R101: A Pictorial History / Concorde: The Inside Story

Article excerpt

Nick le Neve Walmsley, R101: a pictorial history, Sutton Publishing, Stroud (2000), 142 pp., 14.99.

Brian Trubshaw, Concorde: the inside story, Sutton Publishing, Stroud (2000), 176 pp, 19.99.

In October 1930 the British airship 8101 came down in a wood near Beauvais and in the conflagration which followed forty-eight of the crew and passengers perished, including the Air Minister. In July 2000 an Air France Concorde crashed into a Paris suburb with the loss of over a hundred lives. At first glance these two disasters may seem unrelated; an airship chugging through the sky at a ponderous 60 m.p.h. does not have a great deal in common with an airliner flying at a supersonic 1,350 m.p.h. But to Britons in the late 1920s the 8101 was as much a technological marvel as was the Concorde forty years later. Moreover both the Concorde and the R101 are emblematic of rich men's travel in the twentieth century and they can be seen as diversions - one might even call them false trails - from the main path of air transport development. The Concorde originated as an expression of AngloFrench `techno-nationalism' and ended up carrying the rich and famous across the Atlantic. The R101 was conceived in the days of empire as a means of conveying government officials more expeditiously to the colonies. These two illustrated volumes allow us another look at them.

Britain's airship programme began after the First World War on the initiative of the Conservative Air Minister, Sir Samuel Hoare. In 1924 the programme was taken up with enthusiasm by the Labour Minister, Lord Thomson, who, like Hoare, saw airships as the way to modernise communications with India. Thomson launched the construction of the State-funded R101. It was dubbed the 'socialist' airship by the popular press, although it is hard to see what was 'socialist' about a transport mode that offered its passengers all the comforts of a luxury liner: ballroom dancing, a promenade deck and separate cabins in which to change for dinner. Nick le Neve Walmsley's book is a pictorial history with minimal interference from the written word, but some of the 162 black-andwhite illustrations that he has collected are fascinating to the historian, and he is to be commended on his wide-ranging trawl through the archives. The most interesting to this reviewer are photographs taken during the R101's construction stage. In one picture, presumably from 1927, four craftsmen are shown working on the airship's Duralumin girders at Boulton & Paul's Norwich works, one pair with an ancient hand drill, the others with a power tool. Apparently the R101 incorporated numerous design improvements over the standard German (Zeppelin) technology of the time; unfortunately Walmsley does not really tell us what they were. Looking at the pictures, one gets a curious impression of high technology combined with primitive improvisation, of something slightly Heath Robinson about the whole endeavour. On one page the airship is shown attached at its nose to the purpose-built docking mast at Cardington but stabilised along its length with cables attached on the ground to cricket-pitch rollers! Elsewhere teams of ladies are shown performing the revolting task of cleaning the intestines of over 100,000 oxen to provide the linings for the R101's gas bags.

In the absence of a modern `black box' it was impossible to establish fully the cause of the 1930 crash. Apart from bad weather at the time, it seems that the main culprit was a tear in the airship's doped fabric covering. A more underlying question concerns the use of the inflammable hydrogen gas which turned a fairly gentle crash landing into a towering inferno. Why did the United States not make some of its supplies of helium available? This question is easily answered in connection with Nazi Germany and the 1937 Hindenburg disaster, but it might equally be applied to the R101. Considering the enormous effort in manpower and resources that went into it (mooring masts had been constructed at vast expense at Ismailia and Karachi), the British airship programme was abandoned with extraordinary haste after 1930, with the R101's 'capitalist' sister ship, the RI 00, being broken up for scrap. …