During the early 20th century the first flying machines – hot air balloons used from the 1780s – were developed into mighty rigid-frame airships. Gas-filled German Zeppelins conducted air raids on Britain in World War I, but these lumbering giants were soon made obsolete as terror weapons by the invention of incendiary tracer bullets.
However, back when aircraft technology was primitive, airships had the potential to deliver the holy grail of international travel – long-distance air transport. The British government was keen to join the party and initiated the Imperial Airship Scheme in 1924, funding competition between an Air Ministry team’s R101 and the Vickers company’s R100. The brief called for airships bigger than anything previously constructed, capable of lifting five fighter aircraft or 200 soldiers plus their equipment.
Construction of R101 began in 1926, and this elegant craft was built to a superb standard. However, she suffered from serious design flaws caused by a meddling Air Ministry committee that kept changing the specifications; numerous problems had to be overcome before R101 took to the air in October 1929. After further modifications she made an erratic appearance at Hendon Air Show in 1930 and was hastily readied for a maiden overseas voyage, carrying VIPs. R101 was neither properly prepared nor fit for purpose, but Air Ministry prestige was at stake so go she must.
On the evening of October 4 1930, R101 departed for India with one refueling stop scheduled in Egypt. But she got no further than Northern France. After being observed flying at low altitude, the giant airship went into a slow dive and hit the ground – possibly attempting an emergency landing after a gasbag was punctured. The airship instantly exploded, and the intense fire that followed lasted for 24 hours. Just eight of the 54 passengers and crew survived R101’s catastrophic crash.
When was the R101 Airship Crash: October 5 1930
Where was the R101 Airship Crash: Near Beauvais, Oise, France
What was the R101 Airship Crash death toll: 48 (46 perished in the crash and two survivors died later in hospital)
You should know: Ironically, the rival R100 was a much better airship, with a little help from ‘bouncing bomb’ designer Barnes Wallace and engineer Nevil Shute Norway (later famous as novelist Nevil Shute). It made a trouble-free transatlantic return flight and although R100 could have delivered what the Air Ministry wanted, the R101 disaster caused the superior craft to be abandoned and with it British interest in airship development.