Irwin is not believed to have flown on this flight, his first confirmed presence on R36 being on the fourth flight in June.

R36 crossed central London heading southwest before turning northwest for Chorleywood. All rudder turning tests that NPL staff wished to conduct were performed during a 48-minute period ending before 10:00 a.m. and were restricted to 5 degrees rudder. When 7 degrees was inadvertently reached, Lt. Elmhirst raised his concerns and the rudder coxswain made the necessary adjustments. The NPL staff noted that the new airship was still getting her controls worked in and that the coxswains were still gaining the "feel" of the airship. All remaining tests were completed to satisfaction by 10:00 a.m. and no further turning trials occurred during this flight.(15) The air became turbulent over Chorleywood and remained so for the next few hours.

Continuing on a course for Bath, the next set of tests called for extended speed trials for over one hour using various combinations of engines, which was a normal part of the testing regimen for any new airship. Captain Wann and Major Scott had no concerns and it was time to join Air Ministry officials for lunch and promote the commercial use of airships. Contrary to recent popular belief, Scott never ordered a rapid 130-degree turn at full speed (he was not even present in the control car at the time this hypothesized manoeuvre was claimed to have occurred), nor did any other officer on board order such a manoeuvre. The orders left before Wann and Scott left the control car was for Flt. Lt. Scrogg and Flt. Lt. Elmhirst to keep the ship on a straight course to ensure they could discern the maximum speed figure. Any turn would have been counter productive to speed tests. Although turbulence continued, there was nothing unusual and the weather continued to be considered acceptable for the trials. As turbulence increased the conditions became less ideal for speed tests, but had not reached a point where cancellation was warranted.(16)

Over the village of Calne at an altitude of 3,000 feet at approximately 12:20, the coxswains reported to Flt. Lt. Elmhirst that they had lost control of the vessel. The upper and starboard stabilizers and their respective control surfaces had been seriously damaged. This was due to three design factors that will be detailed below; the flight officers and crew were in no way culpable.

R36 was flying at somewhere between 63 and 65 mph in rough air when this failure occurred. She began to dive at a 45-degree angle, losing 1,800 feet of altitude in 45 seconds. Elmhirst ordered the engineers to disengage propellers and ease down all engines (not stop them, which would have caused serious damage to them) and he immediately discharged emergency ballast from the bow. In the rear passenger saloon Major Scott grabbed hold of the hallway columns to prevent falling as he rushed and swung himself forward, "looking like Tarzan of the Apes."(17) On arriving in the control car he ordered Elmhirst to go to the passenger saloon to calm worried Air Ministry officials and standby to receive orders to distribute the crew throughout the ship to regain balance. F/Sgt. S. J. Heath and F/Sgt. W. R. Mayes volunteered to inspect and repair the damage to the upper rudder and starboard elevator. For their daring work, Mayes was awarded a bar to the Air Force Medal (AFM), which he was previously awarded for his role as Coxswain on board the transatlantic flight of R34. Heath was awarded the AFM. The airship had now risen to about 4,000 feet after recovering from the dive and was flown slowly in large circles due to the jammed rudder forcing a steady turn to port. The damage was assessed and in-flight repairs commenced.

Once the makeshift repairs were completed a new was course set for Pulham. It was this new course setting for home, made after the accident and after repairs were completed, that was subsequently misinterpreted from the flight log by some historians as being an indication of a 130-degree turn. This inferred "turn" was assumed to have triggered the stabilizer and control surface failures, but such a turn never occurred. Turning trials and speed trials are not consistent activities, and R36 had still not yet attained the maximum speed she was believed to be capable of.(18) Moreover, NPL reports classified at the time would have included all details any such hypothesized turn, had it occurred. The report reveals nothing of the sort, nor did the Court of Inquiry, both documents confirming that all turning trials were concluded earlier that morning.(19)

Scott, being the most experienced officer on board, took charge as was normal in an emergency situation. He ordered her flown at low speed, altering the engine speeds to give a degree of directional control to compensate for the loss of use of one rudder and one elevator. R36 was skillfully landed at Pulham at 9.15 pm. R33 had already departed on a four-hour flight in the vicinity of Pulham in order to make room in one of the sheds for the damaged R36, which was hangared without issue. R33 moored to the Pulham mast around midnight.(20)

The Court of Inquiry provided further understanding as to why there had been failure of one elevator and one rudder along with serious damage to two of the stabilizers. One significant factor occurred due to standard load testing of the cantilevered stabilizers conducted during final pre-flight tests in the Inchinnan shed. This had resulted in undetected shearing of several rivets in the upper and starboard stabilizer attachments. In addition, a weak joint of faulty design did not help.(21) But as noted the more fundamental cause was that there was an insufficient safety factor allotted for the overall design of the stabilizers for speeds over 60 mph. In this scenario, air pressure on the stabilizer surfaces will increase at the square of the speed.(22) The designer, Charles I. R. Campbell, was not solely responsible for this oversight because comparable stabilizer failures had also occurred with Barnes Wallis' R80, in addition to the Short Brother's R31. British designers in general were just on the cusp of realizing their design shortcoming when the accident to R36 occurred. In consequence, the stabilizers on R36 were repaired and strengthened to meet the new safety factor requirements immediately after this flight. The control surfaces and stabilizers gave no further trouble thereafter.

The stabilizer issue was in no way indicative of any deficiency in the R36 hull structure, and this incident had no origin within the hull design or hull strength. Moreover, R36 never experienced any structural issue with her hull during her career, and the rapid dive of 1,800 feet in 45 seconds was certainly a rigorous test of her strength and car suspension systems. By comparison, the bow of the German naval Zeppelin L49 failed during an intentional test dive, requiring a major repair as a result.(23)

R36 left her shed on the evening of June 8th, having been fuelled and provisioned for the next two flights. The first brief test lasted 2 hours 15 minutes, and was primarily to test modifications to her mooring cone and have her ready for another flight early the next morning. R36 was secured back on the mast at 8:15 pm. She then punctually undertook a flight of 11 hours on June 9th via Nottingham and Manchester to Liverpool before returning to Pulham, being made fast to the mast at 8:30 pm.

With the government imposing financial cutbacks during a post-war recession, the role of airships was under scrutiny. The Air Ministry hoped to attract a private, commercial purchaser to take over all former naval airships but failed to do so. They continued to operate R36 on a rigorous basis and planned a demonstration flight to Egypt, still hoping to attract investors or perhaps operate a service themselves as a last resort. The commercial conversion of R36 resulted in the loss of about half of her useful lift from the naval configuration. She was therefore only capable of conducting such a flight to Egypt with a much-reduced payload and an intermediate stop. However, the French were amenable to allowing her to use their facilities at Cuers-Pierrefeu.(24) This made the proposition tenable, although R36 would not have been capable of carrying a full complement of 50 passengers on such a long flight nor making a profit on such a service (although this had yet to be fully comprehended by several government officials). To have been commercially successful on this run, it would have been necessary to permanently reduce the passenger complement down to about 20, along with removing one half of the overweight passenger car and then repositioning it. This was technically feasible, but there is no evidence that it was considered and, given the budgetary constraints, to have done so could have signalled defeat. It was ultimately deemed better to conduct short and medium length demonstrations largely (but not exclusively) within British territory.

On June 10th R36 was loaded for a longer flight during which all navigation and wireless equipment went through successful testing and acceptance.(25) At 10:00 pm the ship slipped the mast and made her way via London for Southampton and by 4:00 am she passed over Portsmouth. This was an impressive speed given that today the same journey by rail takes nearly five hours. The ship climbed to 3,500 feet, headed out over The Solent and set a course to the Channel Islands. The passengers could see the coast of France and had a spectacular view of the islands whilst enjoying the comfortable accommodation. Sark was seen two miles to starboard before the ship passed over St. Helier. R36 then left British territory, flying over Paimpol, France before a course was set for Ushant on Isle of Ouessant. She then turned north, leaving France and returning to England at The Lizard, Cornwall. Continuing over Devon, advantage was taken of a following wind as she passed near Swindon, Oxford and Aylesbury. She then flew over the Home Counties and approached Pulham around 1:00 am. R36 was secured to the mast as the sun was about to rise around 4:00 am on June 12th. She completed the voyage with ease over mixed land and sea air conditions, for a duration of 29 hours and 54 minutes, of which 446 was over land and 288 miles over sea, for a total of 734 miles.

Flight approval "press pass"
Instruction letter
R36 "Airship Mail"inflight newspaper
John Yoxall - circled


The London Metropolitan Police requested the use of R36 to conduct aerial traffic surveillance during the Ascot Races after having made similar use of R33 during the Epsom Derby. This original "eye in the sky" was used to signal officers on the ground to highlight where traffic congestion was occurring. Two days after the Channel Islands flight concluded, R36 slipped from her mast at 7:31 am on June 14th with a passenger compliment of police officers and journalists. The ship flew southwest towards Wembley and Ealing before turning towards Windsor Great Park. At 9:45 she was in position and watching the main roads of Staines and Windsor, police officers on board sending reports to traffic constables on the ground. Summer lunch consisting of ham and salad with beer, fruit salad, biscuits and cheese was served by Steward A. H. Savidge as the ship cruised in large circles over the countryside surrounding the race course. At 2:00 pm the ship overflew the Croydon airfield where the journalists dropped their reports by parachute to be sent by motorcycle courier to the newspaper offices in Fleet Street, London.

Among the journalists on board was Mr. John Yoxhall, who was a photographer working for Flight magazine. During the flight, one of the journalists produced what could only be described as the world's first "inflight magazine". The "Airship Mail" included articles of news which were transmitted to the ship by wireless from the local press offices. His copy of the "onboard newspaper" was donated to the AHT, along with his flight ticket and instructions for the day. It was met with some disappointment because of the news in "Airship Mail" that England had just lost a key cricket match at Lords.

As with great British traditions, afternoon tea was served at 4:00 pm with the food and beverages on offer being comparable to those of lunch. The ship returned to traffic reporting duty in the late afternoon as traffic built up after the races. Flt/Lt Victor Goddard was on board, having returned to duty (but not as Captain) and noted that the police officers on were not proactive with their observations and did not seem to have implemented any kind of methodology for the aerial surveillance. Goddard, skilled in aerial reconnaissance, observed early signs of traffic congestion developing, yet the officers would fail to communicate such occurrences until after it was too late to prevent a traffic jam. It was apparent to him the police had been provided with little to no aerial observation training. This did not prevent some from trying to blame the airship platform itself as somehow being deficient for the mission, when the deficiency was clearly in their inadequate training.(27)

The airship turned for home, crossing North Hertfordshire and Knebworth House en-route to Pulham. R36 was moored at 10:00 pm that day. A round aerial cruise of some 556 miles for 14 and a half hours had been completed, carrying 60 passengers and crew. Mr. Yoxhall congratulated Major Scott on his efficient mooring of the airship in turbulent conditions.(28)

Trials continued and on June 17th the ship was readied for another demonstration, this time for Members of Parliament. This was a shorter, summer afternoon flight of three hours around the Norfolk coast and countryside. Forty MPs were greatly impressed with their experience and this flight no doubt factored positively towards the ultimate decision by Parliament to approve the Imperial Airship Program of 1924.

On June 21st the ship slipped the mast at 8:00 a.m. to conduct a flight for the Director of Research. Flying north from the station, she continued up the coast as far as Scarborough. There she turned inland and headed for York, returning via Howden and Cranwell, the latter being reached at 5:45 pm. R36 then headed towards Norwich and home.

Upon arrival, it has been claimed by some historians that when coming in to moor Major Scott took over from Lt. Irwin, tried to do the mooring himself, and made a mess of things.(29) Yet there is no evidence that any intervention took place and Irwin states nothing of the sort in his own report on the accident. Major Scott's report states that Irwin was conducting the landing under his supervision, which is not the same thing as "taking over". This makes sense because Irwin was the most junior officer with the fewest flying hours and the least rigid airship experience of any of the officers on board, thus Major Scott would naturally have watched him closely. If any intervention did in fact occur (and there is no evidence of such), Scott would have been within his authority to do so.

Three attempts were made to moor in completely becalmed conditions. With no wind whatsoever and a temperature inversion at 1,000 feet, R36 had become statically unstable. In order to maintain rudder control, some speed was essential in the absence of a steady headwind. But the first approach was deemed too fast for safety so it was aborted. On the second attempt, an engineer in a midship engine car had started to ease down his engine at the very moment an order came through for full power astern. With inadequate reverse thrust, this attempt also had to be aborted. On the third try, everything went normal, and the main mooring wire was hooked up at 9:15 pm.

Unfortunately, this line looped around the yaw line tractor winch, which had been set outside of the pyramid of the support guy wires of the mooring tower. This yaw winch was not at the base of the mast as some believe (but the main winch was). The placement outside the mooring tower pyramid was unusual and dangerous but necessary because the cheap and deficient tractor winch, which Major Scott had complained about vigorously several times (and was ignored), lacked enough storage capacity for the normal yaw line length.

Having fouled the yaw winch tractor, the main mooring wire partially overturned it.(30) This fouling also had the effect of reducing the amount of space R36 had on the free main wire for astern engines to take full effect by a full 50%. In sum, had government parsimony not been allowed to interfere and had a proper winch been supplied, this accident would never have occurred. The main winch also had deficiencies, upon which Scott reported:

The present ploughing tractor which is used for hauling in the wire, has no brake fitted to the drum; it is therefore necessary to secure the rope with a carpenter's stopper which has no give. If the winch is fitted with a brake the wind can be allowed to overhaul and then taken gradually by the slow application of the brake; with the present unsuitable type of winch, there is always a danger of a similar accident occurring. This necessity for a brake on the winch was pointed out several times in the mooring report; I also mentioned it strongly when it was proposed to use a similar winch at Croydon.(31)

Scott's credibility on this point was reinforced by the American Naval Attaché present, Emory Land, who was highly critical of the crude "home-built" winch.(32)

The fouling of the main wire resulted in a jerk that triggered the forward emergency ballast bags to discharge their contents. The bow pitched up, but because the main winch lacked any kind of reversing gear, the rise of R36 could not be arrested until the main wire snapped taut. The strain on this wire caused the bow to crumple, but the attachment held. The ship was soon eased down into the hands of the ground crew as the damage was assessed from both inside and outside the ship.

All berths in the two Pulham sheds were occupied by R33, L71 and L64. These airships were undergoing overhaul and had their gas cells deflated.(33) Scott ruled out any attempt to fly to Howden with the bow in such condition, deeming it too risky with deteriorating weather forecast. (In a comparable situation, Lt. Gayer was ordered to fly L49 with a collapsed bow from Ahlhorn to Wildeshausen in perfectly calm weather, and he considered himself very fortunate to have gotten his ship safely there).(34) After some discussion, it was decided that L64 should be scrapped and removed from its shed, given that it was the oldest rigid and in the worst condition of all four rigids present, even when considering the damaged bow of R36 (all L64 gas cells required replacement as they were too brittle to withstand another inflation). It was decided to drag her out of the shed by steam tractor. After her engines were removed, she was dropped to the hangar floor, but the dragging attempt failed. All available hands were then called upon to break her up with saws, axes and any other suitable equipment available. As her remains were deposited outside the shed, space was slowly cleared to receive the damaged R36.

Meanwhile winds were increasing and volunteers had to be sought from the surrounding communities to supplement the ground crew to keep R36 under control. She was moved behind a wind screen and this worked for a time, but the situation grew increasingly desperate and one ground crew member was injured and had to be hospitalized. By 2:00 am about one third of the hangar space had been cleared. It was decided that R36 should be brought in so that the forward handling lines could be firmly attached to mooring rings inside the shed. This would release several groundcrew to assist in holding the mid and rear sections of the airship. Although this might have worked in theory, there were two problems. First, the ill-conceived wind screens created worse eddies at the shed entrance than if no wind screens had of been built. Second, Major Scott and Major Pritchard had both already complained that the attachment points on R36 for the main handling lines were of insufficient strength and insisted upon their replacement after the second flight. But once again the parsimonious government refused to fund this, along with other required improvements, such as the more state of the art mooring equipment already noted.

Despite the bow having been secured in the shed, and with wind gusts only increasing in strength, it was just a matter of time before two of the main handling line attachment points in the hull failed. R36 was yanked away from her ground crew in a strong gust and her port side slammed against the shed doors, but control was regained. Eventually the debris of the dismantled L64 was cleared and R36 was fully housed by 7:00 am. Upon viewing the damage after disembarking the airship in the shed, Captain Irwin burst into tears and was consoled by fellow officers.

The Court of Inquiry ultimately blamed the accident upon a chain of eight different events, all of which were related to substandard equipment and consequences arising therefrom. They did not find any crew culpable. Specifically, the substandard main winch was highlighted because it had no reversing capabilities. The yaw winch would never have been placed outside the boundary of the mooring guy-wire pyramid if it had of had greater wire storage capacity.(35) Given the sharp rebuke levelled at Captain Wann and Brigadier-General Maitland by a similar Court of Inquiry as regards to the loss of the earlier R34 (and Maitland was not even on board that ship when it was lost), if any R36 crew had been in anyway culpable, they would have been censured. The Court did no such thing.

With R36 back in her shed and the shutting down of the airship service, no repairs were authorized. Yet there was also no willingness by the government to authorize scrapping her. Hope still remained that a private operator could be found, at which point some government assistance might have been reconsidered to help with repairs. Several suggestions were made including offering R36 as a replacement for the US Navy after the destruction of R38, as well as the possibility of using her for an Arctic research expedition. Neither proposal came to fruition.

With the Imperial Airship Program of 1924, the refurbishment of the R33 and R36 was authorized to provide testbeds for the scheme. The goal was for R36 to carry out a flight to Egypt to gather meteorological and other operational data. All gas cells and much of the outer cover were removed and at least some of the replacement cells were manufactured by Royal Airship Works at Cardington. However, although it is widely believed refurbishment of R36 was finished in August 1925, this was not the case. After the R33 mast breakaway incident, the first intent was to abandon R33 and put all emphasis upon completing refurbishment of R36. However, as work proceeded and more detailed inspections ensued, it became evident that an unexpectedly large number of new girders would be required for the R36 hull, not just to replace those already known to be damaged, but to replace some showing signs of corrosion and weakness due to improper heat treatment during manufacture. In addition, corrosion had advanced due to the three years of maintenance neglect. Parts of the passenger car were also badly corroded.(36) Plans to refurbish R36 were quietly abandoned (although this did not escape parliamentary notice) and the bow of R33 was repaired to allow testing with her to continue. The actual scrapping of R36 does not appear to have transpired until after June of 1926.

It is of interest to note that there is a set of plans for the R101 at the National Archives showing a concept drawing of the ship with a very similar engine configuration and a totally external passenger car, very much of the same shape and style as that of the R36. This of course later evolved in to the R101 design as well known today.

Even though R36 was initially built to be a naval airship, her conversion into a civilian vessel proved she could carry out flights in the comfort comparable to later, larger commercial airships. She was ground-breaking and in 1921 had a passenger complement larger than the roughly contemporary Bodensee, Nordstern and the later Los Angeles and Graf Zeppelin. She could also carry more passengers than the later Los Angeles and Graf Zeppelin, albeit not for the same distances. She would not be surpassed in passenger comfort until the advent of the R100 and R101. Her unique lines and layout gave her a sleek style all her own among commercial airships.

Special thanks to AHT Member, Kent O'Grady for sharing his extensive research of over 7 years on the R 36's activities and log, for the deatils on this page.

Sources Referenced:

[1] Higham, Robin. The British Rigid Airship: 1908-1931: A Study in Weapons Policy. (London: G.T. Foulis & Co. Ltd. 1961), 170.

[2] AIR 2/169, p. 5. (2679997). National Archives of Great Britain (formerly Public Records Office).

[3] Ibid., p. 5.

[4] Higham, 170, 343.

[5] Lewitt, E. H. The Rigid Airship: A Treatise on the Design and Performance. (London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons Ltd. 1925, pp. 196, 198.

[6] O’Grady, Kent. Britain’s First Commercial Airship: An Historical and Technical Analysis of HMA R36. (Saskatoon, Canada. Publication to be released in 2021), 20.

[7] R36 Construction Reporting and Flight List. Imperial War Museum.

[8] Engineering, Apr. 15, 1921. p. 454. Figure 27. The control car suspension wires are only partially shown in these plans but are very apparent in the Tom Keyes R36 photo collection, available for viewing on this website.

[9] Engineering, Apr. 15, 1921. p. 454.

[10] Ibid., 455.

[11] Wann, A. H. Captain. Flight Trials of R.36 – G-FAAF. Captain’s Report. 08 April 1921, 4.

[12]Pulham Reports. See also: Pritchard, E.M. 1st and 2nd Trial Flights of H.M.A. R.36. 1st & 2nd/3rd April 1921. Officer-in-charge, Airship Flying Trials Report, 2, 9. See also: Upson, Ralph. “The British Passenger Airship G-FAAF” in Aviation. May 16, 1921, p. 633-634.

[13] Trial Flight of H.M.A. R.36. 2nd-3rd April, 1921 from Inchinnan To Pulham: Machinery Report. 3pp. (Author not indicated; attached to Capt. Wann’s report).

[14] AIR 3/58. G-FAAF Fair Log. Rigid Airship Log. Flying Log. H.M.A. R.36. 2-3.4.21. Clocks on board used GMT. Britain shifted to BST during the night of this flight, causing some confusion for researchers.

[15] DSIR 23/8849. R-36 Rigid Airship G-FAAF: Preliminary Experiments, pp. 2, 3, 5, and Ae. Tech. 93, Fig. 1. (NPL Report) National Archives of Great Britain.

[16]Turpin, Brian, recounting his interview with Sir Thomas Elmhirst. Also, no further turning or rudder trials were conducted on this flight as confirmed in DSIR 23/1615. Report of the Accidents Sub-Committee on the accident to HMA R.36 on April 5th, 1921. Aeronautical Research Committee and Bateman, H. & Pannell, J. R. Preliminary Experiments on Rigid Airship R.36 (G-FAAF), Aerodynamics Sub-Committee, Aeronautical Research Committee. National Archives file: DSIR 23/8849.

[17] Frazer quoted in: Alfred G. Pugsley Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. Vol. 7 (Nov., 1961), pp. 75-84.

[18] DSIR 23/8849. R-36 Rigid Airship G-FAAF: Preliminary Experiments, pp. 2, 3, 5, and Ae. Tech. 93, Fig. 1. (NPL Report) National Archives of Great Britain. Retired commercial airline pilot and RAF Bomber Command engineer Brian Turpin, also an airship historian, has vetted AIR 3/58, G-FAAF Fair Log. Rigid Airship Log. Flying Log. H.M.A. R.36 and found the interpretation of a 130 turn having been conducted and triggering the fin failure to be in error.

[19] DSIR 23/8849. R-36 Rigid Airship G-FAAF: Preliminary Experiments, 1-5.

[20] Turpin, Brian noting R33 Log; also, Weekly Report No. 16. Pulham 2nd April 1921 to 9th April 1921.

[21] O’Gorman, Mervyn. Report of the Accidents Sub-Committee on the accident to H.M.A. R.36 on April 5th, 1921. Aeronautical Research Committee, June 1921. National Archives of Britain and Ireland. DSIR 23/1615.

[22] Lewitt, E. H. states: It is the British practice to design fins to withstand a uniformly distributed load of 2 lb. per square ft. and to use a factor of safety of 2 ½ to 3; but…[with] R31, R36 and R80, the fins failed during their trial flights... [due to] these failures the factors of safety in the girders should be at least 3½ when assuming the above loading… Also, the loading of 2 lb per sq. ft. is only suitable for a speed of 60 mph, it should be increased in proportion to the square of the velocity for ships having a greater maximum speed.

[23] Strahlmann, Fritz.Memories of Ahlhorn: Recollections of a German Naval Airship Base in World War One. Trans. by Alastair Reid. (Lulu Press, 2016), 163-165. In this case the L49 proved to have inadequate ventilation ports to compensate for the relatively rapid air pressure changes, causing the immediate damage to her bow framework. Her frame was also less resilient than that of the earlier L33, upon which the framework of R33 and R36 were based.

[24] Higham, 198.

[25] Johnston, E. A. OBE. Airship Navigator. (Stroud: Skyline Publishing. 1994), 47.

[26] AIR 3/58. G-FAAF Fair Log. Rigid Airship Log. Flying Log. H.M.A. R.36. 10-11.6.21.

[27] Goddard, Robert Victor Sir (Oral history). 3189. Royal Air Force, Airship R36.

[28] Yoxall, John. “Long Look Back: RFC and RAF Experiences, 1913-1962” in Flight International. 17 May 1962. P. 777.

[29] Walmsley, Nick. “R.36-Harbinger of the 1924 Airship Programme” in Dirigible Vol. XI, Nr. 1, p.7. This myth appears to have originated with Sir Peter Masefield, who also erroneously believed Cpt. Irwin had a crew serving under him on HMA R29.

[30] Walmsley, 7. See also: Robinson, Douglas H. Dr. Giants in the Sky: A History of the Rigid Airships. (Seattle: University of Washington Press. 1973), 179.

[31] Pritchard, 9 and Scott, 2.

[32] Pritchard, E.M. 1st & 2nd Trial Flights of H.M.A. R.36, 5; (Subsection B): Specific Defects. 12 pp.

[33] Pulham Weekly Report Nr. 19, April 23rd to April 30th, 1921.

[34] Strahlmann, 163-165.

[35] DSIR 23/9569. Draft Report on Accident to H.M. Airship R.36 while mooring at the mast on 21st June, 1921. Accident Investigation Sub-Committee: Aeronautical Research Committee.

[36] AIR 11-10 R.36 Inspection and Reconditioning. Within this file is a letter from R.S. Hubbard to Major Scott, April 25th, 1925. See also: AIR 10-1204 Progress Report for the Quarter Ending 30 September 1925. (London: Director of Scientific Research), 10.

[37] AIR 11/184. Pulham Weekly Report Nr. 18, 16 – 23 April 1921. See also: Upson, Ralph. “The British Passenger Airship G-FAAF” in Aviation. May 16, 1921, p. 633-634.

[38] Turpin, Brian. “His Majesty’s Rigid Airships HMA R31 & R32” in Cross and Cockade International Journal. Vol. 37, Nr. 2, p. 82.

Related ships: R34, R38

Copyright © 2021 Airship Heritage Trust. All Rights Reserved. Copying and/or redistributing of any files is illegal under international copyright law. AHT is not responsible for the content of external sites.