Britain’s Giant Airship: R.101
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Britain’s Giant Airship: R.101

September 6, 2019


This model shows the largest airship of its
time — and perhaps the grandest, the most luxurious craft ever to fly. This is the British Airship R.101 built between
1924 and 1930 — it was Britain’s answer to Germany’s Zeppelin. To give you an idea of its size compare it
to this 747 — one of the largest planes flying today — this miniature jet is the same scale
as the airship model — but the airship is over 500 feet longer. Now, the engineering of this airship fascinates
me so much that . . . …I wrote a book telling its story. So, in this video I’ll draw on the research
for that book and use some of the old magazine articles, newspaper clippings and . . . … photos that I’ve gather over the last decade to reveal the design choices of the ship’s
engineers, the daily life of a crew member, and the opulence of the passenger areas. But first, let’s look at the grand plan
for this airship. It was to fly a regular route from England
to India, connecting the countries in five days — ten days faster than by sea. The airship’s air rival, the plane, linked
London to Karachi, then in India, in sixteen days–but with frequent stops to refuel. This airship was one of two built by Britain
about a decade after the end of the war, when they embarked on an ambitious airship building
program. They constructed the airship R.101, but also
R.100 — the “R” stands for “rigid” — which were to carry 50 passengers at a
cost close to that of first class in an ocean liner. One proponent estimated a ticket from Australia
to the United Kingdom would cost ten pounds. The British spend over two million pounds
in the 1920s to create commercial airships. Their competitor was Germany’s Graf Zeppelin. It was forty feet longer, but R.101 had a
larger cross section and so held 30 percent more hydrogen and carried more passengers. To put these ships in perspective here’s
the Hindenburg, built about seven years after R.101. The British intended R.101 and its sibling
ship to be the first of a fleet. Ultimately the British envisioned an “all-red
girdle of air transport” that reached more than halfway round the globe — red was the striking color of Empire territories on official maps. Now, this map illustrates that vision. At the bottom, in the legend, it reads: “Possible
Imperial Airship Routes.” The British envisioned using airships to link
the far-flung corners of their colossal Empire. It covered a quarter of the world and encompassed
a fifth of its population. R.101 promised British dominance of the air:
to rule the skies as British Dreadnoughts ruled the seas. They planned an infrastructure of towers centered
on the Royal Airship Works: West to Canada — Halifax, Ottawa and Quebec. And then south to Cairo, Karachi — at the
time in India — Cape Town, Mombasa and Melbourne in Australia. This vision might seem grand to us today because
we often think of lighter-than-air craft as a novelty — a hot-air balloon or the blimps
used to cover the Super Bowl — but these are mere shadows of the greatest of all lighter-than-air
craft . . .. . . the airship. Unlike an airship, balloon and blimps are
both pressure vessels: their shape is maintained by the pressure of the lifting gas. In contrast, in an airship like R.101, it’s
shape is formed by a metal framework. The metal skeleton houses the hydrogen-filled
balloons, called gas bags, that lift the ship. These bags are protected by a cloth cover
stretched across the framework. The cloth cover is not, of course, gas-tight,
it’s purpose, instead, is to keep wind, rain, and sun from damaging the gas bags. This structure enables an airship to travel
faster and heft a much larger payload than a blimp or balloon. To construct such a craft required clever
engineering in the 1930s, an era before plastics. This is best reflected in the ship’s fifteen
giant gas bags that held over five million cubic feet of hydrogen — enough to lift about
170 tons. To construct these gas bags the engineering
staff searched for a material that was impermeable to hydrogen — a small molecule that is notoriously difficult to contain — yet they also needed a material that was lightweight, flexible,
yet durable. They investigated rubber, and viscose, an
early synthetic fabric, coated with latex, but when crumpled then inflated, each of these
materials cracked and leaked. So they settled for the traditional material
used to construct airship gas bags . . . . . . oxen. More specifically, part of the intestine of
an ox. The outside of an ox’s intestine is lined
with a fine membrane, called the cecum, which is thin and flexible, and through which hydrogen
seeps only slowly. The grisly work of fabricating the gas bags was done by the women of the Royal Airship Works. In a room reeking of rotting meat, they soaked
intestines, scraped away lumps of fat with blunt knives, soaked the skins overnight,
and then scraped again. And then glued the pieces into larger and
larger sheets — no stitching, unlike for zeppelins — until they had enough to wrap
about an air-filled form to construct a gas bag. To appreciate the magnitude of their task
consider how many entrails were needed to make a bag. The cecum of an ox is about thirty inches
by six inches, a little over a square foot, yet one of R.101’s gas bags when spread
flat covers 30,000 square feet — a square about 175 feet on a side. So, inside that yellow circle — the tiny
dash — is a single cecum. So, in total they glued together for a typical
gas bag some 50 or 60 thousand entrails to create a double-walled gas bags that held
37,500 cubic feet of hydrogen, yet weighed a mere 30 pounds. Flammable hydrogen to fill these bags seems
a poor choice for an airship, compared to inert helium — in principle helium lifts
93% of the weight hefted by hydrogen. You would think the lift would drop by only
7%, which would be a small cost to pay for safety. Yet, for a commercial airship, hydrogen is
the only choice: it allows a lighter and thus less expensive airship to be built. Here’s why. Let’s look at the lift of R.101 with both
hydrogen and helium. A ship like R.101 carries about five million
cubic feet of lifting gas, that’s a gross lift of a little over 177 tons for hydrogen
and for helium about 93% of that lift, or about 165 tons. But that’s for pure hydrogen and pure helium. In practice the purity is less than 100%,
especially for helium and so you lose several tons, which means helium lifts only about
88% of the amount lifted by hydrogen. Now, let’s calculate the amount of payload
available. The airship’s framework weighs about 113
tons. Next, the essential crew, fuel and so on needed
to operate the airship take up another 44 tons. So, in the case of hydrogen that leaves 13
tons of payload — lift for passengers, fuel, freight and so on, the stuff that makes an
airship commercial — while for helium that net payload is an astonishing minus 7 tons. That is, the airship could not left a payload,
in fact, in this example — which is typical — it could not even lift the crew and fuel. In addition, helium was tremendously expensive,
some seventy times the cost of hydrogen. Typically helium was captured at gas wells
in the United States and shipped to the United Kingdom, while hydrogen was produced on-site
from steam. The Royal Airship Works used the Lane Process,
in which steam was reduced to hydrogen by passing it over metallic iron at a high temperature. Once lifted by the hydrogen, the airship flew
at an altitude of about 2,000 feet and at maximum of about sixty miles per hour. The ship was powered by five heavy-oil engines
housed in cars underneath the airship: two in the front … two near the middle … and
one near the tail. Each engine was attended by an engineer. In the rear engine car was Joe Binks. He’s on the right here dressed in his flying
suit. For eight hours at a time Binks kept the engines
in repair as he waited for orders from the control car. The orders were communicated via a dial labeled
standby, slow, half throttle, or full throttle — a rotating pointer indicated the proper
action, the pointer’s rotation was punctuated by a bell. Binks worked under harsh conditions. This illustration from a popular magazine
makes it seem roomy, but in reality he couldn’t stand up full height. This photo of the car being built makes clear
how little room Binks had: The man sitting down shows where Binks could walk, or more
often shimmy along the floor, to work on the engine. The man in the center stands where the engine
will be placed. In this photo with the engine installed, you
can see the narrow space on either side where Binks worked. Imagine working within a few inches from this
650 horsepower monster — it was originally mounted on a locomotive — it filled the car
with a sound so deafening that Binks filled his ears with plasticine and cotton to protect
his hearing. Yet as amazing as this is, the most stunning
moment of his day was getting to and from work: As the airship zipped along at 60 plus
miles per hour, Joe Binks climbed from the belly of the ship, down a ladder into the
car. The propeller spun with such force that its
prop wash could lift him parallel to the ground, turning him into a human flag tethered only
by his tenuous grip. Not only did the British develop this novel
airship, they also created the necessary infrastructure. For example, to land this giant ship, the
British developed a mooring tower because they thought ground landing too difficult
for an airship of this size, although Germany always used ground landings for its zeppelins. The ship approached the tower, dragging a
cable, which was then hooked to the tower cables on the ground. And then, at the tower’s base, steam-powered
winches pulled the ship toward the tower. In fifteen or twenty minutes R.101 latched
to an arm extending from the tower. And then there was a flurry of activity inside
the tower head as crew secured the ship. The mooring tower could withstand a thirty-ton
pull at its top. Each of its four legs was embedded in a piece
of concrete about twelve feet square that extended six feet into the ground. The tower offered an easy way to supply the
airship with water, fuel, and hydrogen. Huge pumps at the base could lift 5,000 gallons
of water per hour and pump fuel at 2,000 gallons per minute from the 10,000-gallon tank buried
in the ground near the tower. At the tower passengers boarded via a flexible
bridge; they had a chill-inducing view of the ground 170 feet below. Yet their boarding could be even more thrilling:
wheels on the bottom of the bridge allowed it to revolve around the tower as the ship
swung with the wind. Unlike the Zeppelins that preceded it, R.101
had a novel feature: The passenger rode inside the body of the ship, not in a car hung from
the ship. They built in an elegant dining room. The cutlery and tableware were blazoned with
the Royal Airship Works crest. As passengers dined, the airship’s steward
stood against a wall with his back straight and his chin raised — his appearance was
“spick and span,” said a crew member. He planned and organized the meals: his goal
was seven-course meals comparable to those of the best London hotels. A large, brightly lit lounge the size of a
tennis court spanned the width of the airship. Its polished wood floor gleamed in the sunlight
that spilled through giant windows port and starboard. On this floor the airship’s designers planned
for passengers to fox trot all night as the airship flew to India. At the end of each lounge were the ships’
masterstroke . . . the promenade decks . As passengers relaxed there they enjoyed a stunning
panoramic view of the ground through large glass windows tilted at forty-five degrees. Beyond the passengers quarters R.101 had an
unusual feature for an airship . . . . . . :a smoking room . . . . . . even though the ship carried over five
million cubic feet of flammable hydrogen. On these delicate gas bags rested many hopes
and dreams, yet the ship was not up to the task. The Royal Airship’s technical staff concluded,
after studying data from R.101’s test flights over the United Kingdom, that the ship didn’t
have the lift to fly to India: it was too heavy. Partly this was because R.101 deviated from
the time-tested principles used in zeppelins. An airship framework of that era was composed
of a series of rings. Zeppelin engineers built strong yet light
frameworks from thin, flexible circular rings, which were then stiffened by radial wires
drawn taut — the wires functioned like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. In R.101 the wires were eliminated, and the
rings were made much thicker. This resulted in a heavier framework. This decreased the amount of lift available
for fuel so much so that on R.101’s return trip from India, the technical staff
calculated that the ship would not be able to complete the first leg of the 2,800-mile
journey from Karachi to Ismailia. R.101’s fuel, they estimated, would run
out over the desert in Saudi Arabia; the ship would float with its engines stalled 500 miles
or so from the mooring tower in Egypt. To ensure that such a failure would not occur,
the technical staff devised an audacious plan. In this photo you can see the results of that
plan. At the top is the airship in late June and
at the bottom six weeks later: the ship has been lengthened from 735 to 777 feet. The technical staff split the ship in two,
inserted a section of framework and added a gas bags to gain enough lift to carry fuel. A short time after R.101 was split in two
and lengthened it departed the Royal Airship Works for India. The airship departed the mooring tower on
October 4th a few minutes after 6:30 p.m. Greenwich mean time. On board were 54 people: Forty-eight crew
or members of the Royal Airship Works, and the rest observers and dignitaries, including
Britain’s Secretary of State for Air. The purpose of this flight was to demonstrate
R.101’s ability to travel to India, but as it travelled across England, over the Channel
and into France, the ship encountered bruising winds and pelting rain. Winds so fierce that often it travelled at
a ground speed of only thirty miles per hour. At a few minutes past two in the morning about
40 miles (64 kilometers) north of Paris, R.101 chopped through the turbulent air at an altitude
of 1,200 feet, just below a layer of clouds. The cover on top of the airship split open,
the ship pitched down, the ship’s crew used the elevators to restore the ship to horizontal. It was now 500 feet above the ground. The control car signaled for the engine power
to be cut and R.101 dove nose first to the ground, then slide into a grove of hazel and
oak trees. It burst into flames as navigational flares
ignited the hydrogen. The imposing R.101, the great machine to connect
the vast geographic sweep of the British Empire, was now a tangle of debris on the ground. Only the rudder at the stern still stood tall. Rags and strips of fabric hung from it and
fluttered in the wind, the center section rocking on its hinges, swinging aimlessly. Sixty feet in the air, at the tip of the stern,
almost untouched by any flames, the ship’s RAF Ensign flapped in the wind — the Union
Jack on the flag was partly burned, but the RAF roundel was intact. Long gone from most of the framework were
the delicate gas bags and plasticized cloth cover — both vaporized by the raging fire. The polished metal exterior of a crushed engine
car glistened in the flames. The collision with the ground rotated the
car 180 degrees, its propeller now facing the wrong way. From this debris, a charred crew member rose,
but then fell back into the flames. Inside an engineer, his body carbonized, still
clutching a wrench in his hand. The ground was littered with everyday articles:
suitcases, fur-lined boots, charred shaving brushes, a tin of cigarettes, and a ticking
watch. The stores were strewn on the ground: a few
loaves of bread, and a still-labeled tin of plums, its juice leaking from the can. After a few moments the only sound was the
hiss of rain evaporating as it struck the smoldering wreckage. One of the few survivors — only six of the
fifty-four survived — was Joe Binks from the rear engine car. The rest were buried in a communal grave near
the Royal Airship Works in the United Kingdom. Each coffin was adorned with a small label
fabricated from the metal of R.101’s framework. Fourteen of the plates bore names, but the
others were never identified in the wreckage. Their coffins read: “To the memory of the
unknown airman who died on October 5th.” There’s a little bit more to the story:
in a sense the airship flew again. The wreckage of R.101 was hacked to pieces
using blow torches, chisels and metal saws. The compacted eighty-ton framework was transported
to Sheffield, where it was melted to scrap, and then sold to the Zeppelin Company. They used it to create the zeppelin LZ 129,
an airship better known as . . . the Hindenburg. If you’d like to learn more, you can read
my book: Fatal Flight: The True Story of Britain’s Last Great Airship. You can listen for free to the complete audiobook. Details at engineerguy.com/airship. Or, you prefer you can listen right here on
YouTube; I’ve listed the link in the end card. I’m Bill Hammack, the engineer guy.

Only registered users can comment.

  1. So the fate of the Hindenburg was more of a curse then? Like using the remaining parts of the Challenger for the Columbia…

  2. ……. it's a sad tale,,just tell it without the pathos…..
    I would like to see these ships return one day….How about feeding the CO2 exhaust from the motors into the shell space to displace the oxygen surrounding the hydrogen bags as safeguard for occasion of an accident..Extra measure would be needed to avoid occupants being gassed and all sorts of complications.

  3. To ride the storm, to an empire of the clouds
    To ride the storm, they climbed aboard their silver ghost
    To ride the storm, to a kingdom that will come
    To ride the storm, and damn the rest, oblivion
    Royalty and dignitaries, brandy and cigars
    Related giant of the skies, you hold them in your arms
    The millionth chance they laughed, to take down his majesty's craft
    To India they say, magic carpet float away, an October fateful day
    Mist is in the trees, stone sweats with the dew
    The morning sunrise, red before the blue
    Hanging at the mast, waiting for command
    His majesty's airship, the r101
    She's the biggest vessel built by man, a giant of the skies
    For all you unbelievers, the Titanic fits inside
    Drum rolled tight, a canvas skin, silvered in the sun
    Never tested with the fury, with a beating yet to come
    The fury yet to come
    In the gathering gloom, a storm rising in the west
    The coxswain stared into the
    We must go now, we must take our chance with fate
    We must go now, for the politicians he can't be late
    The airship crew awake for thirty hours at full stretch,
    But the ship is in their backbone, every sinew, every inch
    She never flew at full speed, a trial never done
    A fragile outer cover, her achilles would become
    An achilles yet to come
    Sailors of the sky, a hardened breed
    Loyal to the king, and an airship creed
    The engines drum, the telegraph sounds
    Release the cords that bind us to the ground
    Said the coxswain, sir, she's heavy, she'll never make this flight
    Said the captain, damn the cargo, we'll be on our way tonight
    Groundsmen cheered in wonder, as she backed up from the mast
    Baptising with her water, from the ballast fore and aft
    Now she slips into our past
    Feeling the wind as it blows you
    Feeling the beams as they pass you along
    Watching the channel below you
    Lower and lower, into the night
    Lights are passing below you
    Northern France, asleep in their beds
    Storm is raging around you
    A million to one, that's what he said
    Reaper standing beside you
    Wind inside cuts to the bone
    Panicked to make a decision
    Experienced men, asleep in their graves
    The cover is ripped and she's flooding
    Rain is flooding into the hold
    Bleeding to death and she's falling
    Lifting gas is draining away
    We're down lads, came a cry, bow plunging from the sky
    Three thousand horses silent as the ship began to die
    The flares to guide her path ignited at the last
    The empire of the clouds, just ashes in our past
    Just ashes at the last
    Here lie their dreams as they stand in the sun
    On the ground where they built, and the engines they run
    To the moon and the stars, now what have we done?
    Oh the dreamers may die, but the dreams live on
    Dreams live on
    Dreams live on
    Ooh
    Now a shadow on a hill, the angel of the east
    The empire of the clouds may rest in peace
    And in a country churchyard, laid head to the mast
    1840 souls, who came to die in france

    ~Bruce Dickinson-2016

  4. Another nice read about these airships is Slide Rule by Nevil Shute. He worked on the R100 but also touches on the rival R101.

  5. SpaceX should make modern Helium airships. I expect with the best materials and engineering available it would be a far more environmentally friendly way to travel. Solar airships anyone? Global warming will kill us all before we realise we could have made these!

  6. @ 09 20….

    The mast has long gone but the corigated steel building that housed the winch engines is still there at Cardington.

    All very quiet and forgotten now….

  7. Fascinating story, well told, the ship's demise rendered in poetic terms and mellifluous tones. I will certainly look for additional videos by the engineerguy.

  8. Just discovered your channel. I've watched this video and your video on the Olympic class ocean liners. Excellent videos, very educational and thorough. You have a new subscriber and fan. Thanks.

  9. I bought the Audio book, it was good. You need to look at the picture of the R101 on the front as u listen to it.

  10. The Germans did everything better. They absolutely would have won the wars if they had been situated on an island instead of a plain between Russia and France. But then, the Rothschilds would have co-opted them instead of the British and Americans, and the Germans would be sad shells of their former glory as we are today.

  11. Could smaller Airships relieve city traffic congestion by ferrying passengers from suburbs to Docks along the edge of a city?

    Kind of a, final-leg solution.

  12. 4:29 at this point my mind was blown at the logistics of making those gigantic hydrogen bags by hand with ox intestines….jesus, that is some painstaking process.

  13. Helium was pretty much a monopoly of the USA. As are approached, is was understood that American heliumm would not but provided to German and other hostile powers. Reference: “Airshipwreck” by Len Deighton.

  14. I had the book, found read it gave it away. When I was a kid we had a set of encyclopedia books. I knew planes only had an aisle and seats. But there was this picture with rooms with beds and chairs in the air. I had to ask why don't we have this now? Your book deals with a very unusual witness involved with the trial concerning the crash, someone who died on board! Quite a story.

  15. I too have been fascinated by the tragic stories of the age of airships.

    I can't help but think that we saw history fork into another direction with the crash of R-101. Could it be possible that there is another history of the world where the R-101 survived and an Imperial Airship service did work ? Maybe a little more care in engineering, or a technical development in plastic fabrics was all that would have been needed. Then the British Empire could have battled fascist Dreadnoughts over the skies of Europe.
    Or is NOW the only possible history that could exist ?

  16. 3:40 In the era before plastics, what was used for an airtight bag? Animal stomachs and intestines! Yay! No plastic!

  17. In the book "Slide Rule: Autobiography of an Engineer" by Nevil Shute ISBN 10: 0773671633 ISBN 13: 9780773671638, Shute quoted a witness at the launch for the flight to India as saying:
    "The craft appeared to stagger into the air."
    Not a great start to that ill fated journey.

  18. Another excellent video. I think it'd be so easy to listen to you talking about your passion projects for hours.

  19. R-101 direct government supervised build had no airworthiness certificate, crashed on maiden voyage (The Millionth Chance, The Story of the R-101, James Leasor). The R-100 private build with same specifications was granted a full airworthiness certificate after a trans Atlantic flight to Canada months before the the R-101 departed UK for India with Lord Thompson, Secretary of State for War on board. Design changes to the R-101 including unnecessary steering servomechanisms required the additional gas bag (Slide Rule, The Autobiography of an Engineer, Nevil Shute NORWAY). Also authored "No Highway" the fictional airframe metal fatigue failure, "A Town Like Alice" a fictional nuclear doomsday story set in Alice Springs, Australia. Norway was an engineer "computer" on the private R-100 build dealing chiefly with crucial wire stay stress calculations.

  20. Really wish airships would make a comeback with modern tech and safety. Much more classy than an airplane.

  21. I was initially disappointed when I saw this was Bill’s only book that was available on the audiobook store. I had been looking for his book “8 Amazing Engineering Stories”. This book on the R.101 looked more niche and not as interesting. But, like most of Bill’s YouTube videos, this held my attention the entire time, and now I look forward to adding the audiobook to my collection.

  22. Airships of this size have too much fragile surface area for the wind to play havoc with. Even with new materials airships this large are a non starter. Every attempt has failed, and the hydrogen burns were typically the result of another, fatal, failure.

  23. No mention of the competition between the R.100 and R.101 teams? Or that the government-led R.101 team kept changing the spec so as to benefit themselves in this competition? No indication that by cutting corners on the R.101 to win the race, they most likely sealed their own fate? Or that the R.100 airship, when completed, flew her trials flawlessly, and performed perfectly, despite the fact that the fate of the programme had already been decided by the disaster that was the government-led R.101? Ok, then.

  24. What superb research. Love your high quality videos. And a free book to listen to, Thank you. I can’t wait to listen to it. Fascinating how you have somehow gotten hold of photos and details on this incredible part of our air travel history. The details on how an engineer was forced to climb on a ladder down to his cramped little machine room says something of the times, wonderful that one of those engineers survived the disaster.

  25. I get that you are an American, but 747 IS NOT THE LARGEST PLANE THAT FLIES TODAY. It is the 3rd largest, after Antonov and Airbus.

  26. What a horrostory, build and crashed as 2 different airships, claiming almost 100 lives in total, something horribly wrong with it.

  27. What a sight it must have been at the time to see airships and zeppelins hovering in the sky. If only they could have been safer.

  28. It is bad engineering when you see the frame is too heavy only after it is built. That can be calculated before.

  29. The description of the aftermath of the disaster made me feel a bit teary, he narrated it so well and really highlighted the sad tragedy.

  30. Wow… I just watched a quarter hour video, yet it didn't feel as long…

    Incredibly interesting, and well done. Thank you for this video.

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