"His Majesty's Airship" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
British airship R101 was a jaw-dropping sight. At 777 feet long, the rigid airship housed a 60-seat dining room, a smoking lounge, and a promenade with windows. The R101’s exterior covering was made of linen soaked in a waterproof celluloid varnish commonly called “dope.”
Passenger dirigibles were well known by October 4th, 1930, when R101 lifted from its mooring mast at Cardington, England to begin its 5000-mile maiden flight to British-ruled India. The 20s and 30s constituted the airship era for Britain when the far-flung empire ruled more of the world’s people than any nation had in history. This total dominance was being challenged by India and other countries longing for self-rule, and governing far-distant lands was becoming problematic. To address this formidable tension, Britain launched its “Imperial Airship Scheme” in 1924.
Lord Christopher Birdwood Thomson was appointed Secretary of State for Air to head the British Air Ministry. He envisioned dirigible routes connecting London with Australia, India, Canada, Egypt, and Singapore. Rather than needing to spend a month at sea to travel from England to Australia, the R101 was designed to complete the trip by air in 11 days moving at nearly 65 miles per hour.
Proponents of this vision touted airships as a better long-term solution to reaching remote colonies than airplanes which could only fly short distances before needing to refuel. The backers of this “scheme” also believed airships could be made safe even though the aircraft’s gasbags were filled with explosive hydrogen that, if ignited, could instantly turn the aircraft into a ball of fire.
Gwynne's narrative is focused on R1O1’s first and only voyage. Larger in volume than the “Titanic,” the colossal aircraft is released from its tether in the early evening and soon is serenely floating over trees, lakes, and towns. It looks like “a giant silver fish floating weightless in the slate-gray seas of the sky.” But just after 2:00 A.M., high winds begin to make the airship rock up and down. The captain loses control of the bucking behemoth and it plunges at a 20-degree angle onto a field outside Beauvais, France just north of Paris.
The crash ignites 5 1/2 cubic feet of hydrogen in 15 gas bags made of cow intestines or casings (usually used for sausage.) “The broken airship began to fall in a languid motion, spewing out streams of gasoline and water, while men, fuel tanks and other matériel fell out of the gaping rupture.” The breakup ends with two powerful explosions that knock people off their feet. Forty-eight passengers perish in the fire, only six survive and Britain's airship service is finished.
Gwynne’s narrative is fast-paced. He adeptly reconstructs from official records, accounts from survivors, and recently released scholarly research, the vivid details that explain the exact cause of R101’s failure. Even though the ending is no surprise the account of this aeronautical disaster is a powerful edge-of-your-seat story told by an exemplary storyteller. Gwynne brings this almost forgotten story to life with a critical eye for detail, empathy for his characters, and a remarkable gift for conveying aviation history in an entertaining style.
About the Author: S. C. Gwynne is the author of “Hymns of the Republic” and the “New York Times” best-seller “Rebel Yell” and “Empire of the Summer Moon, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He spent most of his journalism career as a senior editor at “Time.”