The British Empire and its effect on Plymouth

R100 Over Plymouth

On January 27th the people of Plymouth saw a remarkable sight above the skies. This was the appearance of the airship R100 which had been designed by Barnes Wallis (of later Dambusters fame) on behalf of the Vickers Company. At 220 Metres it was about the same dimensions as a typical ocean liner and was designed to serve much the same purpose; to cross large bodies of water in a comfortable manner in an era before aircraft were large enough, resilient enough and powerful enough to do so themselves. R100’s arrival over Plymouth was part of an extensive series of trials being undertaken before embarking on a Transatlantic voyage to Canada. The R100 travelled up and down the English Channel for 53 hours which included an hour over the Eddystone Lighthouse using its light and location to test and measure its turning capabilities.

Although an evolutionary dead end in aviation history, its development was nonetheless fascinating and some important lessons were learned. In 1922 the Conservative government of the day contracted Vickers to build six airships to help unite the Empire together. However the Conservatives lost the 1923 General Election and the first ever Labour government came to power with a new Air Minister. This was Lord Thomson and for ideological reasons he wished to nationalise this nascent industry and have the Air Ministry build airships themselves. Vickers had already begun preliminary work on their previous contract and so a compromise would emerge which would see the private company Vickers produce one airship, the R100, at a fixed price and the government itself would design and produce its own airship, the R101. Whichever was best would win any future contract. Interestingly the R101 had no constraints on their budget and had the pick of government resources and scientists and as the Air Ministry was in charge of declaring air worthiness would also be judge and jury on their rival’s product. What unfolded was an intriguing competition between private and public enterprise.

The R100 was built at Howden near Hull whilst the R101 was built at Cardington in Bedfordshire. Interestingly Lord Thomson would choose his title as Lord Thomson of Cardington in 1923 as if to emphasise his inextricable link to the R101 programme. For the following five years, both teams faced considerable engineering challenges but the R100 team under the direction of Barnes Wallis proved to be the more nimble and the more willing to experiment with changing designs and problematic equipment. The Air Ministry team proved more inflexible and after public money had been invested in equipment, such as their diesel engines for instance, proved reluctant to say that tax payer money had been wasted and persevered regardless. It did not help that the government project also suffered from the meddling of politicians, not least Lord Thomson who returned to the Air Ministry in the 1930 National Government just as the airships were undergoing their final trials.

As this was first and foremost an imperial project, the final test was fly each airship to an imperial destination: The R100 to Canada and the R101 to India. The R100 had satisfactorily completed all its trials (including passing over Plymouth on two separate occasions) and embarked on the long Transatlantic voyage to Montreal and Ottawa. It was an outstanding success and over 100,000 Canadians a day came to visit the moored R100. There had been one uncomfortable incident where it lost height during a particularly bad continental storm but it had recovered satisfactorily. Some of the outer membrane had been damaged but it was repaired. Whilst in Canada it began to utilise its capacity of carrying up to 100 passengers to sights such as Niagara Falls. Eventually it returned home in an uneventful and comfortable voyage.

However the success of R100 stampeded the R101 into its trans-continental journey before it had finished its own flight trials satisfactorily. Hectored by Lord Thomson who was determined to arrive in India for government business on the airship he had inspired and sponsored, the R101 set off for Karachi on the evening of October 4th 1930 having never flown at full speed due to a series of engine and equipment failures hitherto. Almost immediately the R101 hit poor weather and strong head winds. The R101 could (should) have returned to Cardington but with the Air Minister aboard amongst other dignitaries the fateful decision to continue was taken. The R101 reached France and had reached Beauvais by 0200 hours with rain, gusts and headwinds still plaguing the airship. It had only been flying for 8 hours when suddenly the ship began to dive, the crew did not know it, but the gusts had caused a tear in the outer surface causing gas bags to become exposed and some to be damaged. The ship lost height but seemed to recover when all too soon a second dive occurred. The crew knew that they had to make an emergency landing and actually managed to hit the ground at a fairly gentle 14mph. Unfortunately either the hot engines or perhaps sparks from the electrics aboard came in to contact with hydrogen from the damaged gas bags and fire consumed the grounded airship. 46 of the 54 crew were killed immediately, two more died of their wounds. Six survived. Lord Thomson of Cardington who had insisted on the production of R101 and on this particular flight died in the airship he had done so much to promote.

The crash of R101 doomed Barnes Wallis’ R100 project also. There was no appetite to proceed with airships after such a disaster. The main lessons learned were that any similar project could not have the same institution build the project as to pass judgement upon it. The R100 had been overseen, fairly it must be said, by the Air Ministry, but that same Air Ministry seemed to turn a blind eye to the many problems and issues with its own R101 project. Also, the government project seemed unwilling to change tack too radically nor were they willing to learn from their commercial rival who were more than happy to share design tips and discuss common issues. Worst of all though was that the government project seemed more susceptible to government or rather ministerial pressure whereas the commercial company put safety as their number one priority as they understood that any accident could put them out of business. Civil servants had no concern that the government might go bust. Intriguingly the fixed budget of the R100 served them better too as they managed their resources more carefully whereas the limitless budget of the R101 meant that they felt they could put off problems to be fixed until later often compounding design issues and creating new difficulties. The government judged that henceforward they would contract others to do their work for them and they would come up with the design specifications and oversee certifications whilst allowing private companies to compete with one another and then manage their resources efficiently. Barnes Wallis went to work on the Vickers Wellington Bomber which would become one of the most successful long range bombers of the early war (and one flown by my own grandfather’s 99 Squadron). Other private companies would develop similarly impressive aeroplanes such as the Supermarine Spitfire and the Hawker Hurricane. The R100 may only have appeared over Plymouth twice, but its very existence meant that Britain would prepare for

This iconic photograph shows the R100 flying over Smeaton's Tower on the Hoe. The event was actually filmed and can be seen: here.

Empire in Your Backyard: Plymouth Article

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by Stephen Luscombe