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R 80

Launched on 19th July 1920, the R80 was the first truly streamlined British airship. A special rigid Airship for Naval Patrol Service

R 80 Statistics:
Volume 1,250,000cft
Length 535ft
Diameter 70ft
Overall Height 85ft
Gross Total lift 37.8 Tons
Disposable Lift 17 Tons
Max Speed 65 mph
Normal Speed (2/3 power) 55
Cruising Speed (1/3 power) 43 mph

4 x 230hp

Total Maximum Power of Engines 960 BHP
Crew carried 16
Endurance at Full Power 60 Hours (3,900 miles)
Endurance at Normal Power 85 Hours (4,750 miles)
Endurance at Cruising Power

170 Hours (7,200 miles)

Max Height Attainable 1,600 ft




Vickers R 80 Commercial Plans

Photo Gallery

Inside the Barrow Shed: cradles ready for the erection of the R80 frame. The nearly completed R26 can be see to the left of the shed. When the R26 was complete, more space would be available for the R80 construction.

Hull Comparison: The R26 shown top is of the R23 Class which was just being completed in the Vickers' Walney Island shed in December 1917, to a traditional Admiralty design. Work was started on the R80 at the same time, and the change in approach and design shape is clearly seen.
Women workers assembling the girders for the framework
R80 hull section completed before winching in to position
General shot of the R80 shed and construction of the main rings
Construction showing the service trunking to the upper hull
Internal keel walkway at base of the main hull showing water ballast tanks
View of the internal keel walkway looking towards the stern.
The framework of the forward control and engine car framework showing the aerodynamic shape and design.
View from the rear of one of the two rear wing machinery or engine cars, again showing the tapered streamline design.
A view of the airship being inflated with the gasbags half full and the work attaching the outer cover to the framework begins
R80 under construction. Notice the streamlined control car and engine car under construction on the floor of the shed.
Forward view of the control car, with the unique fully glazed front and side windows for the steering and height coxwains positions.
Looking rearwards in the control car towards the engine bay.
Exterior shot of the unique control car, the streamline design showing clearly.
The completed R80 emerging from the Barrow shed
R80 fully emerges from her shed, 19th July 1920.
R 80 see here on her first flight
Side view showing the truly streamlined ship
R80 Emerges from her shed. Note the crew member standing on the gun-platform on the top of the ship.
Nose Down: R80 flying over Duke Street in Barrow in Furness, her streamlined shape showing to the full (Photo copyright Marin Hughes of Barrow in Furness)
The R 80 returning to Walney Island, possibly on it's maiden flight, captured by Edith Hedley from her home between Ambleside and Troutbeck Bridge on Lake Windermere 1920
The R80 taken across Lake Windermere by Edith Hedley showing the it's height, and local Lake District hils in the distance. 1920
A very rare print painting possibly from a brochure advertising the R 80.
(Reproduced from A Lawson Collection)

In 1917, in the third year of the First World War, Vickers Limited, who were already an experienced airship manufacturer building rigid airships for the British Government, were awarded the contract to build the R37. To build the ship of that design, would need a larger shed than the existing facilities Vickers had at their existing base at Barrow-in-Furness on the Cumbrian coast.

The construction facilities at all their main construction sites were full, being used for the production of other ships which were being raced through production during the war. Vickers had applied for Permission to build a shed at Flookburgh, across the bay from their Barrow facility, on the shores of Morecambe Bay, a shed larger than their two existing sheds. They were originally granted Permission and allocated the steel needed.

Work started on the Flookburgh site in March of 1917, with some buildings commenced, and by July, some of the steel had arrived, and erection of the shed commenced. Original designs for the shed were larger than anything that had been completed before, and with the idea that airship designs would get larger and bigger, to accommodate this plan, at some 900ft long and 150ft high, the proposed shed was much larger than their existing shed at Walney Island, and indeed the rigid sheds at Howden, Pulham and Cardington. However with the pressures of war this was later cancelled, and plans refused due to a shortage of steel. This left Vickers with no option but to abandon the project for the Flookburgh shed, and also the contract to build the R37, which was then awarded to the Shorts Brothers Company and constructional facility at Cardington whom later commenced construction of the ship.


With the limitations put upon them, and now no new shed available, Vickers asked the Admiralty for permission to build a ship of their own design. Permission was granted by a busy Admiralty, to design a ship with the same dimensions of the existing dimensions of the existing R23 Class ship. The idea of a streamlined shape had originally been outlined in their earlier design of the HMA. 1 known as "The Mayfly", but with the constructional difficulties associated with the formation of curved duralumin member had lead to a rejection of the original design proposal, and the adoption of Zham shaped parallel sided hull approved. The Zham shape had been proposed by the American Professor of Mechanics, Albert Zham, who claimed that it could give on 40% of the resistance of the zeppelin shape. These claims were based on experiments with models at the National Physics Laboratory and on evaluations by F D Reynolds of the Vickers Airship Department.

Without the new larger shed, a smaller ship would have less disposable load compared to the other airship current Admiralty projects which were proposed and under construction in the UK. However it was agreed to continue with revised plans. The new design had been created in an outline in 1916 by the then Vickers chief designer, Barnes Wallis. He was convinced that the Zahn shape of the earlier ships was wrong, and that the National Physical Laboratory had been mislead in their conclusions by the use of models that were too small to give consistently accurate results. Wallis reworked Reynolds's numbers and produced a design that offered only 3% resistance of a flat plate of the same diameter, against the 16% of the R26, another Vickers designed ship which was nearing completion in the Walney Island shed.

The specification for a streamlined ship of some 1,200,000 cubic feet was submitted on 14th November 1917, and being approved on 21st November 1917. The Vickers design team of Barnes Wallis and H B Pratt set about designing a ship which would fit within the existing shed, which had been used to build the 23X class ships.

The R80 was designed to be a weapon of war, with an armament of three 2 pounder guns, rifled guns positioned on the top, and under the tail of the ship. Provision was also made for the ship to carry bomb racks, with the armament to be provided by the Admiralty.

Vickers produced an illustrated booklet which summarised their lighter than air activities during the hostilities. The description of the R80, then under construction was described as follows:

In our R80 design we have embodied the results of our experiences and knowledge gained by the design of the R9 and R23 Classes, with the additional advantage of being able to include such details of the German ships as appeared to be of real value and superior to our own practice.

We have consequently produced in R80 a rigid airship of only 1,200,000 cubic feet capacity that will give a performance in speed and endurance equal to that of the largest rigid airships built by the Germans of 2,000,000 cubic feet capacity.

Our R37 having being transferred to Messrs Short Bros., we were without further work to proceed with on completion of R26. Flookburgh shed and aerodrome being stopped, we were restricted to a size of airship that could be built in Walney shed.

We therefore prepared designs for an airship of the largest possible size that could be built there, and embodied in this design all the best features obtained from the German 35 class and also the improvement suggested by our experience of the airships of R9 and R23 classes designed by us.

As we were given a free hand in the design without unnecessary restrictions as to strength, such as were imposed on us in 23 class vessels, we have produced a vessel which for it's size is considerably more efficient than any other Rigid Airship both in weight and general design.

An order for one ship to this design was placed with us in November 1917 and it is anticipated that this airship will be ready for trials in 1919.

This airship has been designed entirely by Vickers Limited and was put in hand at the request of the British Admiralty with the objective of producing a rigid airship of 1,250,000 cubic feet capacity that would give the same performance as a Navy Patrol Airship as the latest types of vessels of 2,000,000 cubic feet capacity.

Exhausting research and a length series of experiments were carried out in connection with the design of Vickers' special light alloy "Duralumin" girders and other structural members for this ship, and with the information and results obtained, we were enabled to design the hull structure on a scientific basis to attain the utmost possible economy in weight, whilst giving the same strength as in the larger type of airships under all conditions of service. A special study was also made of the design of all other features of the ship.

This airship will give the same performance as the existing airships of 2,000,000 cubic feet capacity at a first cost of only 75% and a cost of operation of 60% of that of the larger airship.

Special Features of the design:

Hull- The shape of the hull, which is based on the results of all of the best types of airships know, and also on a lengthy series of model experiments, is considered to be the most perfect known streamline shape, enabling the ship to attain it's speed with the least possible power.

In addition to the general improvement in the design of the hull structure referred to above, many detailed improvements have been introduced in the design of the girders, joints and the system of wiring.

The hull is provided with bow mooring attachments on the Vickers Patent Principle which enables the ship to be moored out from a mooring tower in such a manner that it is free to turn in any direction and lie with the wind, thus permitting the vessel to be moored out safely under the most severe weather conditions.

GASBAGS- The gasbags in the airship are made under a new system, patented by Vickers Limited, which enables them to be constructed of the lightest possible weight whilst at the same time giving extremely good gas holding properties.

CONTROLS- Special consideration has been given to the design of all control gear for steering and controlling gas discharge, etc. and the results of over five years experience in design and working have been taken advantage of in R80 designs, the most important feature of which is that all controls are carried from the car up to the hull in an accessible shaft, giving them complete protection from the weather and rendering all parts of the control gear accessible during flight, a feature which has not been evident in any of the other airships yet built.

CARS- Four cars are attached to the hull viz:

Forward Control Car and Machinery Car, which are flexibly connected together to form one streamlined body.

Two wing cars for machinery only, attached on opposite sides of the airship.

The Control Car is of sufficient size to contain all the navigating controls and instruments and the navigating crew, with provision to give sufficient room and convenience for their comfort. The wireless system is also fitted in this car.

Forward Machinery Car carries two engines arranged en echelon driving directly one propeller at the after end. The driving gear is also arranged as to enable the propeller to be driven by either one or both of the engines.

The Wing Cars each contain one engine driving direct a propeller at the aft end and at engine speed without a reduction gear. Reverse gear in fitted to these propeller drives for use when the ship is landing.

The most careful consideration has been given to the design of the cars and by making them of a perfect streamline shape, the head resistance is cut down to a minimum, whilst the same time the engineer crew are provided with a degree of comfort and convenience not hitherto attained.

The structural system on which cars are designed also enables the weight to be cut down to a minimum, whilst giving greater strength and rigidity of structure than the usual design.

A special type of buffer bag and buoyant covering, which is the subject of a Vickers' Patent, is fitted to the forward car and also to each of the machinery cars. These buffer bags are of such a nature as to enable the airship to float on the water and they also give considerable cushion effect in absorbing the shock when landing on the ground.

The nose of the car is well provided with windows so as to give exceptionally good all round vision for the navigating officers.

MACHINERY INSTALLATION- The airship is fitted with four Wolseley Maybach engines of 240 nominal BHP each. This design is developed from the German Maybach engine, of which Vickers Limited obtained the manufacturing rights before the war. The engine has been specially developed for airship work, and combines a high degree of reliability with the lowest petrol consumption of any known aero engine, features which, together with the ability to run continuously for long periods, are essential characteristics for airship propulsion.

The transmission machinery, designed by Vickers Limited, has been based on our experience in previous airships, and gives the best possible performance consistent with absolute security from failure and breakdowns. The gears have been designed on the results of a long series of experiments on the strength and endurance of gear teeth running under the conditions prevailing in an airship.

Many other improved features in the machinery installation have been embodied in this airship, including a new system of radiators working in slides which can be drawn into the car out of the air stream when the engines are not running.


Constrution of the R80 began in November of 1917, and frame erection began in April 1918, progress being slower than anticipated due to a shortage of skilled labour. There was no lighting in the Barrow erecting shed, and the doors were kept open for light, which was often challenging during the winter months when the daylight hours were much shorter. Bad weather also hampered the speed of construction.

To complete the design, some 600 drawings, 1,600,000 parts of 21,0000 varieties using some 20 miles of duralumin alloy metal, both angled and channel for the framework, 53 miles of wire and 30,000 square yards of fabric were used.

As the R26 was nearing completion, Vickers approached the Admiralty with regards to a second ship of the 80 class. The Director of the Air Department approved the R81 on 21st March 1918 and suggested the number of airships being built elsewhere be reduced to one, while the most suitable of the other manufacturers in the UK be switched to producing the non rigid SS Twin airship model, which was urgently needed to counteract the submarine threat. However the Director of the Air Department could not authorise construction of the new ship, this would be down to the Government Cabinet matter if the Board approved. Matters dragged on as the Director of the Air Department has less status than in the days before the Air Ministry was created.

On 30th May, 1918 Vickers wrote to the Admiralty saying that they only had the R80 under construction and no follow up orders. As the R80 was due for completion for the end of November , workers would have to soon be laid off, and they may not be able to restate skilled workers at a later date. Vickers suggested that larger ships were needed, they could manufacture parts at Barrow, and then have then shipped to the other constructor's sites, such and Pulham or Howden for assembly. To this they received a rushed reply from the Deputy-Controller of Airship Production advising that no order was given for the R81, and that the mast which they were constructing at Barrow, be rushed to Pulham so that trials with the No.24 airship could begin.

Wallis and colleagues continued to produce a variety of improvements to increase the performance of the ship. In September 1918, the machinery specification was changed to accommodate an improved Admiralty propellor. The proposed electrical system was changed four times in three months, and finally the machinery specification was cancelled again and the redesigned replacement was not determined until March 1919.

The initial idea was that the ship might have been able to form part of the proposed commercial airship programme and the plans were outlined in a commercial document in October of 1919. At this stage, building of the airship was under way but work was progressing slower than anticipated due to shortages of skilled labour.

With the war coming to an end and the Armistice signed in November 1918, by the summer of 1919 it was decided by the Air Ministry that work should stop as the ship would have no military value. Vickers Ltd. continued construction as commercial use continued to be a viable option possible viable option. It was then decided that the ship would continue to be constructed with some military capability and work continued to the original specification, with gun positions on the top of the hull and just under the tail.

In April 1920 the outer cover was sewn on to the framework and by June the ship was completed, powered by 4 x Wolseley built Maybach engines.

Commercial Programme of R 80

The original idea was laid down by Vickers' co-designer, H B Pratt in his document "Commercial Airships". However Vickers went a stage further in investigating the feasibility of the R80 as a commercial ship in 1919 when the ship was half completed. Military use of the ship was unlikely following the armistice and the disarming of Germany in the years after the war, however it was envisaged that the ship would be able to run a international city to city service. Similarly, DELAG, Germany's first airline, was planning to operate from Germany to Stockholm with the LZ120 "Bodensee" and LZ121 "Nordstern". DELAG had already made a success of using airships for passenger trips, but later expanded the reliability of airships with scheduled services between Frankfurt, Dusseldorf and Berlin. Pratt even suggested that the R80 be used for aerial tours of the Great War battlefields and cemeteries - however this plan never came to fulfilment.
More details of the plan can be found here

First Flight

On 19th July 1920 the ship emerged from her Walney Island shed in blazing sunlight to an expectant crowd. The first full view of her streamlined shape could be appreciated. With the first emergence of the ship, the R80 sustained some damaged as service crew had been slow in alighting from the ship, and due to some problems with starting the engines. The ship sat in the blazing June sun, the gas pressure built up, and the automatic valves opened as the gas pressure increased, however as the ship was stationery there was no through ventilation and the central keel corridor filled with hydrogen gas.

After engine checks and ballast weights, she was launched and and her first trial flight was commenced. As soon as the ship cast off, the R80 shot up at 1,000 ft a minute, to the height of 4,000ft. This imposed severe strain on rear girders and the structure at frame 28 bent. Once returned to the ground, the R80 was returned to her shed and significant repairs commenced.

The frames holding the ballast bags had to be straightened before the R80 could fly again, and the test flight showed that the outer cover was also too loose. However, on the positive side, the lift of the ship was nearly two tons better than the design specifications anticipated. A disposable lift of 14.85 tons and a weight of 38.25 tons, made the R80, the most efficient British airship of the time. During the time which the R80 was returned to the shed for repairs, bow mooring gear was added to the nose of the ship.


"R80 First Flight" over the Walney Island Sheds by Keith Goldsmith 2020 (copyright)

Move to Howden

In the post war years, the Government was looking to re-evaluate all aspects of military spending and look to recover the financial costs which had burdened the Government. This meant there was active role for the R80 to fulfil at this stage. The R80 remained in the Vickers Walney Island Shed, and didn't fly again until early 1921 when the decision was made and she was finally commissioned in January 1921. It was noted on a trial flight that the bow mooring gear had upset her trim, and then required the permanent carriage of a ton of ballast, aft. After these modifications and changes, the R80 was then flown to the airship base in Howden in Yorkshire on 24th February.

However the Controller of General and Civil Aviation announced on 11th February that the ship was not required. With the post war economy in depression, the costs of keeping the ship along with the other ships which had been constructed and stored, made the R80's future look very uncertain. The decision whether to scrap, deflate or store the ship was left up to the Secretary of State, who was also responsible for the other airships in the service. Since the R80 was new, a reprieve came in the form of a request that the ship remain serviceable to allow a US detachment to come and train on airships. At the time a contract had been awarded to Shorts Brothers of Cardington, and the Government had agreed to sell the newly competed R38 to the American Government. As part of the contract, it was agreed that crew training would be given to a detachment of American servicemen, based at Howden, and a ship was needed for rigid airship training purposes. The US crew had use of the ship for three months to familiarize themselves with a rigid airship.

The US Navy made 4 flights in the ship totalling some 8 hours 45 minutes between 26th March and 1st June 1921.

Final Life at Pulham

When the R38 was finally completed by Shorts Brothers, and after her initial trial fligthts at Cardington, and flown up to Howden in July 1921 the US crew would move their training from the the R80, to the new ship. The R80 was therefore no longer required at Howden and her future was uncertain. It was then decided that the ship be used for experiments and moved to Pulham, which was seen as the main experimental base in the UK for rigid airships. The R80 was then flown from Yorkshire to Pulham in Norfolk; this flight on the 20th September 1921 proved to be her last. On this flight the R80 was loaded with all of the commanding officers livestock, which was to be flown to Pulham. Tragically on It was 24th August 1921 that the R38 broke in two during low level turning trial tests, over the Humber Estuary killing 44 of her British and American crew members. After this time it was decided that as part of the post R38 programme, that the R80 be used for destructive tests on components. The R80 stayed at Pulham for a further 3 years inside the shed, and was finally dismantled in 1925 after 4 years in service, having flown for a total of 73 hours.

With her sleek lines carried over to the control car and engine gondolas, she was the most efficient design of British airship at the time. By many standards the R80 would have been seen as a much better test bed prototype for the later ultra-streamlined ships of the R100 and R101 class than the ships which were later used, namely the R33 and R36 based at Pulham.

Related ships: R100 R80 Commercial Variantt,

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