In His Majesty’s Airship: The Life and Tragic Death of the World’s Largest Flying Machine, award-winning author and historian S.C. Gwynne (Rebel Yell) delves into the little-known story behind the 1930 crash of a hydrogen-filled British airship called R101.
R101 was the brainchild of Lord Christopher Birdwood Thomson, who held the rather inflated title of Secretary of State for Air. A baron and peer of the House of Lords, Thomson had been put in charge of the development of British dirigibles. On October 4, 1930, he prepared to make a 5,000-mile journey from England to Karachi, India, in R101, which Gwynne describes as “a giant silver fish floating weightless in the slate-gray seas of the sky.”
At the time, R101 was one of the largest human-made objects on Earth, larger by volume than the Titanic. It’s an apt comparison, because like the ocean liner, the R101 was touted as the pinnacle of technological achievement, luxury and safety. Its press office boasted that the 777-foot-long hydrogen-filled R101 was “the safest aircraft of any kind ever built.”
Using hydrogen airships to fly long distances and connect England with its far-flung colonies was in part a reaction to the state of airplane travel at the time. Just three years previously, in 1927, a flight from England to India took 12 days and required 20 stops. An ocean liner could make the trip in two weeks. Thomson’s goals for the R101? Four days.
Gwynne intersperses the story of R101’s short, tragic flight with the history of zeppelin airships more generally, including the use of airships as aerial bombers during World War I and the impact of the August 1921 crash of a British airship called R38. Gwynne’s well-documented account also includes photos of airships, as well as of Thomson. The most fascinating part, of course, is following Lord Thomson as he prepared for this doomed voyage, for which he brought champagne, lots of ministry paperwork and even fancy carpets! R101 took off into a developing severe weather system, flying over London against a stiff wind while people rushed out onto the streets to see this incredible sight.
R101 has more eerie similarities with the Titanic: It burst into flames shortly after 2 a.m., and newspapers around the world carried news of the disaster. There were only six survivors (all crew members) out of 54 people on board, but the crash of R101 did not entirely end the era of experimentation with hydrogen airships. That would come later, in the aftermath of a crash far better known today: the Hindenburg.
Gwynne is a consummate storyteller, and his account of R101 is riveting and not to be missed.